Niagara Baptist Church Burial Ground, The - Ontario Heritage Trust

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The Niagara Baptist Church Burial Ground 

On April 28, 2022, the Ontario Heritage Trust unveiled an updated provincial plaque in Toronto to commemorate The Niagara Baptist Church Burial Ground. Updating this plaque is part of the ongoing work of the Trust to tell Ontario’s stories in an honest, authentic and inclusive way.

The bilingual plaque reads as follows: 

NIAGARA BAPTIST CHURCH BURIAL GROUND

The Niagara Baptist Church congregation was established in 1829. A meeting house was erected at this site in 1831 through the efforts of John Oakley, a white former British soldier turned teacher and minister. Initially, the church congregation mainly consisted of colonists, with a small number of Black members. The Black population of the Town of Niagara grew to about 100 due to the influx of freedom seekers after Britain passed the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act and the United States enacted the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. By the late 1840s, the church’s membership was predominantly Black and from 1849-56 was led by Black Baptist minister Francis Lacy. There are at least 15 burials in the churchyard, including Herbert Holmes and Jacob Green, who were killed in the Solomon Moseby Affair that took place at the Niagara jail in 1837. Holmes and Green were among Niagara community members who prevented Moseby from being returned to slavery in the United States. After the 1860s, the population declined, and the church closed in 1878. The burial ground is a reminder of the church and the significant Black community in Niagara.

LIEU DE SÉPULTURE DE L'ÉGLISE BAPTISTE DE NIAGARA

La congrégation de l'église baptiste de Niagara est établie en 1829. Un temple est construit en ce lieu en 1831 grâce aux efforts de John Oakley, un ancien soldat britannique blanc devenu enseignant et pasteur. Au départ, la paroisse est principalement composée de colons, avec quelques membres noirs. La population noire de la ville de Niagara passe alors à une centaine de personnes en raison de l'afflux d'anciens esclaves en quête de liberté après l'adoption par la Grande-Bretagne de la loi sur l'abolition de l'esclavage de 1833 et de la loi sur les esclaves fugitifs de 1850 par les États-Unis. À la fin des années 1840, les fidèles de l'église sont majoritairement noirs et, de 1849 à 1856, l'église est présidée par le pasteur baptiste noir Francis Lacy. L'enclos paroissial compte au moins 15 sépultures, dont celles de Herbert Holmes et de Jacob Green, tous deux tués lors de l'affaire Solomon Moseby, qui s'est déroulée à la prison de Niagara en 1837. Herbert Holmes et Jacob Green faisaient partie des membres de la communauté de Niagara qui ont empêché que Solomon Moseby ne retourne à sa condition d'esclave aux États-Unis. Dans les années 1860, la population diminue et l'église finit par fermer en 1878. Ce lieu de sépulture témoigne de l'existence de l'église et de l'importante communauté noire de Niagara.

Historical background

Black people have lived in the Niagara region since the early 1780s. Most of the Black people at that time were forcibly brought to the area as slaves during the Loyalist relocation to British North America after the American Revolution. At least 81 Black men, women and children were enslaved in the Niagara region through to the 1820s or 1830s, primarily in Newark (the Town of Niagara after 1798 and today’s Niagara-on-the-Lake).1 The population of Black inhabitants at the turn of the 19th century also comprised free people, which included Black Loyalists who obtained their freedom for serving in the British military during the American Revolution, and freedom seekers who escaped enslavement from the United States. Over time, descendants of these groups were part of the Black citizenry.

The Town of Niagara was initially a British military base and safe temporary settlement for Loyalists fleeing during the American War of Independence.2 The aftermath of the British loss led to permanent settlement and the growth of a colonial community. Settlers established homesteads and developed community infrastructure, which included religious institutions. The first church services were often held in the homes or barns of congregants until they were able to raise money to purchase land and build a church. The earliest churches with largest congregations were St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church and St. Mark’s Anglican Church. The Baptist denomination was introduced to the community by settlers in the 1780s as well.

By the late 1820s, the number of Baptists in Niagara grew, and, under the guidance of Reverend John Oakley, the congregation sought to erect a place of worship. In July 1830, a notice of subscription was placed in the Niagara Gleaner by the trustees of the Baptist church to solicit funds in support of building a meeting house.3 The listed trustees were John Oakley, Robert B. Groat (bookseller) and James Pickard (tailor), all European settlers. That same month, they also published a call for tenders for contractors to build the church by November.4 Oakley, an Englishman, was the first minister of the church. He arrived in Niagara as a soldier and was stationed at Fort George. Oakley was the base’s quartermaster, or storekeeper, from 1814 until 1824, when he retired. When his rank was reduced, he took up teaching and received the calling to become a Baptist preacher.

