Burial ground of Black freedom seekers discovered in Haldimand

Editor's note: This story was originally published March 16. This version has been updated to correct the fact that preservation of the Street-Barnes cemetery site will begin once the land is transferred to Haldimand County ownership.

Graeme Bachiu pushed through a swamp west of Canfield for two hours before he found it.

Just off Highway 56, the documentary filmmaker came across a brush-covered clearing whose thin-trunked trees looked younger than those dotting the surrounding woods.

Dominating the 40-by-60-foot area, and appearing quite out of place, were two huge, gnarled oaks.

But it was the human-sized dips in the frozen earth that really stood out.

Bachiu believes he has found the burial site of several Black freedom seekers who came north to Canada along the secret network of safe houses known as the Underground Railroad in the 1850s and settled in Canfield, a hamlet in Haldimand County.

“We don’t know who’s buried here. We have guesses,” said Bachiu, whose 2021 docuseries, “Canfield Roots,” explores the hamlet’s heritage as a haven for African-Americans fleeing slavery.

The best guess, said local historian Sylvia Weaver, is the property now owned by the provincial transport ministry is the final resting place of Washington and Harriet Gales, who escaped north from Virginia, as well as several of their five children.

The Gales family has a connection to a hero of the Underground Railroad. John Gales, the third child of Harriet and Washington, married Harriet Tubman’s niece, Amanda Stewart of St. Catharines.

Bachiu went out in search of the Gales family burial ground after he and Norfolk-based title searcher Penny Plunkett found a deed from 1936 showing the measurements and rough location of the cemetery.

In an oral history recorded in the mid-1980s, an elderly local resident spoke of a Black burial ground “in the middle of two trees” on land owned by the Gales family.

“I was floored. Totally floored,” Bachiu recalled of getting confirmation of the cemetery’s existence from a long-dead voice on a scratchy cassette tape.

But the Bereavement Authority of Ontario (BAO) requires a third piece of evidence to officially recognize the site as a cemetery and preserve it so archeological work to identify the remains can commence.

So Bachiu, Weaver and Rochelle Bush, a Niagara historian and Tubman expert with ancestral ties to Canfield, are going public in hopes someone with a connection to the Gales family has that vital third clue.

“Photos, a map, an obituary, firsthand recollections about the Gales family, hopefully even a direct descendant,” said Bachiu, adding a written journal entry or family story passed down through oral stories would equally suffice.

Researchers are especially interested in hearing from people with the surnames Gales, Cain and Glass living in the Hamilton, Niagara and Toronto areas, as well as in Buffalo, N.Y., as these were the urban centres where descendants of Canfield’s early Black settlers most often moved.

Anyone with tips can email Bachiu at graeme@windeckerroadfilms.com or find him on social media through @windeckerroadfilms.

A story of integration

There were 137 Black residents listed in the North Cayuga census by 1851. Behind the numbers, Weaver says, was a story of integration.

“Canfield was a special place,” she said, describing how Black, Scottish and Irish inhabitants “worked side by side” to clear the land.

“They lived together, went to school together, went to church together,” Weaver said. “They were all equal and they got along.”

Based on her research, Weaver expects six people are buried at the newly rediscovered burial ground, which has been undisturbed since the MTO acquired the land across from the Baptist church — where the Gales family worshipped — in 1970.

There is no sign of any headstones, though Bachiu will return in the spring to search for them.

“These were human beings. They deserve dignity and respect,” he said.

The team of “passionate amateurs,” as Bachiu put it, has the blessing of the BAO to continue its work.

“We’ve had a few (burial grounds) reported in recent years, which are related to the historical Underground Railroad and may date to the mid-1800s,” said BAO deputy registrar Michael D’Mello in an email.

“Each time old burial grounds and sites are confirmed, it’s an opportunity for communities to protect, celebrate and memorialize local history to honour those buried there,” he added.

“When burial grounds of such freedom seekers are discovered, it’s significant to our provincial and national heritage.”

The term “freedom seekers” has replaced runaway or escaped slaves, as it puts the focus on the people who made the choice to leave, Bush explained.

“They were self-emancipated,” she said. “They self-liberated and found their way to British soil, where they could find freedom.”

It is a challenge to trace the descendants of freedom seekers, Bush added, since Black history was not valued by society at large and therefore not recorded, instead being passed on through oral tradition within families.

It was only two years ago that Bush herself discovered she has ancestors buried in the historic Street-Barnes Cemetery in Canfield, which was also rediscovered by local volunteers who are currently waiting for ownership of the land to be transferred to Haldimand County to begin preservation of the site.

“Our history wasn’t even taught in schools,” she said. “All too often it’s paved over and forgotten about.”

To Bachiu, Weaver and others working to protect the Gales burial ground, Canfield’s history as an Underground Railroad stop and early Black settlement is worthy of celebration. But with each house torn down and descendant lost, that history gets harder to capture.

“There’s less and less evidence that they were here,” Bachiu said.

“We’re trying hard to preserve what we have.”

J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator