Monday, August 3, 2015

The Queen's Bush Settlement

African British Methodist Episcopal Cemetery, Peel, Wellington, Ontario
At the side of a gravel road northwest of Elmira, Ontario sits a row of weathered and broken gravestones. This cemetery has suffered not only from the ravishes of time and vandalism, but also from misguided attempts to repair the stones. While similar to many other small cemeteries in Southern Ontario, the African British Methodist Episcopal Cemetery is unique in that it is all that remains of the Queen's Bush Settlement, once the largest Black settlement in Canada West (Ontario), and the first to which fugitive slaves from the United States migrated in large numbers.

In the early 19th century the unsettled area between Guelph and Lake Huron was known as the "Queen's Bush." Starting about 1820, hundreds of free and formerly enslaved Blacks established farms north of the Conestoga River in an area which eventually became the southwestern part of Peel Township in Wellington, County.

John Little, who settled in the area in 1842, described his experience:
Then we marched right into the wilderness, where there were thousands of acres of woods which the chain had never run around since Adam. At night we made a fire, and cut down a tree, and put up slats like a wigwam. This was in February, when the snow was two feet deep.
Families who had recently fled slavery fared the worst for they had no resources to purchase even the simplest tools, and hunger was their constant companion. Black settlers often had to borrow farms implements, or work for more affluent white settlers to the south.

Thomas Smallwood, a Black abolitionist who visited in 1843, wrote:

They had to go fifteen miles out into the settlements, and there work for the farmers, a fortnight, to get provision sufficient to enable them to work one week in clearing their own land. And, while I was there, they were making their three meals a day on potatoes and salt.
Even clothing was in short supply. Reverend Melville Denslow of the Wesleyan Methodist Church, wrote:
There is a great destitution of clothing among these new settlers. Some of the children are naked — others with a shirt or pair of pantaloons, may be frequently seen. Bedding is very scarce, but the free use of wood serves in a measure as a substitute.
Despite these hardships a vibrant settlement developed with four churches and two schools. The children were taught by American abolitionist missionaries, who were also involved in the solicitation and distribution of clothing to new arrivals.

Sadly, the Queen's Bush Settlement only lasted a few years. Because Peel Township was not surveyed until 1843, the land was not available for purchase. Black settlers squatted as did many white families. In 1848 the settlers were given the opportunity to purchase their land, however, most lacked the resources to do so. As a result, many abandoned their farms. A few families, however, were able to stay.

Rev. Samuel Brown
One of several denominations active in the Queen’s Bush was the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), first organized in Philadelphia in 1816. In 1844 Reverend Samuel H. Brown of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) was assigned to the Queen's Bush, and settled on Lot 16, Concession 4 in Peel Township. The AME was first organized in Philadelphia in 1816. In 1856 the Canadian congregations amicably split from the AME and became the British Methodist Episcopal Church (BME).

Born in Maryland about 1798, Reverend Brown was an inspiring preacher and a leader in the AME and later the BME. A church was erected on his farm and a cemetery established in the churchyard. In 1862, his church boasted 165 members and 65 children in Sunday School. Reverend Brown formally transferred the land to BME Church in 1877. Services at the BME church continued until about 1918. The last burial occurred in 1924, and the church building was removed in 1934.

Priscilla Brown
Reverend Brown died in 1881. His gravestone is in three pieces, however, at some point a misguided attempt was made to repair the stone by bolting the three pieces to steel bars. Also in several pieces is the gravestone of his first wife, Priscilla, who died in 1853 at the age of 67.

It is unfortunate that so many of the stones at the African British Methodist Episcopal Cemetery have been badly damaged. A 1979 transcription records at least two gravestones for former slaves: Jacob Steward and Vincent Douglass. Jacob Steward was born in Maryland about 1808. He married Mary Ann Knox in Canada in 1847. His broken gravestone is now almost unreadable, while that of his wife is marred by two rusty steel bars bolted to the front.

Mary Ann Steward
Vincent Douglass was born into slavery in Virginia about 1791. He and his wife, Martha, and their children, Charles, Maria, Vincent and Agnes, escaped and fled to Canada shortly after the birth of Agnes in 1838. Another son, Albert, was born in 1845. Vincent died in 1877 at the age of 86.

Despite it's importance to African Canadian history, the story of the Queen's Bush Settlement was largely unknown until the 2004 publication of Linda Brown-Kubisch's book on the subject. And while the cover of her book shows a pioneer cemetery, it is not the African British Methodist Episcopal Cemetery, but the nearby Olivet Cemetery, established in the late 1850s by English and Scottish immigrants.


Brown-Kubisch, Linda. 2004. The Queen's Bush Settlement: Black Pioneers 1839-1865. Natural Heritage Books, Toronto.

"The Queen's Bush Settlement, 1820-1867." 2008. Web. 3 Aug. 2015. 

Mountjoy, Max, ed. 1999. Portraits of Peel: Attiwandaronk to Mapleton. Peel History Committee.