Silent as the Grave: A Forgotten Quaker Burial Ground

by Neal Burdick | April 2023, History

Illustration by Gwen Jamison Vogel

At the start, a stone. Nothing more. No name, no dates of birth and death, no relations. No gender. No one will ever know whose DNA mingles with the earth beneath, who lived a life now gone to dust, how long ago. 

Only a stone, leaning, broken, jagged top, lichen creeping up its slender sides. Winter after winter, frost forces it another fraction of an inch off center. One stone among many in a nearly forgotten cemetery populated by scattered, neglected stones.

This is the Quaker Burying Ground—Quakers’ preferred term—at the corner of Union Road and Brown Road in the town of Ausable. The Adirondack Park’s boundary coincides with Brown Road, scarcely more than a paved farm lane; one can stand in the Burying Ground and throw a pebble over its chipped and rusted iron fence, out of the park. Eastward lies a huge dairy farm, a relative newcomer to the scene. To the north, cornfields, apple orchards, Adirondack uplands sloping toward Canada. West, more farms—family farms—then woods, then Huckleberry Mountain and, beyond, in the distance, Whiteface.

The humble, plain-living Quakers who lie buried here rejected displays of vanity and so kept death, as they had life, as simple and unemotional as possible. The first who were buried here may not have even so much as a stone to mark their eternal resting spot. No one will ever know. There are no records. Because at the start they interred their dead in rows by date—not by family plot, because all were of one family—it is reasonable to assume the first burials occurred in the bumpy northeast corner of the small square parcel. Today, that ground is rough, uneven, hard to mow of grasses, mosses, clover, devil’s paintbrush, cornflowers, timothy. It is impossible to know whose bones are where. 

Nor can one say when the first burial took place. The first Quakers arrived in the valley of the Little Ausable River between what are now Keeseville and Peru in 1789, some executing a perilous crossing of Lake Champlain ice. One, William Keese, had been hired to survey the area into 425-acre lots by Zephaniah Platt, who had been paid in land for his service in the American Revolution. He in turn offered Keese, a Quaker from the Hudson Valley, Keese’s choice of lots at an advantageous price. Keese, having come to know the parcels intimately, chose one of the most fertile, in a partially forested level plain bounded by the river, the lake and the foothills of the Adirondacks—with no apparent qualms that a religious denomination known for its opposition to war should benefit from association with a war hero. Quakers were also known for peaceful relations with their Indigenous neighbors, but no one seemed to care that a “lodge of Indians” (Platt’s words), possibly Abenakis, already occupied the woods and meadows that the newcomers appropriated, paced off and carved into lots. 

Over time, the settlement became known as the Quaker Union, grew and prospered. Several families migrated north with Keese and his extended family, intermarried and multiplied. Non-Quakers were welcomed. At one point the community is said to have numbered close to 400, with homes, farms, sawmills, a tannery, a school, a store and post office, two meeting houses (the Quaker term for churches), and at least one tavern, which the abstemious Quakers tolerated but did not patronize. Or so it has been told.

As the years passed and the Union’s Quakers became more concerned with memorializing their forebears, or perhaps just more worldly, their markers in the Burying Ground became more elaborate, less inscrutable. One can trace this evolution by wandering the plot.

“C D / 1 x 0 / 1825” 

“A.H. / Aged 99 Years”  

“Martha Sherman / Died 12m 4th 1839”

No one knows the identity of “C D” and “1 x 0” will likely forever remain a mystery, but diligent research may one day reveal who the unusually elderly “A.H.” was. Martha Sherman’s stone, while giving future generations more to go on, retains the Quaker “plain language” popular among the sect in those times: foreswearing what they judged the months’ pagan names, they substituted innocuous numbers. And so we know Martha Sherman died December 4, 1839. But we cannot tell when she was born, how long she lived, whether she was a spouse, a mother or grandmother.

Names on the stones reveal how the devout Quakers chose their children’s names in those days. Many came from the Bible: 

ELIHU H. HOAG / BORN / 9 MO. 16, 1814 / Died 8 MO. 5, 1905”

“ABEDNEGO RICKETSON / BORN / FEB. 22nd 1810, / DIED / Feb. 26th 1883”

“ESTHER R. HALLOCK / DIED” [stone broken, no further information]

“JEMIMA HALLOCK / Wife of / JAMES RICKETSON / DIED Sept. 6, 1879 / Ag 79 yrs & 6 ms.”

