I am director of the Death in St.
Lawrence County project (DSLC). DSLC aims to document, map, and digitize all of
the 200+ cemeteries in St. Lawrence County in upstate New York. DSLC involves
academics and officers from various upstate New York institutions and
government agencies (St. Lawrence University, Ithaca College, St. Lawrence
County Department of Social Services, Canton Town Historian’s Office, etc.).
Together we are using the information we gather from local cemeteries to better
understand life and death in the region, beginning first with the St. Lawrence
Poorhouse Cemetery in Canton, NY.
millions of people are thought to have called U.S poorhouses home at some point
in their lives. These
institutions took in the indigent, the poor, the insane, and the feeble minded. Poorhouses
were both stigmatized settings and sources of pride for communities. The St.
Lawrence County Poorhouse (c. 1869 – 1978), located along the Grasse River on
County Road 32 in
Canton, was no exception. For more than 100 years, over 2,000 residents called
home, 600 of whom never left and found their final resting place within the St. Lawrence
County Poorhouse Cemetery. Over the years, the Grasse River has eroded away
more than 40 feet
of the cemetery property. As a consequence, hundreds of graves are in danger.
As a result, DSLC
has been working at the cemetery to develop a conservation strategy for the
graves, as well as an interdisciplinary plan to examine the lived experience of
the poor in late 19th and
early 20th century St. Lawrence County.
Between June 1 and July 15, 2017 members
of DSLC will carry out a pilot archeological field season at the St. Lawrence
Poorhouse Cemetery. During this season we will rescue the most at risk graves and
study their contents. Because bone serves as a rich “archive” of demographic
information (e.g., sex, age, genetic ancestry) and social events (e.g., health,
disease, trauma, activity), it enables the examination of broader topics
associated with poverty such as health, manual labor, and food choice,
especially when compared with available historical documents. Skeletons and
their grave contents will then be moved to more secure locations on the
cemetery property. With the completion of this project, graves will be saved
and we will have a better understanding of the individual experiences of people
living in poverty in St. Lawrence County in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to give voice to a normally
marginalized and ignored group. Details of our excavation plan were recently
covered by the Watertown Daily Times. Please contact me if you have any information
regarding the Poorhouse or any individual who may be buried within the
Visit here for more information on DSLC.