In 1830, Oakley wrote in his journal, "the Lord enabled me to obtain the means of building a chapel in the western side of the town. It was a plain substantial building 30 x 40 feet [9 by 12 metres]."5 George Ball sold part of his town lot 315, that fronted on the east side of Mississauga Street just south of Mary Street, to the Baptist church for £2. According to the deed, he did so by "authority of the last will and testament of his brother, John Ball."6 The meeting house was constructed by 1831. The first service in the newly constructed meeting house was held on June 28, 1831.7 Oakley led the church through the 1830s until 1845. After he left the Niagara church, Oakley stated that Elder Reuben Winchell of the Queenston Baptist Church preached once every two weeks for one year in Niagara, and Elder Neill preached once a month.8 Then, from 1849 to 1856, Reverend Francis Lacy (Lacey), a Black minister, led the congregation.9 Immediately following, Reverend John Bower Mowat from St Andrew's Presbyterian Church preached to the Baptist church on Sunday afternoons for some time. The church was served by many ministers during its existence.

Ministers of the Niagara Baptist Church10

  • 1831-1845 John Oakley
  • 1845-1846 Elder Reuben Winchell (every two weeks)
  • Elder Neil (once a month)
  • 1849-1856 Francis Lacy (Lacey)
  • 1856-1858 John Bower Mowat (Minister, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church)
  • 1858-1863 Position vacant
  • 1864- C. Campbell (Minister, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church)
  • B.W. Rogers
  • 1865- Deacon Bullett (?)
  • 1864-1869 Joseph Ward Stone (supply pastor from Queenston Baptist Church)
  • 1869-1877 Position vacant
  • 1878- Removed from Baptist Register

In its early years, the church parishioners were mainly white, with a small Black membership. By the late 1840s, the number of Black Baptist congregants increased, and the church members were predominantly Black, with a handful of white parishioners. By then, the Baptist church in Virgil grew substantially and many of Niagara’s white members transferred to it. Oakley recorded in his journal that the Niagara Baptist Church was, “now occupied principally by the African race as they being the most numerous members in the church, the white members when a Baptist Chapel was built at crossroads now Virgil (4 Mile Creek) united with the church which met there.”11

The growth of the Black population in Niagara was influenced by Canada’s becoming a safe haven for freedom seekers after the abolition of slavery by the British Parliament with the passage of the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act. Additionally, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act passed by the United States Congress led to a sharp increase in freedom seekers in Canada West (formerly Upper Canada). Dorothy Shadd Shreve, in her book The AfriCanadian Church: A Stabilizer, notes that Black migrants from the United States were generally either Baptist or Methodist.12 Michael Power and Nancy Butler enumerated the Black population from 1842-91:

Appendix B: Population of Niagara according to Census Returns

Black populationTotal populationBlacks as a percentage
1842Township1162,155
Town821,745
Total1983,9005.0
1851Township732,253
Town943,322
Total1675,5753.0
1861Township642,400
Town1042,073
Total1664,4753.7
1871Township602,093
Town281,601
Total883,6942.4
1881Township212,024
Town211,441
Total423,4651.2
1891Township51,847
Town201,349
Total253,1960.7

Slavery and Freedom in Niagara, p. 77.

Most of the Black residents of Niagara lived in what was called the Coloured Village, located south of William Street between King and Butler Streets, near the Baptist Church. The men and women of this neighbourhood were employed in a range of occupations, including labourers, teamsters, plasterers and domestic servants. Francis Lacy was a blacksmith. Some of the Black male residents in the 1840s through to the 1860s were identified by James Davidson, the former editor of the Niagara Mail. His list included Henry Garritt, William Primus, Alex Smithers, James Johnson, John Blight, Andrew Jackson, Hope Bullett, William Freeman, William Riley, James Munro, Leonard Hicks, Charles Green, George Washington, John Richardson, John Mills, J. Harvey, Barber Thompson, David Talbot, J. Scott, W. Warfield, George Wesley and Alfred Warrs.13 Their families included their wives and children.

As the church’s demographics changed, a conflict arose about its ownership. Mary Ann Guillan, a Black female Niagara native who was the daughter of freedom seeker William Riley and his German wife Fanny, described the issue in an interview with Janet Carnochan in about 1890, explaining that, “The white Baptis’ and the black Baptis’ disputed for the church, but the black Baptis’ won.”14 By 1855, the church was commonly known as the “Colored” Baptist Church.15 In 1862, the Baptist Union minutes added the label "colored" to the Niagara chapel.16 According to the Canadian Baptist Registers, in 1859, the church membership was 44. In 1862, 17 members were recorded, and in 1878, there were only 10 members.17

The church served the spiritual and social needs of Black Baptists in Niagara as well as the wider Black community. It was a place of worship, fellowship and community. Although scant, there are some records of weddings, births and deaths documented. Between 1849 and 1855, Reverend Francis Lacy recorded six births, one wedding and seven deaths.18

Recorded by Reverend Francis Lacy

Births

  1. Mary Matilda, born January 22, 1849 (daughter of Mr. George Hater)
  2. William Henry G., born August 18, 1849 (son of Mr. Samuel Graham)
  3. Elisebeth Angelina, born December 11, 1849 (daughter of Isack Washington)
  4. William Alexander, born November 4, 1849 (son of Anthanea Rose)
  5. Henryetta Marian Luisa Lewes, born September 20, 1850 (daughter of Mrs. James Lewis)
  6. Davlleina (orphan daughter of Jane Bullett), born Nov. 4, 1853

