Bidwell Lore – Farewell to Barnabas

Welcome to week 33 of Bidwell Lore! This week we say good-bye to Barnabas Bidwell and his fascinating life (at least for now) with a delightful guest post from local historian Bernard Drew.

Searching for Barnabas Bidwell’s grave in Ontario

by Bernard A. Drew

Barnabas Bidwell, while simultaneously serving as Berkshire County treasurer (1791-1810) as well as state and federal legislator, was frequently out of town. He left clerks in charge of the treasurer’s office in Lenox, which proved a mistake, as we learned in a recent essay here by Rick Wilcox. There were fiscal irregularities and Bidwell was blamed by political opponents. He had supporters, though, including the publisher of the Pittsfield Sun, Phinehas Allen, who wrote in the 29 August 1810 issue: “If anything would heighten our detestation of the meanness and hypocrisy of federalism, it would be the present ungenerous, we may say dastardly language of the federal papers, with regard to the criminal conduct of Barnabas Bidwell. They endeavor to make the people believe that they are cheated out of their money, when they well know that Bidwell scarce owes anything even to the County of Berkshire, and has left a large property behind him….”

Bidwell took refuge in Upper Canada (Ontario) in 1810. His spouse, Mary Gray Bidwell, had died two years earlier at age 44. His son, Marshall Spring Bidwell (1799-1872), had lived there since before the War of 1812. Bidwell settled in Kingston, Frontenac County, which would become the first capital of the Province of Canada in 1841.

Bidwell made a fresh start. He taught at Ernest Town Academy in Bath, then moved to Kingston to assist in his son’s law practice. He was elected to the Provincial Assembly in 1821 as a reform candidate. In these years, Canada was still a British colony; national independence would come in 1867. Bidwell’s political rivals charged he had moved to Upper Canada with the mission of taking a message to “illiterate natives,” to clear the way for takeover by President James Madison and U.S. forces. Opponents dredged up the old embezzlement charge and screamed he was an alien in that northern land. He wasn’t a naturalized citizen. You get the drift. The election results were voided. Bidwell never held further public office. He died in Kingston in 1833.

One panel of Mary Gray Bidwell’s grave marker in Stockbridge Cemetery reads: “Barnabas Bidwell Born Aug. 23, 1863 Died July 27, 1833. Is buried in Kingston, Canada.” My wife Donna and I often visited Kingston when our youngest daughter, Darcie, attended Queen’s University, on the chilly edge of Lake Ontario. On one trip we looked up the Bidwell grave.

Bidwell is interred in Cataraqui Cemetery, said to be the oldest continuously active public cemetery in Canada. Donna and I navigated through a side entrance off Sydenham Road, followed the serpentine driveway and parked at the administrative office.

“Hi, we’re from Massachusetts”, I said. “We’d like to find the grave of someone who was born where we’re from.”

“Cataraqui Cemetery covers 91 acres”, responded Craig Boals, director of operations, “and has 27,000 stones.”
“We’re looking for Barnabas Bidwell. He’s on a list of famous people buried here”, Donna offered, hoping we didn’t have to scour the grounds looking at all 27,000 stones.
Boals’ eyes brightened at the name Bidwell. “When the first premier of the country is buried here, everyone else is simply ‘notable’,” He said with a smile.

Administrative assistant Alison Cadue located a spiral-bound cemetery guide and photocopied a page from “Tour Stop 64”: Barnabas Bidwell Lot 57, Section Old E. Boals warned us the stone was lying flat to the ground. Taking its present-day form in 1850 with a design by Frederick Cornell, the garden cemetery is modeled on Boston’s Mount Auburn. Bidwell at his death, according to the guide book page, was first put to earth elsewhere, then was moved here.
It took a search, but we found Bidwell’s stone. His name was invisible, the lettering high on the flat stone covered by 6 inches of creeping sod. Working with a Swiss army knife and a makeshift pine bough broom, we cleared roots away sufficient to read the inscription. (I gather from descendants in the Berkshires, including Rick Wilcox of Great Barrington and Paula Leuchs Moats and her mother, Marie Bidwell Leuchs, of Monterey, that Berkshire family members haven’t been to Kingston in a long time.)

The author at Barnabas Bidwell’s gravestone

The epitaph reads: “Barnabas Bidwell son of the Reverend Adonijah and Jemima Bidwell was born at Tyringham, Mass. Aug. 12, 1763 Died at Kingston Up Can July 27 1833 and was buried here. To his memory this stone is erected by his son Marshall S. Bidwell.” The last words suggest it wasn’t always a flat stone. Marshall, after a squabble over his eligibility, was elected to the Parliament of Upper Canada in 1824 and became assembly speaker in 1828. He served until 1836. He eventually left the country over his own “scandal” and lived in Albany for many years.

Our mission accomplished, we seized the opportunity to inspect the nearby grave of Sir John A. MacDonald (1815-1891), Canada’s first prime minister beginning with its independence until 1873, then again 1878 to 1887. His grave was a simple stone cross. (We don’t “collect” political graves, but a few years earlier we toured the birth home and museum of Canada’s 12th prime minister, Louis Saint Laurent [1882-1973] in Compton, Quebec, when our older daughter Jessie, was a student at Bishop’s University in Lennoxville in that province.)

            That’s a quick excursion into Canadian history.
            Puisqu’il s’agit du Canada bilingue, je devrais peut-être le répéter en français?  Non.

This essay is adapted from my “Our Berkshires” column in The Berkshire Eagle, 14 September 2013. Another version appeared in the Whig Standard (Kingston), 26 March 2014

Next week, before we begin talking about some other notable Bidwells, we will switch gears a bit and begin an 8-week series in Bidwell Lore about the Native peoples of the Berkshires to coincide with our Zoom lecture series, Hidden in Plain Sight: Native Peoples and the Struggle to Recover Their History in New England. For more information about those lectures, head to our Events page HERE.