Are We There Yet?

I’m sure that friends and acquaintances are getting rather tired of us harping on about our pending departure for French River. More than one eye-roll has indicated the general feeling mirrors Lady Macbeth’s command to: stand not upon the order of your going, but go!

It is funny – both haha and odd – that where once we would pack our bags and in some excitement head to the airport to journey around the world we are just as excite these days about a 65 minute car ride from home. Is it the pandemic that has elicited this reaction? Or is it perhaps weariness, after many years, of long distance travel? Whatever the reason we’ll be on our way tomorrow to one of our favourite spots on the Island: French River and Yankee Hill.

The village of French River – two more kilometres and you’re in Yankee Hill.
Photo: uncredited

So what are we going to do up there for two weeks? Well Sunday we head over to the Indian River Festival for a concert and then dinner with friends at Sou’West, a favourite in the area. Another evening we’re going to the Watermark Theatre over in North Rustico for The Gin Game. While we there at the cottage we’ll be celebrating our 14th wedding anniversary with a BBQ with our friends Pico and Don. And our Lori, Cathleen, and Nora have promised to come up and explore the Yankee Hill Cemetery and have lunch at O’Neil’s, another favourite. A trip down to Holman’s Ice Cream Parlor in Summerside is mandatory for whatever ice cream treat they’ve whipped up that day. And I’m pretty sure there are hamburgers with our names on them at Backwoods Burger over in Tyne Valley. Plans are afoot to explore a bit Up-West and make a trip over to Lennox Island First Nation and possibly a bit further up the western end of the Island which we have yet to explore.

Other than that there is the sandy beach that stretches from the mouth of the French River to the Gulf. (A left click here will take you to a short video) Only the locals use it during the week and even on weekends 10 or 12 people is a crowd. And should it rain well I picked up two books to read. The Temptation of Forgivenes, the latest Donna Leon mystery – her 27th – will give me a chance to get reacquainted with Commisario Guido Brunetti, one of my favourite detectives. New London, the Lost Dream recounts the history of the Quaker settlement that was established in 1773 on the very spot we are staying at. It is a largely unknown bit of Island history.

And then there is the possibility of just sitting on the deck at the cottage sipping an iced tea (yes I’m still on the wagon) and watching the changing backdrop of an Island sky behind the New London Rear Lighthouse.

The New London Rear Lighthouse from Yankee Hill.
Photo: W. Bruce Stewart.

The threat of Hurricane Elsa seems to have passed us by – some wind, driving rain, thunder and lightening – and as I write this it looks like it’s clearing. The forecast for the next little while suggests a typical Island summer – sun, the odd rain shower, hotish days and cool nights.

Okay! Okay! We aren’t standing on any order and we’re going! We’re going!

The word for July 9th is:
Vacation /vāˈkāSH(ə)n,vəˈkāSH(ə)n/: [1. noun 2. verb]
1.1 An extended period of leisure and recreation, especially one spent away from home or in travelling.
1.2 The action of leaving something one previously occupied.
2.1 To take a vacation.
2.2 To leave something one previously occupied.
Late Middle English: from Old French, or from Latin vacatio(n- ), from vacare ‘be unoccupied’.

The Stones on Yankee Hill – III

So finally I get around to actually taking you into the Yankee Hill Cemetery. It’s only been three years since I took the pictures! It was a sunny warm September day and the dappled light through the trees gave – me at least – the feeling of a Georgian novel. There was a touch of Byronic romanticism that you could picture on a threatening day suddenly turning Gothically sinister and on a moonless night downright frightening.

Given the machinations of Captain MacKay it was necessary to find a new burial site for the good folk of Yankee Hill and the surrounding area. The land that John Cameron gave in 1810 for the log chapel was large enough to accommodate a graveyard. The small chapel (barely six metres square) was to serve the largely Presbyterian congregation of an extended area from Cavendish across the bay* to Park Corner. It can be assumed the original graveyard was of a considerable size though it’s exact boundaries are unknown. It was however situation on a pleasant hill with an aspect to the dunes beyond.

There appears to be no existing records of the early burials but there are 23 known memorials indicating the resting places of 27 souls from the area. The earliest marker remembers the death of Robert William Cundall in 1828 and the latest gravestone dates from 1904 with the passing of James W. Cousins.

The first stones on the path in are for Ann and Andrew McPherson and at the foot of their graves is a small marker that commemorates AMcP. Unfortunately nothing else is decipherable on the remnants of the stone – perhaps it is one of their children?

Behind the McPherson’s is a stone marking the resting place of George McLeod who was 4 years old when his family emigrated from Sutherlandshire in Scotland to PEI. Many of the other McLeod’s in the area came from the same area so he is possibly related to one or two of the McLeods buried in the cemetery.

A rather unusual table memorial separates his stone from what would appear to be a family plot for the McLeod clan. Unfortunately exposure to the elements has rendered the inscription illegible.

There is at least two grave widths between the headstone for the elder Hugh McLeod (1845) and that of Nancy (1869) and her husband Hugh (1866) which would suggest there are other family members whose headstones have gone missing.

