It was about 1814 when John Vanzant buried one of his young children in a quiet corner of his Wellington Street property in the Town of York.
The grave site, six feet long and four feet wide, was set back from the unpaved street in a small grove of trees, giving the mourning family a degree of privacy. Their undeveloped town lot was surrounded by just a few winding creeks and a scattering of wooden buildings.
What exactly happened to the child has been obscured by the passage of more than 200 years. There are no surviving records indicating the child’s gender, age, or cause of death. The only surviving reference is a description of the resting place written some time later on a deed of sale transferring much of John Vanzant’s property to a new owner.
For more than 150 years, that document languished with thousands of others in storage at City Hall until 1968, when it threatened to disrupt construction of Canada’s tallest office building.
John Vanzant, a Loyalist from Pennsylvania, had served in the British army as a guide during the American Revolutionary War. After the conflict was over, he petitioned the government for a land grant within what is now Toronto – preferably “a town lot as your petitioner wishes to build as soon as possible in the Town of York,” he wrote.
His first application denied, Vanzant successfully applied a second time in 1798. The land at the southeast corner of present-day Queen and Bay Streets was given to him and he first appears in the town records in 1800.
At first, Vanzant (also spelled Van Zant, Vanzantte, and Vanzantee) is part of a household that consists of two adult men. Later, he appears to be by himself, then in 1804 he is listed as living with an adult female with two male children. In 1805, however, it’s just him and one male child.
At its greatest extent in 1813, his household contains three children under 16: two boys and a girl. Over time, he acquired several more lots in York in addition to the one granted to him.
From these unreliable early lists it’s impossible to determine anything about Vanzant’s lost child. Historian Christine Mosser, who typed up the original town records in 1984, wrote that “they are full of inaccuracies in addition and spelling.”
Accordingly, the members of the Vanzant household fluctuate seemingly at random. No other similar records survive from that time to provide a clearer storyline.
Vanzant and his family left Toronto in a hurry during the War of 1812. Having never given up his American citizenship, Vanzant had his allegiances questioned, and his land ultimately ended up in the hands of Jordan Post, a watchmaker.
John Vanzant would have been forgotten if not for an unusual clause in the deed of sale written by Post in 1814.
In florid language, the handwritten document spells out exactly what land Vanzant was selling – almost all the land he owned except one “piece of ground, six feet in length by four feet in breadth … being the place in which a child of the said John is interred.”
That small rectangle of land, roughly in the middle of the block bounded by present-day King, Bay, Wellington and Yonge Streets, was protected from development in future years because Vanzant still owned it, despite remaining in exile in the United States until his death.
The Toronto General Trusts building, completed in 1911 on part of the former Vanzant property, was designed to avoid disturbing a small portion of land the company believed contained the grave.
Despite the bank’s good intentions, it was probably protecting the wrong location. The grave site in the original deed of sale is identified as being at the innermost western corner of Vanzant’s Wellington Street land, which would put it slightly to the south and east of the General Trusts building.
Few knew about the grave, but someone at the Toronto Telegram newspaper (itself formerly located near the grave site) was paying attention.
In 1968, when the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce announced it planned to knock down the General Trusts building and build a $100-million skyscraper on the site, the paper ran a short, four-paragraph story headlined “Tiny grave may stall giant bank project.”
The story also gave the child a name, Stella, though its origin was not explained. There is no birth or death record for the young Vanzant, and the deed of sale gives no information about the occupant of the grave.
The 784-foot Commerce Court West tower was to be built directly on top of the site protected by the Toronto General Trusts, and CIBC officials showed concern about disturbing a grave when it excavated the foundations.
Should remains be uncovered, CIBC considered entombing them in a concrete vault, but ultimately decided to transfer any discoveries to the burial plot of John Vanzant’s brother in Markham, Ont.
On July 2, 1969, workers began carefully digging with shovels at the site they believed was most likely to contain the grave. Representatives from St. James Cathedral, Mount Pleasant Cemetery and the Ontario government were on hand to ensure there was no desecration of any burial.
A few feet down, the shovels struck a wooden board and all work suddenly stopped.
Carefully, the two-inch thick piece of wood was lifted to reveal a small cavity filled with an inch or two of muddy water.
It was empty.
The relief was short lived. Nearby, another piece of wood was discovered at a similar depth, but the space beneath it was also empty. Excavators searched a number of sites that may have contained the Vanzant grave, but ultimately found no trace of a burial.
Satisfied with the search, the church and government officials allowed construction to continue uninterrupted.
What happened to the body is, frustratingly, unknown. It could have been quietly removed by the family or disturbed by one of many developments on the land over the years.
The likely location of the burial site is now on the west side of the plaza behind Commerce Court, near the fountain. There is no marker indicating that two centuries ago, somewhere nearby, a young child was interred there beneath a canopy of trees.