First day and introducing Charles Perry

Charles Perry
Charles Perry, photograph by William James Topley, © Public Domain
Source: Library and Archives Canada, PA 025623

Today was the first day of the 2017 field school. After a meet and greet at the Archaeology Centre, we were going to go walk around and point out the hidden world that exists on campus. We didn’t get very far—although archaeologists don’t melt in the rain, it helps to have proper rain gear and we were lacking some of that, so the tour will be tomorrow.

Instead, we spent some time looking at some amazing old photographs that show some of the past history of what is now Trent University’s campus. We’ll be featuring some of these in upcoming posts, so stay tuned.

So who is Charles Perry and why is he important?

Charles Perry was born December 7, 1818 in Cobourg to Ebenezer Perry, who was a meat-packer, merchant, and miller. Ebenezer Perry built a mill on the Douro side of the Otonabee River in 1847, and this launched Charles into the lumber business in Peterborough. He had great success in marketing square timber and sawn lumber.

Where this becomes directly relevant to us is because by 1851, Charles began buying up land in Smith Township, including a parcel that is now part of Trent University. In 1853 he was elected Mayor of Peterborough. In 1854 he completed construction of his sawmill at Nassau, directly across the river from Ebenezer’s mill. Charles’s mill was pretty distinctive in its heyday. Charles painted all his buildings red, so the big mill at Nassau is often referred to as the Red Mill. It had 130 saws, including two Yankee Gangs, a Slabber, Stock Gang, and an English Gate. Gang saws were saw blades used together in parallel to make the initial cuts to a log when cutting it into planks.

If you are interested in learning more about the types of saws in a sawmill, please consult page 177 of this exhaustive work, published 1870 by David Craik.

The Red Mill was ravenous for timber, and is recorded as able to cut 90,000 feet of lumber in twelve hours. Unfortunately, Charles Perry’s reach exceeded his grasp, and in 1860, he lost the Red Mill at Nassau as it was seized and sold at a Sherriff’s Auction to cover tax arrears.

At this point, Charles Perry drops out of his connection to our field site, but he lived a pretty interesting life after his crash. The forefeiture of his mill property didn’t seem to really affect his reputation too much as he was again elected Mayor of Peterborough in 1861, a position he held until 1864.

The time capsule found last summer at the Peterborough Jail was placed during Perry’s tenure as Mayor.

Following his stint as Mayor, he also was elected to the first Canadian Parliament in 1867 as a Conservative MP representing Peterborough West. He served until 1872. After that, he appears to have been a customs collector for Peterborough from 1873 until his death in 1876.

He lived at the French-Second-Empire-style house at 168 Brock St., Peterborough from its construction in 1870 until his death. His widow sold the property in 1892.

Nassau Mills 1896
The Red Mill at Nassau, about 45 years after construction.


While we can’t truly know what is beneath the surface until we begin excavations, we are anticipating learning something about the Euro-Canadian settlers who came to this region. Probably we will also intersect with the industrial boom that the lumber trade and the arrival of the railroad brought. Finally, we might learn something about how use of this landscape changed after the sawmills fell silent.

Historical archaeology is when we have written records and oral traditions that we can use together with artifacts to gain a more nuanced view of what happened at a site. Sometimes the information complements our picture of a site gained from the excavation—and sometimes documentary evidence conflicts with what we glean from the archaeological record!

Some argue that the documentary record means we don’t need to spend much time excavating historical sites. Surely we already know much about Nassau Mills, we have accounts from contemporary visitors that tell us of dramatic events and the prominent personalities of the day.

While these documents are an important tool that we can use to learn about the past, they do not tell us everything we would like to know. Documents are often incomplete and biased towards particular points of view. Often documents are based on imperfect recall or events are recast to portray actions or thoughts in an idealised fashion. More commonly, they are simply dry lists and accountings that don’t really have much personality–they are often sparse in detail about the daily lives, thoughts, and activities of people, and they neglect or overlook certain segments of society.

The information we can derive from material culture is a way to shed light on those unrecorded behaviours and under-represented members of a culture. The structures that made up the Nassau Mills complex, the mills, outbuildings, worker houses, farmhouses, railway platform, etc., and the refuse people discarded will reveal information about the everyday lives of the community at Nassau Mills.

By combining the historical record with the archaeological record, we explore a number of questions about the lived experience of people that we can’t otherwise address. We can move from the smallest to ever larger scales of social interaction. We can see how small scale material (e.g. the remains of a single house) fits into and is transformed by its relationship to larger cultural systems (Nassau Mills, Peterborough, Canada West, etc.).

Beginning May 1st, we will start to investigate around Nassau Mills with the Trent Archaeology Field School. We’ll be posting updates about our work, and the students will also be contributing to the site and relaying their experiences. We hope you enjoy following along with us.