A Hero in Our Own Back Yard
For many years my daily dog-walking expeditions involved sloshing through the Four Mile Creek with a pair of rubber boots and visiting the old Servos family cemetery overlooking the lush valley of the Four Mile watershed.
Over the past 20 years we’ve had the pleasure of Servos descendants staying at our bed and breakfast, sharing stories of their ancestors who lived out their lives on Palatine Hill.
It was through a guest that I first heard the name Robert Jupiter, one of the first men to be freed from slavery in Niagara, and who was buried in the little cemetery. The fact that he would be interred beside a family of prominent white settlers was intriguing. It was the beginning of an illuminating journey as I sought to learn more about one of the hidden heroes in our back yard.
June 1778, on the picturesque Servos estate set in the gentle hills of New York, Thomas Servos, his wife, daughter-in-law and three-year-old granddaughter Maggie had just finished supper. Rumours were rampant throughout the Mohawk Valley that General Washington had dispatched troops to uproot and arrest those who had pledged allegiance to the King.
The 1,500 acre Servos property was an established and prosperous estate, with a number of mills and orchards lining the fertile banks of the Charlotte River. Thomas and his sons knew it would be just a matter of time before they became a prime target of the patriot raids.
The estate required a substantial work force of enslaved men and women to tend to its large operation. Those in bondage knew they were not exempt from the hardships of the raids and would be part of the chattel to be confiscated and sold.
Their worst fears were realized when later that night the rumble of horses was heard on the drive. A small contingent of cavalry and three commanders burst into the house. Protests by Thomas were met with the crack of gunfire and he fell mortally wounded as the women and domestic servants watched in horror. The house was plundered and the troops fled, carrying off the silver and valuables.
Two of the Servos sons had witnessed the arrival of the raiding party from the safety of the forest and alerted the nearest neighbours. They arrived back too late.
Following the tragedy of his father’s murder, Daniel offered a choice to Robert Jupiter, an enslaved man on the estate, not yet 20 years old. He could enlist with Butler’s Rangers and receive his freedom after the war was over or he could remain behind and spend the rest of his life in servitude.
Both options posed the very real promise of a perilous ending. The chance of surviving life in the military was slim. If he was injured there would be no support system in place and he would be left to fend on his own or worse, in a patriot prison. Either way there was the risk of being captured and sold.
Jupiter made the decision to take his chances with Butler’s Rangers, clinging to the hope he would one day be a free man.
He was immediately directed to enlist under Richard Pierpoint’s command. Pierpoint had himself been captured in Senegal at the age of 16 and transported on a slave ship to America in 1760.
Jupiter would have found in Richard Pierpoint a kindred spirit, both driven to the point of sacrificing their lives in hope of finding freedom.
There were only a few dozen African Americans from the Mohawk Valley under Pierpoint’s command. A few were free but most had received the same promise as Jupiter.
Pierpoint’s new recruits marched by foot to Fort Niagara, still in British hands. Jupiter’s new life was temporarily occupied with drills and combat training, before heading out on expeditions stretching from New York to Detroit.
The lack of military support from Britain meant the Rangers had to develop strategic partnerships. The combined forces of the First Nations warriors and Butler’s Rangers were greatly feared for their ability to ambush the rebel troops and settlements before disappearing into the heavily forested surroundings.
By 1781, Jupiter found himself among 5,000 loyalist refugees seeking safety in the shelter of Fort Niagara. The conditions were no better for members of Butler’s Rangers and the First Nations people who had supported the British during the eight years of war.
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 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. Daniel Servos was granted 400 acres of choice land along the Four Mile Creek and a saw mill already under construction. A substantial labour force consisting of both freed and enslaved black men, military, and loyalists was required in order to have the second mill completed and in production by 1783. Palatine Hill quickly became the commercial hub of Newark.
Slavery was commonplace in Niagara. Records indicate that a few loyalists enslaved as many as 50 people, most of them stolen as “war booty” during the Revolution. It is estimated that of the 4,000 Black people who lived in Upper and Lower Canada in 1784, almost half were enslaved.
It is not clear whether Jupiter was a free man at this point but he continued to work closely with Daniel, again handling much of the responsibility of building the mill and clearing the land.
When newly appointed Lieut. Gov. John Graves Simcoe arrived in 1791, he was disturbed by the cruelty and acts of enslavement he witnessed in the settlement.
By late 1792 news began circulating that he intended to propose legislation to abolish slavery. Merchants and farmers who owned slaves protested, predicting financial ruin. Disagreements due to the complexity of new economic and social structures created divisions within the community.
Owners of enslaved men and women panicked over the impending loss of property and began secretly selling them – enslaved mothers, fathers and children to Americans across the river. Stories of family loss began to circulate throughout the community as loved ones began to disappear.
In March 1793 the violent act of forcing young Chloe Cooley, screaming and resisting, into a boat and taken across the river to be sold was the catalyst for Simcoe and John White to stand firm in their decision to pass the anti-slavery legislation.
The compromises for the proposed legislation were many. Members of the House of Assembly angrily continued to oppose emancipation.
Influential leaders refused to free them and continued to will not only their enslaved but their children to their heirs as well.
The legislation did not free 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 their “property” within the province were still common. Men, women and children were still bought and sold.
