Monday, 29 October 2012

Tales of Humanity and Hardship, part 2

I mention throughout this blog that the early pioneer settlers encountered "old growth" forests. I think it would be prudent if I introduce this post by taking a moment to show you a comparison of just how big some old growth trees can get.

This tree is absolutely massive and it is not from Ontario (it’s a picture of a redwood tree from northern California) but it gives you an idea of the size of old growth trees. Stories about the trees in our area (mostly white pine) come from the Mennonite settlers who said that they were often upwards of over 6-8 ft across. I recall a story whereby it was said that the Mennonites had set about clearing their land in order to plant crops and that they were so inundated by the felled trees that they tried to set them on fire and the only thing that happened was that they smouldered for months. All I can say is wow!

In my last post, I mentioned that a number of black settlers (ex-slaves, mostly) had found their way to the growing community in the Queen’s Bush area of Peel Township and Wellesley Township. Many of these were settlers who had left Paola Brown's settlement in order to re-locate. Most of the group settled illegally as squatters and although the land was considered to be a wilderness, wild game abounded and streams were full of fish. Most importantly, perhaps, the soil was rich for agriculture. The majority of the squatters hoped that with hard work, in a year or two, they would be able to save enough to be able to purchase their land outright—but, in the meantime, this also meant that they were also waiting for their land to be available for sale since the land in the area had not yet been surveyed. 

And, as if it weren’t hard enough to build their homes in the harsh wilderness, much of the Queen’s Bush area was isolated from established roads at the time. It was said that the trip from Hawkesville to Waterloo was a two day journey--one day out from the bush to Waterloo and then one day back!

Simple log dwellings were built but planting and reaping crops were something else, and few of the settlers were able to prosper—many, in addition to lacking the tools and finances needed to survive, were also finding the harsh Canadian winters to be particularly difficult to manage. Starvation was also a very real threat--especially during those long winter months with no crops.

One couple, however, was destined to become the area’s most prosperous farmers—black or white.

John and Eliza Little arrived in the Queen’s Bush in February 1841. Exemplifying some of the harshest stories experienced by former slaves, both had suffered terribly prior to escaping to Canada. John Little had consistently defied his owners, often receiving brutal beatings that left him scarred and disfigured but eventually his owner finally conceded that Little was too stubborn to subdue. Having escaped several times, he was eventually sold to a man who was somewhat more humane. This man also owned Little’s future wife, Eliza. Eliza had been separated from her parents as a child and grew up working as a domestic servant. She, too, had received frequent beatings. When she was sixteen she married John Little and her master assigned her to work in the fields. The work was back breaking and almost broke her down. Following an insurmountable series of hardships the Littles managed to escape and reached Chicago where some kind abolitionists paid for their journey to Canada, crossing over the border at the Detroit-Windsor terminus. Unable to find work in the Windsor area, they travelled to Hamilton where they purchased two axes—one for each of them—half a dozen plates, knives, forks, an iron pot, one dutch oven and for food a 50 pound bag of flour and twenty pounds of pork. In John’ s own words he says “... we marched right into the wilderness where there were thousands of acres of woods which the chain never run round since Adam. At night, we built a fire, and cut down a tree, and put up some slats like a wigwam. This was in February when the snow was two feet deep.”

Although isolated geographically, the early black settlers were often were the recipients of kindness from local Mennonite merchants like Henry Stauffer Huber who sometimes lent black settlers seed to plant, to be repaid when they could. As with other white settlers, the black settlers also depended upon each other for survival and sometimes newcomers (new settlers to the area) would receive gifts of field beans and potatoes from their neighbours who may have been white or black.

By 1841 a church is established in Peel---the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the first preacher is an African-American from South Carolina—named Morris Brown.

Since so many of the black settlers were illiterate, pressure was building to establish schools to teach the children. In 1844, Fidelia Cobourn, a missionary from Maine, arrived in the Queen’s Bush to minister to and educate the children.

 As an abolitionist, Fidelia Cobourn actively campaigned for private donations and funding to build a school and to provide for its upkeep. Donations were, at times, rather sparse and she became very disillusioned when she found out that some still harboured racist views toward the black settlers.When she had arrived in the community, Fidelia had shared accommodations with another white abolitionist family in the area who lived in a small log house but once the school was constructed and with no other lodging available, she moved into the sparsely furnished schoolhouse known as the Mount Pleasant Mission School.  By 1845, a drought had effectively destroyed much of the community’s crops and some of her students were arriving to school so hungry that they ate the food scraps that she had set aside to feed her milk (milch) cow. To make matters worse, government workers had arrived to assess the land and farmers were now required to pay $50 up front as a down payment to secure a 100 acre lot (this is rather small by comparison to the Mennonite lots in Berlin and Waterloo which were, for the most part 448 acres). Many were not able to pay the $50. Cobourn, accordingly, found it difficult to keep her school open as her own funding dwindled. She tried desperately to obtain donations for the children that went beyond money for the school and extra food: things like clothing, shoes...but the choice for many was difficult but clear: stay or leave?

