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Hidden cemeteries of Essex County hold Underground Railroad history

Often tucked away behind thick forest or located in middle of a farm field, more than a dozen cemeteries containing the region's richest history rest hidden and some forgotten throughout Essex County.

There are 18 known cemeteries in the Essex County area that belong to black settlers

There are 18 known cemeteries in the Essex County area that belong to black settlers. 0:30

Often tucked away behind thick forest or located in middle of fields, more than a dozen cemeteries containing the region's richest history rest hidden and some forgotten throughout Essex County.

Buried in these cemeteries are slaves and their descendants, who fled the United States into Canada through the Underground Railroad. The cemeteries are evidence of the hard work, resilience and hardships these refugees faced throughout the past two centuries.

There are 18 known cemeteries in the Essex County area that belong to black settlers. The cemeteries are cared for either through the municipality or by members of a nearby church — several cemeteries remain abandoned.

Elise Harding-Davis, a local author and historian, has dedicated her life to preserving and protecting cemeteries throughout Essex County and has spent countless hours researching and writing about cemeteries in the region.

Elise Harding-Davis is a local author and historian who has dedicated her life to preserving and protecting local cemeteries. (Meg Roberts/ CBC News )

"When I come into these cemeteries, it gladdens my heart to be able to honour my people … they made this country what it is today," she said. "Without their input Canada might not be the country it is."

Cemetery conditions were 'deplorable'

Harding-Davis said before her and a team of people started to restore some of the cemeteries, a lot of them "were deplorable".

The historian has watched farmers plow over cemeteries, seen headstones hanging in people's living rooms and even fought for the the Town of Essex to quit using a cemetery site as overflow parking for the annual Harrow Fair.

Harding-Davis has spent her time putting together lists of cemetery sites of all cultures to be designated municipally, then provincially and, finally, federally.

The Nolan family, pictured above, have ancestors buried in the New Canaan cemetery. Although there is no marker with the last name Nolan on it, they have death certificates indicating family members are buried in the area.

Cemeteries a way to care for loved ones

When descendants of the Underground Railroad made it to Canada they weren't free from racism and discrimination. However, they were free to make of their own choices.

They were real people and lived a life, some of them of absolute agony, they risked their lives to become free.- Elise Harding-Davis, Windsor-Essex historian

Refugees "specifically chose to have [their] own cemeteries," according to Harding-Davis.

"When we came here we made it our goal, first to build churches because they could act as places of worship and schools and to have our own cemeteries," she said."So we could lovingly bury our loved ones and take care of them after they died."

That simple idea was unfathomable while living in the United States.

"They were real people and lived a life, some of them of absolute agony, they risked their lives to become free in order to have families that could live like everyone else … and in order for them to do that today these cemeteries have to exist," Harding-Davis added.

Discover the unique story behind these three local cemeteries:

New Canaan Cemetery

New Canaan Cemetery is located in Gesto in the middle of Essex County. The cemetery sits in a well-cut clearing in the forest about 400 meters off the road. (Google Maps)

The cemetery sits in a well-cut clearing in the forest about 400 meters off the road.

Visible headstones have been collected and put onto a concrete slab. The area beside the monument is uneven with indentations in the grass where graves lay beneath the grass. (Meg Roberts/CBC News )

The most prominent person buried in the cemetery is Delos Rogest Davis, who was born in 1846. He was the first descendant of the Underground Railroad to become a lawyer in Canada.

Some of the headstones are still legible, while others are not. Last names like Bush, Walker, and Davis are engraved in the limestone. There are only a few dozen markers at the site, but dozens more could lay buried underneath the ground. (Meg Roberts/CBC News )
Delos Rogest Davis is the great grandfather of prominent Windsor judge, Lloyd Dean. "You feel there is something significant here ... It's something that is very meaningful to me," said Dean, while standing in front of the grave. (Meg Roberts/CBC News )

St. Marks Cemetery 

St. Marks Cemetery is located along Dunn Road in Harrow. (Google Maps)

The cemetery hides behind a hill that was built to shield the headstones from the road. Fugitive slaves who were living in the area were still nervous of bounty hunters, so they lived a quieter lifestyle than some of the other communities in Essex County.

Markers are scattered around at St. Marks Cemetery. Unlike New Canaan, the headstones have been untouched. (Meg Roberts/ CBC News )

There are about 12 headstones tucked in the north east corner of the property, but experts say there are more than 100 people buried back there. The cemetery, as it stands today, is a small piece of land surrounded by a farm field. Historians believe there are bodies buried underneath the field.

Long grass grows tall around the century old rock. (Meg Roberts/CBC News )

Central Grove Cemetery 

The Central Grove Cemetery is located on Walker Road heading into Harrow. (Google Maps)

The cemetery is behind the 100-year-old church that sits on the property, although the cemetery has been around longer than the church.

In 1930, the cemetery was partially plowed over and several headstones were destroyed. A large white cairn (pictured above) was built to memorialize mortal remains of people whose markers had been demolished. (Meg Roberts/CBC News )
The cemetery is still being used by the same black families that were buried there 150 years ago. It isn't uncommon to see century-old markers sitting beside new ones with the same last name.
Often tucked away behind thick forest or located in middle of fields, more than a dozen cemeteries containing the region's richest history rest hidden and some forgotten throughout Essex County. 5:45

About the Author

Meg Roberts

Meg Roberts is a video journalist with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, based in St. John's. Email her at meg.roberts@cbc.ca.