Cold case at Fort Anne

Heather Killen
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Seeing beyond history's bare bones; the story of Private James Simpson

By Heather Killen



Denise Hansen had almost given up the ghost on learning the name of the dead soldier they discovered in the clay at Fort Anne.

A new exhibit showcases the latest evidence in the famous find. Researchers are optimistic they've put a face and a name to the centuries-old cold case. On July 16, Parks Canada is celebrating its 100th anniversary by offering free admission, so everyone can see this park and the exhibit free of charge.

Hansen, now educational specialist at Parks Canada, said she was working as an artifact researcher when she was first introduced to the soldier. It all started in 1994 when a visitor to Fort Anne noticed a bone protruding from clay near the water's edge.

“Fortunately he was a doctor, so he knew that what he was seeing was a human arm,” she said. “Normally we wouldn't do a full excavation, but this was a complete skeleton in good condition.”


Isolated Existence

Lillian Stewart, of Parks Canada, was there when the bones were found. She said it was exciting and yet disconcerting to see the skull. The bones reminded her that when the bare facts of history are fleshed out, one sees the personal stories of a hard and isolated existence in the early days of the fort.

She said after they determined the extent, a team worked against the tides to salvage the remains buried in the thick clay at the high tide mark. Of special interest to researchers was the added treasure of almost perfectly preserved artifacts ranging from shoes and regimental buttons, to an unidentified piece of leather.

The bones were sent to the Museum of Civilization in Ottawa, where scientists thought it was likely an 18th century soldier in his thirties, about 5'6 in height. The scientists also decided that his nose had been broken and he had arthritis and dental problems.

While they couldn't determine a cause of death, foul play seemed unlikely due to the evidence of  a makeshift shroud and the way the arms had been crossed over the body prior to burial. The bones were then shipped back to Annapolis Royal and the unknown soldier was buried with military honours across from the garrison.


Regimental Buttons

At that time, they believed the man had died during a seize against the fort in 1711. However as Denise Hansen was processing the artifacts in Halifax, she noticed that the buttons were from three different regiments.

This in itself wasn't unusual because it was common for soldiers to swap buttons, but buttons weren't marked until 1768 suggesting the soldier died about 50 years later than originally thought.

She began talking to colleagues who also noticed that shoes found on the body were more consistent with styles of the later part of the 18th Century.

Another researcher suggested that the unusual piece of leather found at the scene could be a hair tie that was also consistent with military uniforms of a later date. It seemed the more she found out about the bones, the more she wondered about the soldier.

“I used to imagine what did he look like, what's his name?” Hansen said.  Record keeping was hit and miss in the 1700s and what records that could have existed at the time, were likely destroyed. Muster rolls could provide a name and date of death, but Hansen didn't know where to look for them and for a time, there was nothing further to go on.


Muster Rolls

Finally Hansen had a breakthrough when she consulted Don Hagist, a Rhode Island scholar who specializes in researching soldiers from that period. He was able to find muster rolls for the 57th Regiment in Ireland.

The records show that of the eight men who died at Fort Anne during this time frame, only a Private James Simpson, who died on Oct. 13,1784, had served in both the 57 and 36th Regiments.  The regimental buttons found on the body were from 57th, 36th and 43rd Battalion.

His service records also show that he would have been the same age at the time of death as the skeleton, and about the same height. While this information is not conclusive, it does seem very compelling, she said.

Records found at Annapolis Royal suggest that three other men died within a day of Private Simpson and a 1784 newspaper ad raises the possibility that perhaps the soldier was among a group of deserters. Hanson says she thinks he may have separated from the others and drowned while trying to escape, but so far this can't be proved.


Forensic Artist

The next piece of the puzzle fell into place when she heard how Victoria Lywood, a Montreal-based forensic artist, was able to create a conceptual drawing using photographs of a skull. In a high-profile cold case, Lywood's forensic reconstruction was being used to help identify the body of Tom Thompson, a famous Canadian painter who died in 1917 under mysterious circumstances.

Hanson hoped that Lywood could recreate the soldier's face. While the skull was no longer available to examine, researchers in Ottawa took many professional grade photos of the skull that Lywood could use to recreate a face from the bones.

Victoria Lywood has been a forensic artist for about 10 years. She says while she loves putting together  the puzzle of the human face, it's loved ones she's hoping to reunite.

“My passion is putting faces together,” she said. “I imagine someone is sitting on the porch and waiting for a loved one to come home. They just disappeared one day and that's a big chunk of your life missing. I can only imagine what that takes out of a person's day.”

Recreating Faces

In addition to the conceptual forensic drawings she does to help identify cold cases, she also does composite sketches working with witnesses, and age progression drawings to help locate missing children.

She also works on archeological teams to help recreate the faces of ancient mummies. Lywood said if she can work with a skull, she can create a high tech 3-D computer model. To get the drawing of Private Simpson, she had to rely on photographs and use methods that were developed in the 1930s and 1940s. 

Tracing paper is placed over the photographs and facial contours and features are drawn. Each skull has particular dents and anomalies where muscles attach. Following and building on the skull's unique topography, Lywood is able to create a face from the bare bones.

In Private Simpson's portrait, she consulted a nose expert in the United Kingdom. No two nose breaks are necessarily the same and she said she wanted to be sure she could interpret which way his nose would swing based on his particular break.

She said for her, the hardest part of his portrait was getting his hair right. For some reason she spent a great deal of times working on the powdered hairstyle that was caught back and doubled over using the leather rosette found with the body.



Lillian Stewart says she was mesmerized by the portrait and for her it puts a human face to historical facts and figures. For Denise Hansen, finally seeing the soldier's face and knowing his name only makes her wonder more.

“How did he die?” she said. “What about his family, did he have any children? He died so far away from his home. Did they ever know what happened to him?”

For more information on British soldiers from 1750 to 1815 visit Don Hagist's homepage at <>, and for more information on forensic artist Victoria Lywood visit her site at <>.

Organizations: Parks Canada, Annapolis Royal, Museum of Civilization

Geographic location: Ottawa, Halifax, Rhode Island United Kingdom

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Recent comments

  • Frank Cecala
    July 15, 2011 - 13:03

    Heather, Great story. If you could contact me I'd like permission to reprint it.

  • Jim Bean
    July 13, 2011 - 10:10

    Why dont the people tell the truth who found it?A local clam fisherman/history hunter found it while walking the shoreline when clamming was more open-NOT a doctor.A doctor came AFTER the fact.Just like several other important historic sites found by locals who have gotten NO credit until some "official" comes in and takes over.No wonder the locals arent teling where the old Scot fort is really at,or the several skirmish sites.Or the West Dalhousie Cave.