At small Knowlesville cemetery, about quarter of burials were for children

Posted 16 August 2021 at 1:25 pm

Last recorded burials at site were in 1906

“Illuminating Orleans” – Vol. 1, No. 19

By Catherine Cooper, Orleans County Historian

This double-sided stone commemorates Anna Smith who died in 1859. She was 1 year old. The inscription reads ”Our little Anna.”

KNOWLESVILLE – Nestled at the rear of several homes in the hamlet of Knowlesville lies the Knowlesville Cemetery, unobtrusively gliding through time.

It is a small cemetery, about three-quarters of an acre, with some 300 recorded burials. The plot of land originally belonged to the Stevens family, and indeed, the oldest stone is that of Jesse Stevens, dated 1826. The last recorded burials were in 1906, those of Malissa Foote and Caroline Bristol.

Cemeteries honor families, each stone was deliberately purchased and inscribed to record the passing of a family member. The earliest stones at Knowlesville, from the 1820s and 1830s, are simple, upright slabs, with basic information – name, date of death, age.

Henry Sawyer died in 1854 at the age of 16. The inscription at the base of the stone reads: “Don’t worry, it’s all right, Henry.” We can imagine the dying boy bravely reassuring his parents, his words etched in their hearts.

They are made of fieldstone and would have been inscribed by a local mason. Later stones are more elaborate, with rounded or curved tops. They generally feature a religious image at the top, a symbol for mourning (willow tree) or the afterlife (finger pointing upwards). Name, birth and death date, or specific age at death are recorded in the center. There is frequently an inscription at the bottom, this was either sentimental or religious.

Of the three hundred souls buried at Knowlesville, almost a quarter are children. There was a noticeable spike in child mortality between 1840 and 1850. Some families lost more than one child: the Banister family lost John, aged 10 months in 1838; Sarah, aged 7 in 1840; Frances, aged 11, also in 1840; and Cynthia, aged 18, in 1841.

William Knowles (1790-1871, for whom Knowlesville was named in 1826 in recognition of his role in the inception and development of the village, is buried at the Knowlesville Cemetery. He was an early land purchaser, having moved to the area in 1815 from Berkshire County, Mass. in 1815.

William Knowles

He built an ashery in 1816. The Erie Canal went through his land. He organized the first shipment of wheat on the newly opened Canal and built a warehouse. The impact of the Canal on shipping costs and shipping times was obvious from the very beginning. Prior to the Canal, sending wheat to Albany would cost $100 and take a month. A shipment to New York on the Canal would take ten days and cost $5.

With the advent of the Canal, Oak Orchard ceased to be a hub of activity as trade moved to Knowlesville. Soon it was bustling, with stores, blacksmith shops, a cooperage, hotels, taverns and five doctors.

William Knowles funded the construction of the first school in the locality. He was a founding member of the Presbyterian Church. At first, services were held at his home. He funded half the cost for the construction of the first Presbyterian Church and was a Deacon and ruling member for over forty years. He did not have children of his own, but he and his wife took in and educated eight children.

The Orleans County Historical Association hosted a tour of this cemetery on August 8. The Association’s next cemetery tour will be at the Hillside Cemetery, 4065 Holley Byron Rd. in Holley on Sunday, August 22 at 6 p.m. This tour will be preceded by a 15-minute concert on the mortuary chapel’s reed organ, played by Scott Schmidt. There is no charge. A goodwill offering would be appreciated.