By Sheila Phibbs
The Haldimand Press
CANFIELD—In recent years the important history of black freedom seekers coming to Canada – and eventually Canfield – by way of the Underground Railroad has been gaining awareness in Haldimand. An “informal team” of Sylvia Weaver, Graeme Bachiu, Penny Plunkett, Rochelle Bush, and Michael Konkle has helped uncover abandoned family cemeteries and is re-discovering the history of these families so that the time they lived here is not forgotten.
For decades Weaver has researched this little-known history and the genealogy of the black families in Canfield.
Meanwhile, Bachiu’s documentary series Canfield Roots, produced by his company Windecker Road Films, focuses on the Street Family Cemetery and shares the experiences and stories of some of the black settlers and their descendents.
This history pursuit has led them to another family cemetery on property once owned by the family of John Frederick Gales. According to Weaver’s research, John Frederick was one of five children of Washington Gales, originally from Virginia, and Harriet Ann Smith in Haldimand. After Washington passed away, Harriet remarried William Cain in Dunnville and they had one son named Calvin.
Bachiu says, “Sylvia has known about this site for a long time.”
Weaver adds that when she and her husband learned about it, “We were told that the cemetery was back by two big old trees.” Similarly, Bachiu learned of the general location of a burial site and was advised to, “Look for things that are different.”
Bachiu kept that in mind as he searched for the site and observed a clear area surrounded by trees and dense brush. He noticed depressions in the ground, possibly indicating burial plots. Further indication that he was in the right spot came through audio tapes from Karen Richardson, Curator at the Heritage Centre in Cayuga. On one recording, former Canfield resident Fred Carter (now deceased) speaks of the black families of Canfield and where to find the cemeteries.
The strongest evidence confirming the existence of the Gales cemetery is a deed from 1936 that shows the transfer of the Gales property from Beatrice Gales Glass to Charlie Harper.
Beatrice was the daughter of John Frederick Gales and Amanda Stewart Gales Taylor, who was a niece of abolitionist Harriet Tubman. The graveyard, including dimensions, is specifically mentioned in the deed. Bachiu credits realtor Penny Plunket with finding this important paperwork.
The deed is critical as the Bereavement Authority of Ontario (BAO) requires three pieces of evidence to declare the site a cemetery.
“These burial sites have been all but forgotten … (as) basically nobody knows about this,” says Bachiu. “We need to prove people are buried here so it can be preserved and protected…. We don’t have the evidence of a cemetery per se, but I am calling this a burial ground.”
The Street Cemetery and Gales burial grounds are important places of Haldimand heritage. Anne Unyi, Supervisor of Culture and Heritage at Haldimand County, says, “Beyond the original function as a burial site, cemeteries/burial grounds act as a symbol of – or memorial to – those individuals or families who once lived, worked, and helped build Haldimand County. They have the potential to tell stories of the people buried there and the communities in which they have been laid to rest.”
These cemeteries also shed light on Canfield’s connection to Harriet Tubman, which historian Rochelle Bush of St. Catharines helped to confirm. She says, “This is extremely significant; she (Tubman) is an iconic figure of the Underground Railroad. She was a Conductor.”
Along with Amanda Stewart Gales Taylor, Carrie Stewart Barnes, who lived in Canfield, was also a niece of Tubman.
While researching her own genealogy, Bush learned that she is a direct descendent of Stepney Street, James Stewart, and Samuel Cooper, who was one of the first documented black people in Canfield. She says, “After I discovered my Canfield connection to the Street family, I contacted Sylvia Weaver to confirm that my ancestors were in fact the Streets she had been researching for years. As you can imagine, I was overjoyed when we compared notes.”
Considering how little we know and are taught about this part of Canada’s history, Bush is critical of the fact that “we have grown up learning white history.” She says, “I am grateful that both Sylvia and Graeme are working to preserve this very important history. If they weren’t, it would be lost forever.”
Weaver and Bachiu share that assertion and want to see the Gales burial ground confirmed as a cemetery. Based on her research, Weaver says, “The Gales family appears to have died off…. It’s possible that descendents of the Cain family are in Hamilton. They may have documentation that would help confirm it is a cemetery.”
Meanwhile, the work of transferring the Street Cemetery to Haldimand County is ongoing. According to Haldimand County Communications, “The County’s solicitor is currently working with one of the landowners and their mortgage company to finalize easement details. Once the easement is in place staff will begin making the cemetery safe … including construction of an access pathway in advance of opening it publicly.”
The statement continues, “We’re very eager to gain legal access to the property to begin the necessary work and give respectful recognition to a site with such historical significance…. Once the cemetery is acquired, the County will be establishing a committee of local historians and interested parties to develop more detailed plans for the cemetery and a long-term plan going forward.”
Regarding the Gales burial grounds, Bachiu says, “Down the road this site needs to be identified so there is a paper trail and something on title.”
“My goal is to see that it is registered,” adds Weaver, acknowledging that freedom seeker families were modest. “A site like this will get forgotten because they didn’t talk about it.”
Bachiu believes the 2023 perspective is, “We should talk about it and celebrate these people.”
In talking about it, we are re-learning history that includes neighbours who were part of our shared heritage. Each burial ground and cemetery contains the history of the community and the stories of Canfield’s black settlers that are finally being told.
Anyone with information/documentation on the Gales/Cain family cemetery can contact email@example.com. To learn more about Harriet Tubman online visit salemchapelbmechurch.ca and tubmantourscanada.com.