In February, for Black History Month, I asked Alan Campbell of the Lambton County Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society for his help. I am a member of the Lambton County group, and I read a report by Alan about his Black history research into Ontario census records. He was most helpful, and generously pointed me toward research conducted by Michael Wayne PhD at the University of Toronto, and by Barry Christopher Noonan in Wisconsin. That 1861 Census research brings us the names and locations of identified Black persons in Prescott (2), Russell (9), and Glengarry (39). Here, we take a look at the Prescott findings of: John Dawson of Longueuil Township and A. Robertson of South Plantagenet.
Column #13 1861 Census
In 1995, Michael Wayne was a social history professor at the University of Toronto. He published a paper in Histoire sociale/Social history, a York University publication. It was entitled: The Black Population of Canada West on the Eve of the American Civil War: a Reassessment Based on the Manuscript Census of 1861.
Wayne’s research was aimed at reviewing the rate of repatriation of freed Blacks from Canada West back to the United States after the Civil War. He wrote that the 1861 Census showed that the Black population of Canada West (Ontario) —
… had made their way to all corners of Canada West and had become an integral part of the provincial economy. More than half were from the United States, but contrary to popular opinion they were mainly free Blacks, not runaway slaves. …
Wayne and his research team performed a detailed review of the 1861 Census for Canada West. The 1861 Census had a column, #13, for “Coloured Persons, Mulatto, or Indian.” The research team captured all the Column #13 entries per county, including Prescott, Russell, and Glengarry.
In 1861, enumerators were provided with this instruction:
13th. In this column mark a figure (1) for every coloured person’s name, i.e. negro or negress. This was much neglected last census, and the number of coloured persons was not ascertained. If Mulatto, mark M after his or her name – thus, (1) M; and if Indian, mark “Ind”.
The Prescott County Census Commissioner for the 1861 Census was Charles Waters of Vankleek Hill. He wrote to his superiors questioning if it was even reasonable for enumerators to gather census information from Black or “Indian” residents. His disdain was palpable, as he appeared to believe that to obtain information from “Colored, Mulatto, or Indian” for their name, religion, birth place and age would be problematic.
However, according to Michael Wayne, enumerators did do their job.
The Prescott County representative wrote his superiors asking how much information on Blacks they wanted him to gather: “It would be difficult in most cases to ascertain their Names Religion Birth Place Ages or any thing else…”. Negligence in recording data on religion, age, or even names is not the same as leaving individuals off the rolls entirely, however, there is little evidence to suggest that enumerators failed to take seriously their responsibility to provide the Bureau officials with an accurate count.
While the 1861 Census in Canada was underway, the American Civil War began in April, 1861 to end in April 1865. This was a war about economics, governance, and underpinning it all, slavery.
There was slavery in both Upper Canada and Lower Canada. In Lower Canada, there was slavery first under the French regime, and then under the British regime.
The British Slave Trade Act of 1807 did not abolish slavery. Rather, it brought an end to the slave trade, the slave markets. Those already enslaved remained so. Children born to slaves were still considered slaves. It was only with the 1833 British Slavery Abolition Act that slavery finally officially ended throughout the British Empire.
Eminent Canadian historian, Marcel Trudel (1917-2011) catalogued in detail 4,200 Indigenous and Black slaves in Lower Canada from 1632-1834. Trudel itemized names and owners. He discovered that about two-thirds of slaves were Indigenous, identified by the derogatory slang “Panis” (for Pawnee). (Dictionnaire des esclaves et de leurs propriétaires au Canada français / Canada’s Forgotten Slaves, Two Centuries of Bondage, Marcel Trudel 1960, 2009)
Trudel was encouraged to perform the same detailed study of slavery in Ontario; regretfully, he had to decline.
In 2010, author Frank Mackey published his book: Done With Slavery, the Black Fact in Montreal 1760-1840 (McGill-Queen’s University Press). In his Introduction, Mackey writes:
“We cannot know who we are without knowing who we were, and we in Canada — whatever our origin or skin tone — will never know that without understanding the black experience and what it tells us about Eurocentric culture that has dominated our history. But we cannot begin to restore the missing black element to its rightful place without first establishing who the blacks were who have been left out.”
