Ledgers open book on black history

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Three account books found in the cupboard of an old house on the Quebec-Vermont border reveal what the first Loyalist settlers of two centuries ago - along with a handful of freed black slaves from the United States - bought, sold, worked at, and even went to jail for.

Handwritten in black ink on bond paper embossed with the British royal insignia, the ledgers were kept at the local inn of Missisquoi Bay, now Philipsburg, a village founded on Abenaki Indian ancestral land in the late 18th century as an outpost on the Albany, N.Y.-Montreal mail road.

The transactions - and the light they throw on the little-known origins of black history in Quebec - are being called a "missing link" to a past that is still not properly understood.

Though not unique - similar ledgers from the same inn, also listing names of blacks, exist in the National Archives in Ottawa - the books offer new insight into life on the border from 1786 to 1816.

The details they contain are both mundane and extraordinary.

Back then, for example, rum was a popular drink; a quart cost three shillings, according to the ledgers. Three yards of calico cloth cost one pound, three shillings and sixpence. Wages for four days of hoeing corn: 10 shillings. The prison sentence for counterfeiting U.S. dollar bills: two months.

Most revealing, however, are the unusual names at the top of some pages of accounts: Morris the Black Man, for example, and the almost feudal-sounding John the Potter, who by the absence of a family name is assumed to have been black.

"This could be a PhD thesis for history students, deciphering these ledgers. They're a gold mine," said the man who discovered them, local freelance photographer Robert Galbraith.

His wife, Phyllis Montgomery, comes from a family with long roots in the community; her grandfather, Quebec Superior Court judge and historian George H. Montgomery, preserved the books.

The ledgers originated at a place known as Champlain House, the first inn of the Eastern Townships, owned at the end of the 18th century by the Ruiter family. The building is now a nursing home, just up the street from the lakeside cottage in Philipsburg where Galbraith and his wife live.

Other ledgers from the Ruiter inn and from the rest of Montgomery's collection - dated 1797, 1798 and 1808-1810 - sit in the National Archives in Ottawa. They list other former slaves like Cato the Black Man (real name Cato Giles) and Jack the Black Man, says Montreal historian and Gazette copy editor Frank Mackey, author of Black Then: Blacks in Montreal, 1780s-1880s.

Now comes news of the other ledgers.

Galbraith first found them a decade ago in a little leather case used by Judge Montgomery that had been stored on the top shelf of a cupboard in the cottage.

The ink and paper were well preserved, perhaps because the box sat next to a stove pipe from the oil furnace, which prevented them from getting damp and rotting.

But busy with other things, Galbraith neglected his find - until now. At the end of Black History Month, he's trying again to generate interest.

Through a friend, Galbraith has approached the Missisquoi Museum in Stanbridge East to give the ledgers their first public viewing. He's also hoping descendants of the blacks named in the books will read about the ledgers' existence and reconnect with their family's past.

"I haven't seen the ledgers yet, but it sounds like a fascinating, remarkable find," said Galbraith's friend, Eden Muir, a Frelighsburg architect. He sits on the Missisquoi Museum's board of directors, which will discuss the books for the first time at a meeting today.

"It's important to get more details of that (Loyalist) period."

That's especially true, Muir added, in light of the controversy over a place in nearby St. Armand called Nigger Rock, thought to be a burial ground for slaves in the late 18th century.

For Galbraith and colleague Robert Cote, president of the Centre historique de St. Armand, the local historical society, the ledgers appear to show a more positive side of black life at the time.

"These books are the missing link to that time," Cote said.

"The black men there weren't slaves. They had money, they could buy things. They paid for their lodgings, were paid for what they produced. This place was a haven of freedom for them."

The first and largest ledger starts in 1786, the second begins in 1806 and the third runs from 1807 to 1816. The earliest book lists the transactions of Morris the Black Man - Morris Emery, a musician from the other side of Missisquoi Bay, according to Mackey.

In 1799, he bought a fiddle for $13 (the hefty sum was, unusually, recorded in dollars), paid 12 pounds sixpence for boarding, consumed quite a bit of rum, and was paid wages for "16 days work at the rate of 6 dollars per month."

As well, there's someone named Billings the Black Man, also identified as Theo Billings, and John the Potter, who was paid for making earthenware pots.

Finally, there's also a page for the other side of the story: a Loyalist settler named John Luke, whose ancestors came to Canada with slaves in tow.

Missing, though, are the names of any slaves they kept and subsequently freed.

On that matter, at least, these history books are silent.

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