Graveyard Tour of the Annapolis Royal Cemetery
By Juliana L’Heureux
One of the best ways to learn about North American history is in a colonial graveyard. There's a lot of buried information in cemeteries where the gravestones are blackened and thin with age.
Alan J. Melanson, a French-Acadian, is president of the Historical Society of Annapolis Royal in Nova Scotia. He's better known as the guide of the Garrison Graveyard evening tour at Fort Anne National Historic Site in Annapolis Royal.
Melanson leads tours while telling meaningful stories spiced with some humor about the headstones and the colorful characters who occupy the marked graves at Garrison Graveyard. Moreover, with the shadows of a candle lantern glowing against the breezy night air, he demonstrates how death is a good history teacher.
Melanson somberly dresses in black Victorian funeral attire adorned with the traditional mourning scarf swaging from his tall beaver hat. Each guest to the graveyard tour is loaned a wooden lantern with candle and given a paper certificate of attendance decorated like a rubbing from a cemetery stone. Melanson keeps his medieval wooden lantern close to his face while leading groups of summer sightseers through the graveyard's headstones.
Standing beneath a magnificent American Lynden tree silhouetted against the night sky overlooking the Annapolis Bay, Melanson tells local stories intertwined with information about the 10 generations of Melanson's Acadian family history (his ancestors helped settle the Annapolis Royal area). He creates a memorable lesson about Canada's birthplace and the area's French heritage. "We are proud of our history here at Annapolis Royal," says Melanson. In fact, the 550 year round residents of Annapolis Royal proudly call their home the World's Most Livable Small Community. Canada's first settlement was established in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia along the Bay of Fundy. Annapolis Royal and Port Royal were French settlements founded in 1605, two years before Jamestown Virginia, by the survivors of the failed St. Croix Island (Maine) settlement led by Sieur de Monts and Samuel de Champlain. For that reason, 2005 marks the 400th anniversary of the founding of Annapolis Royal. Port Royal is a restored historic park located about 10 miles away.
Melanson's Garrison Graveyard tour leads visitors through the town's 400 year changes in political and military occupation of the area. Beginning with the French in 1605, the area is rich with military, British, Acadian, First Nations (Indian), European and African immigrant history.
A headstone or unusual story of each nation and ethnic group is singled out during the candle tour. Melanson says there are over 2000 graves in Garrison Graveyard, but only about 100 still have in tact headstones with readable inscriptions. "Our Annapolis Royal Historical Society takes special care of these remaining headstones", says Melanson. Harsh winter weather off the Bay of Fundy takes its toll on the stones, so protective plywood tents are placed over each one of them.
Each summer, a team of volunteers carefully cleans the stones to prevent further decay.
Melanson's French ancestors were among those expelled between 1755-1758, by the British. They were deported with other Acadians who were routed away from their productive farmland and homes during the wars between Great Britain and France for control of North America. Melanson's deported ancestors managed to organize a mutiny on the boat the British threw them on. Ultimately, they returned to Annapolis Royal to find their land occupied by New England farmers. Nevertheless, they remained in the area and settled in a nearby town.
Donations ($7 per person Canadian) received by Melanson from people who take the Garrison Graveyard tour are used to support the Historical Society of Annapolis Royal.
Published in the Portland Press Herald York County Edition
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Copyright © 2005, Portland Press Herald, Portland, Maine and Juliana L'Heureux