Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Runchey's Company of Coloured Men, 1812

The British did leave us the names of the men who served in what became known as ‘Captain Runchey’s Company of Coloured Men’. Runchey’s Company was a part of the small group of soldiers that fought the first wave of American invaders at Fort George on May 27, 1813 according to Bob Foley’s book, War of 1812. Casualties were high and the British regulars and the Canadian Militia were forced to withdraw.

I didn’t have much time to look at the list of names as I’m still working my way through the 2nd Lincoln Regiment, but I did jot down a few interesting points. (For more information, the Mayholme Genealogy and Historical Foundation is open Thursdays and Fridays from 10 to 5 or by appointment. The phone number is 905-934-1173. All they ask is a $5.00 donation.)

Richard Pierpoint was apparently captured by slave traders in Senegal when he was about 16 years old and sent to North America. Once here he was sold to a British officer.

Slavery’s gradual abolition in Canada began in the late 1700s, but when Pierpoint was freed and how he got to Canada was not recorded. It would have been before or around 1776 because the record notes that he fought with Butler’s Rangers during the American Revolution.

Decades later he was the person who suggested the formation of a company of ‘coloured’ soldiers to help defend the Peninsula during the War of 1812. He must have been about 50 by that time but nevertheless took up arms to defend his new country. He was granted 200 acres in Grantham for his service and became the first black settler in the area. He died in Grantham in September of 1838.

The soldiers in Runchey’s Company of Coloured Men wore a grey great coat, black gaiters and breeches, a felt cap with a plume and a green jacket with yellow facing.


As I have typed my way through the list of local men who served in the 2nd Lincoln Militia during the War of 1812 I have noticed a high number of desertions. Most of the entries on the list don’t specify why the men left the regiment or what happened to them. I just assumed that as most of them had been farmers who lived in the area, they had simply gone home when it was necessary to look after things. I imagined that they must have driven the highly trained British officers around the bend, but I didn’t imagine that the punishment would have been severe.

I have reached the names on the list that begin with the letter M and it’s the first time I have come across the comment that someone ‘deserted to the enemy’. That made me sit up a little straighter but it was the fate of Private McMillan that gave me the greatest shock. The notation after his name said ‘shot for desertion, Oct. 1814’.

Shooting a local man wouldn’t have endeared the British to the people living in Niagara. What could have happened? Were the British fed up with the unorthodox comings and goings of the militia men? Was McMillan the last straw? Did some Brit decide to show the local farmers they meant business or did McMillan do something that jeopardized the safety of the populace? Sadly nothing more is recorded.

This is the fifth of eight of my 7th Decade Girl blogs. By far this one held the greatest number of surprises. It also left me with the most unanswered questions. If I ever get to the National Archives in Ottawa I’ll try to find out why young Private McMillan was shot.

Till later,

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Black Orioles of '37

It seemed as if I had just posted my comment about 1937 being a year in which men’s and women’s roles were traditional, well defined and unquestioned when the movie ‘Amelia’ opened. If you haven’t seen it, it is well worth the $5.00 ticket, (cheap Tuesday price). It didn’t get great reviews but nothing short of total earthly destruction seems to excite the critics these days. Anyway, I take back my words. I wasn’t there and I don’t know what undercurrents were flowing through society that year.

And Rosie the Riveter was about to take her place on the assembly line! Shame on me!

Yesterday at the Museum I finished cataloguing the well known, (to most people), photo of the St. Catharines Orioles who played in the Niagara District Hockey League, 1937. They were the first all black hockey team in Canada. I say well known ‘to most people’, because their picture has appeared in McLeans Magazine as well as the Standard and a Toronto paper. A copy of the photo also hangs in the Hockey Hall of Fame. I seem to be the only person who didn’t know about this team.

I rushed into the archives section of the museum library and began working through the file drawers that hold the local sports history. My initial enthusiasm about an unusual story began to falter when I didn’t find anything. I began to worry that a) no one had bothered to collect anything about the team or b) if I did find something, I might not like what I found. I was wrong on both counts. There was a folder with newspaper clippings, and a copy of McLean’s. The stories were upbeat, with just a passing reference to the difficulties the team must have faced.

I learned that the team members all belonged to the BME Church on Geneva Street. At least one family could trace its roots back to the Underground Railroad and the escape to Canada from slavery. Two local businesses, (a trucking and a florist business) had not only sponsored them; they had bought all of the equipment including the skates! The Garden City Arena didn’t open until the following year and the Xerox copy of the only article that mentioned home ice was not readable so I’m not sure where the home games were played. I did learn that the Orioles traveled to Kitchener, Hamilton, Brantford and a few other cities in southern Ontario on the back of a flatbed truck supplied by their sponsor.

One of the articles mentioned that some teams refused to play against them.

The Orioles did it though; they played through the whole season. The opening of the new Garden City Arena was given as the reason why the team was disbanded the following year. The fellows evidently went on to play for various other teams in the league.

I am so impressed by their courage and I’m glad they ‘stepped up to the plate’ at a time when photographic and written records were kept. But now I’m beginning to wonder if the names of the free black men who fought along side the Canadian Militia in the War of 1812 were recorded.