In 1841, the Province of Canada was formed. It contained Canada East (Quebec) and Canada West (Ontario). Professor Wayne’s 1995 work addressed the presence of the Black population in Canada West (Ontario) in 1861. Although many were born in the province, they did not have freedom from pervasive racism.
Although entitled to equality before the law, they experienced persistent discrimination. Whites called them “nigger” to their faces, and worse. Still, when the Civil War ended most chose to remain. Canada was not all they had hoped for, perhaps, but, despite what their white neighbours may have believed, it had become home. For the 40 per cent of the black population who had been born in the province, it had never been anything else.
We know from the 2022 article in ‘Vankleek Hill Stories’, History of Racism & Stereotyping in Vankleek Hill’s Past [link here], that the “N-word” was used in The Eastern Ontario Review which began publication in 1893. No readers’ letters of complaint were published about its use which sadly infers that the term was longstanding and deemed acceptable.
A word search in The Eastern Ontario Review for the “N-word” finds it intermittently used in the purchased pages of fiction and international news from 1894 to 1915. In 1916, the term appears in seven issues of the newspaper, then fewer times in 1917 and 1918, until disappearing in 1921.
… The intent of racism is to objectify and dehumanize a race. To make “those people” appear both lesser and less deserving; and, in turn “we” become both more deserving and entitled to hold the power.
The 1861 Census enumeration forms officially indicated the racist term “Mulatto”. The term was historically used to describe a person who had one Black parent, and one White parent. The derogatory term is derived from the Spanish for mule, which is half horse and half donkey. This racist term was successfully designed to be demeaning and offensive.
Other races do sadly share in being the subject of racial epithets. However, unlike the Black population, no other racial group is defined by their percentage of White. “Mulatto” immorally implies that to be less than Black is better.
Wayne’s research of the 1861 Census for Canada West provided the quantity of those enumerated in Column #13 “Colored Persons, Mulatto or Indian.” The results for our region were: Prescott County: two; Russell County: nine; and Glengarry County: 39.
In 2000, Barry Christopher Noonan, for the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, published Blacks in Canada 1861. He compiled the names of everyone identified in the 1861 Census Column #13 as: “Black, Mulatto or Indian”.
Noonan’s valuable work provided names. He noted that ‘more than half the people listed as Black or Mulatto in the 1861 Census were born here and not ‘freed slaves’.’ That conclusion agreed with Michael Wayne’s research.
With the assistance of these two publications, for Prescott County we are able to locate:
— John Dawson, age 20, in the Township of Longueuil (today part of Champlain Township).
— A. Robertson, age 19, in the Township of South Plantagenet.
We must keep in mind that these two young men were born c.1840; Dawson in “Canada East” and Robertson in “Upper Canada”. That was only a few years after the abolition of slavery in Canada. An ugly fact to consider is that although the two were not ‘freed slaves’, they very likely had parents or grandparents with direct life experience with slavery.
John Dawson, Longueuil Township
In the 1861 Census report for Longueuil Township, Prescott County is John Dawson. In Column #13 for “Colored Persons, Mulatto or Indian” there is the letter “M” for “Mulatto”. Dawson was born in Canada East (formerly Lower Canada). He was Roman Catholic, and he was unable to read or write.
There is no occupation indicated for Dawson; however, he was enumerated with Wilfrid Labelle, age 23, and his wife Mary A. Labelle, 23. Wilfrid Labelle was an “innkeeper” in Longueuil who had a one-storey log building.
Also enumerated with Wilfrid and Mary Labelle was Olive Brazeau, 20, who was a “Servant”. The census indicated that neither Olive Brazeau nor John Dawson were Labelle family members. Neither Brazeau nor Dawson lived with the Labelle Family.
To get an idea of the business that John Dawson worked for, we look at the 1861 Census Agricultural Schedule for Longueuil Township. Wilfrid Labelle’s log house sits on one acre. He has one horse and one cow valued at $70. And, he has a “carriage for hire” which was valued at $24. As an innkeeper he was in a position to provide transportation for his guests, or service to the community.
