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The Olde Potter's Field - Also known as "The Stranger's Burial Ground"

Potter's Field. Maple Leaf Cemetery.
See diagram below.

When the Maple Leaf Cemetery was born in Chatham, the original 1871 bylaw told of the new Potter's Field and the details involved to place someone there. ... It states that "The portion of said cemetery lying South of Indian Creek shall be known as and called Potter's Field". It "Shall be used for the burial of such persons resident of the Town of Chatham ....... who may be unable to pay for a lot or single grave" Anyone outside of Chatham may be interred there for $1 plus the cost of opening the grave. That cost was $1 for an adult or 50 cents for a child under age of 10. Form A was very simple. "Maple Leaf Cemetery to the Superintendant. Permit the interment of the body of ........................ in the Potter's Field." The by-law states that an individual can open their own grave and save 25 cents. But it is not clear if this is the same for the Potter's Field, and since the stated cost of 75 cents does not make sense for Children we do not know what was done there. These fees seem to have gone to the caretaker, so such things may have been simply "Negotiated".

Richard Johnson Monument Close up

The cemeteries in the old town of Chatham were closed when Maple Leaf and St Anthony's Cemteries were opened outside of town boundaries for health reasons. (1871) Most of those in old cemeteries were moved to Maple Leaf and St Anthony's. People had two years to move the remains of their relatives. And word is that after that time if the remains had not been moved that the town of Chatham did the moving. The remains were then placed in Potter's Field. There were almost certainly cases where the monument was moved to the new cemetery, but the remains were not. So, then it was up to the Town to move the remains. It is known that many of the stones in the cemetery dating before the formation of the new Cemetery sit over empty graves. Relatives seem to have let the city do the difficult work in some cases. We also know that those given the job by the city to do the "Moving" did their best but not all were moved. After all, when they finally closed these cemeteries, those responsible would not know who had been moved and who had not. Where all of the graves were. etc. Their task was impossible. Some were missed. One Cemetery near the old railway bridge became a place to pasture cattle since it was fenced off. Neighbours stole the monuments, and then it was simply forgotten. (We will not go into the details of these further.) This not only happened in places like Chatham and Ridgetown. It happened in places like Dresden and Ottawa. It happened pretty much everywhere in the cities and towns when they began to realize that it was not a good idea to have burials "In town".

(We do know of course that many families certainly did move their relatives. There are mentions of how it was noticed that one lady was still smiling in her coffin, looking like she was pleased at being moved. And another in Ridgetown of how one fellow gave his relatives a last tour of the county before he took them to their new burial spot as he thought that they would like that!)

The original Potter's Field in Chatham was in the triangular field along Indian Creek Road where it crosses the Rail Road tracks. There are no markers to mark it. Although not recorded some other ditch banks seem to be used for such as well although this information was gleaned through dowsing and should not be taken as 100% proven.

Potter's Fields are a place for those (among others) to rest who simply did not have enough money to be placed in the main cemetery. Since they are a place for those who were less fortunate, they are a place of such sadness. A place of lost dreams. But we need to also realize that in many cases other folks landed here as well. Visitors who had money for a plot but had no one to buy it for them. People who died with no family members near to make arrangements. etc. And as mentioned. Some folks whose family moved the monument but not the remains. (Would you like to dig up and move the remains of your parents?) Those Visitors to town who came and subsequently died here without the money on them for burial were the likely origins of the name "The Stranger's Burial Ground". If you did not have money for a new plot when you died in those early times the only option for you was to be interred in the "Stranger's Burial Ground". For those interred here NO records were kept of their names, etc.

These fields were also a place for those who ended their own life, for criminals, and for those who came to town and were still unknown. These people should be recognized. Their final resting place should be marked. I truly believe that!

Sensing indicates that the Potter's Field in Chatham could contain as many as just under 3,000 individual burial spaces, but this is little more than a guess. (The creek not being straight for instance means that we can come very close to estimating that number but we will never know what the true number really is.) Cemetery knowledge tells us that all of those spaces are filled. And we believe that some of these spaces are double for Babies and small children. Thus it is quite possible that there are remains of larger numbers of individuals in that little triangular field when you consider how many children died then. Remains found by people like infrastructure crews prove that the remains come very close the road if not right under it.

