Black Pioneers

Black Pioneers


The most famous of the Black Loyalist military units were the Black Pioneers and Guides. Divided into a number of different corps attached to larger armies, they served as scouts, raiders, and what we would today call military engineers.

The Black Brigade

    For the Black Loyalists, there could be no security in freedom. What was a natural right for most whites could be stolen from blacks with frightening ease.

    In order to survive, many landless blacks were forced into a form of mediaeval peasantry. As sharecroppers, they laboured on white men's land and gave them half their crop in return. The sharecropper had to save seed from his half of the produce for the next year. This made it nearly impossible to accumulate any savings, and indeed, most sank deep into debt. With Nova Scotia's rocky, acidic, soil, it was practically impossible to do anything more than survive.

    Sharecropping had another virtue for white landowners. Many had been granted large amounts of land, hundreds of acres in size. However, if the land had not been cleared, they risked having it confiscated under the terms of the land grants. To protect their investment they needed to do whatever they could to improve the land. The obvious solution was to have poor blacks work the land for them, and then farm it themselves once the land was cleared and their title was established.

    John Clarkson wrote in his journals about men who had suffered so greatly that they were forced to sell their clothing and most basic possessions. Others routinely had to eat their seed for the next year and were thus forced to borrow from their masters. An accumulated debt could quickly place a man in a state of dependence not much different from slavery.

    Imagine the fate of John Brown, who worked on the farms of Anglican Bishop Inglis. Inglis had large estates and a number of sharecroppers. When they first arrived on the land it was unsettled, maybe cleared by logging but certainly never plowed. Over three years Brown and his wife managed to pull away the rocks and stumps that littered the soil and plant a thriving crop, to Inglis's approval. Inglis's reaction? He moved Brown and his family to new, uncleared land, so that he could expand his harvests.

    Inglis was hardly alone. Another white landowner, Gideon White, bemoaned the departure of his eight tenant families for Sierra Leone. White was also a slave owner who had his servant girl whipped with 60 lashes for stealing a dress. White felt that the loss of the sharecroppers had destroyed Shelburne's chance of success.

    Sharecropping was especially prevalent in the Preston and Annapolis regions.Like indentured servants, many of the sharecroppers had sunk into debt and were prevented from leaving for Sierra Leone.

    Given the poverty and starvation of the time, many blacks had little choice but to sell themselves into indenture. A form of temporary slavery, indenture and the related custom of apprenticeship were common for both blacks and whites. Blacks faced additional dangers though; they were without influential friends and viewed by most as a servant class. Many thought that blacks were natural slaves, suited only for brute labour and taking orders. In circumstances like these, it was all too easy for whites to exploit their servants.

    Some sought to lengthen terms of indenture, either by tricking illiterate people into signing longer terms than they intended or by forging the original contract. John Clarkson recorded the sad story of Lydia Jackson, who was pressured into signing what she thought was a one year term of indenture. In fact, it was for 39 years. She was then sold to a man who beat her mercilessly, even when she was eight months pregnant. He then attempted to sell her as a slave in the West Indies. Disputes like these rarely reached the courts, as the word of a black was not considered to be of as much weight as that of a white citizen.

    Parents who could not support their children would often indenture them off so they could learn a trade. Sometimes reclaiming them was impossible. Some masters would present a bill for several years of lodging; of course a poor family could never hope to pay. Others would simply claim that the children had been their slaves from the beginning. If possible, many would sell their servants as slaves to people traveling outside Nova Scotia, where their claims would never even be considered.

    At other times, long ago claims of ownership would be brought up. The case of Mary Postell is instructive. Mary escaped from her rebel master in South Carolina and fled to British lines. She received a certificate of freedom, but had it stolen from her. In the evacuation, she ended up traveling to Florida in the service of a man named Jesse Gray. Gray claimed her as his slave, and sold her to his brother claiming he had bought her in Florida.

    Gray evacuated to Shelburne when Florida was returned to Spain, and Mary feared she would be sold off again. She escaped, but ended up in court defending her freedom. Mary found two witnesses from Birchtown who attested to her having been a rebel slave and a worker on the British lines. Those witnesses had their homes destroyed and one of their children was murdered while they testified in court.

    Despite all this, the court found in the Gray brothers' favour, and Mary was sold off in Argyle for 100 bushels of potatoes, with her children kept in bondage as well.

    In other cases people simply kidnapped free blacks and sold them off in the United States or the West Indies; much like the African slave trade but with a much shorter voyage. While selling slaves outside of the province was illegal, many people found exceptions of one sort or another or simply defied the embargo. Trade with the Indies was practically the only commerce going, and there were numerous opportunities to smuggle blacks on board.

    Here, the famed Lord Dunmore once again comes into play. Despite his legacy of having freed thousands of slaves, he was no opponent of slavery. As the new Governor of the Bahamas, Dunmore offered bounties to ship's captains who brought their cargo of slaves to his ports. In a strange twist of fate, four of his personal slaves managed to escape to Shelburne on trading ship, and Dunmore sent agents to recapture them. One was quickly found, and another had himself put in jail for nonpayment of a debt. The courts refused to release him until the debt was paid. The agents refused to do so at first, but eventually settled with the debtor for half the amount. The other two women escaped capture and may even have descendants in Nova Scotia today.

