1797 and 1804 are milestone years in terms of human rights in Canada and more particularly, right here in Cornwall and area. Although Canada, unlike the U.S.A., has no extensive nor lengthy history in the African slave trade, there are some cases of Black Loyalists who migrated from the U.S. to Canada and were ultimately awarded their freedom as well as land grants and the same for their descendants within a generation.
At his death on January 17, 1871, John Baker was noted as having been the last surviving formerly enslaved person of African descent in both Ontario and Quebec. John and his three siblings were the children of Jacob Baker (a free man) and Dorine (a slave). Under the law of the day, the children inherited the status of their slave mother, so John and his older brother Simon were born as slaves. A short time later the law had changed enough that their younger sisters, Elizabeth and Bridget, were born free.
Dorine’s grandfather, Cato Prime, was a native of Guinea in West Africa. He became the slave of John Low of New Jersey, father of Elizabeth who married Major James Gray in 1763 (Gray’s Creek is named after him). Cato’s daughter, Lavine, and her daughter, Dorine, were born while Cato was in the service of John Low and they also belonged to Low. Dorine was given to Elizabeth as a gift.
John and Simon became personal servants of Elizabeth’s husband James Gray and later of Gray’s only son Robert Isaac Dey Gray. John recounted how his brother Simon had been very well dressed for his role, more so than their master. Simon Baker and Dey Gray died when the H.M.S. Speedy sank on October 18, 1804. Dey Gray’s will dictated that his servants be granted their full freedom and a source of income upon his death and so John became a free man with property.
Grey’s land was subsequently purchased by John Macdonald of Garth and is now the site of Inverarden Regency Cottage, which functioned as a Museum for a time but has been mothballed for several years now.
This land grant above was repaired from five pieces by conservationist Moya Gillett, signed by Peter Russell, dated September 29, 1797 and registered October 19, 1797. Cato Prime, ex-slave, was granted 357 acres in Lake Township in Glengarry County of the Eastern District in Upper Canada. This land grant was just transferred from the archives of the Cornwall Community Museum to the Glengarry Archives in Alexandria.
The above graphic may help with understanding the boundary name changes over time.
The area that would eventually be called Lancaster Township was known as the “sunken township” or “Lake Township” (after nearby Lake St. Francis) as it was originally thought to be too wet or low-lying to be of much use. The dense forest and swamps were unexplored except by the indigenous people.
Deputy Surveyor Patrick McNiff’s Map of 1786 lists individuals granted land in Glengarry County, several of which have the word Negro below their names. Seven such men received land in the 2nd Concession of Lancaster Township, conditional that they or their heirs build or maintain some form of dwelling on the land within three years. They are as follows:
Lot Black Loyalist
10 Cato Prime
14 James Fonda
16 Jack Powell
21 Joseph Goff
23 William Thomas
27 London Derry (Old United Empire Loyalist List)
Information for this article comes from various sources, including Pringle’s book Lunenburgh or the old Eastern District, McNiff’s 1786 map as well as from the text of an interview granted by John Baker in 1868.