Lessons and Legacies in Our Back Yard : Part 1

Harriet’s Legacies: Race, Historical Memory and Futures in Canada

Brock University 2015

We live in Niagara-on-the-Lake within walking distance to the shores of Lake Ontario.  If you take the path down into the valley behind our home you will find rich bottom lands, lush with peach orchards and vineyards.

Shortly after moving to Four Mile Creek Road I discovered fragments of artifacts behind our home. I became intrigued with the history of our neighbourhood, pouring through reference books and microfilm at the local library. I enjoyed daily walks to the ancient cemetery reflecting on the intriguing history of heroes in our own backyard. I was surprised to learn that the land had been cleared by enslaved people over 200 years ago. Although I considered myself an avid history student in school, I could not recall ever being taught about black history in Niagara.

I learned that our property was once part of a 400 acre parcel of land known as Palatine Hill, owned by Captain Daniel Servos and his descendants for almost 160 years. The Servos family had been forced to flee New York during the American Revolution, leaving behind their substantial estate and mills. Many loyalists in New York established an active slave trade during the war, capturing and shipping black men and women to Montreal. As the war drew to a close, thousands of loyalists fled north to Upper and Lower Canada, taking little with them but the people they had enslaved.

At the close of the war thousands of refugees crowded around the relative safety of Fort Niagara, which was still still under British control.  Formerly wealthy loyalist families found themselves without food or shelter.

The suffering was unimaginable for the men and women who were enslaved and had to make the 300 mile trek with their owners without adequate food or clothing.  Some died along the way. Lack of shelter continued to plague the refugees for the next few years, with many living in tents year round on both sides of the Niagara River.

Acquiring land to settle was a priority for the British in order to alleviate the overcrowded misery at the fort.  A treaty was signed in 1781 between the Iroquois and the British crown for a four mile wide strip of land bounded by the Niagara River, from Lake Ontario to Lake Erie.  In return, the Iroquois received 300 suits of clothing, an immensely beneficial deal for the British.

A white oak tree, close to the banks of the Four Mile Creek, marks the west boundary. The majestic tree under which the treaty was signed in 1781 still stands today on Lakeshore Road at Firelane 2 in front of the Abe Epp home.

Daniel Servos was granted 400 acres of choice land along the Four Mile Creek. On average it would take settlers a year to clear and prepare three acres for planting. He commanded a substantial labour force consisting of both freed and enslaved black men, military, and loyalists in order to  have the saw mill completed and in production by 1783. In 1797 he was granted an additional 1200 acres in what is now the area of McNab Road and Lakeshore Road.

Records indicate that much of the commerce in Newark (Niagara- on- the- Lake ) centered around the mills on Palatine Hill. There was little currency available and barter of service in exchange for lumber and dry goods was the basis of the economy.

Slavery was commonplace in Niagara.  Records indicate that a few loyalists owned as many as 50 slaves, most of them stolen as war “booty” during the Revolution. It is estimated that of the 4,000 black people who lived in the British colonies in 1784, close to 2,000 of them were enslaved. Many slave owners considered themselves devout Christians. It was the wealth of the early benefactors, based on slavery that built the first Presbyterian and Anglican churches in town.

In the early years, those enslaved  would meet under the shade of the trees on the banks of the Four Mile Creek. Servos family descendants shared stories with me of the powerful sound of black voices raised in worship, echoing throughout the valley.

When newly appointed Lieutenant Governor Simcoe arrived in 1791, he was deeply disturbed by the cruelty and acts of enslavement he witnessed.

By late 1792 news began circulating that he intended to propose legislation to abolish slavery. It was immediately met with intense opposition from the majority of white merchants and farmers who predicted financial disaster if it was implemented. Disagreements due to the complexity of new economic and social structures and most certainly the loss of “investments” created divisions within the entire community.

While politicians debated, men and women who were enslaved had a glimmer of hope that after 200 years of bondage they could experience freedom.

Slave owners in Niagara, however, panicked over the possibility of their impending loss of “property”.  Some began secretly selling their enslaved to Americans across the river in the event that the legislation passed. Terrifying rumours began to circulate throughout the community as enslaved family members and friends began to disappear.

The dominant white opinion of that time was that “a slave is always a slave, because his slavery is a matter of property legally purchased and no law should infringe upon it.”

Due to political pressure, the compromises for the proposed legislation were many.

The violent act involving young Chloe Cooley was the catalyst for Simcoe to stand firm in his decision to pass the anti-slavery  legislation. Contrary to popular thought, the legislation in 1793 did not free slaves or immediately abolish the sale or purchase of those in bondage. Advertisements in Niagara newspapers posted by owners who sought to track down and capture fugitive slaves within the province were common. Many members of the House of Assembly vehemently opposed the gradual emancipation. Influential figures such as Colonel John Butler, provincial secretary William Jarvis, Judge Neil McLean and Reverend John Stuart refused to free their slaves. In fact, they willed the slaves and their slave’s children to their heirs along with other “moveable property”.

What changed was that it was now illegal for anyone coming into Upper Canada from the United States to import their slaves or enslave others after arrival. Any child born to a mother who was enslaved would have their birth officially recorded but would not be freed until the age of 25. Some owners freed their slaves only to rehire them as indentured servants, carrying debts they could never pay off during their lifetime. The act now placed a limit of nine years on indentured service.

