My friend Gary Leveille is completing a book to be called "Legendary Locals," a celebration of South Berkshire personalities. He knew Donna and I were driving to Ontario to deliver daughter Darcie to her apartment in Kingston where she’s a third-year student at Queen’s University. Could we look up the grave of Barnabas Bidwell in Kingston? Sure.
Bidwell was born in 1763 at Bidwell House, in the south part of Tyringham that became Monterey in 1847. Educated at Yale, Bidwell studied law with Judge Theodore Sedgwick in Stockbridge (though they soon parted politically) and in 1791 was elected Berkshire County treasurer. He served in the Massachusetts Senate. He served in Congress. A close friend of President Thomas Jefferson, he was hands-on in negotiating the Louisiana Purchase. He was Massachusetts attorney general from 1807-1810.
A busy man, Bidwell left clerks in charge of the county treasurer’s office in Lenox, which proved a mistake. Books didn’t balance. His political foes yelled that Bidwell had embezzled money. Bidwell took refuge in Canada in 1810. He settled in Kingston, which would become the first capital of the Province of Canada in 1841. Bidwell made good for the missing money in 1817, paying $330.64 plus $63.18 damages. Nevertheless, rumor persisted that he had made off with $12,000.
In Kingston, Bidwell was elected to the Provincial Assembly in 1821 as a reform candidate. But his opponents dredged up the old embezzlement charge and screamed he was an alien in that northern land. He wasn’t a naturalized citizen. He was a front for American forces who wanted to take over Canada. The election results were voided. Bidwell never held further public office.
His son Marshall Spring Bidwell (1799-1872), however, who was born in Stockbridge and had also moved to Upper Canada, was elected to the Parliament of Upper Canada in 1824 and became assembly speaker in 1828.
So, Barney Bidwell’s grave? It’s in Cataraqui Cemetery in Kingston, perhaps the oldest continuously active and operating public cemetery in Canada. Donna and I followed the cemetery’s serpentine roads and found the 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. He said with a smile, when the first premier of the country is buried here, everyone else is simply "notable." And then he told us how to find the grave.
An administrative assistant quickly found a cemetery guide book 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. The cemetery took its present-day form in 1850, designed by Frederick Cornell and modeled on Boston’s Mount Auburn and other cemeteries. Bidwell at his death had been interred elsewhere, then was moved.
We’d never have found Bidwell’s stone without help. His name was invisible, the top lettering on the flat stone covered by six inches of creeping sod. Working with Swiss army knife and a makeshift pine bough broom, it took us 10 minutes to clear roots away sufficiently to read the inscription. (I gather from descendants in the Berkshires, including Richard Bidwell 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 inscription 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."
As we left we visited the grave of Sir John A. MacDonald (1815-1891), a dominant figure in the Canadian Confederation. He served as Canada’s prime minister beginning with its independence in 1867 until 1873, then again in 1878-1887. His grave was a simple stone cross.
We left with a good story to write about involving a connection between Berkshire and Ontario.
Oh, puisque c’est sur le Canada, je devrais probablement le répète en françaisŠ
Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.