Hamilton Cemetery vault tells a tale of intrigue, heroism and War of 1812 history

Sunday, July 22, 2012

“Imagine,” gushes Robin McKee, “a cemetery as a destination.”

The Hamilton historian says this after guiding about 150 people through Hamilton Cemetery, which is no ordinary final resting spot.

The undulating terrain of the cemetery on York Boulevard alone drips with history, especially events key to the War of 1812.

Then there are the stories behind mute gravesites, enough romance and adventure to form the plots for a few novels.

The Land family vault, for instance, is an ornate tribute which provides a rough-hewn yarn liberally spiced with intrigue, capture and escape as well as a family broken apart by simmering British and American loyalties, then reunited in Hamilton.

McKee loves this material and his passion lights up the tour as he gives the short-form version of Robert Land’s torturous trail to Hamilton.

It’s a story which bridges the time between the American Revolution and the War of 1812, then continues with Land’s son, Colonel Robert Land Jr. and his leading military role at Queenston Heights and the Battle of Stoney Creek.

Land Sr., McKee explains, carried on espionage assignments for the British in the colony of New York during the revolution. After it, he was arrested and convicted as a traitor.

But an appeal to General George Washington got him off. Still, local vigilantes burned his home while he was absent. Seeing the blackened ruin on his return, he assumed his wife Phoebe and children had died in the blaze.

Subsequently chased by a gang of vigilantes and shot at as he ran into the forest, he left a trail of blood which convinced his pursuers he would die in the woods.

They told Phoebe he was dead. So he thought his family had all died, and his family thought he was dead. It would be nine years before they would discover otherwise.

Land made his way to what is now the Hamilton lakeshore in 1782, stopping at Fort George in Niagara to buy seed for planting.

Meantime, Phoebe and several sons and daughters sought British protection in New York, then New Brunswick.

At some point, historians speculate, she was given some reason to believe her husband was alive.

“It was huge leap of faith,” suggests McKee. “She would have had to come by ship, likely to Baltimore, then by canoe, wagon and foot.”

Phoebe first looked in the old colony of New York, where the family’s farm was resurrected by oldest son John. He would not leave and join the search.

According to Lois C. Evans’ history, Hamilton: The Story of a City, they settled in Niagara, not knowing Robert was so close. Finally, they were told of a Land who had settled by a large bay at the head of Lake Ontario.

In 1791 the family walked the 70 kilometres for a reunion McKee says can only be imagined. They had not set eyes on each other in nine years.

Whether epic romance, story of survival, or both, the Land history lives vibrantly at the cemetery.

Moreover, the Land legacy reached even further, with one of Robert’s direct descendants Evangeline Land marrying into the Lindbergh family. She was the mother of Charles Lindbergh, who made a celebrated solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927.

Another memorable story is that of Sarah Winer, which historians are trying to confirm. It’s said the 12-year-old girl rode on horseback through an American-occupied area near Thorold in 1813 to deliver the message to British commanders that their forces had defeated the Americans at Beaver Dams.

And there are the graves of James and Mary Gage, whose farm at Stoney Creek was taken over by Americans in June 1813.

A surprise middle-of-the-night raid by about 700 British army regulars, local militiamen and Iroquois warriors, who were camped on the site which Hamilton Cemetery now occupies, routed the Americans at bayonet point at the farm on June 6, 1813, sending them back toward Niagara. No American land force ever again penetrated that deep into Canada.

The area was then known as Burlington Heights and supported a population of several thousand camped in trying conditions on the rise of land between Burlington Bay and Cootes Paradise.

About 1,600 British soldiers, Native warriors and hundreds of settlers burned out of their holdings by Americans waited for an American attack on the Heights.

It never came, a point McKee keeps driving home as he explains how the British set up earthwork battlements, some perhaps based on native serpentine mounds, designed to funnel the invaders into several killing zones open to cannon and musket fire.

McKee’s next War of 1812 tour (which is free, though tips are encouraged) is Aug. 25 — but he has other tours and all touch on how the British fashioned the site to repel the Americans. See www.hamiltonhistory for other tours.

The City of Hamilton also runs tours which include the cemetery, Dundurn Castle and Hamilton Military Museum. They are scheduled for July 28, Aug. 11 and 25 as well as Sept. 15, and run from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Admission is $20. See www.hamilton.ca/museums for more information.

Special to The Hamilton Spectator

This year, Hamilton launches its bicentennial commemoration of the War of 1812, a war that shaped Canada’s identity with deep roots in the Hamilton area. This feature, with support from Tourism Hamilton and the Western Corridor Bicentennial Alliance, features destinations across the city where significant events of the 1812-1814 conflict occurred.

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