In the early 1800’s some slave owners in Niagara were still pressing for bills to be passed in legislature that would allow the importation of slaves from the United States. The time of transition was a complex and emotional one, as those who were freed continued to live alongside friends and neighbours who remained in bondage until their death.

A number of freed black men, some of them loyalists, petitioned for land grants with the goal of establishing a black community. They lived as full citizens that paid taxes and had the right to vote. Humphrey Waters Sr. was a well respected black Loyalist who, having fought with Butler’s rangers, remained close friends with the Servos family and other high ranking military. They were also one of a number of freed black families that attended St. Mark’s Church.  Social barriers were due more to the difference of class rather than race. Interracial marriage was common within those class structures.

Humphrey Waters’ two sons, James and Humphrey Jr., married the daughters of local British elite. In 1808, Humphrey Jr. married Catherine Servos, daughter of Daniel Servos, whose family members were firm supporters of emancipation. He was welcomed into the Servos family and they named their second son Daniel Servos Waters in honour.

The Servos family cemetery is a ten minute walk southwest of our home. It is a picturesque scene, sitting on the crest of the hill overlooking the lush valley. There are 36 people interred in the cemetery, 12 of them members of the Iroquois nation who were killed in battle in the War of 1812.

In an unmarked grave lays the remains of Robert Jupiter, a former slave.  He was well known as a man of exceptional character who arrived at Fort Niagara with the Servos family in 1779. He fought alongside Servos with Butler’s Rangers during the Revolution. He would have been part of the crew clearing the land, as well as constructing the mill and the family home. His connections with the family ran deep and his loyalty gained him positions of major responsibility with the farm and mill operation.  He was deeply respected by the community, black and white, and was likely a free man when Daniel Servos passed away in 1803. He married Mary Ann Arrishew in September 1804 at St. Mark’s Church with Reverend Robert Addison officiating.

When the war of 1812 broke out, Robert was quick to join the Coloured Corps. One of the concerns of the black community was if Upper Canada fell into U.S. control those who had been emancipated would lose their hard won freedom and fall under the Slavery Laws still in effect in the U.S.

In May 1813, the Americans captured Fort George and began their occupation of the town. It was traumatizing for the 300 women, children and elderly who remained. It was especially worrisome for the coloured corps whose family members were vulnerable to being recaptured and sold back into slavery. In December the retreating Americans torched the entire town. Palatine Hill was one of the few properties that remained intact. The house and barns were soon overflowing with refugees who had struggled on foot through three feet of snow to find shelter there. Robert Jupiter’s wife and children were among them.

At the close of the war in 1814, the surviving soldiers returned to their families after four years, scarred mentally and physically, many permanently injured. All who lived in Niagara on the Lake lost their homes, livestock, and belongings.

Some of the black soldiers that were captured by U.S. troops were transported south, enslaved for the rest of their lives. John Hall was one of the men taken prisoner and sold back into slavery in Kentucky.  Eventually he escaped and made the dangerous journey back to Niagara where he shared his harrowing story.

In repayment for their services, white members of the military were rewarded with 200 acre land grants primarily in the fertile Niagara Peninsula. The coloured corps, however, were each deeded 100 acres of land. The land was located in Garafraxa township, many days travel away, which consisted of poor soil, swamp, and mosquitoes. In addition, they would only receive title to the land after clearing it and living on it for a predetermined amount of time. Records show that some worked the land as long as eight years before they were given the title.

Despite the loyalty of the black community, the British government regarded them as secondclass citizens.  They were treated as commodities that could further expand the empire, their reward in forced exile made a mockery of their supposed “freedom” .

Robert Jupiter was in disbelief upon receiving the news, horrified that this was to be the reward for risking his life in service of the Crown. He and his family were forced to leave, unable to continue his employment with Daniel Servos. The backbreaking labour of clearing the land and isolation of living in exile quickly took its toll on Jupiter’s health. They were only there a few years before Robert passed away, a broken man. He requested that his body be buried on Palatine Hill to be close to the family and community that he so dearly loved. His widow and children did not receive title to the land because he died before it was completely cleared and returned to Niagara on the Lake.

In 1827 Humphrey Waters’ wife, Catherine Servos Waters, petitioned on behalf of Robert Jupiter’s widow for compensation of property lost in the war. She was destitute and unable to support her children, one of who suffered from epilepsy. Most black families did not receive any of the compensation owed them.

Although technically slavery was officially outlawed by 1810, slave catchers still crossed the border along the river with impunity, kidnapping free black citizens in Niagara on the Lake. A few managed to escape and returned to tell of the terrifying experience.

Slave catchers were no respecter of persons. Humphrey Waters Jr., son-in-law of Daniel Servos, was a well respected member of St. Mark’s Church and thriving businessman who owned 12 acres of property in town.  His disappearance in 1828 shook the entire community and he was never heard of again.

In August, 1834, slavery was officially abolished by the British Empire.  Although blacks only comprised about 10% of the population, the event was celebrated by everyone in town,  blacks and whites alike.

Lessons and Legacies Part Two