A cross-border collaboration fueled by an annual conference in Cornwall, Ontario, is helping to honor the life of a Canadian soldier who was born a slave, set free after the death of his owner and fought for the British Crown.
One of his battles was at the second Battle of Sackets Harbor on May 29, 1813 when British forces tried and failed to capture the town, which was the principal dockyard and base for the American naval squadron on Lake Ontario. The National Park Service listed the battle as one of the 20 most significant of the War of 1812.
John Baker, the former slave and soldier, lived in Cornwall into his 90s until his death. He fought with the 104th Regiment of the British Crown Forces. The Sackets Harbor battle was just one of the battles he saw. He is believed by his researchers to be the last person born into slavery in Canada to die.
“One of our goals is to discover the underrepresented who did serve during the war associated with Sackets — on either side,” said Constance B. Barone, site manager at Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site.
Mrs. Barone discovered the background on the life of John Baker during an annual Zoom meeting earlier this year involving a group of Canadian historians and battle re-enactors. It’s a conference that she usually attends in person each year. That format was scrapped this year due to the pandemic.
One of the topics of the Zoom conference was Canadians with African descent in a program presented by Natasha Henry, an educator, historian, and curriculum consultant who is also president of the Ontario Black History Society.
“She was doing a presentation about uncovering some of the hidden history in Toronto, particularly people of color and the very early settlers coming in with the British, settling in York and that area in Upper Canada,” Mrs. Barone said. “As I listened to her presentation, she mentioned John Baker and said that he was with the 104th Regiment at Sackets Harbor. And I thought, ‘Wow! I did not know that.’ It was a wonderful surprise.”
Following the conference, Mrs. Barone got in touch with Ms. Henry, who referred her to the United Empire Loyalists’ Association of Canada and its “Bridge Annex” chapter in Cornwall, Ontario.
The United Empire Loyalists were generally those who were settled in the 13 colonies at the outbreak of the American Revolution but who remained loyal to Britain and who settled in what is now Canada at the end of the war.
The Bridge Annex of the UELAC is the host this year of the association’s annual conference. It will be the first virtual conference in its history but there will be some “live” elements.
A major project for UELAC 2021 is the installation of a physical memorial to John Baker. Also, a War of 1812 grave marker will be presented in his honor in Cornwall.
Mrs. Barone also wished to contribute something to the conference on behalf of the Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site.
“We decided that the best thing we could do was to create a video which explains, to a certain degree, the Battle of Sackets Harbor, if you could condense it to 10 or 12 minutes,” she said.
Battlefield staff member Nicole Cronk did the filming and editing for the project. Mrs. Barone has a “cameo” role as she speaks in front of the Crown Forces monument that honors the approximately 50 members of the Crown Forces killed at the Second Battle of Sackets Harbor on May 29, 1813 and buried in an unknown burial site on the battleground. The monument was dedicated in 2013. In 2019, Mrs. Barone was presented the British Empire Medal for her tributes to British and Canadian soldiers who fought in the War of 1812.
“It’s our first video created using hardware and software given the site through a Museum Association of New York/Institute of Museum and Library Services grant that is supporting 100 museums/historic sites across the state to advance virtual programming,” Mrs. Barone said.
Jennifer DeBruin, a genealogist, historian and author, is co-chairwoman for UELAC’s 2021 conference. She’s a native of Cornwall and now lives in the Rideau Lakes township.
The regional focus of UELAC 2021 is Cornwall and Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry counties, Ontario, which Ms. DeBruin said is an area rich in history — Loyalist and beyond.
“My ancestors came from the Mohawk Valley, and that’s where many of the Loyalists in Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry were from,” she said.
Mrs. DeBruin has a great interest in finding “untold stories.” “The story of the enslaved that Loyalists brought with them into Canada after the Revolution as really an interest to me,” she said. “As I go through the church records in Cornwall, there were more people in the black community than you might imagine. And it’s not something we’d ever talked about. We’re just now, like many, beginning to understand the fuller scope of the stories that are out there in relation to this history.”
According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, in early Canada, “The enslavement of African peoples was a legal instrument that helped fuel colonial economic enterprise. The buying, selling and enslavement of Black people was practiced by European traders and colonists in New France in the early 1600s, and lasted until it was abolished throughout British North America in 1834.”
“We know there were still people enslaved after that point, but that’s when you were no longer allowed to enslave people in Canada,” Ms. DeBruin said.
On July 4, 1827, New York became the first U.S. state to pass a law for the total abolition of legal slavery.
“People used to escape slavery in Canada into what we call northern states now, previous to that,” Ms. DeBruin said. “It kind of reversed after 1834.”
John Baker, his mother and siblings were owned by Robert Isaac Dey Gray, a lawyer, judge, politician and solicitor-general who was born in 1772. The Gray family originally lived in Quebec, where Robert’s father, James Gray, became a major in the 1st battalion of Sir John Johnson’s King’s Royal Regiment of New York. After the war, the family moved to just east of the Loyalist settlement of New Johnstown (Cornwall, Ontario).
Robert Isaac Dey Gray died in October 1804 when the gunboat HMS Speedy sank during a fierce snowstorm on Lake Ontario, south of the future site of Brighton, Ontario, and west of Prince Edward County. Mr. Gray was traveling to prosecute a murder case, according to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.
“Robert Isaac Dey Gray had drafted his will that said upon his death, John Baker and his mother (Dorinda) and enslaved siblings would be set free,” Ms. DeBruin said. One of those siblings, Simon, Robert’s servant, was among those who also perished aboard the HMS Speedy.
Money and property were also left for the Baker family in the will, to help secure them financially. In the winter of 1803-04, Mr. Gray had purchased Dorinda’s mother, Lavine, in Albany, according to the 1890 book, “Lunenburgh, or the Old Eastern District” and its chapter on “John Baker, the Last of Those Who Had Been Born in Slavery in Canada.”
