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Love Knows No Bounds

Last summer my goal was to explore as many cemeteries as I could throughout SD&G. This quest led me to wander through the rows of tombstones in Salem Cemetery, in Summerstown, Ontario. Little did I know, someone with an incredible story rests in that cemetery.

When I was younger, I was part of the “big switch”. While I was attending Central Public School, the government decided to move grades seven and eight to different high schools. This meant I had to leave Central Public, where I was comfortable, to attend General Vanier Intermediate School. Adjusting to this new school became severely difficult for me. As a result of the issues I faced trying to adjust in a new school, I lost the only friend I had. At 12 years old, having no friends to talk to is a pain I will never forget. It is this pain, and that situation which led me to take my first “trip” to a local cemetery.

At 12 years old I decided to walk from my house on Cumberland Street up the road to Woodlawn Cemetery. I was not frightened by the cemetery, but instead, felt welcomed. I remember the feeling that came over me the first time I wandered through the rows of tombstones. I was certainly by myself, but for the first time during seventh grade, my world felt like it was filled with friends. After all, I was surrounded by people! Since this young age, I have always paid attention to the older tombstones because I imagined they felt similar to how I did. All of their family and friends had passed away, and they were alone like I was. I have never let go of my tradition, “visit the oldest stones first, it may have been a while since they received a visitor.”

Because of that mindset, I skimmed Salem Cemetery looking for the oldest tombstones. There was one that caught my eye right off the bat. I noticed a tombstone with a plaque in front of it. Curious and filled with excitement, I made my way towards it, and standing in front of me read the words:

“This stone erected by
John A. Cameron in memory of
Margaret Sophia, his wife,
who died at Cariboo, B.C.,
Oct. 22nd, 1862, ae. 28 years,
also their daughter, Alice,
who died at Victoria, B.C.,
ae. 14 months and 14 days.”

The tombstone and plaque I stumbled across in Salem Cemetery, Summerstown, Ontario.
Photo Credit: Sara Lauzon.
In that moment, I remember my exact reaction. I stood in front of the grave and plaque with my hands pressed against my face thinking, “Oh my goodness, this is her? This is the famous wife of John “Cariboo” Cameron and I’m standing in front of her?!”

Who is John “Cariboo” Cameron?
Why is his wife so well known?

A portrait of John Cariboo Cameron.
Photo Credit: British Columbia Archives, A-01156.

John Angus Cameron was born on September 1st 1820, to proud parents Angus Cameron and Isabella McDougal. He was born in the Charlottenburg Township, in Glengarry County, in Upper Canada.

Cameron spent a large portion of his early life in Glengarry County. In the 1850’s he was in California, apparently as a prospector, but returned to Glengarry by 1860. When gold was discovered that same year in the Cariboo district of the British Columbia interior, Cameron decided to test his luck. He arrived at Victoria, Vancouver Island, in February of 1862. He was accompanied by his wife Margaret Sophia Cameron (nee Groves), and their infant daughter, Alice. Alice passed away shortly after their arrival in British Columbia. She was 14 months and 14 days old.

In Victoria, Cameron met Robert Stevenson (another gentleman from Glengarry County), who backed him in his first venture in British Columbia. They transported supplies into the Cariboo gold district. At the time, John Cameron was also a partner in a small company, which in August, stacked a claim on Williams Creek in the Cariboo. This is the famous Cameron Claim.

On December 22 1862, the miners working in the Cameron Claim struck it very rich at 22 feet. The claim soon became one of the largest operations in the Cariboo district, and its success made John Cameron a very wealthy man.

Two months before he hit the jackpot, tragedy struck. On October 22, his wife, Margaret Sophia Cameron died of typhoid fever. “Mrs. Cameron died at 3 a.m. on October 22, 1862. Richfield was the name of the mining town where she passed away. Cameron and I were the only persons present at the time. Poor Cameron! The morning Mrs. Cameron died was intensely cold, the thermometer standing at thirty degrees before zero, and a wind blowing at the rate of sixty miles an hour. As there were no undertakers in Cariboo, I went away and engaged Griffin to make a coffin, and Henry Lightfoot of Vankleek Hill made the case.” – Robert Stevenson.

On her deathbed, Margaret asked her husband to make sure she was buried back home in Summerstown, Ontario. Determined to fulfill his promise, Margaret Sophia Cameron ended up having a total of four different funerals, two caskets and three burials.

On the last day of January 1863, Cameron and Stevenson, escorted by other miners, set out on a gruelling 400 mile journey to Victoria. They hauled Margaret Sophia Cameron’s body on a toboggan. They ended up reaching Victoria on March 7th, and Margaret Sophia’s body was buried there in an alcohol filled coffin before she left for Ontario. John Cameron returned to Williams Creek where he spent the summer working his claim before returning Margaret Sophia Cameron back home.

In October 1863, Cameron left the Cariboo, taking the coffin with him. He travelled by way of the Isthmus of Panama and New York, reaching Cornwall before the end of the year. In December, he had the coffin reburied at Margaret’s final resting place in Salem Cemetery.

In March 1865, John Cameron married Christina Adelaide Wood of Osnabruck Township. In July he laid the cornerstone for his new residence, Fairfield House (which still stands proudly), in Summerstown, Ontario. In this period of prosperity, Cameron’s rash behaviour, extravagance, and arrogance tended to foster negative speculation on how he obtained his fortune. These speculations included references to the first Mrs. Cameron. Gossip broke out claiming that John Cameron had sold his first wife to an Indian Chief for gold. Others claimed he had a portion of his fortune buried in the coffin said to be holding Margaret Sophia’s body.

Left picture: Fairfield House in the early 1900's.
Photo Credit:McCord MuseumArchives.

Right picture: Fairfield House as it stands today.
Photo Credit: Google Maps.

In 1873, over ten years after his first wife had passed away, John Cariboo Cameron could no longer bear the gossip and lies. He decided to have the coffin raised for the public. The face of Mrs. Margaret Sophia Cameron, perfectly preserved by the alcohol, was exposed for all to see. The rumours were silenced and John Cariboo Cameron was able to live his life in peace.

John Cariboo Cameron returned to British Columbia in 1887. He would die one year later, on November 7 1888. Cameron died a poor man in Bakersville, the scene of his gold-mining success. It was speculated by many that he died of a broken heart. He was buried near his place of death, in the cemetery at Camerontown, a village named after him.

John Cariboo Cameron’s Tombstone.
Photo Credit: Findagrave.com