Weddings

  1. Wedding of Thomas York and Mary Kitchen, February 4, 1855

Deaths

  1. Mary York, died September 15, 1849
  2. Marian Brite, died March 10, 1850
  3. Sullumen Tinnbrock, died August 19, 1850
  4. James Robinson, died January 3, 1853
  5. Francess Hoitt, died January 11, 1853
  6. Charles Samual Luis, died February 14, 1853
  7. Caroline York, died October 26, 1853

Like many small churches in the colonial province, their property included a section designated as a burial ground. There were at least 15 burials in the church’s graveyard:19

  1. Susan Augusta Oakley, daughter of Rev. John Oakley and Mary Oakley. Died February 24, 1832. Age 2 years, 2 months, 2 days. [white]
  2. Herbert Holmes. Died September 12, 1837, during the Solomon Moseby Affair. [Black]
  3. Jacob Green. Died September 12, 1837, during the Solomon Moseby Affair. [Black]
  4. Mary York. Died September 15, 1849. [Black]
  5. Marion Bright. Died March 10, 1850. [race unknown]
  6. William Henry Duke. Died February 25, 1852. [race unknown]
  7. James Robinson. Died January 9, 1853. [Black]
  8. Frances Hoyt. Died January 11, 1853 [Black]
  9. Charles Lewis. Died February 14, 1853. [Black]
  10. Solomon Ten Broek. Died August 19, 1853. [white]
  11. Caroline York. Died October 26, 1853. [Black]
  12. Margaret Warrs. Died 1863. Wife of Alfred Warrs. [Black]
  13. George D. Wesley, Jr. Died August 17, 1877. Age 21 years 2 months, 2 days. [Black]
  14. Warner Johnson. Died December 15, 1878. Age 69. [Black]
  15. George Wesley, Sr., Died April 5, 1893. Age 76 years. [Black]

The church closed in 1878. By this time, the Black community in Niagara had declined. The burial ground became overgrown and, by 1960, the tombstones had fallen or completely disappeared. Some reputedly found their way into local front walks and house foundations.20 A new provincial heritage plaque replaces the original 1957 plaque.21


The Ontario Heritage Trust gratefully acknowledges the research of Natasha Henry in preparing this paper.

© Ontario Heritage Trust, 2022


1 Natasha Henry, One Too Many: Enslaved Africans in Early Ontario, 1760-1834. Unpublished Dissertation (in progress), 2021.
2 The town was officially named Newark by Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe in 1792 and it was the first capital of Upper Canada (now the province of Ontario). In 1798 it was renamed Niagara. 
3 Niagara Gleaner, July 31, 1830. 
4 Niagara Gleaner, July 13, 1830.
5 Reminiscences of Niagara, Niagara Historical Society Publication No. 11; Janet Carnochan, History of Niagara (in Part). (Toronto: William Briggs,1914), p. 177; Butler, Nancy and Michael Power. Slavery and Freedom in Niagara, 1993, p. 61.
6 Slavery and Freedom, p. 61; Instrument # 9356, Lot No. 315, Deed of Transfer, December 17, 1830. Niagara Historical Society. 
7 History of Niagara, p. 177.
8 Reminiscences of Niagara, Niagara Historical Society Publication No. 11.
9 Reminiscences of Niagara, Niagara Historical Society Publication No. 11; Slavery and Freedom in Niagara, p. 62.
10 Joy Ormsby Notes on the Niagara Baptist Church in the Canadian Baptist Archives (Canada Baptist Union Minutes and Report of Annual Meetings, McMaster University Archives), Niagara Historical Society (hereafter Joy Ormsby Notes).
11 History of Niagara, pp. 176-177.
12 Dorothy Shadd Shreve, The AfriCanadian church: A Stabilizer. (Jordan Station: Paideia Press, 1983), p. 42.
13 History of Niagara, p. 206. 
14 History of Niagara, p. 177.
15 The marriage certificate of Thomas York and Mary Kitchen, signed by the Reverend Francis Lacy, Minister of the Baptist Church, Niagara. Niagara Historical Society Museum, X978.87.
16 Slavery and Freedom in Niagara, p. 62.
17 Joy Ormsby Notes. 
18 Niagara Baptist Church Returns by Rev. Francis Lacy. Niagara Historical Society, Item # 990.5.449 (1849), Item # 990.5.378 (1850), and Item # 990.5.403 (1853).
19 Niagara Baptist Church Returns by Rev. Francis Lacy. Niagara Historical Society, Item # 990.5.449 (1849), Item # 990.5.378 (1850), and Item # 990.5.403 (1853); Janet Carnochan, Inscriptions and Graves in the Niagara Peninsula. Niagara Historical Society Publication No. 10, 1910 (2nd edition), p. 34; Joy Ormsby Notes. 
20 Slavery and Freedom in Niagara, p. 64. 
21 Slavery and Freedom in Niagara, pp. 41-42, 51; Negro Burial Ground 1830 Heritage Plaque; Cemetery of escaped slaves long neglected, Globe and Mail, April 13, 1956; “Will Re-establish Negro Graveyard,” Niagara Falls Evening Review, June 18, 1960.