In the diagram you will see a green rectangular area. That area seems to be smaller graves. Narrower and half length. Were these used for Babies? Were these simply skeletal remains placed in smaller spots when they were moved from other cemeteries in the city that were closed up? We will never know. (This area is an approximate location only. Not accurate to number of "Rows over" or in from creek etc.) Children's areas are VERY common in all cemeteries even today, as they were back then.

Sensing indicates that there are about 54 interments along the rail road edge. These are side by side. The burials we believe, are parallel to the road. Sensing indicates that there are 99 burials end to end along the road. Potter's Field seems to extend right over into the road way proper though we must stress this could be considered very questionable. (NOT to the center line.) It extends up virtually to the rail way tracks but not under them. The other side of course is the creek which seems to have burials right up very close to the creek edge.

Richard Johnson Monument
Unfortunately stolen by vandals in 2014.

Near the intersection of road and rail way there seems to be at least one plot where the plot is split in two end to end. Could these be plots for kids or babies? Again of course we will never know. That is quite probably the case. And it is almost certain that there are many of these scattered throughout the field.

Sensing indicates that between each row of burials is a small strip approximately one foot wide.

There is one monument stone that we know of in the field now. It is to Richard Johnston. We also know of a broken base for a stone near it. Is it the base for that stone? We have no way of knowing. Why would someone in a Potter's Field have a monument? Those interred here were not wealthy so would seldom be able to have a stone. Did the family find some funds later to purchase a monument for him and mark his last resting place? Was this a grave moved from somewhere else? It is unlikely that we will ever know. It is a close to impossible task to look for other monuments in an area this large. Thus, we will never know if there are other monuments located there. However, for a number of reasons we believe that quite unlikely. (Please note that the Johnston monument was stolen in spring of 2014 by uncaring and totally useless vandals and has not been since, so we only have photographs of it now!)

There was also a stone known to be here until about 1990 that has disappeared. It was a small monument with the words "In memory of an unknown man" and probably served as a marker for all those interred here with unmarked graves. There is also a story that it could have been the marker for a man who was killed and buried right there while riding the rails. The marker was NEVER seen tipped over from any indication that we have. So we believe that it was removed by someone on purpose. A number of conversations show that it was almost certainly stolen. If anyone ever finds information on it we would love to hear it.

Lastly we would point out that sensing (including GPR) indicates a possible similar area on the other side of the creek on the banks. Might this be another filled area? We will again, never know for sure. However, we should simply consider it to be highly suspected as such. An area where every spot is filled is certainly a very good indication of such. Also, across the road from the red brick building we have never done a lot of sensing, but it seems to reveal another possible similar area as well. We will never know for certain how extensive that the Potter's Field areas of Old Maple Leaf really are. No records were kept. There are so many unknown burials even in the main part of the cemetery. And in these areas for the less fortunate, we have nothing at all to go by.

There is one last incident that may well involve the interment of unknown individuals here. It involves one of the worst train wrecks in Canada. It took place near Jeanette's Creek at Baptiste Siding in 1854. A head on collision. This is not the place to discuss the wreck but let's just say that those on the train received terrible wounds. Historian Jim Gilbert quotes that 52 people were killed and some less reliable sources mention 10 women and 11 children included in those. Jim writes that (Quote) "Many of the dead were buried in unmarked graves in local Chatham cemeteries..." Those killed are said by legend to be now interred in Maple Leaf. One reliable source puts them in Potter's Field, and the other just behind the former caretaker's house. We should point out again that Maple Leaf was not opened until 1871. So if indeed these victims rest there today, they were buried somewhere else earlier as Jim Gilbert mentions just above, and then were moved to Maple Leaf later when the cemeteries in town were closed.

A Request

We would really like to know more about Potter's Field in Chatham's Maple Leaf. Do you by chance have an early picture of it showing any monuments? Were your relatives interred there? Do you know of any history of that area at all?

We are really hoping that some people can help us to fill in the gaps. If you can, please contact Trish at 519-351-9730 or contact via the website there is a email contact. We truly hope that some readers can provide us with information to help us to recognize these unfortunate people who were unlucky enough in their life to lie in this field.

The end.


John Skakel
Chatham Cemetery Restoration/Preservation Group

Note that the small lines in the upper left of the diagram indicate the direction of burials, etc.