Dundas Valley Historical Society
Windows on our past—
Reflecting on our future
by Jane Mulkewich
Reproduced with permission of the author.
The story of Sophia Pooley may well be the only existing first-person narrative of someone who lived in slavery in Canada. Her story was published in 1856 in a collection of fugitive slave narratives collected and transcribed by Benjamin Drew. Of the 117 narratives in the collection, Pooley's story is unique, because she arrived in Canada as a slave (not as a fugitive slave), and lived in slavery in Canada for about 35 years (1778 to 1813). She was owned by Joseph Brant, a famous Mohawk leader, and later by Samuel Hatt, a noted English immigrant and war hero.
Joseph Brant purchased Sophia Pooley, and brought her to Canada in 1778. She states: "I guess I was the first colored girl brought into Canada", and "There were hardly any white people in Canada then - nothing here but Indians and wild beasts". Pooley lived with the Brant family at the head of Lake Ontario, in what is now Burlington. Popular accounts have the first white settlers, such as Robert Land, arriving at the head of Lake Ontario in 1784. So Pooley, a Black woman, was probably living in the Hamilton area for several years before the first white settler arrived.
Sophia's story mentions Dundas specifically, in regards to deer-hunting:
"While I lived with old Brant we caught the deer. It was at Dundas at the outlet. We would let the hounds loose, and when we heard them bark we would run for the canoe - Peggy, and Mary, and Katy, Brant's daughters and I. Brant's sons, Joseph and Jacob, would wait on the shore to kill the deer when we fetched him in. I had a tomahawk, and would hit the deer on the head - then the squaws would take it by the horns and paddle ashore. The boys would bleed and skin the deer and take the meat to the house. Sometimes white people in the neighbourhood, John Chisholm and Bill Chisholm, would come and say 'twas their hounds, and they must have the meat. But we would not give it up."
In 1793 the Chisholms arrived in Burlington as neighbours of Brant (their sons were John, age 9, and Bill, age 6). So the scenario described by Pooley involved her deer-hunting with a group of teenagers. If that scenario took place in 1800, for example, Brant's daughters (Peggy, Mary and Katy) would have been aged 18, 14, and 9, and Brant's sons (Joseph and Jacob) would have been aged 16 and 14, and John and Bill Chisholm would have been aged 16 and 13. William Chisholm later became the founder of Oakville, Ontario.
Pooley was likely in her thirties when she was sold to Samuel Hatt. Pooley said: "I was sold by Brant to an Englishman in Ancaster, for one hundred dollars, - his name was Samuel Hatt." Samuel Hatt, a brother of Richard Hatt, came to Canada from England in 1796, and settled in the Ancaster area in 1800. Samuel Hatt was married on October 21, 1807 to Margaret Thompson. Pooley was a domestic slave, so perhaps she was purchased in 1807, coinciding with the marriage? If so, Brant sold Pooley probably just about a month before he died. Joseph Brant died on November 24, 1807.
Correspondence from 1801 and 1802 show that Brant had considered a purchase of a Black slave named Peggy Pompadour, who was owned by the governor of Upper Canada, Peter Russell. Evidently the sale did not happen, as in 1806 Peter Russell placed a newspaper advertisement, offering to sell Pompadour for the sum of one hundred and fifty dollars. In his book on the history of Blacks in Canada, Robin Winks notes that slave prices in Upper Canada fell steadily after 1800, until the last recorded sale of a slave in 1806 (and he may have been referring to Peggy Pompadour). It was likely in 1807 that Pooley was sold to Hatt for one hundred dollars.
Samuel Hatt was a Captain of the 2nd York and 5th Lincoln Militia (known as Hatt's Volunteers) that accompanied Brock to Detroit in 1812. During the war years, Pooley was probably at home helping Hatt's wife. The only thing she says about this time period is that "I was seven miles from Stoney Creek at the time of the battle - the cannonade made every thing shake well". This would have been during the Battle of Stoney Creek in June 1813. After the war Pooley left Samuel Hatt. She stated: "Then the white people said I was free, and put me up to running away. He did not stop me- he said he could not take the law into his own hands."
Legislation passed in 1793 prohibited the further introduction of slaves into Upper Canada, but legally no existing slaves were emancipated until 1833. Slavery still existed, although recorded documents often use the language of indentured labour. For example, in 1810, Samuel Hatt's name was on an indenture in the town of Ancaster which bonded Eli Brackenridge "orphan negro 5 years old" to Elijah Secord until the age of 21 years, at which time he was to receive a coat, waistcoat, overalls, hat, shoes, stockings and suitable linens. The law of 1793 provided that any child born in Upper Canada of a slave mother would become free when they became an adult, and that any owner who set a slave free must make sure that he or she would not become a public charge (hence the suit of clothing).
When talking of her period of slavery with Brant, Pooley states: "I had no care to get my freedom". She had no means of support outside of the institution of slavery, so it is no wonder that she had no care to get her freedom. She stated: "Then I lived in what is now Waterloo. I married Robert Pooley, a black man. He ran away with a white woman: he is dead. I am now unable to work, and am entirely dependent on others for subsistence; but I find plenty of people in the bush to help me a good deal."
The first-person account of Sophia Pooley gives insight into the role of a domestic slave during this time period of Canadian history, particularly because she was owned by both an Aboriginal and an English-Canadian owner. Pooley lived her life in slavery here at the Head of the Lake (in what is now Burlington, Dundas and Ancaster), during the dying days of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, in the very early days when the colony of Canada was being established.
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