The final resting place of John and Mary Cousins and several of their children and grand children.

A row of six gravestones mark the resting place of several branches of the Cousins family who held land in the French River area. John Cousins (1840) came to PEI in 1785 as an Empire Loyalist after the American Revolution. His family had been Huguenots from Normandy and the original spelling of the name was Couzens. After settling in Park Corner he married Mary Townsend (1850) in 1786. In 1775 when she was seven she had come with her family on Robert Clark’s ill-fated venture to found a New London. Cousins was one of the largest landowners in the region with over seven hundred acres.

The rather odd phrase “relic of” is used to indicate that Mary had been the surviving spouse of John. It also appears on the grave stone of Catherine McKay. It is a unisex term simply meaning “survivor of” and could be used for a widow or widower.

James, the son of William and Mary, is the last recorded burial in the cemetery in October 1904. He had been postmaster at Park Corner for many years. From the inscription on his stone it would appear that he had suffered for a long time from a unnamed aliment.

Several of the stones bear the maiden names of the wives – something that I would have thought unusual for the time. However a bit of research revealed that in Scotland it was a common practice until recently for a married women to be known formally, if not necessarily in everyday life, by their original surnames after marriage. It was a form of recognizing your birth clan. The custom carried over to memorials and tombstones.

Robert William Cundall Esq (1828)
& his son Thomas (1831)

Robert William Cundall settled in Park Corner and married Penelope Bassett the daughter of a landowner in the area. On her father’s death she inherited a share of Lot 20. Cundall died in 1828 at the age of 49 – his marker is the oldest of the existing stones. His oldest son Thomas died three years later in a drowning accident at the age of 13. According to the note in the graveyard the second son William took over the running of the family properties when his father died??? He would have been at the most eight or nine at the time so you do have to question that statement????

Though the log chapel was abandoned in 1836-37 burials were to continue for another 67 years. As time passed the chapel rotted away – though until recently there were locals who recall playing “fort” on the stone foundation and amongst the few remaining wooden crosses and toppling tombstones. The area became overgrown and as happens nature took back the land. However in 1971 a volunteer group cleared both Yankee Hill and Sims Cemeteries and in 1973, PEI Centennial year, they were declared memorials and Provincial historical sites.

Hopefully the damaged caused by Dorian will be cleared away and it will be possible to once again cross the wooden bridge and experience a glimpse of the stories of the lives, loves, achievements and families of that corner of our Island.

Most of the historical information concerning individuals was provided by the object labels at the Cemetery.

The word for August 25th is:
Relic /ˈrelik/: [noun]
1.1 An object surviving from an earlier time, especially one of historical or sentimental interest.
1.2 A part of a deceased holy person’s body or belongings kept as an object of reverence.
1.3 An object, custom, or belief that has survived from an earlier time but is now outmoded.
1.4 (archaic) The surviving partner of a marriage i.e. widow or widower.

The Stones on Yankee Hill – II

On our visit to the area in September 2017 Doug and Pierre asked if we wanted to see two old cemeteries in the area. They didn’t have to ask twice – and we made our way first to the Sims Field Pioneer Cemetery and then across the road to the Yankee Hill Cemetery. Two cemeteries on either side of what was a country road, one now hidden in an overgrown grove of trees. But why two cemeteries so close together? As so often happens here on the Island it was a dispute over land.

In the Island land lottery of 1767 Lot 21 was granted to the McLaine brothers and in 1773 Robert Clark, a London merchant and Quaker, had bought it with the hope of setting up a lumber and trading centre. The first settlers (according to Clark many of whom were repentant sinners seeking a new life) arrived on Clark’s ship the Elizabeth in 1774 and founded the settlement of Elizabethtown and the broader New London area. Though the brig was a sturdy vessel equipped to withstand the winter extremes the settlers were not. It is thought that perhaps Clark had painted a brighter picture than what they found and the existence of the Old Cemetery (Sims Field) in 1774 would suggest that many did not survive that first winter. And sadly the Elizabeth proved not quite as sea-worthy and sank the next year. The settlement was soon abandoned and very little trace was left other than the cemetery and a street name.

Inspector of Highways J. B. Palmer drew this map of Capt Mackay’s proposed change to the existing straight road to Malpeck. B is the old cemetery (now known as Sims Field Pioneer Cemetery). The new road was to fork to the south of his property and go by the New Chapel (1810) ending somewhat short of the Ferry dock.
Map is currently in the Provincial Archives

In 1809 Captain William Mackay bought 615 1/2 acres of land from the Clark family. The sale allowed community access, under the High Road Law, on the road to Malpeck (Princetown Road) that ran through his property to New London Bay. Mackay almost immediately began to annoy his neighbours by blocking the road denying them access to the Old Cemetery (Sims Field Pioneer Cemetery), their new chapel, the public ferry dock and shipping facilities at the harbour. MacKay proposed a road that skirted his property and would have proved totally impractical for wagons and carriages. The matter went as far as the Governor and a full report was made that strongly favoured the community and suggested that the barriers be removed. But Mackay had his revenge – his neighbours kept their right of way but were not allowed to enter his property to bury their dead at the Old Burial Ground.