It’s back to Mayholme tomorrow and maybe an answer. I’ll keep you posted.

Till later, Franciel

Sunday, November 8, 2009

1812, Some men, Some Women and One Lemon

On Thursday I took a minute to reread the names of the captains whose names appeared at the top of the militia muster list for the 2nd Lincoln Regiment, 1812. Askins, Burch, Cooper, Hamilton, Macklem, Rowe, Tourney, to name a few. Most of these names can be found in the 2009 phone book. I like to think that some of the families are still in the area. Unfortunately, Tourney and one other captain, (I’ve forgotten which one now that I am home and the list is no longer in front of me), were killed at Chippewa. Chippewa was the scene of terrible carnage for this regiment.

When I first read that Laura Secord went to the Queenston Heights battlefield to find her husband after the fighting ended I was quite astounded at her courage. I’ve since learned that she was not the only woman who did that during the War of 1812. It stands to reason that if the women lived in the area, they would have gone to find their husbands and sons. I imagine that the battlefield at Chippewa was the site of a terrible grief. So many men were lost.

If we lived in a society that better funded the arts I would suggest a sculpture of a group of searching women be erected in one of the battlefields.

The idea of a militia intrigues me. I am not a historian and I know nothing about the military, but if it happened in Niagara I’m interested. I gather when war was declared all of the able bodied men in the area had to show up. I was surprised at the number of men in the 2nd Lincoln who were incarcerated by the British at Fort George because they refused to take the oath of allegiance.

So who were these men? It isn’t likely too many of them were refusing to fight on religious grounds as there were evidently provisions made for the Quakers and Mennonites.

I wonder how many of them were Americans who came here after the American War of Independence ended. The government of Upper Canada wanted more settlers and offered an excellent incentive, i.e., cheap land. I’m guessing a lot of Americans loaded up the old family covered wagon and made the long trek north never thinking that they would one day be expected to fight against their former neighbours.

Unfortunately the list doesn’t say what happened to these fellows.

I think I’ll end with a comment about names. The vast majority of the men had names that are still popular today: John, David, William, Samuel, Jacob, etc. However there were some more unusual names such as Ebenezer, Horatio, Chauncey, Obadiah and Phineas. There was one poor soul whose first name I can only hope was the result of a scribing error. His first name was Lemon.

This is the third of eight ‘7th Decade Girl’ blogs. For many people, the 7th decade of life seems to be a time of great business. It is often a time to give back to the community by doing volunteer work. But retirement doesn’t always start out that way. Leaving the teaching profession was a devastating experience for me. I went from being a ‘very important person’ in the lives of at least 30 people to someone even I didn’t recognize as having much to give anymore. I suppose this blog is as much about me finding my way again as it is about the amazing world I’ve discovered.
Till next time,

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The 7th Decade Girl and 1937

This is the second in a series of 8, (maybe10), 7th Decade Girl blogs I hope to post to the St. Catharines Standard website. A 7th Decade Girl is a vibrant, (she says modestly), active woman between the ages of 59 and 68.

On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons I volunteer at the St. Catharines Museum. I am helping to catalogue the Standard Collection. The Standard Collection is comprised of thousands of photographic negatives of people, places and events taken by St. Catharines Standard photographers from 1936 to …? Actually I’m not sure of the date of the last negatives. 1970s, maybe. They certainly won’t all be catalogued in my lifetime so I haven’t concerned myself with the date of the last image.

I sit at a large work table in a brightly lit room in the basement of the Museum at Lock 3 with 4 other cataloguers. We each have a small light table, magnifying glasses, white cotton gloves, rulers, pencils, pens, etc. A similar work table with 3 or 4 other cataloguers is behind us. (They are working to catalogue the Museum’s general collection.) It is a congenial group and I really enjoy being a part of it.

Part of my job is to peer back seventy years into the glass negatives that contain the photographic images of 1937and describe in detail what I see.

Some general impressions of that year – nobody was overweight in 1937, ties to Britain were strong and male and female roles were traditional, clearly defined and not questioned. Oh, and a note about shoes...It was the end of the Depression and although most people managed to get spruced up for the camera they often couldn’t hide their feet. Their shoes speak with painful eloquence about hard times.

Some things have changed since 1937. One image that stands out is a shot of about 10 children taken in one of the local parks. They were waiting to register for the summer programmes that were offered by the city. Not a parent was in sight! Very different from today, but not at all different from Merritton in the 1950s when I grew up. What was alien to my childhood experience was the fact that the little girls were all wearing dresses. To play in! I was as shocked as if they’d all been wearing tiny, little burkas.

While cataloging a series of images of the 1937 Henley Regatta, (already over 50 years old by that time), it was difficult not to wonder what happened to the young men from Niagara who grinned into the camera and wore their medals so proudly. I found myself studying their faces but I never figured out exactly what I was looking for. A hint that they knew what was coming? A dark premonition of Dieppe, Hong Kong or Juno Beach? The war seemed to cast an insidious shadow backwards over those boys but they seemed oblivious to it on that hot day in August.

Something to think about in these uneasy times.

Till later, Francie