    Their diverse situations mean that records of their activities are scarce - for the most part they weren't treated as a standard regiment but were instead divided into small companies and assigned as needed to various units. For the most part they dug fortifications and built huts and accomodations. While not a fighting unit, they would have often been called on to work under heavy fire and in the most dangerous conditions. In the record books of their arrival in Port Roseway, they are divided into companies of about 30 men each.

    Although the Pioneers were the most numerous black unit, the Black Brigade was more daring in action. This small band of elite guerillas raided and conducted assassinations all across New Jersey. A former slave known as Colonel Tye, one of the original leaders of the Ethiopian Regiment, was the man who led them. Tye survived the famine and sickness of that regiment and returned to fight in his native Monmouth County, New Jersey, exacting revenge against his old master and his friends. The Colonel was an honorific; the British never formally commissioned blacks as officers but sometimes informally bestowed (or perhaps allowed others to give them) officer's titles.

    He was the most feared Loyalist in the area, raiding fearlessly through New Jersey, from his first recorded action in the Battle of Monmouth in 1778 until 1780. Tye captured Patriots and much needed supplies, and in one celebrated raid murdered an infamous Patriot named Joseph Murray. Tye and the Black Brigade first fought independently, and then in partnership with a white unit called the Queen's Rangers. The supplies they seized were vital to the survival of the Loyalists in New York.

    During a raid on a patriot militia leader, Tye and his brigade were caught in a drawn out battle. Eventually they burned their target out, but not before Tye had taken a musket ball through his wrist. The wound quickly turned gangrenous, tetanus set in, and within weeks he had died. Probably the most effective and respected black soldier of the Revolution was lost.

    Other fighting units that Black Loyalists served in included the Jersey Shore Volunteers, the King's American Dragoons, the Jamaica Rangers, and the Mosquito Shore Volunteers. Blacks also commonly served in the navy and as musicians in nearly all regiments.

    It's almost impossible to make a fair examination of the issue of land distribution in a space this short and informal. There are too many documents to examine, sources to be weighed and compared. However, the issue is so important that it demands some sort of consideration, and so we must rely on and be indebted to the scholarship of others.

    When the Black Loyalists arrived in the Atlantic colonies, the British intended for them to receive the same amount of land as all other disbanded soldiers. The normal arrangements would either be a small town lot and 50 acres of farmland, or a 200 acre farm in less settled country. In fact, this is a fairly accurate summary of what most white Loyalists received; the average farm grant was close to 75 acres.

    The blacks were not so fortunate. While most did receive town lots, the majority never received farmland at all. Those lots that were granted were on poor soil, small, remote, and very late in coming. In many cases the blacks had already become indentured servants or sharecroppers by the time they had a chance to receive land.

    In Birchtown, about one third of the settlers were granted 20-40 acre farm lots in 1789. The lots were in an area called Beaver Dam, about 10 miles west of Birchtown. Beaver Dam was inland, next to a lake on rocky, spruce covered ground. The soil was almost impossible to cultivate, with very acidic soil and covered with large rock outcroppings. It's pleasant cottage country, but totally unsuitable for growing fields of vegetables.

    To be accurate, the whole region is unsuitable for agriculture, a fact that caused much argument among the Port Roseway Associates. There are some better suited areas near Shelburne, with a mix of hardwoods and evergreens which creates more fertile soil. Some small hills with less rocky soil also exist, principally up on the Roseway river. Unfortunately, all that land was long gone by the time the blacks of the area were considered.

    After the race riot, the government had turned over the land distribution to the Associates. By the summer of 1786 two years later, all the whites had been granted farmland. Three years passed before the blacks were considered. By that time, Birchtown was surrounded by white settlers' farm lots, and the only available land was marginal and distant. Most blacks never worked on their land at all, and thus had it seized and auctioned off.

    The story in Preston was similar. About half of the blacks in the area did receive 50 acre farm lots, but their grants were much later and smaller than the whites in the area, who usually received 200 acres each. While the land was granted relatively early, more and more blacks poured into the area. Most of the men ended up working as sharecroppers on already marginal land.

    In Brindley Town, a survey was made in 1789, but it infringed on a section of glebe or church land. While glebe land reservations were usually put aside in favor of settlers' land claims, in this case the church took precedence, even though the surveyors suggested that the land could be made up elsewhere.

    In fact, the botched Brindley Town land grant was used to try and discredit Thomas Peters when he returned to Nova Scotia from England - it was argued that he had been offered farmland despite the fact that none of the grants were ever made.

    Tracadie was a different case. It seems that Thomas Brownspriggs made a tactical decision when his people first arrived in the Guysborough area; to request remote land so as not to compete with whites for attention. While the grants were made quickly, the land left something to be desired in both size and quality. In general, it resembled the description of Beaver Dam in it's rockiness and poor soil, and their grants were only 40 acres per family compared to a promise of 200. Their remoteness made it difficult to receive rations and tools; but having their land early gave them a crucial head start in building a settlement. None of the Tracadie blacks left for Sierra Leone; whether from lack of desire or knowledge of the opportunity. Contemporary observers commented that they were better off than other black communities.

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