A quiet cemetery preserves centuries of history in Otterville, Ontario and has a very special connection to the Underground Railroad in Canada.
Otterville is a tiny village in the southern Ontario district of Oxford County - a village whose small size conceals a huge amount of history.
Otterville's mild climate, fine stock of timber, and easy access to transportation routes, combined with incredibly fertile farmland, made Oxford County very attractive to a diverse group of early settlers. Many of these pioneers would soon call Otterville their home. A mill, a blacksmith shop, and eventually a rail station would all come to thrive in this prosperous community but in the early years, Otterville was serving a different kind of rail network.
Among the diverse settlers of Oxford County, Ontario, were a large group of Quakers. Quakers, in both Canada and the United States, played an important role in the Underground Railroad, helping to bring enslaved African Americans to areas of greater freedom.
In 1829, just 22 years after Otterville was first settled, Quakers were actively encouraging newly arrived former slaves, as well as free African American families, to settle in the area and take advantage of the fertile land that was proving so prosperous. The newly settled community thrived and founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1856, which served residents for over 30 years.
Today, Otterville is a smaller, quieter village that seems quite removed from it's early years as an agricultural boom town. But thanks to the tireless work of local individuals and organizations like the South Norwich Historical Society, the cemetery has been preserved and restored, one of the few Underground Railroad cemeteries in Ontario to survive to the present day.
Visiting a cemetery might seem like a very peculiar and even a bit of a morbid travel activity and, in theory, I somewhat agree. Who enjoys looking at gravestones? Turns out the answer is me! There's just something so intriguing about all the history represented and I find many cemeteries to be very peaceful environments.
Otterville's African Methodist Episcopal Cemetery is no exception. Set among farmers's fields and thick woodlands, it's a beautiful, quiet, reflective spot that l suspect looks very similar to when it was first established over 150 years ago.
I love reading tombstone inscriptions and studying the carvings. They can be very elaborate in large city cemeteries but in Otterville the historical society has opted for more modest, flat tombstones to mark the location of the graves. The names which correspond to each site are long lost, and so each stone carries a simple carving of a candle.
The candle is a fitting symbol of hope and has an especially poignant connection to Otterville. Many of the former slaves who settled here would have been guided to Canada by flickering candle lights in the windows of the Underground Railroad's "stations", private homes of Quakers and other abolitionists who provided shelter and assistance. If you're interested in Underground Railroad travel, Otterville is a must-visit location.
The African Methodist Episcopal Cemetery is a testament to the incredible journey and struggles endured by the American slaves who came to Canada. It serves as a fond remembrance and tribute for their lasting legacy of community building. It's also an indirect tribute to the hospitality of the Quaker people, who often stared down serious risks to answer the call of abolitionist work and contribute the farming community that has built Oxford County up to what it is today.
Otterville's special history truly makes it one of a kind but what I liked best about my short visit is that I was reminded of how many places there are like Otterville all around the world; small towns and tiny villages with a rich historical legacy lying just below the surface.
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Our visit to Otterville was facilitated in part by Oxford County Tourism and we thank them for their support.
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