Quakers in the Thirteen Colonies
During the 1770s Quakers living in North America had large families and, like many settlers at that time, found that land for younger family members was becoming scarce and expensive. So began the great westward migration.
During and after the American Revolution, Quakers found themselves in a precarious position. Both the British forces and the American rebels and were suspicious of where the Quakers’ affiliations lay, since the Quaker Testimony Against War led them to refuse to bear arms or participate in military service. The Quakers’ strong sense of community revolved around their religion, their membership in a monthly meeting, and to a hierarchy culminating in a yearly meeting.
Timothy Rogers and his Family
Timothy Rogers (1756–1834), a convinced Friend, was said to be “the best man for settling a new country.” In his journal, he articulates the evolution of his spiritual life as he visited Quaker meetings in the eastern United States. In 1795, travelling as a companion to Quaker minister Joshua Evans, Rogers visited Quaker communities in Nova Scotia and Upper and Lower Canada and met Friends in Pelham (Niagara Peninsula) and Adolphustown (on the Bay of Quinte).
Peter Hunter, the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, wanted to attract United Empire Loyalists and British veterans of the American Revolution as settlers to Upper Canada. Quakers were neither veterans nor loyalists, but Timothy Rogers convinced Hunter that they would make good settlers, and received an initial grant for forty 200-acre farms. Interestingly, under the British Militia Act of 1793, Quakers were exempt from service in the militia, but were required to pay a fine, a requirement that Quakers saw as recognition of their peace testimony.
Yonge Street Meeting
Timothy and his family were part of a group of Quakers that had moved northwards into Vermont. He had a prescient sense that the US-Canada border was not safe and he understood Friends’ need for more land and security. He convinced his wife Sarah that they should move their family of eight children north up the line (now Yonge Street) in Upper Canada to what would become Newmarket (in Whitchurch and East and West Gwillinbury).
They travelled in winter, arriving in May 1801 with the necessities for starting pioneer life: oxen, horses, seed, tools, guns (for hunting game), cooking pots, bedding, clothing, and more. To keep a 200-acre land grant a family had to build a cabin and clear the roadway in front: clearing land, building a one-room log house, and planting crops was the first order of business. A gristmill to grind wheat and a sawmill to mill lumber were soon erected on the Holland River east of Yonge Street.
These new settlers had the skills necessary for a community, and more Quakers followed from Pennsylvania. That same year Timothy took his certificate of removal from his meeting in Vermont to Pelham Monthly Meeting.
Yonge Street Meeting and Friends Burying Ground
The first meetings for worship at Yonge Street were in cabins, but as the community grew the need for a meeting house soon became apparent. Yonge Street Meeting was set off from Pelham Monthly Meeting in 1806. Three daughters of Timothy Rogers—Hannah, Mary, and Lydia—had married the three sons of Wing Rogers, and in 1807 Asa and Mary Rogers sold a parcel of land on the west side of Yonge Street to the Yonge Street Meeting.
Tragedy struck this Quaker community in 1808–09 in the form of an epidemic that, combined with malnutrition, measles, influenza, and tuberculosis, took more than thirty lives in the community. Timothy and his wife Sarah lost their five married daughters with some of their husbands and children. The first parcel of land acquired by Yonge Street Meeting was used for a burying ground.
The wooden markers and field stones that likely marked those graves are long gone. The Yonge Street meeting house, constructed in 1810–12 on a second parcel of land adjacent to the burying ground, is still in use today by Yonge Street Monthly Meeting. The original plans specified a larger building, but with so many deaths the dimensions were reduced. Meanwhile, Timothy Rogers had moved with his younger children to Duffin’s Creek in Pickering Township in yet another stage of his expansionist plans.
Yonge Street Friends Burial Ground in the 21st Century
Ownership of the Burial Ground eventually passed to the Yonge Street Monthly Meeting Progressives (Botsford Friends Church). In 1980, when the Botsford Meeting was laid down and the Botsford Meeting House (Newmarket) sold, the Burial Ground was transferred to Canadian Yearly Meeting (CYM).
Today the Yonge Street Friends Burial Ground is owned by the CYM Board of Trustees. The Yonge Street Friends Burial Ground Committee (appointed by CYM Trustees) cares for the maintenance of the cemetery and grounds, with an administrator (currently Evelyn Schmitz-Hertzberg) responsible for the business affairs, subject to the Bereavement Authority of Ontario. The Burial Ground remains an open cemetery for the use of members and regular attenders of the Religious Society of Friends and their immediate family members. Quakers may purchase lots for interment of coffins or urns, and there is also a Scattering Ground for cremains.
Preserving Quaker Grave Markers
The material and design of Quaker grave markers went through many changes through the last two centuries. The earliest extant markers in the Burial Ground—the “old whites” dating back to 1820—are simple limestone slabs 12–15 inches high, 12 inches wide, and 2 inches thick. The first granite stones appeared in 1910.
One problem compounding the early lack of markers is that, prior to the 1966 Ontario Cemeteries Act (which specifies record keeping for all burials), the records for the Yonge Street Friends Burial Grounds do not indicate interment locations! This lack of precise detail lends a sense on anonymity to the individuals buried there. David Newlands noted that pioneer Friends “put emphasis on Friends community as the focus of life. The close kinship ties in the meetings were the web that supported the strong emphasis on the community. In a real sense the Friends community experienced in a corporate sense the death of a member, with the realization that was the fate of all being shared by the community in worship.”[i]
The limestone grave markers worn down by age and air pollution have been further damaged by frost as the soil heaves and settles. Some stones have been broken or even removed by vandals. Other older gravestones are missing bases (keys) and lean over from lack of support; still others fell and slowly disappeared under the sod. Mowing the grass (done since the 1900s with social pressure for park-like grounds) can chip the edges of the stones, letting in moisture that causes the stones to crack. Cement used for repairs also interacts negatively with the limestone.
The Restoration Project
Under its mandate for care and maintenance of the cemetery—including the historic stones—the Yonge Street Friends Burial Ground Committee has undertaken a restoration project using the services of Tom Klaasen (of Memorial Restorations Inc., Sarnia, Ontario), a recognized specialist in the care and restoration of gravestones and monuments.[ii] His work for the first phase of the project, completed in November 2020, was excellent. The second phase will begin in the spring of 2021. Some fundraising has already been done: the Committee has received funding from the Samuel Rogers Memorial Trust and the A.S. Rogers Trust Fund. The Canadian Yearly Meeting Trustees continue to support this work, but additional contributions are needed. Those who would like to support this project can make tax-deductible donations by cheque, payable to “Canadian Yearly Meeting” with “Yonge Street Friends Burial Ground” (or “YSFBG”) on the memo line. Please mail donations to the CYM Office, 91A Fourth Ave, Ottawa, ON K1S 2L1.
More about the Yonge Street Friends Burial Ground can be found on their website, https://quaker.ca/ysfbg/.
Evelyn Schmitz-Hertzberg, February 2021
Yonge Street Friends Burial Ground Committee
[i] David L. Newlands, “Gone but not Forgotten: Quaker Burial Grounds and Grave Markers in Central Ontario,” Canadian Quaker History Journal, 2010.