Plattsburgh native walks talk of Quaker ancestors

·7 min read

Jul. 3—PERU — The first time Neal Burdick went to the "Quaker Union" was as a small child with his mother, Virginia Mason Burdick.

"My mother would have brought me to see the graves of my ancestors, many of whom are in this cemetery," the freelance writer/editor and Canton resident said.

"So maybe when I was 10 years old, which would have been about 60 years ago. Anybody in there with the name of Keese is an ancestor of mine, and there are many of those, and Smiths also."


In 1784, Zephaniah Platt, Plattsburgh's founder, and his associates purchased 30,000 acres of land on Lake Champlain that included Peru and its environs.

Platt hired William and John Keese, Quaker brothers from Dutchess County, to survey 425-acre lots and gave them the chance to purchase whatever lots they desired.

Keeseville's name derives from the surveyors, who were of English descent.

Neal's mother, Virginia (1912-1998) was the daughter of Pauline Keese Smith (1885-1957), who married Charles Stickles Mason (1884-1919) of the Mason Lumber Company.

Pauline's father, Samuel (1847-1926), was the son of Stephen Keese Smith (1805-1894), a documented abolitionist and Underground Railroad agent.

Stephen Keese Smith is descended from Benjamin Keese (1777-1837), one of the surveyors' siblings.

"They came from the Hudson Valley," Neal said.

"There was a Quaker community there, and they moved en masse as a community of several families beginning in the 1790s to this location.

"(Platt) hired my ancestor to survey it and paid him by allowing him to select the best land. So, he chose this land. He and several other families moved here in an intentional community."

Neal and his wife, Barbara, stood outside the gates of the Quaker Cemetery located on Union Road in the Town of AuSable.

It's a sweet spot with majestic views of the High Peaks and green pastures still in use ever since his ancestors, members of the Religious Society of Friends, called Quakers, established the Quaker Union, Peru's first settlement, in 1790.

"Many of the buildings in what was called the Quaker Union lined this road here, Union Road," Neal said.

"The house (gray) across the street was one of the Quaker Meetinghouses. I think it's the only one that's still standing from the original Quaker settlement.

"There were at one time, I think, about 250 people living in this community. So, we're kind of standing at the main intersection of what was a village with houses, a couple of houses, stores, a sawmill on the river and several families living here together."


Other than the cemetery and the former Meetinghouse, little remains of the Quakers, a Christian religious denomination founded in 17th-century England.

"The community lasted about 120 years," Neal said.

"The first settlers came in 1792. The community reached a peak of its population probably around the time of the Civil War when my great-great grandfather was involved in the Underground Railroad or in years before the war.

"After the war, it began to decline. People moved west. Some people married, the phrase is, out of Meeting. They married non-Quakers and stayed in the area but ceased their affiliation. By late 1800s or early 1900s, it was pretty much turning into a ghost town."


Virginia told Neal how the Union was developed and lots of stories about his great-great grandfather's involvement in the Underground Railroad, a secretive network of Americans — of African descent, of European descent and Indigenous — who assisted fugitive slaves to freedom in Canada.

"How he had to be very careful hiding slaves at his farm up the road and transporting them on to the Canadian border," Neal said.

"She told me that he had a neighbor that was not sympathetic to abolition and kept threatening to turn him in, but never caught him in possession of fugitives.

"He had the support of the local sheriff, who my mother would say tell my great-great grandfather, 'I've had this complaint against you, so I'm going to come and check out your farm tonight.'

"So, he was careful to either make sure if he had fugitives that they were well hidden or that he just didn't have any there."

In his 1887 memoir, Stephen Keese Smith stated:

"I first became acquainted with the 'Under Ground Rail Road' twenty years or more before the [Civil] War ... Samuel Keese was the head of the depot in Peru. His son, John Keese — myself, and Wendell Lansing at Keeseville were actors. I had large buildings and concealed the Negroes in them. I kept them, fed them, often gave them shoes and clothing. I presume I have spent a thousand dollars for them in one-way and another. There were stations at Albany, Troy, Glens Falls and then here in Peru. The Negroes would come through the woods and be nearly famished. We kept them and fed them for one or two days and then ran them along to Noadiah Moore's in Champlain... He went with the Negroes to Canada and looked out places for them to work."

"He was never caught," Neal said.

"It was against the law. It was a violation of the Fugitive Slave Act to help runaways, but he did it out of his conviction, again that all people are equal and all people deserve equal treatment."

Neal and Virginia came to Peru frequently to visit his grandmother, Pauline, the Underground Railroad conductor's granddaughter.

"I remember her saying that in one instance, he helped cut an iron chain off the ankle of one of the fugitives," he said.

"And he had first-aid supplies to salve the wound from the chain. What happened to that chain, I have no idea. There is no documentation, only a family story. It could be buried under the barn somewhere."

Neal asked himself if he could have slipped on Stephen Keese Smith's boots and break a federal law.

"I would like to think I would have, but there's no way to know," he said.

"I admire the guy for the strength of his convictions and putting them into action. It took courage. It took sacrifice. He sacrificed money, time, some of his food, supplies, and I suppose wear and tear on his horses and wagons. It was quite dangerous. I'm awestruck, too, by what he did."


When Neal attended St. Lawrence University, he started attending a Quaker Meeting.

"It just suited my thinking," he said.

"So, the rest is history. I remain a practicing Quaker today. I married a practicing Quaker."

Neal met his wife, Barbara, when he was in graduate school at Case-Western Reserve in Cleveland, Ohio.

At the time, Barbara was teaching elementary music in a suburb of Cleveland called Bedford.

"This was January 1974 when President Nixon announced the war in Vietnam was over and everybody should go to the church of their choice to acknowledge the end of the war," he said.

"I had been attending the Meeting in Cleveland, and she had not because it was a bit of a drive. But, she came that day, and we met there.

"The Friends Meeting in Cleveland was filled with a bunch of yentas, elderly women who, they matched us up."

Tuesday afternoon, they walked in the Quaker Cemetery on their 47th wedding anniversary.

"We were married in a Quaker Meeting in Wilmington, Ohio, where Barbara grew up," he said.

"We both remain Quakers. We attend the St. Lawrence Valley Friends Meeting in Potsdam."

Neal was influenced by his mother's and grandmother's teachings on Quakerism.

"My grandmother Pauline Keese Smith was raised Quaker somewhere right here, but the community disbanded," he said.

"I've kind of come full circle back to my family's heritage. Those stories meant something to me even as a child and very much influenced what I grew up believing. It was just a good fit."

It is time to put into action beliefs held by his great-great grandfather and generations of his ancestors.

"Today, thankfully, that doesn't mean physically carrying refugees or fugitives to Canada for freedom," Neal said.

"But, there are lots of other things we can do for racial equity, gender equity, age equity, for any fill-in-the-blank equity."

Stephen Keese Smith set a shining example.

"He acted on his beliefs," Neal said.

"At that time that meant carrying fugitives toward freedom.

"Today, it means something different, but still he set an example of acting on his beliefs, and I think that's something that every generation needs to do."

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