In 1848, there were 1500 blacks living in the Queen’s Bush area. By 1851, there were 237 recorded in the census. By comparison, there were approximately 700 people living in Berlin at that time and Berlin as an urban centre was booming. As school enrollment  for the children of black settlers also dwindled, the last black school in the Queen’s Bush closed in 1853. The remaining children were integrated into common schools in the surrounding areas (for the most part, the school enrollment in these schools had predominantly consisted of white students).

One of the black families from the Queen's Bush that relocated to Berlin was the Susand family.

Peter Edward Susand was a former slave who had been living in Wellesley Township on a fifty acre farm as early as 1843. Peter’s wife, Elizabeth, had been born in England and was a white woman. As I have discovered, there were actually a number of bi-racial marriages at this time (some had been solumnized  by a minister and others were most definitely common-law relationships). Peter and Elizabeth had twelve children and sometime between 1851 and 1853, he and his family re-located to Berlin where he became a respected member of his community. He established several businesses: he was the first barber in the town of Berlin and at some point he opened the Meridian Coffee House. He was a unique man, with a love of Shakespeare (having named some of his children after characters in Shakespeare’s plays). Susand had also successfully instituted and won several legal proceedings against some whites who had damaged his Berlin property, receiving 5 shillings payment from one of the hooligans as one of his settlements.

Mr. Susand's shop is the third building on the right--conveniently located beside the Red Lion Hotel.

Here is a copy of one of his ads that he posted in a local paper advertising yet another one of his businesses—as a procurer and seller of fine meats. It may be a bit hard to read but his slogan says “Call and see and you can have the worth of your money.” He is looking to buy quality meat and then sell it to the public. As noted, his shop was surrounded by a number of hotels, one of which was known as the Red Lion, seen above.

Perhaps most significant of all for Mr. Susand, in 1856, several of his white neighbours, themselves respected businessmen of the community nominated him for Berlin town councillor. He was delighted and addressed the assembly upon his nomination. His speech was most eloquent. Unfortunately, he did not stand much of a chance since he was running against a man, Dr. John Scott, who had been in the position for a number of years.  Unfortunately for Dr. Scott, he was re-elected but died later that same year.

The Susand family continued to re-invent themselves and proved to be integrated, contributing members of their community until 1862. At this point, something happened to the family as Peter relocated to Guelph yet his family stayed in Berlin. The assumption of researcher Linda Brown-Kubisch was that the family was abandoned by him as they fell on hard times following his departure. Elizabeth, his wife, eventually establishes her own successful business selling confectionaries--(sometimes at the Berlin Train station) until she eventually purchases her own property. The business is simply known as “Susand’s Taffy.” She lists herself as a widow in 1865 yet I have located a later New York City census in the 1870’s  that lists a PE Susand living there and still working as a barber. Some of the family members, as you may be aware, are buried in Mount Hope Cemetery in Kitchener. Others left the area and moved to Michigan.

Now, Peter Susand was not the only black settler in Berlin to conduct legal proceedings.  Of note was Robert Sutherland, the first African-Canadian person to qualify as a lawyer in British North America (Canada). A native originally of Jamaica, and not, I believe a former slave, Mr. Sutherland practiced law for a short time in Berlin before moving north to Walkerton where he enjoyed a successful law career, serving briefly as a reeve of the town. A graduate of Queen’s University, upon his untimely death in 1878, Mr Sutherland willed his entire net worth, approximately $12,000 to Queen’s making him Queen’s first major benefactor. In March of 1998, Sutherland Hall was dedicated as a place where students can come together and, I quote, “appreciate the accomplishments of such an important figure in the history of our school and our country. During the 150th anniversary of his graduation from Queen's, let us not forget the accomplishments of Robert Sutherland. May the students of Queen's ensure his legacy lives on and that the contributions of people of colour are never again forgotten. During his time at Queen’s he earned 14 academic prizes and excelled at the fine art of debate"—no doubt a skill that he further perfected as a lawyer and Politician.

One story I can share with you that concerns Mr. Sutherland comes from Uttley’s “History of Kitchener.” This story also details how respected Mr. Sutherland was in this community and how highly his fellow citizens thought of him:

During the time that Mayor Huber was in office (1857-59?), a circus came to Berlin. As one of the guests, Mr Sutherland purchased a ticket to attend but when seated during the show he was racially heckled by a rude clown (how prosaic!) and the white citizens jumped up and started to thrash the clown driving he and the circus out of town. According to the newspaper article that later reported the incident, Berlin, having been settled predominantly by Mennonites who were also strong abolitionists, of course they would sympathize with their black neighbour.