The enumerator, J.C. Marston, did not provide any value for the Labelle business, nor the wages paid to either of Olive and John in the columns provided. Marston was one of many disgruntled enumerators. Their instructions sent them to enumerate in January and February, in winter conditions compounded by what Marston referred to as poor road conditions and a “scattered” population. The official pay for enumerators was 10 shillings per 100 names. Marston and others petitioned for 15 shillings per 100 names.
Twenty years after the 1861 Census, Wilfrid Labelle appears on the 1881 Prescott County map for Longueuil Township where he now owns a hotel. We discover that he was born in Québec in 1838, and arrived in Longueuil in 1859 just before starting his innkeeping business.
Did John Dawson relocate from Québec to Longueuil Township with Wilfrid Labelle? The many facets of Dawson’s life may never be fully known.
The 1881 Prescott County map for Longueuil Township map indicated Wilfrid Labelle’s hotel in the northeast section of Cassburn Road, at the bend.
With no more than an approximate year of birth, 1841, and the general location of Canada East, I have not been able to find out more about the life of John Dawson. In later census reports, there are a number of John Dawsons in southern Ontario.
A. Robertson, South Plantagenet
The second person to be identified as “M” for “mulatto” in the 1861 Census for Prescott County lived in South Plantagenet.
In the 1861 Census for South Plantagenet was A. Robertson, 19. In Column #13 was “M” for “mulatto”. He was born in Upper Canada, was Roman Catholic, and was unable to read or write. His occupation was listed as “labourer”.
Robertson was enumerated with Lumber Merchant James Burton, 30, and his wife Hannah Burton, 26. The couple had two children: L.J. Burton, 4 and Simon, 2.
The Burton Family had one “Servant”, Jane McCullough, 18, originally from Ireland, who the enumerator listed as single, and he indicated she was a member of the family.
Then followed a list of five male labourers, all single. Two were family members: Robert Burton, 20, R. Burton, 22. Three were non-family labourers: A. Robertson, 19; A. McPhee, 27; and, William Mackie, 25. (Mackie appears on the next page of the Census.)
In the corresponding 1861 Agricultural Schedule for South Plantagenet we find out more about the Burton Lumber business.
It was located on the “Rear of the 8th Concession”. James Burton had livestock, two horses and two cows, valued at $110.
For the business, Burton had 100 acres valued at $400. According to the enumerator, Burton “saws logs,” and his saw mill operated on “water power”. The “Capital Invested in Business, in Real & Personal Estate” was valued at $2200. The sawmill, valued at $2000, annually produced “200 thousand feet” of “boards” with a value of $1600. This was a substantial family business that required employees.
James Burton reported to the enumerator that he had “four male” employees and “one female”. The individual wages listed under “Average Cost per Month for Male Labour” was $10. For the “Average Cost per Month of Female Labour”, the answer was $2.
Although we can tally five named male labourers, apparently one of them is not officially collecting wages. Were one of the two family-related labourers not collecting wages? Did the enumerator make an error in his reporting? We will never know the explanation.
On the 1862 Walling map of Prescott & Russell, we find J. Burton on Lot 23 Concession 10, South Plantagenet. A creek off the South Nation River runs through his lot.
Neither the Burton Family nor the Burton sawmill appear on the 1881 Prescott County map for South Plantagenet.
What do we learn?
As in the case of John Dawson, there is little information available to help enrich our knowledge of the life of A. Robertson. Perhaps there will be someone to take up that research.
The research of Professor Wayne does inform us that in 1861, Prescott County had at least two Black men in the population. Russell County had nine persons and Glengarry had 39 persons of Black race (see listings at bottom).
With the work of both Wayne and Noonan, we have added to our knowledge of the people who made-up our region in its early formative years.
As we pull ourselves away from perpetuating the narrow white European origin stories of those colonial days, we now accurately acknowledge that we are in fact on non-treaty Algonquin Lands.
Thanks to available research, we can rework our preconceived notions about early arrivals here, and recognize that there were Black neighbours — people who had to endure the deliberate racist society around them.
Critical knowledge of our community reveals new diversity, and tells us that ‘we are richer than we think’.