Elihu (ee-LYE-hew): Hebrew, He is my God; the comforter of Job, the biblical prototype of suffering. Abednego: servant of wisdom. Esther: from Persian, possibly a derivative of Ishtar, star. Jemima: Hebrew for little dove, bright as day.

This is who these people were.

The stones offer splintered facts, partial dispassionate resumes. But they do not tell stories.

“CATHERINE R. KEESE / Wife of / SAMUEL KEESE / Died 3rd Mo. 27, 1860 / Aged 54 Yrs.”

They do not tell that Catherine Keese was the first woman allowed into Dannemora prison to minister to the spiritual needs of its inmates, or how difficult the trip must have been, 19 miles out of the Quakers’ sheltered valley, up the flank of a forbidding mountain upon which perched an even more forbidding facade, thick and solid. Or how she was received by cynical guards who were suspicious of a woman in a long drab dress and black bonnet, intoning with kindness the words of an alien religion to men, only men­—murderers and rapists and thieves who had no hope of ever being free, who knew they would die within those walls.

STEPHEN K. SMITH / DIED / OCT. 12 1894 / IN HIS 89th YEAR.”

And they do not tell that Stephen Keese Smith endured a life of tragedies—fires; financial reversals; the death of his father, by drowning in an icy mill pond, when he himself was barely on the cusp of adulthood; the death of his first wife—yet became a conductor and station agent on the Underground Railroad, over several years helping untold numbers of runaways on their flight to Canada and freedom. Or that he was never caught in the act despite the prying eyes of a neighbor who coveted the reward money the Fugitive Slave Act promised those who captured a runaway or divulged anyone who aided them. Or that as a women’s rights advocate he was instrumental in bringing fellow Quaker Susan B. Anthony to Clinton County to speak. 

In later years, the stones became more elaborate; symbolic of other divisions within the community, burials became oriented around families, not dates. Elihu Hoag stands out on a monument, a smooth obelisk some 15 feet tall, with the names of several family members etched into it. We might imagine his Hoag forebears, among the first to arrive in the Union, turning over in their graves, if we knew just where they are.

By this time, more non-Quakers were finding their final destination in the Burying Ground’s thin, sandy soil. Their stones are of higher quality, with artwork and perhaps a message, anathema to the dour Quakers of old:

BERTHA M. MACOMBER / 1866 – 1916 / AT REST”

Bertha Macomber was one of the last people interred here. There were fewer burials as the 19th century glided into the 20th because there were fewer Quakers to bury. The westward impulse that brought many of the first generation here pulled their children and grandchildren away, to rich lands in Ohio, Indiana, Iowa and beyond. Many in those later generations “married out” and, in stubborn obeisance to a self-destructive tradition, were dis­owned—equivalent to excommunication—by their elders. A schism over mysticism versus activism split the community theologically; the setting off of the town of Ausable from Peru split it politically. A new road two miles east, later to be labeled Route 22, became the principal thoroughfare between Keeseville and Peru; those communities grew into the commercial centers of southern Clinton County, while the Quaker Union withered and died.

There have been no burials in the Quaker Union Burying Ground in more than a century. Little is left to remind passersby that this pastoral spot on a backroad once hosted a bustling community: Names on nearby villages (Keese­ville, Harkness), roads (Arthur) and hills (Hallock). Four New York State Historical Markers. An imposing—and to some at the time, shamefully ostentatious—stone house, home to several generations of Keeses; a farmhouse, converted from one of the two meeting houses that came into being in the wake of the theological separation; the barn where Stephen Keese Smith hid his trembling fugitives by day. 

A quiet, deserted cemetery.

The years pass. Generations come, generations go. The weather takes its toll. Stones break. Stones fall. Breezes whisper in the tall white pines that line the plot’s northern boundary and what is today the northern boundary of the Adirondack Park. 

Almost no one visits the Burying Ground now. A town of Ausable crew mows the grass and wildflowers and weeds a couple of times a year. Once in a while, a descendant stops by and wanders among the stones, searching, searching, sooner or later turning to go as the voice of the breeze dies down, the stones stand mute.

In the end, silence. Only silence.  

Neal Burdick is Stephen Keese Smith’s great-great-grandson.

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