Niagara-on-the-Lake is rich in history. It lies in every building, down every street, and at the end of every country lane.
While much of this history is on full display for tourists to see, some of it is almost hidden from view, requiring some effort to unearth. Such is the case with Butler’s Burial Ground, a rarely visited cemetery in an area of Niagara-on-the-Lake that tourists don’t often frequent.
Butler’s Burial Ground isn’t scenic, but there’s a distinct sense of history there. Indeed, it’s one of the most historically significant locations in all of Niagara. This significance begins with the man after whom it was named: Lieutenant-Colonel John Butler.
John Butler, the man credited with founding Niagara-on-the-Lake, was a man of contradictions. Rarely has there been a soldier as loved and hated at the same time. To Canadians he was a hero, a patriot who fought bravely and with notable success on behalf of the British Crown during the American Revolution. To people south of the border he was a traitor, a man who turned his back on his country and as the head of his Rangers sought to suppress the rebellion. The real John Butler is probably somewhere in between.
Butler was born in New London, Connecticut in 1728, the son of Lieutenant Walter Butler and Deborah Dennis. While still a young child, his family moved to the Mohawk River Valley of New York State, which was then the frontier of colonial America. John was raised during the turbulent years of the French and Indian Wars, and entered into service with the British Indian Department with which he saw action in several battles.
Eventually, Butler amassed an estate of 26,600 acres, making him one of the wealthiest men in the Mohawk Valley.
Sadly, he lost it all—his home, his lands, and his wealth—as a result of the American Revolution and his decision to remain loyal to King and Country.
He once again volunteered his services to the Indian Department and led a force of Natives to victory at the Battle of Oriskany in New York on August 6, 1777. This success led British commanders to urge Butler to raise an elite corps of Rangers to serve alongside the Natives and fight in their style. This unit came to be known as Butler’s Rangers.
A pattern of bloody campaigns along the frontier followed, with the Rangers emerging from the darkened depths of the forest to put villages to the torch, destroy crops, defeat rebel forces, and instill in the enemy populace a crippling terror.
Butler’s Rangers became so notorious for their ruthlessness that when the conflict ended with an American victory there was little hope of reconciliation between former enemies. The Rangers could never return home.
So, they packed up their families and headed for British protection in Niagara to establish new lives.
Butler was a towering figure in the refugee community. He served as Justice of the Peace, member of the Land Board of Niagara, commander of the Nassau and Lincoln county militia, leader of the Church of England, and a member of the local Masonic Lodge. He was so prominent and highly regarded that the young village of Niagara-on-the-Lake was originally named Butlersburg in his honour.
Butler died on May 12, 1796, after a long illness. He was buried on a family cemetery on the corner of his farm, known today as Butler’s Burial Ground, alongside family and at least four other Rangers. After Butler, Rolfe Clench is perhaps the most noteworthy figure. Born in Pennsylvania in 1762, he served as a lieutenant in the Rangers under John Butler. After the war, he settled in Niagara-on-the-Lake where he served in a number of prominent positions, including town clerk, judge of the Surrogate Court, and member of Provincial Legislation. Upon his death in 1828 he was initially buried at Butler’s Burial Ground. Later, however, his will was uncovered and clearly specified that he wished to be buried beside his daughter, Eweratta, who died in 1797 and was buried at St. Mark’s Cemetery. As per his wishes, Clench’s body was disinterred and removed to St. Marks to rest forever alongside his beloved little girl.
And then there was William Claus, who in the 1790s had a stone crypt built to hold his remains and those of his family and who may have been a Ranger as well. Claus spent his career in the Indian Department, rising to the rank of deputy superintendent during the War of 1812. Though he was a prominent and respected citizen of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Claus abused his position of authority among the natives to line his pockets with gold. At the time, members of the First Nations of Upper Canada were forbidden to sell their property without first consulting his department. Claus was known to have profited largely on bribes from prospective owners, since he had the final say in any proposed sale. He died in 1826 and was buried in the vault. His home, The Wilderness, still stands at 407 King Street. Butler’s Burial Ground isn’t just a place where former soldiers are laid to rest: it was also a battle field. During the War of 1812 a skirmish took place on the Butler Farm—land that today encompasses the cemetery and the subdivision that backs onto it. The Action at Butler’s Farm, as the skirmish is generally known, took place on July 8, 1813. On that day an outpost of the American army encamped near Fort George was ambushed and defeated here by a band of Six Nations and Western Natives led by Chiefs John Norton and Blackbird, and Indian Department interpreters Michel Brisebois, Louis Longlade, and Barnet Lyons. Lieutenant Samuel Eldridge and 22 soldiers of the 13th United States Infantry were killed during the engagement and another dozen taken prisoner.
A century later, the cemetery was abandoned, neglected and almost forgotten.
The fences around the burial ground had rotted away, the plots were overgrown, and cattle were allowed to roam between the graves. Most headstones were broken or lost. Even John Butler’s headstone could no longer be found. The crypt belonging to the Claus family had been partially destroyed by a large tree that had fallen onto it, leaving the interior open to the elements. Vandals would break into the crypt and scatter bones.
While the cemetery was never truly restored, efforts were made to prevent further vandalism. The crypt was initially sealed with an iron grilled gate, but vandals kept breaking in despite this precaution so a steel plate was welded in place over the entrance. Eventually, the entire crypt was buried in sand.
More than the vault is buried beneath the knoll at Butler’s Burial Ground. Dig deep and you’ll strike any number of secrets and historical stories, each one reflecting the early years of Niagara and indeed our nation. There are no grave markers today, but with a bit of historical knowledge it’s easy to imagine the early decades of Niagara-on-the-Lake when Lieutenant-Colonel John Butler and his Rangers settled the region. TM