Most of us have likely walked by this hidden treasure located on Queen and Montreal Street. The cemetery has caught my attention many times, and each time I thought to myself ‘I need to come back and check this out with some time on my hands’. Just recently, when being stopped in traffic bypassing the Big Dig on Princess Street, I had noticed the Historical Marker out front mentioning Molly Brant being buried here. It was high time time to follow through with a proper visit to the Lower Burial Ground and it finally happened this past week when a group of KAM volunteers was welcomed by Marianne Thompson and historian John Grenville to learn more about this important place in Kingston history.
The cemetery was laid out in 1783 in anticipation of the arrival of Loyalists at Cataraqui after the American Revolution. St. Paul’s Anglican Church was built on the burial ground in 1845. Legally owned by the Anglican Diocese of Ontario, it is believed to be the second oldest Protestant cemetery west of Montreal. Many early citizens of Kingston are buried here, including prominent and ordinary people, along with black slaves brought by the Loyalists, and sailors of the Lakes. In the middle of the city of Kingston, it is a unique cemetery containing fine stone monuments such as the Forsyth, the Cartwright, and the Stuart Lair.
Molly Brant (Tekonwatonti), an influential Mohawk matriarch born in Ohio in 1736 came to Kingston in 1783 with other Loyalists. The British government built her a stone house and paid her a pension as she and her brother Thayendanaga influenced Mohawks and most other Iroquois to remain loyal to the Crown during the American Revolution. ‘Historical records and recent writings present Molly Brant as a strong individual who retained her native heritage throughout her life, often to the disdain of her European contemporaries. Molly is a controversial figure because she was both pro-British and pro-Iroquois. She insisted on speaking Mohawk, she dressed in Mohawk style throughout her life, and she encouraged her children to do the same. She argued on behalf of the Iroquois before, during, and after the American Revolution. She sheltered and fed her people. She complained when she thought the government was ignoring the Iroquois.’ (Green, Gretchen, 1989. “Molly Brant, Catharine Brant, and Their Daughters: A Study in Colonial Acculturation.” Ontario History. Vol. LXXXI, No. 3.) On April 16, 1796, at the age of about 60, Molly Brant died. She was laid to rest in the burial ground of St. George’s Church, located at what was to become the corner of Queen Street and Montreal Street, where St. Paul’s Church now stands. Sadly, the exact location of her plot is unknown. Information regarding her life can be found on the website of the Cataraqui Archeological Research Foundation. Some of her children and grandchildren have been laid to rest at the Lower Burial Ground as well, for example Ann Earl and Jane Earl Miller – she was the last person to be buried here in 1863.
By about 1840 the cemetery was full and most burials were being made in the Upper Burial Ground, now McBurney Park which is most often referred to as ‘Skeleton Park’.
Apart from the highlighted Molly Brant, there are many prominent and notable early citizens of Kingston buried at the Lower Burial Ground. You can read up on them on the searchable listing of burials and get a good idea of who the founders of Kingston were. Among them was the Reverend Dr. John Stuart b. 1740 (in Pennsylvania), d. 1811, he was a missionary to the Mohawks, who came to Kingston in 1785. He was the first Protestant clergyman in Ontario, founder and rector of St. George’s Church and started the first school in Kingston. Together with Thayendanaga (Joseph Brant) he translated the Gospel of St. Mark and the Catechism into the Mohawk language. He was the first family member to be buried in the unique Stuart Lair that has recently been restored.
When the Lower Burial Ground was established in 1783, it occupied about 0.30 hectares (0.74 acres). Visitors to the Lower Burial Ground today see only about 30% of the original grave yard. The rest of the burial ground is now covered by the church, church hall and the parking lot. There are burials under the parking lot and the church although today there is no visible evidence of the graves or markers. However, the area under the church hall, built in 1872, has remained somewhat unscathed with some markers erect and others lying flat on the ground. While some are in exceptionally good condition because they have been protected for more than 140 years, others, unfortunately, are in pieces. In all likelihood the area under the church, completed in 1846, would have been much the same. However, the 1856 fire probably destroyed the markers under the church.
The Lower Burial Ground Restoration Society (LBGRS) was formed in 2008 to develop and maintain an interest and understanding of the history and heritage of the Lower Burial Ground and to assist in the maintenance and conservation of the burial ground and its memorials. Since its formation, the Society has restored the stone wall along Montreal Street and a number of important monuments, developed an illustrated brochure and installed an interpretive panel to inform the public about the burial ground. The Society also had a conservation study prepared by a recognized consultant to guide its future work.
The Society is always looking for volunteers to assist with the on-going work that needs to be done. Donations are welcome. Self guided tours are always available or reach out to the Lower Burial Ground Society for more information at lowerburialground @ gmail.com