Forgotten settlement for escaped slaves, a piece of Nova Scotia heritage
'We were here a long time ago and now we can prove it,' says Beechville resident Germaine Kandi Howe
A woman whose ancestors were among the first settlers to be issued land grants in Beechville, N.S., hopes the area that once housed escaped slaves will become a provincial heritage property.
A 2014 archeological survey near the site, located behind Ridgecliff Middle School in the Beechville Estates subdivision outside Halifax, uncovered stone piles, depressions, walls and pieces of household pottery — artifacts that tell stories about the lives of Beechville's earliest settlers.
Germaine Kandi Howe, who has lived in Beechville all her life, says that discovery was significant for her community.
"That's exciting for us to know that, yeah, there were people here. We were here a long time ago and we can now prove it," said Howe, whose maiden name is Hamilton.
Now, talks are underway between the province and black Beechville residents to protect and preserve the 31 hectares of Crown land in the area that once housed Black Refugees from the War of 1812.
"If we can have that designated and maybe have a walking trail or somewhere that we can go, it may be the government that maintains it, but it will be (somewhere) that we can go and know that it's ours, that we were here. That's important," Howe said.
"I think that it's very significant for future generations so they know that as Beechville shrinks. So the little ones will know … that a long time ago some of our relatives lived right here. They cooked on these rocks or these stones or they built a home there — that's powerful."
Beechville's long history
The first settlers in Beechville were among the 2,000 black refugees that arrived in the Maritimes between 1813 and 1815 from the Chesapeake Bay area of the U.S. Most of those refugees were escaped slaves from southern American colonies.
In November 1815, 23 refugees were settled at Refugee Hill near the Northwest Arm on land conveyed to them by the Crown. Initially, 23 men were each given a licence to occupy a four-hectare lot at Refugee Hill.
A year later, about 76 blacks lived there. They stayed only a short time before they were moved further back into the woods in the Chain Lake area along St. Margarets Bay Road. The new settlement was called Beech Hill and later, Beechville.
Wayn Hamilton, executive director the Office of African Nova Scotian Affairs, said the lands are significant in both the province's and Canada's history.
"To have this happening here in Nova Scotia, as a black refugee settlement, is quite fantastic," he said.
"And I can see us eventually reaching back to the folks in the United States because there's a lot of archival work that goes on there. And so what happened to the folks that came across the border? And we can now point to a place where they had actually (taken) up settlement."
Hamilton's great-great-great-grandfather was also one of the original settlers to be given deed title in Beechville.
A group of black organizations representing residents has applied to get the land designated as a provincial heritage property. An advisory council on heritage property could take up to a year to make a recommendation to government on whether to have the land registered under the Heritage Property Act.
Beechville resident Carolann Wright-Parks is one of the committee members meeting with government. She said if the heritage designation is granted, in addition to a heritage trail, the community would also like to see a monument or some other marker built on the site to remember Beechville's earliest black settlers.
"This particular piece of property, we are working with government to try to figure out how to protect it, … what we can do with it, what it really means to the community," Wright-Parks said.
Preserving cultural and historical significance
In June, the Department of Natural Resources transferred the 31 hectares of land to the Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage to ensure that the cultural and historical significance of the land is preserved.
Prior to the transfer, the Natural Resources Department identified this parcel of land as being held for "potential purposes" associated with the African-Nova Scotia community.
Communities, Culture and Heritage spokeswoman Lisa Jarrett said in an email that government has been working with the community since 2013 to preserve and protect this site.
"This includes working with the community and government departments to review the historic and cultural values associated with the use of Crown land in Beechville, and to determine the best way to document, celebrate, and protect this site. This work is ongoing."