The story of the War of 1812 has been told and retold by historians from almost every possible viewpoint and it’s beyond the scope of this column to rehash this conflict.
However, if you’re one of the countless walkers who enjoy the hiking path that begins on Cornwallis Street in Kentville and runs eastward towards New Minas, you have to pass the north side of Oak Grove Cemetery. In doing so, you have strolled near a Kentville connection with the War of 1812. Obviously, the connection must be something in the cemetery. But before I tell you more about this, let’s look at some early Kentville history and the story of Oak Grove Cemetery.
The cemetery officially came in to existence in 1817 and was part of the farm of Benjamin Peck Jr., a second generation Planter. Three writers on Kentville’s early days, Mabel G. Nichols, E. J. Cogswell and Leslie Eugene Dennison, mention that the half acre of hill that became Oak Grove
Cemetery was used as a burial ground before 1817; Cogswell refers to it as “the old oak burial ground,” Dennison says it was called “The Oaks,” and Nichols says it was once known as Oakhill Cemetery and some headstones there date from 1774.
It’s recorded in Eaton’s Kings County history that when Benjamin Peck Jr. sold his farm in 1817, his parents and several other persons were buried there. It was the half acre, a knoll where his parents were buried, that Peck reserved as a public burial ground when the farm was sold.
Now we come to the gentleman who purchased the farm and the connection with the War of 1812. He was none other than one of the most famous privateers in Nova Scotia history, Capt. Joseph Barss Jr. of Liverpool. Barss was one of many Nova Scotia privateers that harassed American shipping on the Atlantic during the war and he was one of the most successful. Commanding the schooner Liverpool Packet, in one year Barss captured 33 American vessels, becoming famous – and rich – in the process.
Barss’ luck as a privateer ran out on June 11, 1812, when he was forced to surrender the Liverpool Packet to a much larger and better armed schooner out of New Hampshire. Barss was imprisoned along with his crew; he was set free, says one source, during a prisoner exchange. Another source, a Queens County website, says Barss was set free on condition that he not return to privateering.
Several years after being released, in 1817, Barss and his family moved to Kentville and purchased the farm of Benjamin Peck Jr. Why Kentville? you may ask. This may be explained by Barss’ marriage in 1804 to Olivia DeWolf. In a way, the move to Kentville was a homecoming for Olivia. She was the daughter of one of Wolfville’s most prestigious natives, Judge Elisha DeWolf. Mud Creek, the Wolfville history, notes that DeWolf held public office for 53 years; he served as High Sheriff of Kings County, as a postmaster, excise collector, Justice of the Peace and was elected to the provincial legislature on three occasions.
Barss raised a large family after he settled on his farm in Kentville, says one source, but his stay would be a short one. Less than a decade after buying the Peck farm, in 1824, Barss died; he was in his 49th year. Barss was buried in Oak Grove Cemetery, and his headstone still stands there.
Now you know about Kentville’s War of 1812 connection and the famous privateer buried in the town.