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Cemetery honours the early multi-racial pioneers of Sunnidale Township

July 2018

In the years surrounding the U.S. Civil War, Simcoe County in southern Ontario was at the end of the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses used by escaped slaves to freedom in in the British Colonies of Upper Canada, Lower Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

Some estimates indicate that more than 30, 000 escaped slaves made their way along this “railroad” during its 20-year peak period, aided by allies and abolitionists.

Many settled in the townships of northern Simcoe County, including the pioneer settlement of Silver Shoe in the former Sunnidale Township, now part of Clearview Township.

South of Sunnidale Concession 7, west of County Road 10 sits a small pioneer cemetery, the Bethel Union Cemetery, first opened in 1855 as Sunnidale Union Public Cemetery.

While the escaped slaves found freedom and safety in the British North American colonies, which had abolished slavery in 1793, racial and religious discrimination was still quite common, something that even extended to cemeteries at the time.  The Sunnidale/Bethel Union Cemetery was possibly the first cemetery to break these commonly held segregation rules.

An estimated 500 to 1000 people were buried in the cemetery before it was closed to burials in 1940.  An exact number is hard to determine as many were buried in unmarked or mass graves and proper burial records have been lost, if they ever existed in the first place.

Numerous graves were washed away during Hurricane Hazel in October 1954.  Many of the remains were plowed into a mound in the middle of the cemetery, now known as Memorial Mound.

With the decline of many of the black communities in the area, the cemetery fell victim to neglect as decedents of the original setters moved away.  Two clean-ups occurred in the 1960s and 70s, but it wasn’t until 1997 that a group of volunteers, the Silver Shoe Historical Society, headed by Jane Cooper-Wilson were granted authority by Clearview Township to restore and maintain the cemetery, mostly through charitable donations.

So far, around 400 documented burials have been confirmed, but more work is to be done to determine how many more graves exist in this once forgotten cemetery.

Cleaview Township council designated the cemetery a cultural heritage property in April 2016.

Sources:  http://clearviewclerk.ca/cemeteries/bethel-union-cemetery, https://www.simcoe.com/news-story/6063203-clearview-township-starts-process-to-designate-bethel-union-cemetery, http://clearviewclerk.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/16-32_heritage_designation_bethel_union_cemetery.pdf.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: http://militarybruce.com/cemetery-honours-the-early-multi-racial-pioneers-of-sunnidale-township/

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