Thursday, 18 October 2012

Tales of Humanity and Hardship

I am often asked how I became involved with local history research. Recently, this question has been expanded to include, how did you get interested in local black history?

As with many researchers, I began with what was familiar to me: my own family history. As a native of Kitchener, I was aware that my ancestors had settled here in 1802. I knew that they had come from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Starting in 1800, most of the settlers to this area were from various counties in Pennsylvania and most were Mennonite. My ancestors were Quaker but within a generation or two had either converted to or married into the Mennonite faith. You could say that although I knew very little about my own family history when I started, I was “proud” of my heritage (or at least my perception of what I thought my heritage was). Now, the term “heritage” is a funny thing...the word heritage, as we are told means “something inherited from the past; a legacy.” Hmmm.  A legacy. Ok. What does “legacy” mean? Well, one definition states that it is “a bequest or an inheritance that is passed on from one generation to another.”  Ok, I think that sounds pretty accurate.

To further illustrate my point, I found a lovely quote from a woman by the name of Susan V. Bosak who is herself an educator and chair of “the Legacy Project.” She tells us that “Legacy is about life and living. It's about learning from the past, living in the present, and building for the future. “[The creation of a...] Legacy is fundamental to what it is to be human. Research shows that without a sense of working to create a legacy, adults lose meaning in their life. Exploring the idea of legacy offers a glimpse not only into human relationships and building strong communities, but also the human spirit.”

To me this seems very important. I mean, isn’t this why we study history in the first place? Simply put “don’t we want to know where we came from?”  I also like the notion of legacy as building strong communities and allowing us to glimpse into the human spirit. Now, these are the themes I would like you to keep in mind as you read through the posts in this blog, now and in the future: “legacy”, the building of strong communities and most important of all...the human spirit—something that ties us together, regardless of race, colour or creed.

So here’s the I began to read more about my own ancestors, I found out that there was more to the story. The “story” as I knew it was that white Pennsylvania Germans had settled here as farmers and brought with them a strong sense of community or “Freundschaft” which basically meant that they looked out for each other and lent aid where it was needed. In other words, if you needed a house or a barn built, then the whole community came out to build it. If your crops had failed, the community shared what it had with you and you would do the same, in kind.  I knew, too, that aboriginal peoples were already here and that in the early years, the Mennonites and First Nations peoples had enjoyed a relatively harmonious existence, trading goods and knowledge, etc. The story I didn’t know, was, I discovered, that very early on, there were historical accounts that mentioned persons of African descent that had arrived here when the Mennonites did. Some of whom had been brought here by the Mennonites—and, they were not slaves.

Take the example of “Isaac Jones.”

Remember Abraham Erb, “Father of the city of Waterloo,” and the impetus behind the construction of the 1820 log schoolhouse? If not, here is a quick refresher: Abraham Erb, originally from Franklin County, Pennsylvania (and a Mennonite) is generally accepted as the father of the city of Waterloo, having settled in Waterloo in 1806. Erb was a community builder who constructed mills and donated land for a school, church and graveyard. The school was indeed constructed and we know it today as the 1820 log schoolhouse in Waterloo Park. Well, in the latter part of the 19th century, Ezra Eby (himself a descendant of Benjamin Eby) began to collect stories and information about the early settlers to Waterloo Township. Published in 1895, researchers have acknowledged a number of mistakes in the work (misspellings, dates, etc.) BUT the importance of this work is nonetheless crucial to our understanding of local history AND most certainly forms an integral nexus from which we, as researchers in the 21st century, can tie the past to the present. Arguably, Ezra Eby is the “father” of local history for the Waterloo Region.... 

 (for a further look at his work see:

But I digress.  Ezra Eby, in 1895, tells us a story about a young black lad named Isaac Jones that took place somewhere around 1806-7. Apparently, Isaac had been brought to Waterloo by Abraham Erb and the gist of the story is that he was out hunting some cattle, in the fall, in the woods. (To us, this might seem strange but in the early days, farm animals were mostly free range so perhaps the cattle in question had themselves gone off into the woods for a walk and Isaac was trying to find them). 

