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Pioneer cemetery is the final resting place of some of Grey County’s earliest black settlers

April 2021

The Old Durham Road Pioneer Cemetery, in Artemesia Township, is the final resting place for some of the first black families to settle in this farming community, around 100 miles north-west of Toronto, Ontario.

Located south-east of the village of Priceville, the cemetery is surrounded by rolling fields that have changed little over the years.

Many of the early settlers who came to Artemesia Township were Black United Empire Loyalists, many of whom served in the American War of Independence, including the first settler of Priceville and thus its namesake, Colonel Price. Other Black Loyalist settlers were veterans of the War of 1812.

Other Black settlers who came later were freed slaves who came to Upper Canada via the underground railway.

The land in Artemesia Township had yet to surveyed, but that didn’t stop the settlers from clearing the land and farming it.

When the land and the road were finally surveyed 1848, the black settlers were given Crown Patents to the land, on the condition that they had to clear 5 acres of land, if it hadn’t been already, and build a log cabin that was at least 16 foot by 20 foot.

The 50-acre lots along the Durham Road were quickly awarded to Black families, and by 1851, approximately 11% of the population of Artemesia Township was black. Names like Simons, Workman, Brown, Black, Handy, Patterson, Meads and Washington, populated the area.

Eventually, they built a school and a church beside the cemetery. However, white settlers began arriving in the area around 1848-1850, English, Irish, Scottish, and French, they forcibly removed the original Black Settlers from this area. Many of those forcibly removed relocated to Collingwood, Owen Sound, and Oro Township and elsewhere.

Those few who did remain had intermarried with White settlers, with their offspring blending more seamlessly.

The cemetery fell into disuse sometime in the 1880s, and as the decades went on, sat neglected and unmaintained. By the 1930s, the abandoned the “darky cemetery” had been ploughed under for farming, with the headstones either removed or simply covered over and forgotten, along with the cemetery itself. This was unfortunately a common fate for pioneer cemeteries that interred black settlers.

In 1989, a committee was formed to restore the abandoned cemetery and officially register it with the provincial government. Ground-probing radar indicated there were around a hundred graves in the cemetery.

Unfortunately, only four broken gravestones could be found; discovered in a stone pile north of the cemetery in June 1990, after an anonymous letter was sent to the committee. They were gathered in a protected display case, under a plexiglass cover.

A re-dedication ceremony was held in October 1990, with then-Ontario Lieutenant-Governor Lincoln Alexander in attendance. His Honour Lincoln Alexander, had the distinction of being the first black Member of Parliament in Canada, the first black federal Cabinet Minister, and a veteran of the Royal Canadian Air Force in World War II.

A memorial granite boulder was also unveiled, bearing an inscription that honored these early pioneers of African descent, to mark the occasion. A collection of memorial crosses were placed in a corner of the cemetery with the family names of those buried in the cemetery, representing the lost tombstones.

In 2015, the cemetery committee embarked on a new project to revitalize the property and better memorialize those buried within.

A small open pavilion was built to better display the tombstones and create a more visually striking feature than the low-profile display cases used since 1990.

The pavilion is oriented north-south and designed to symbolize the safe passage to freedom for many of the Black settlers, it’s also intended to remind visitors of structures like cemetery dead houses, the log cabins that once housed the early pioneers, and the covered bridges that once dotted the country.

Walking through it, it can also feel like a railway tunnel, symbolizing the “Underground Railroad” that brought many of the black families to Upper Canada.

Little remains of the former Black community, located around the corner of what is now Grey County Road 14 and Durham Road B, other than the cemetery.

A small brick building, formerly the S.S. #7 Schoolhouse, stands across Durham Road from the cemetery, dating from around the 1866. It’s been converted into a residence.

The search for the lost tombstones

It’s unknown what happened to the other tombstones, but reports that some made their way into the basements of local homes and as flooring in barns, surfaced as the committee went about their search. One tombstone had apparently been used as a home base at the local baseball diamond for a time.

None of these reports could be confirmed by the committee, due partly to a lack of cooperation by the majority white residents; reluctant to re-open old racial wounds.

In the summer of 1999, an excavation project commenced at the cemetery, with the hope of finding some of the missing tombstones, while being careful not to disturb any remains. None were found.

Some stone fragments were later turned over to the South Grey Museum in nearby Flesherton, where they currently reside. They were turned over by a local resident who was going to take them to the garbage dump if the fragments weren’t wanted by the museum.

The documentary Speakers for the Dead by David “Sudz” Southerland and Jennifer Holness captures the story of the Old Durham Road Cemetery and can be found here https://www.nfb.ca/film/speakers-for-the-dead.

Sources: Old Durham Rd Cemetery (civicweb.net), Old Durham Road Pioneer Cemetery – Sea & Ski Realty (seaandskirealty.ca), (1) Old Durham Road Black Pioneer Cemetery | Facebook, https://sites.google.com/site/southgreymuseum/old-durham-road-pioneers?overridemobile=true&tmpl=%2Fsystem%2Fapp%2Ftemplates%2Fprint%2F&showPrintDialog=1, Echoes of the Old Durham Road (communitystories.ca), naomi_norquay_lands_memory_2010.pdf (greyroots.com), South Grey News, Slavery: Canada’s “best-kept secret” | Hanover Post (thepost.on.ca), A Whitewashing of History — Emancipation Festival, Split Rail Country: A History of Artemesia Township, The Historical Society of Artemesia Township, Owen Sound: Stan Brown Printers Ltd., 1986, p. 313.

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: https://militarybruce.com/pioneer-cemetery-is-the-final-resting-place-of-some-of-grey-countys-earliest-black-settlers/

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