Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia

By Debra Hill, Black Loyalist Heritage Society

The promised land

As the British began preparations for their withdrawal from the American colonies at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War (1775–1783), they sought land on which to settle the Loyalists who were displaced by the war. Their search led them to the largely unoccupied, unsettled province of Nova Scotia. Sir Guy Carleton, who had served as a general for the British during the war and went to New York to oversee the evacuations, provided vessels for passage to England, the Caribbean, Europe and Canada.

In April of 1783, the first fleet of Loyalists arrived at Port Roseway. Named the Port Roseway Associates, they were recorded to be 306 male heads of families, 229 women, 557 children and 420 servants. Their numbers were augmented by a company of free Blacks under the direction of Colonel Stephen Blucke, an educated Barbadian of mixed parentage who had served in the British military during the Revolutionary War. Blucke's company immediately began clearing the land for the new town.

Loyalists seeking land continued to arrive throughout the summer and into the late fall of 1783. The province was ill-equipped to handle such a large influx of refugees. To meet the demand for promised land grants, the province engaged unproven surveyors. Their inexperience caused great delays and misappropriation of lands.

From Port Roseway to Shelburne to Birchtown

In July, Governor Parr visited the town to set up a municipal government, and renamed the settlement of Port Roseway to Shelburne. The next month, he issued orders to place the company of freed Blacks on lands northwest of Shelburne Harbour, and on August 28, Colonel Blucke accompanied the local surveyor, Benjamin Marston, to view the land allotted to the Black settlers. Marston claimed that Blucke was satisfied with the spot, even though the Surveyor-General, Charles Morris, had found it a rather "indifferent" land.

On September 3, 1783, seven companies of Blacks were led by Colonel Blucke to the new settlement, which they named Birch Town (Birchtown) in honour of Brigadier-General Sam Birch. Birch had been the predominant signatory on the "certificates of freedom" issued to the freed Blacks who had evacuated New York that year. To help organize the distribution of provisions, families and individuals were organized under "captains." These settlers became known as the Birchtown Black Loyalists.

A growing community

Blucke's company, along with those of captains Hutchins, Snowball, Perth, Jones, Lawrence and Nicholson—upwards of 500 people—were the first to call Birchtown home. By February 1784, the number of Birchtown settlers was further increased with the arrival of Dixon's company. In May, the companies of Murray, Bridges, Read, With and Fraction added another 308 individuals to the already crowded community. Captain Hamilton arrived in August with 40 Blacks who had recently arrived from London. Captain Johnson brought a company of 105 Blacks from Shelburne who had been turned out by their masters and employers. Another 66 individuals not attached to any company (later mustered under Captain Coffin)—and countless others who had escaped their enslavement in other parts of the province—brought the totals to just over 1,530 people, making Birchtown the largest free Black settlement outside of Africa at that time.

The muster lists of January 1784 reveal a total of 8,645 individuals in the area—4,700 white Loyalists, 1,269 servants and free Blacks in the town of Shelburne, and 1,485 Blacks in Birchtown. However, the exact number of settlers in Birchtown is difficult to verify. Within the first year at Birchtown, the numbers of settlers reported ranged from 1,500 to 2,400. Church records indicate names that do not appear in the muster lists and court records indicate individuals that do not appear in either of the preceding lists.

One early sketch of the area has Birchtown designated as a small oblong tract of land only 1,350 feet (411 meters) by 1,160 feet (354 meters). Another undated map of the settlement indicated a portion of land comprising 35 10-acre (4-hectare) lots, and yet another chart pictures a small parcel surrounded by larger lots granted to non-Black Loyalists. From the assortment of available resources, it seems clear that in the community's infancy the Birchtown land grants underwent several alterations. None of the maps, charts or sketches, however, indicates a tract of land large enough to accommodate the over 1,500 individuals that were gathered there in the late fall of 1784, waiting to occupy their land.

The challenges of providing for all

It was a tremendous challenge to provide for this number of settlers, and it became increasingly clear that they would soon run out of provisions. General Campbell was the Muster-Master to whom all the muster lists were reported and was in charge of the provision distribution to those on the lists. He ordered an examination of the claims of every individual on the muster lists, with the intent of removing those individuals who were well able to provide for themselves.

This examination revealed so many abuses that Campbell ordered a thorough investigation. As a result, 455 names were immediately struck from the lists. Even so, there was a critical need to bolster rations for those in distress, and permission was granted to purchase supplies from America.

The situation was so dire that some free Blacks who were threatened with starvation had indentured themselves for various periods of time to the Shelburne townsfolk, working as servants, artisans and apprentices. Their rations were to be drawn for them by the person for whom they worked, but comments from the muster reveal that unscrupulous employers cheated a number of these indentured Blacks out of their provisions.

Leaving the settlement

Although the official numbers given for Blacks living in Birchtown at the end of summer 1784 exceeded 1,500, those who made the muster lists as eligible to receive provisions only amounted to a little more than 1,000 individuals. Court records and remarks contained in the musters indicate that some had moved on in order to find work, others had died of sickness and exposure, and still others were captured and transported to the United States and the West Indies to be re-enslaved.

Of the remaining Black Loyalists, the trades and occupations revealed in the musters show that they were skilled craftspeople. There were carpenters, sail makers, blacksmiths, rope makers, ship carpenters, coopers, boat builders, sawyers and millers, tanners and skinners, caulkers, painters, farmers and gardeners, fishermen, pilots who were hired to guide vessels into the harbour because of their familiarity with the depth of water, etc., sailors, cooks and bakers, weavers, tailors and seamstresses, chimney sweeps, barbers, coachmen, shoemakers, and anchorsmiths, as well as a chair maker, clothier, hatter and doctor.

After a five-year wait, in 1789, the Birchtown Black Loyalists received word that their farm lots were surveyed and ready for occupation. By then, many had made up their mind to leave as soon as an opportunity presented itself. Trying to eke out a living on swampy, rocky soil, with no livestock, no guns or ammunition for hunting, no lumber for housing, and no capital or credit, took its toll on the settlers. In 1791, at least half of the families took advantage of the offer of free passage to Sierra Leone, West Africa. Those who chose to stay have descendants still residing in Shelburne and Birchtown today.

The information gleaned from the muster lists is invaluable for genealogists committed to completing their Black Loyalist family trees. Along with the lists of names, researchers can find ages, occupations, and in some cases, relationships to the heads of households.

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