Well, apparently, Isaac accompanied by two dogs, lost his own way in the woods. Eby says that a great many went out to search for him and that the search parties were out for more than a week. Most of the search party then gave up in despair but two continued to search and after hearing the barking of dogs, found little Isaac half-dead from starvation and unable to walk. On their way back, they also lost their way, temporarily, but with great joy managed to get themselves and Isaac home, along with the two dogs who had never left his side. Mr Erb and his wife did not have children of their own and although we do know that they did adopt several children, we do not know, however, whether or not he ever adopted any black children, specifically.  

Over time, the communities of Berlin (or Kitchener, as we know it today), Waterloo and the outlying areas of Heidelberg, St Jacobs and Elmira continued to grow and prosper as more and more land was purchased by the Mennonites and cultivated for farming.  Politically, the Mennonites were pacifists and many of them were strong abolitionists (i.e. those who were opposed to slavery. As I have stated in an earlier post, slavery had officially been outlawed in Canada by 1830 and we know that the “Underground Railroad” delivered many an ex-slave to freedom here in Canada during its years of operation.

As the anti-slavery movement gained political support on both sides of the Canada-US border, some very brave individuals were taking action against slavery--risking everything to help those who searched for their freedom. The impetus for the Underground Railroad had been firmly established and abolitionists were comprised of both black and white activists who helped fugitive slaves. Most of the blacks who were abolitionists were free but some were slaves, themselves. One man who helped the fugitive slaves was William Still. 

William Still was just a boy when he assisted in the escape of his first slave.  He never knew the man's name; only that he was being hunted by slave catchers. In the years ahead, there would be hundreds more that he would help. Using railroad terminology, the abolitionists associated with this complex escape route referred to themselves as “conductors”. In his book “The underground railroad” Still kept meticulous but secret records of the many escapes slaves who passed through the Philadelphia "station." All told, in his fourteen years of work with the “railroad” he helped over 800 to escape to freedom in Canada, particularly southern Ontario.  After the Civil War, Still published the secret notes he’d kept in diaries during those years.  To this day, his book contains some of the best evidence we have of the workings of the Underground Railroad, detailing the freedom seekers who used it, including where they came from, how they escaped and the families they left behind.

For the free e-book of  Still’s “The Underground Railroad” see:

Most of the earliest black communities in southern Ontario that sprang up were clustered around the Canada--US borders, with Detroit and Buffalo as two of the key termini or destination points for escape that led into Canada.  Many of these folks were assimilated into the local culture, at least for a time, and were contributing citizens. I do want to point out here, though, that not all blacks who settled here in the early days were slaves who came here via the Underground Railroad.

In 1828, a black man by the name of Paola Brown arrived in the town of Niagara and eventually made his way to Hamilton, where he became a leader among his people. He was aware of another black settlement in Oro Township but he and his neighbours felt this was too far away and so they petitioned for land (actually a township) to start a black community. They were unsuccessful but were determined to succeed. Dreaming of independent land ownership, Paola eventually made his way to Woolwich Township. By 1832, (and along with at 9 households totalling 34 people) he settled in Crook’s Tract (near modern day Winterbourne) and named their settlement “Colbornesburg”  where they successfully  established a church and a school. This was not land for which they held title--they were essentially squatters. 

Note: (Incidentally, the Oro township community was the only government sanctioned one of its kind, at the time, having resulted from the government’s attempt to settle Black Loyalist soldiers and their families following the war of 1812).

The land Paola and his people settled in Crook’s Tract needed to be cultivated. None of the settlers owned horses but at least 3 of the families owned oxen— which are better suited to logging and breaking soil, anyway. Life was very hard and by 1837 almost everyone had left the settlement. Paola Brown moved back to Hamilton and some of the settlers moved northeast of Waterloo and settled in Conestoga, while the majority settled along the boundary between Peel Township (Wellington County) and Wellesley Township (Waterloo County) in what became known as part of the Queen’s Bush settlement.

To be continued...

No comments:

Post a Comment