Local historian recalls Dead Man’s and Melville islands


This past Memorial Day history was made, once again, at Melville Island and Dead Man’s Island in Halifax, witnessed by a local historian.

Bridgeville’s  John Ashton had the opportunity as the Nova Scotia representative on the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada to speak at the official commemoration of the two islands as historic landmarks.

“It goes way back before the beginning of Halifax,” said Ashton about the significance of the landmarks.

Melville Island and Dead Man’s Island have history stretching back to being traditional Mi’Kmaw territory. Eventually, the British military built a prison meant initially for the French but later for the Americans.

“At the end of the War of 1812, the prison served as a receiving depot for black refugees, escaped slaves from Chesapeake Bay who ran to the British Navy and were brought here to start a new life. The island was later used as a quarantine station, while during the First World War it once again housed significant numbers of prisoners of war,” Ashton said.
Over the years both islands, especially Dead Man’s Island were the silent witnesses to many deaths from prisoners to those quarantined there.

“Back in the late 50s, early 60s they were going to try to build a condominium on Dead Man’s Island,” said Ashton, who shared that the project had to be called off after construction work ended up unearthing human remains from all over the island, as it was used as sort of a mass unmarked grave.

Ashton noted that in attendance for the ceremony the USS Hudson arrived with many sailors from the United States to remember the Americans’ buried in the area.

“There were several American veterans that live in the area and they attended, too,” he said.

“I was talking to a couple of vets and they said they are pleased that the government is honouring the American dead.”

The area now holds the designation of a national historic site as well as hosting a historical plaque and interpretative panels to explain the significance of the area.

“It was an honour for me,” said Ashton about the experience. “I have the chance to re live history at events like this.”

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