What changed was that it was now illegal for anyone coming into Upper Canada from the U.S. to import enslaved people 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 those they had enslaved 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.
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.
Some of the black Loyalists who had fought under Butler’s Rangers as free men petitioned for land grants, hoping to establish a black community which they were denied. A few however lived as full citizens who paid taxes and had the right to vote.
After years of deprivation and combat, Jupiter was eager to settle down and establish his future. He was treated as a member of the Servos family, who built a comfortable house for him next to the mill. His responsibilities at Palatine Hill played an important part in establishing it as a strategic commercial hub.
Palatine Hill quickly became known for social activity among the other Loyalists and high ranking members of the military. The deep harbour off of the Four Mile Creek was a strategic harbour for ships who often provided the latest news from York or England.
In 1803 Daniel Servos died at age 55. Grieving with the family, Jupiter joined the large funeral procession along the tree lined ridge, to where they laid Daniel to rest.
Jupiter was in his early 40s when he married Mary Ann Arrishaw at St. Mark’s Church on Sept. 4, 1804 with Reverend Robert Addison officiating. Shortly after, they moved to Chippawa where he was free to start a new life. Over the next eight years Mary Ann gave birth to four children however their peaceful life was short-lived when rumours of political unrest began to circulate.
In the summer of 1812 Britain declared war with the U.S. The stakes were high for the black community, enslaved or free. The main concern 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.
Pierpoint, now in his 60s, petitioned the government to allow him to raise a company of Black troops to help protect the Niagara frontier. The local military eventually accepted his offer but only if they accepted a white commander, the notoriously inept Captain R. Runchey.
The Jupiters moved back to Newark. With four young children Mary Ann would need the support of a familiar community while Robert was stationed nearby at Fort George.
Runchey’s Coloured Corps fought in several battles. Their first major engagement was at Queenston Heights on Oct. 13, 1812, where they were among the first reinforcements to arrive and help take the Heights from the Americans.
In May 1813 a fleet of U.S. ships drifted in onto the shore at the Two Mile Creek. The Coloured Corps were among the troops which rallied in vain as more than 6,000 troops overwhelmed them.
Captured troops were imprisoned in Fort Niagara until the following winter. Some Black soldiers, such as John Hall, that were captured were transported to the deep south, many enslaved for the rest of their lives.
On Dec. 13 the Americans were given orders to evacuate. Upon their retreat they defied instructions and torched the entire town, giving the remaining inhabitants just a few hours notice. The house on Palatine Hill was one of the few structures that remained intact. The house and barn were soon overflowing with refugees seeking shelter. A major snowstorm had blanketed the area with three feet of snow just days before. Women pulled their children and elderly on tea trays, dresser drawers and scraps of wood, struggling through the deep drifts along the lakeshore. It is difficult to imagine how Robert Jupiter’s wife could save their four children from the bitter cold. Her young daughter was already suffering seizures, there was little hope for her survival.
The British revenge galvanized within days. John Dease Servos (Daniel’s son) commanded the troops, Jupiter among them, as they disembarked from their ships in the Four Mile Harbour. The troops pushed their bateaux down the frozen Four Mile Creek to East West Line. From there it was a direct route to the deep cut in the river banks at the present MacFarland Park. Lowering the boats down into the swift current of the Niagara River they drifted in silence, guiding their boats to shore below Fort Niagara.
Storming the fort, they caught the Americans by surprise and within hours had captured the site.
Much hardship followed the war-weary who returned to the remains of the town. The process of rebuilding took years, with the town relying on aid from the British government to survive. The Coloured Corps and enslaved alike worked together to construct Fort Mississauga with bricks salvaged from the destroyed buildings.
The government offered grants of 200 acres of prime farmland in Niagara to the British soldiers, while members of the Coloured Corps were offered 100 acres of land in Garafraxa and Oro Townships north of Toronto. They would not receive title to the land unless they cleared ten acres and had a house of adequate size completed on it, cleared adjacent roads and paid the fees. The land consisted mainly of swamp and rocky soil.
Some tried and gave up, moving to Penetanguishene and Owen Sound searching for employment in the lumber and fur trade. Some didn’t survive.
Jupiter, Mary Ann and the children made the trek north and attempted to start over.
The extreme hardship took its toll on him now in his early 60s. He contracted a respiratory ailment from which he was unable to recover. He was never able to realize his dream of having a home of his own or see his children flourish.
He had requested that he be buried on Palatine Hill to be close to the family and community he so dearly loved.
The Servos family acknowledged his wish and he was buried underneath a centuries-old maple which presided over his grave until recent years. He was well-known as a man of exceptional character and was deeply respected by the community, regardless of race.
Mary Ann moved back to Newark with her children. She was unable to sell the land they had worked so hard on because she did not hold the title.
To add to her hardship her son James drowned shortly after her return.
In 1827 Humphrey Waters’ wife, Catherine Servos Waters, petitioned on Mary Ann behalf for compensation of property lost in the war. She was destitute and unable to support her children, one of whom suffered from epilepsy. She received a small amount to cover the loss of their horse, some harnesses and livestock. Many of the black families did not receive any of the compensation owed them.
Jupiter’s story is worthy of our remembering, a hero in our own back yard.