Boyhood adventure unravels puzzle: Ossington Bones Mystery

Boswell, Randy. The Ottawa Citizen, Ottawa Ontario. 23 January 2003, C1 Front.

Solved: Ossington Bones Mystery

In a long-ago summer, a 13-year-old sparked a chain of events that left modern-day scientists confounded. Randy Boswell explains how it all came about.

On a summer afternoon in Ottawa during the Second World War, a 13- year-old boy with an armload of bones and a burden of guilt slipped into the backyard of a home on Ossington Avenue and buried his secret shame.

Nearly sixty years later, after reading a Citizen story about the struggle between the Algonquin First Nation and the Canadian Museum of Civilization over its scientific collection of human remains, the schoolboy — now 72 and living in the Chicago suburb of Lincolnwood – – has stepped forward to solve a mystery that had perplexed archeologists for decades and which had recently thrust the Ossington Avenue bones into the repatriation uproar.

“I think I’m the guy who buried them there,” says Ross Knowles, who grew up in Old Ottawa South but today runs a printing shop in Chicago. “It’s a little bit embarrassing, but nevertheless, I believe that’s what happened.”

– – –

When the museum recently identified bones from 11 Ottawa Valley burial sites as candidates for possible return to the Algonquins, one set of human remains seemed oddly out of place.

The other sites include some of the region’s best known aboriginal cemeteries, such as those at Morrison Island near Pembroke and on Aylmer Island near Kanata — both set in sandy soil on the ancient Ottawa River trade route, exactly where archeologists would expect to find burials and other traces of prehistoric native communities or encampments.

But the 11th site was a considerable distance from the Ottawa River, at 8 Ossington Ave. in what today is a long-established residential community near Carleton University.

“The last set of remains,” noted a museum memorandum sent to the Algonquins in December, “consisted of three long bones collected from the backyard of a house in Ottawa (near the Rideau Canal). These remains could be either white or native and are from an unknown temporal context.”

Maybe, the museum’s archeology director, David Morrison, said at the time, the remains belonged to one of the hundreds of labourers who died while digging the canal in the late 1820s. Perhaps the bones came from a single native grave. Perhaps they were the remnants of someone whose body was unceremoniously buried in the early 20th century.

But along with bones from Aylmer Island and five other burial sites, the Ossington Avenue remains were proposed for radiocarbon testing to determine their age and whether they qualify to be handed over to the Algonquin people for reburial. The museum’s view is that remains that date from before about 700 years ago cannot be reliably linked to any present-day aboriginal group — a position native leaders dispute.

Gatineau resident Ernie Mahoney read a Dec. 31 Citizen story about the bone controversy, which included a West Quebec man’s recollections of playing on Aylmer Island back in the 1940s and discovering an aboriginal skull and some other bones — all of which today are part of the museum’s collection.

Mr. Mahoney recalled a similar story once told to him long ago by a childhood friend, Ross Knowles. A copy of the Citizen story — including a map identifying the Ossington Avenue site — was mailed to his old school chum in Lincolnwood.

– – –

Mr. Knowles says he was just a boy with a canoe and a thirst for adventure one sunny Saturday in the early 1940s. At the time, he recalls, his parents were separated. His father lived in the McKellar Park area — “that’s where I kept my canoe” — while he and his sisters lived in Old Ottawa South, at 12 Ossington Ave., with their mother.

“One day, a buddy and I paddled up to Aylmer Island, just playing Tom Sawyer sort of stuff. We’d cross over to the Quebec side, portage the canoe and head up from there,” Mr. Knowles remembers.

“As I recall, the up-river side of the island is where this gravel and loose sand was, and you could see where the water had washed away a lot of the up-side of the island. It was a bit like a cave — a foot or two underground — but we knew it was some kind of burial.

“The grave had already been opened and there wasn’t much left around. But just as a souvenir, I took a couple of thigh bones.”

But by the time he’d reached home, the thrill of discovery had given way to fear that he had done something wrong by disturbing a burial site and removing human remains.

“We brought them home, but then I didn’t want my dad to see them. I sort of had a little guilt complex.”

He hid the bones at his dad’s place for a while. Then he decided to take them to his mom’s.

“My mother wouldn’t have cared as much.”

He went into a backyard on Ossington — he can’t remember whether it was at his own house or at a secluded spot nearby — then dug a shallow hole, dropped in the remains and covered them with dirt.

“I buried them there,” he recalls, “so my father wouldn’t find out I was doing a little grave-robbing.”

– – –

Ross Knowles eventually moved to Toronto to work in the printing business. When the owner opened a new operation in Chicago, Mr. Knowles and another employee moved to work there.

The house at 8 Ossington was purchased in 1961 by Allan and Rita Hendrick. They lived there until the early 1970s, and the house was sold after Mr. Hendrick’s death.

Mrs. Hendrick is 90 and now lives in Barrhaven. She remembers a day in 1963 when she was doing yardwork in the back corner of the property, near where the fence and garage met.

“I was raking or something, and these bones just surfaced in the soft, loose soil. We wondered where they’d come from. One was about 18 inches long with a knob at the top, probably the hip-to-knee bone. We suspected it was a murder victim.”

The police were contacted and her husband, she recalls, took charge of the situation.

“Women weren’t involved in these things in those days.”

There were two or three officers at the scene. She thinks they dug deeper at the site to look for further evidence. No one, says Mrs. Hendrick, was even sure if the remains belonged to a human being.

The bones were eventually handed over to the museum, and a catalogue tag attached to the remains identified Allan Hendrick as the donor.

Janet Young, a researcher in the museum’s physical anthropology section, says it’s likely the Ossington Avenue bones will be reclassified as a subgroup of the Aylmer Island remains. The explanation provided by Mr. Knowles appears to prove that the mysterious backyard bones are aboriginal remains after all.

“What are the odds of them not being the right bones?” she says.

Mrs. Hendrick says she had come to believe the remains must have belonged to an animal.

Except for the vivid memory she retains of churning up bones with a garden rake, she says she hasn’t given much thought to the incident over the years.

“Oh, my goodness,” she exclaimed after learning about the origins of the bones. “Well I didn’t expect to get a call like that this morning. A mystery solved.”

Illustration

Colour Photo: John Booz, The Ottawa Citizen / Now the operator of a Chicago printing shop, Ross Knowles read about the mystery of the bones when a friend mailed him a copy of the Citizen story from last month.; Colour Photo: As a youngster in the 1940s, Ross Knowles used to canoe and paddle around Aylmer Island in the Ottawa River.

(Copyright The Ottawa Citizen 2003)

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