As you approach through the autumn forest and stand over the simple graves blanketed in pine needles and obscured by a low canopy of ferns it’s easy to give in to the thought, these are lost souls. Two children placed in the ground nearly one hundred and twenty years ago.
Two wooden crosses, side by side, stand in a small clearing in the midst of the Siamese Ponds Wilderness. It’s a walk of almost two miles down the trail that leads to John Pond to where a fading sign guides us: “To the twin graves of Peter Savarie and Eliza King of Little Canada.”
Markers say that death came to fourteen-year old Eliza and her eleven-year-old stepbrother Peter in the black diphtheria epidemic of 1897. Now they rest alone surrounded by the wild. Where is the graveyard or the churchyard? Where are those they lived among and maybe died with? Where are their parents?
But reflect a moment longer, and they don’t seem lost. They are of this place. For all the mystery, their presence speaks to us from a time of small communities and homesteads when logging provided a hard-won living. Little Canada was one of the first settlements, founded by French Canadians who came for the lumbering. This was home for Eliza and Peter.
Their story, imperfectly known, still touches people today. These crosses are modern, fashioned from pressure-treated lumber. A rough snow fence protects the plot. Tree trunks lie to the side, marked by a saw. Someone must have cut the fallen trees and moved them off the graves.
A single, tiny Christmas ornament rests on each cross.
Meade Hutchins, town assessor and an indirect descendant of the children’s family, says local descendants still look out for the site.
Lisa Godfrey and I visit the site at the end of September with Hamilton County Historian Eliza Jane Darling. She has seen many isolated graves from the county’s past. One, the grave of a lone little boy, sits next to a phone-company building.
“How did he wind up there without any relatives?” she wonders.
She has also seen another marker referring to a diphtheria outbreak at the end of the nineteenth century. That was in Wells. Death reached through the region.
The History of Hamilton County, by Frederick C. Aber Jr. and Stella King, says “black diphtheria” as diphtheria was then known, swept through the area in 1897. As many as thirty residents of the Indian Lake area died. Most were children.
A story passed down through the family says Eliza and Peter died on the same night, Eliza first. According to the story, shortly after his stepsister’s death, Peter, who had not been told, began singing hymns, called out to tell his sister he was coming, and soon died himself.
In the early days of settlement in this region families could live far from churches and cemeteries. It wouldn’t be unusual for them to bury loved ones at their homes. They left a legacy of small graveyards with stories for us to try to interpret. Important clues may have been lost to time. Maybe these children were not buried alone. Maybe we just can no longer see evidence of others.
The circumstances of these children’s death may have made it especially difficult to find other vestiges of their lives. Communities trying to fend off the epidemic ordered that bedding and clothing of the ill be burned and later called for the homes of victims to be burned. Ruins of a foundation can be seen along the trail about one hundred yards from the graves.
On top of that, the residents of Little Canada had to move from the land fifteen years after the children’s death when the Finch, Pruyn lumber company sold the tract to the state. (That sale has proved controversial through the decades as the residents felt they, not the lumber company, owned their land. They lost their claims in court.)
Aber’s report said the approximate locations of graves of other children who died in the epidemic are known, but there are no marked sites. Hutchins said Eliza’s and Peter’s graves have always been clearly marked and known to family and others.
Sites like this have a powerful importance.
“They’re markers of human communities that were here,” Darling says.
In the protected Forest Preserve those communities can seem distant.
“This is a reminder that Forever Wild is forever in only one direction,” she says. “You can’t undo history no matter how much this forest grows back. Unless you forget. That’s what monuments are for.”
A forgotten grave faces many dangers. Animals, roots, weather. Often, as here, local folks adopt burial sites, protecting connections to the past. These are informal, personal commitments. Cemeteries have associations. Individual graves have neighbors.
DIRECTIONS: From the junction of NY 30 and NY 28 in Indian Lake, drive south on NY 30 about 0.6 mile to Big Brook Road; turn left and go 3.6 miles to Starbuck Road; turn left and go 1 mile to a T intersection; and turn right and go 0.2 mile to a parking area. From the lot, walk up a dirt road a short distance to the trail register.