In his report the Inspector of Highways J. B. Palmer does imply that some of the community’s animosity may have also stemmed from MacKay’s earlier refusal to donate land for the building of a chapel. It had fallen to John Cambridge, Clark’s land agent, to donate a plot on the crest of Yankee Hill for the construction of a small log chapel in 1810. It was to serve the staunchly Presbyterian residents of New London, Cavendish (!) and Park Corner as a place of worship for the next 25 years until Geddie Memorial was build in nearby Springbrook. In 1836 the chapel was abandoned and fell into disrepair and decay. There is only approximate knowledge of where it was located on the site.

The Yankee Gale – George Thresher (1780-1857)
Oil on canvas – 1851
Confederation Centre of the Arts

I mentioned previously that the name Yankee Hill is attributed to the area being a home base for the American mackerel fishing boats that plied the rich waters of the Gulf of St Lawrence. Witnessing some of the destruction of Hurricane Dorian brought to mind one of the worst natural disasters in Island history: the Yankee Gale in October of 1851. For two days the winds buffeted and the seas swept over and sank some 120 vessels. It is estimated that as many as 250 sailors perished in the storm – many of them “Yankees”. Local people rescued the survivors and gathered the dead. All along the north shore of the Island, from Tignish to East Point local cemeteries became the final resting place for many of these sailors. It is thought that at least 25 American sailors were buried at Yankee Hill though their grave makers, possibly being simple anonymous wooden crosses, are not amongst the 23 grave markers that have survived storms, been overtaken by nature and the elements, now most recently Hurricane Dorian.

Again this entry has turned out a little longer than I expected however in the next (and last, I promise) post I’ll share photos of those markers and a few anecdotes about the people they eulogize.

NB: Much of the historical information I have included comes from an article by Chester B. Stewart in the Island Magazine published by the PEI Museum and Heritage Foundation. Roadblock 1810 is a treasure trove of anecdotes and facts that paint a colourful picture of life in the early days of settlement here in PEI.

The word for July 11 is:
Gale /ɡāl/: [noun]
1.1 A very strong wind
1.2 A burst of sound, especially of laughter.
Mid 16th century: perhaps related to Old Norse galinn ‘mad, frantic’.
Interesting that the U. S. National Hurricane Centre gives the figures for “gale force winds” as being between 61 km/h; 17 m/s; 38 mph and 117 km/h; 32 m/s;72 mph. We’ve experienced a few of those over the past four years.

The Stones on Yankee Hill – I

I had started a post on the Cemetery at Yankee Hill back in September 2017 after our first visit there with our friends Pierre and Douglas. A day trip to the area in June and our recent staycation close to the site had me revisiting the photos and text with an eye to finally getting around to posting it. Turns out that it will be a two three parter.

Strangely the damage to Prince Edward Island caused by Hurricane Dorion in September of last year went largely unreported except in the local media. The storm hit the North Shore with particular force and it is estimated that in the Cavendish area 80 percent of the trees suffered damage from the high winds and the storm surge eroded 2-3 metres (6-7 feet) of the coast line. We had seen some evidence of it when going through the National Park but got a close up look as we tried to make our way to Yankee Hill Cemetery in June.

Entire stands of trees had been uprooted – particularly birch trees – older or diseased trees had been snapped like twigs and the pathway to the Cemetery was completely blocked. The area was dotted with what a local called “widow makers” – half felled trees precariously supported by other trees bending under their weight. It was difficult to tell if any of the 24 headstones had been damaged or what the current state of the cemetery was. Any attempt to find out would have been both arduous and dangerous.

There had been no sign of any attempts to clear the area and the damage suggested that it would be a big job. From Spring to Fall the Cemetery is cared for under the Island Young Offenders programme administered by a volunteer Board in Summerside. However this was a dangerous job which would need to be done by professionals. Given the isolation of the site and what appeared to be restrictive access we wondered if anything could or would be done.

Two weeks ago we had a conversation with the gentlemen who owns the cemetery as an extension of his property – from what I could understand he holds it in trust as a Provincial Historical Site (though I could stand corrected on the exact legalities of all that). He is an archaeologist and was happy to have trusteeship of the site. The good folks at Provincial Tourism had surveyed the site and work was to start on clearing the damage at the end of July. Apparently there is an access route into the site. He also confirmed that, miraculously, none of the existing stones had been damaged.

In the second part (scheduled for Tuesday) I’ll revisit the photos we took in 2017 and share a brief history of one of the more unusual cemeteries I’ve visited over the years.

The word for August 7th is:
Cemetery /ˈsɛmɪtri/: [noun]
A large burial ground, especially one not in a churchyard.
Late Middle English: via late Latin from Greek koimētērion ‘dormitory’ or ‘sleeping place’, from koiman ‘put to sleep’.
I had not realized that a cemetery was not the burial ground attached to a church – that, logically when I stop and think about it, is a graveyard. As burial in the church yard became unsustainable new burial places, independent of the church, appeared—and these were called cemeteries.

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