Greenspond Boots

Archaeologists are, from time to time, involved in the excavation of human remains. On my first archaeology field trip, I was part of a team surveying a point of land just outside of a small town on Newfoundland’s east coast. We went into the general store to buy provisions for the day and started a conversation with the person working behind the counter. When he found out we were doing an archaeological survey one of the first things he pointed out to us was where the town cemetery was, thinking we’d want to dig there!

Generally, the excavation of human remains in this province is not done unless the remains are threatened. This was the case in 1997 in Greenspond.

During the preparation for a Come Home Year celebration the workers were removing topsoil from near the shoreline to cover a walking trail. On June 30th 1997, the workers found a long leather boot that would have extended from the knee to the foot. Inside the boot were human leg bones from the knee down.

Greenspond Leather Boot Shaft
Greenspond leather boot shaft

With this discovery, the RCMP was contacted and they collected the remains and secured the site. During their investigation they learned that another boot and leg bone were recovered a couple of days before the June 30th discovery. All the material was sent to the Province’s Chief Medical Examiner who determined that the case was not criminal and that it was historic. The material was then handed over to the Provincial Archaeology Office (PAO).

Area marked off by RCMP flagging tape
Area marked off by RCMP flagging tape

The June 30th remains include a leg bone inside a stocking that is inside a leather military-style boot that comes up over the knee, another small bone, part of a boot sole, two gunflints, leather button and another mass of leather. The second boot is more open than the June 30th boot and the bone is white instead of the reddish brown colour of the June 30th bones.

Leather buttons
Leather buttons
Gun flints
Gun flints
Heel fragments
Heel fragments

In July, MUN’s Physical Anthropologist, an Archaeology Graduate Student and a member of the PAO spent a day and a half excavating the disturbed and eroding grave. Between the people of Greenspond collecting soil for their trail and the RCMP trying to determine if the remains were part of a criminal investigation the area was very disturbed when the archaeology team arrived. They spent the first half-day excavating disturbed sod and peat. They recovered two leather buttons, one bone (?) handle, one key fragment, one nail, one knife (?) blade fragment, numerous leather and textile fragments, two gunflints, one leather heel/sole, humerus and two vertebrae.

Showing the disturbance to the site
Showing the disturbance to the site

On the second day, they continued digging through the disturbed soil and found one rib bone, a few leather fragments and one leather button. Everything found during the excavation was in the sod at a depth of no more than 10 centimetres.

Showing how little soil the archaeology team had to dig through
Showing how little soil the archaeology team had to dig through

Once they finished digging through the disturbed soil, the archaeology team established a grid on the site and dug through the peat in the area of the original discovery. The walls of their excavation pits showed no signs of cultural layers or an excavation pit that would indicate a dug grave.

Showing the excavation grid established on site
Showing the excavation grid established on site
Soil profile showing no cultural disturbance
Soil profile showing no cultural disturbance

The archaeology team believes that the remains were not from a burial because there was no sign of a grave outline in their excavations; the recovered remains were found only 10 centimetres below sod; the artifacts recovered were valuable, for example leather boots and clothing; and a key which was used to open something.

Conservators and archaeologists have examined the artifacts, including the clothing, recovered with the remains in an effort to determine the age of the site. The recovered artifacts could not narrow down the date beyond the late 17th century or early 19th century.

The knee-high leather boot style was popular during the period from the 1620s to the 1690s. This boot style usually had boot-hose to protect the stockings. Within the Greenspond boot were two types of wool knit and tabby woven wool stockings. These could represent the boot-hose and wool stocking.

Wool recovered from inside the boot

Unfortunately, the knee-high boot was also popular in the late 18th century to early 19th century. The style came from a growing interest in horse riding which led to the rise in the jockey boot. These had a turned-over top and cloth straps. They became popular again in the 1830s with little change in style but by this time they were only for a sporting fashion.

General James Ewell Brown ("Jeb") Stuart, chief of cavalry in Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, sports his trademark beard and mustache as well as the appropriate accoutrements of a self-fashioned cavalier—knee-high riding boots, a cavalry saber, and a hat with a rakish ostrich plume—in this 1863 image
General James Ewell Brown (“Jeb”) Stuart, chief of cavalry in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia wearing knee-high riding boots in this 1863 image

It’s unfortunate but we may never know who this person was, where he came from or how he ended up on the shoreline near Greenspond. We do know Greenspond was settled by the late 17th century, so perhaps he was from the area. It’s possible he was hunting and was killed somehow, he likely had a knife and the gunflints indicate the presence of a gun. Or perhaps he had a boating accident and he either washed ashore or made it to shore then perished. We will likely never know.

Mathias, Cathy  2008  Greenspond Boot.

Mercer, Delphina 1997  Greenspond Investigation, 1997.


17 thoughts on “Greenspond Boots

  1. What about the gunflints? Would the exact dimensions of the gunflints match guns that were manufactured during a certain range of dates?

    1. No. I am 99% sure the size makes no difference. The grey colour may indicate English. French flints are often honey brown.

    1. Oh my, of course it is. I was in Greenspond 2 years ago.

      Thank-you for pointing it out, it is corrected.

  2. Officer sea or military boots and he had a key presumably so that he had presuming he owned or used this key to open valuable things up with – again presuming that he has access to or actually owned valuable things (another possible reinforcement of being an officer). Possibly died of sickness and/or disease or stranded or shipwrecked and died of exposure. Animals may have partially eaten of much of his corpse but left the very hard (at the time leather boots) alone as undigestable (for animals!). I am from Toronto and in a few days we celebrate OUR Fort York – a National Historic Site in particular the April 27, 1813 anniversary (200th) of the Battle of Little York (our total population was probably less than 1,000 civilians at the time – and the garrison in total was less than 1,000 for sure – facing roughly 1,500 to 2,000 Americans. We still don’t know where the burials of the scores of Americans killed in the battle and especially the blown up magazine are but most likely under the grounds of the current CNE! Great blog and photos! There are many obscure little known European settlements, forts and fortifications that archaeologists do a service for us historians! Keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks for the Greenspond comments.
      I had no idea the Toronto Fort York was celebrating an anniversary soon. My post was a coincidence. Thanks for the compliments on the blog.

  3. Contact the Bata Shoe Museum here in Toronto and/or chekc out some web stuff for British footwear of the 17th century.

      1. Uncommon to think of specialist museums even in 2013 in Canada but they do exist. Indeed even worse hidden are ARCHIVAL and LOCAL resources such as local monuments, wreck sites, burial sites, encampment sites, etc… with several of human occupation being of interest to historical archaeologists. Stuff of historical interest crosses many research and inquiry disciplines and techniques: engineering, DNA testing, visual arts to name just 3. The Bata Shoe Museum has an excellent reserve collection. Hope they (and most certainly other shoe or footwear / learther museums elsewhere) can pinpoint or narrow considerably the style, materials to decades rather than centuries when this boot would have been normally worn and by whom usually.

      2. Thanks
        The boots have been looked at by several experts. They were unable to narrow down the date because the boots are incomplete and the style was popular at one point faded from popularity and later became popular again making the situation even more difficult.

  4. Hi, I was interested in some photos of the second boot that was found a few days prior to the discovery of the military style boot.
    Any idea on who to contact. Also, looking for contact info for Delphina Mercer, the lady who did the investigation. My name and email are listed below.

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