In freedom, John Baker , described as “a mulatto,” eventually joined the militia.
“Looking at the character through the story of his life and what people thought of him, there are contemporary accounts of how well respected he was,” Ms. DeBruin said. “He just seemed like a man who was interested in adventure and wanted to get out of the doldrums of enslavement — being told what to do. This was finally a sense of freedom because he could join freely in the regiment. He could fight. He ended up in some exciting battles during the War of 1812 period and he even was at the Battle of Waterloo over in Europe. I think it gave him a sense of freedom despite the contradiction of fighting for the Crown who said it was OK to enslave people.”
Ms. DeBruin said there are some accounts indicating that James Baker was slightly wounded at the Battle of Sackets Harbor.
“It obviously didn’t stop him from reenlisting,” she said.
In the book, “Lunenburgh, or the Old Eastern District,” Mr. Baker gave an account of the Battle of Waterloo:
“We were at Waterloo, when Col. Hatch commanded us; the 104th Regiment was ours. I saw Napoleon. He was a chunky little fellow; he rode hard and jumped ditches.”
Mr. Baker was discharged in Montreal.
“I liked the service,” he recalled in the “Lunenburgh” account. “If I were young and supple I would not be out of the army. The Queen now gives me a pension. Some of my sisters are still living near, this. I and mother were freed by Sol. Gray’s will. We got a little of the money he left for us, but not much.”
After his service to the Crown forces, Mr. Baker returned to Cornwall.
“In Cornwall, he would pick up whatever work he could,” Ms. DeBruin said. “Later in life, the account that people gave and what he has given is that he worked odd jobs at a store on Pitt Street in Cornwall.”
At the store, he would sit on a stool and tell stories while awaiting assignments for odd jobs, Ms. DeBruin said.
The UELAC annual virtual conference, hosted by the Bridge Annex, began Thursday and concludes Monday. Several speakers will be featured in online presentations, including a 7 p.m. today talk by Ms. DeBruin on “Traitors, Spies & Heroes: Loyalist Espionage during the American Revolution.” There’s a total of five speakers in the presentation series, at $10 each, Canadian funds. An all-access pass for the conference is $50.
Because of the pandemic, Ontario is on lockdown through June 2. A John Baker memorial video debuted at 11:30 a.m. Saturday. The video was produced from an actual memorial event. The video will stay online after its debut.
“The one-hour program will be the dedication event prior to any future plans after installation,” Ms. DeBruin said. “We have engaged several groups in the dedication program. It will also serve as the first public ‘unveiling’ of the memorial storyboard.”
A presentation of a War of 1812 veteran’s memorial stone for Mr. Baker is also part of the memorial video. The stone was attained through the graveside.ca project, and presented by the Canadian Fencibles.
The city of Cornwall will install the memorial storyboard for Mr. Baker in front of the Cornwall Community Museum, Ms. DeBruin said, at a date to be determined. Bridge Annex is donating an original oil painting of John Baker to the museum as part of its exhibit.
The text for the memorial was written by Ms. Henry. It reads:
“John Baker was born into slavery in Lower Canada (Quebec), in the 1780s to Dorinda, a Black woman enslaved by Major James Gray. When the Gray family relocated to Cornwall, John, Dorinda, and his brother Simon were brought with them. The Major’s son, Robert, inherited John and his family when Major Gray died. In 1804, John and his family were manumitted after Robert’s death. In freedom, John enlisted as a private in the New Brunswick Fencibles (the 104th Regiment of Foot) and served during the War of 1812. He took part in several actions. John went overseas and fought in the Battle of Waterloo after the war.
After discharging, John reunited with his family, married a woman named Hannah, and worked as a general labourer. John Baker died in 1871. He is buried at Trinity Anglican Church.”
The artist for the memorial portrait, funded by Bridge Annex, was Glen Walter, Ontario-based artist Tracy-Lynn Chisholm.
There are no known surviving photos of Mr. Baker, so the Bridge Annex shared a photo with Ms. Chisholm of Mr. Baker’s grand-nephew, Morris Whitford, for her to base the portrait on.
“It was the tiniest little photo in our local newspaper, and he was in a group of some sports team, I believe from the ’60s,” Ms. Chisholm said. “I took that photo of his grand nephew and I used the bone structure to fashion John’s portrait and from there I had to do a lot of praying with a lot of imagining.”
She tackled the project with deep reverence, seeking to channel Mr. Baker’s spirit.
“Every day that I would go into the studio, I would light a little candle and say, ‘OK John. I’m ready for ya. Come on through.’”
At the final brush stroke, she was “overwhelmed” with the result.
“I felt, in spirit, he came through the brush as I was asking because it was a big leap of faith for the Annex to trust an artist to render from their historical findings,” Ms. Chisholm said. “It was just such an honor to be able to pull that all together and use my imagination and call upon John.”
A “visual diary,” Ms. Chisholm said, will help people connect with Mr. Baker’s legacy.
“When people see a visual, they get a good sense of who that person was,” she said. “Throughout the time of creating it, I just wanted him to be standing proudly in sovereignty, because he was a free man and he freely chose to go into service to serve his country. That was the essence I was trying to capture, and man, we got it.”
“We believe a physical memorial is a good way to connect people to history in a more real way,” Ms. DeBruin said. “There currently isn’t anything for John Baker in his hometown of Cornwall.”
Ms. DeBruin said the video provided by the Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site adds another key dimension to the conference.
“In having the Sackets Harbor group involved in telling that portion, we can understand John’s experience,” she said. “This idea of collaboration across borders is so critical to getting a fuller understanding what the experience was like for people, in particular, people in the black community from the time.”