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Visiting the Pioneer Memorial Cairn at Pickering, Ontario: remembering heritage from 200 years of history

Updated on April 12, 2011
Provincial flag of Ontario
Provincial flag of Ontario | Source
The Pioneer Memorial Cairn, at Pickering, Ontario
The Pioneer Memorial Cairn, at Pickering, Ontario | Source
Inscription on Pickering's Pioneer Memorial Cairn
Inscription on Pickering's Pioneer Memorial Cairn | Source
Map location of Pickering, Durham Region
Map location of Pickering, Durham Region | Source

Thought-provoking flavour of the past

In 2011, the City of Pickering, Ontario, was celebrating its 200th anniversary. One of the oldest and most significant monuments in Pickering which relates to its past is the Pioneer Memorial Cairn in the Erskine Cemetery near the intersection of Finch Avenue and Fairport Road. This cemetery is actually older than the neighbouring Erskine church.

Some inscriptions

The Cairn was erected in 1936, but various of the headstones of which it is partly comprised are much older. The principal inscription on the memorial says:


The cairn contains inscriptions regarding various of the early settlers in Pickering. One interesting, 19th century inscription which is incorporated into the cairn runs as follows:

Think of me as you pass by,

As you are now, so once was I,

As I am now, so you must be,

Prepare in time to follow me.

Simply a pleasant poem? or does this verse also arguably give insight into the mindset of not a few devout churchgoers in the 19th century, whereby what the inscription alludes to as preparing for death was seen as a soul-searching, wholesome duty?

Features and memories

Some of the headstones in the surrounding cemetery adjacent to the cairn are military graves of those who served in a variety of regiments and services. While more modern than the gravestones incorporated into the cairn, a number of these headstones mark the graves of personnel who served in World War One and were born in the 19th century.

Military affiliations marked on these headstones include: the Royal Canadian Air Force, the Canadian Expeditionary Force, the Machine Gun Corps, the West Kent Regiment, the Royal Naval Canadian Volunteer Reserve, the North Stafford Regiment, and the Royal Regiment of Canada.

One historically well-known Pickering name is Peter Matthews (1786-1838) but his grave is noted for its absence from this or any other Pickering cemetery. This is because after Matthews took part in Mackenzie's Rebellion in 1837, and was accused of being linked with the death of a militia member, he was hanged in Toronto in 1838, and buried, first at Toronto's Potter's Field cemetery and then in 1859 re-interred in Toronto's Necropolis Cemetery — more conspicuous than this Pickering cemetery would have been. Not only Matthews' grave, but also his name, underwent changes in fortune. Like Manitoba's Louis Riel, the posthumous history of the name of Pickering's Peter Matthews ranged from one with an official reputation as public enemy and criminal at the time of his death to one of a hero, martyr and emotive reference point, particularly if Liberal Party representatives wanted to portray opponents of various proposed measures as unprogressive.

This cairn and its surroundings are a very thought-provoking place for the visitor to — and resident of — Pickering to visit and wander around respectfully, capturing as it does some flavour of the past of this Ontario city now 200 years old.

Also worth visiting

The immediate region of Durham has various structures of historic interest; a few of these include:

Pickering Museum Village , Greenwood (distance: approx. 15.1 kilometres), is situated on Duffins Creek . The Village contains various, interesting examples of heritage buildings, including a Temperance Hotel, Redman House, a blacksmith's and woodworking shop, a number of barns, a Bible Christian Chapel, a Gift Shop and a General Store.

Post Hill House , Ajax (distance: approx. 11 kilometres) dates from 1855; it has been restored recently, and demonstrates the architectural style known as Rural Gothic Revival.

McKay House, Ajax (distance: approx. 13.6 kilometres) this building, dating from 1854, is the only 2 story fieldstone house which still exists in Ajax. Sometimes known also as Charnacy, a name referring to the original owner's Scottish birthplace.

Parkwood, Oshawa (distance: approx. 27.9 kilometres); this striking, stately home — open to the public — was formerly the home of the founder of General Motors of Canada, Colonel Sam McLaughlin. The grounds are extensive and noteworthy, and the building's pillared portico is a local landmark.


How to get there: Air Canada, flies to Toronto Pearson Airport, with wide North American and other connections, from where car rental is available. (Distance from Toronto Pearson Airport to Pickering: approx. 47.8 kilometres). GO Train operates a service between Union Station, Toronto and Pickering. Highway 401 gives straightforward access to Pickering. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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