The rocky, Atlantic-whipped coast of Nova Scotia seems an unlikely spot to uncover black history. But first archeologists and now genealogists are digging into the past of Birchtown, a tiny village near the southeast tip of the Canadian province, and retrieving the secrets of what was once the largest settlement of free blacks outside of Africa. Recently researchers at the Nova Scotia Museum won a $114,000 grant to research black history there.
During the American Revolution, the British offered freedom and land to black loyalists who would cross over to their side. In 1783, 3,500 black loyalists were issued “Birch Certificates” by British General Samuel Birch, entitling them to escape from New York City to Nova Scotia. Most had fled slavery in the southern colonies, with 500 from South Carolina alone.
After less than a decade of black independence in Birchtown, most of the loyalists grew disillusioned with life in “Nova Scarcity.” Nearly 1,200 left in 1792 for Sierra Leone, and the memory of the rest succumbed to what one museum researcher calls “collective amnesia.”
In 1993, however, archeologists began excavating Birchtown. They’ve since found thousands of 18th-century artifacts, including military buttons and a bayonet.
Now a new genealogical project, the Black Loyalist Heritage Society, is connecting black Nova Scotians-and, increasingly, relatives from the US-with their roots. Among their finds: the “Book of Negroes,” a detailed census of escaped slaves that was prepared at the insistence of George Washington, who wanted British compensation. The museum plans to put the list of 2,700 names on the Internet.
You can learn more about the Birchtown project on the museum’s archeology Web site. For information on area genealogy, contact the Shelburne County Genealogical Society, 168 Water St., PO Box 248, Shelburne, NS, B0T 1W0, Canada, (902) 875-4299.