Watch Measha's Story Mon. Oct. 22 at 8:30 PM!
Measha Brueggergosman, an award-winning international opera singer, is widely hailed as one of the great sopranos of the 21st century. Her voice has taken her around the world to perform in New York, London, Spain and Brazil. She made her African debut in Ghana in April 2007, and has visited Kenya and Uganda as the Goodwill Ambassador for the African Medical & Research Foundation (AMREF) Canada. While she has sampled many different cultures through her travels, Measha knows little about her own heritage. She hopes that her journey into her ancestry will uncover an epic story worthy of an opera.
Born and raised in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Measha's knowledge of her family history does not extend past her parents, Sterling Gosman and Ann Eatmon. Measha, who combined the Gosman family name with her husband's surname when she married, travels back home to visit her parents. Sterling knows little about his family beyond his own mother and father. A troubled childhood forced him to focus on the future and his children, rather than the past. However, he tells Measha that he knows the Gosmans have been in Fredericton for many generations.
Before heading to the New Brunswick archives to investigate the Gosmans further, Measha and her brother Neville decide to send their DNA for analysis. Testing their DNA can provide information about their ancestors'distant ethnic background. Scientists compare genetic markers on chromosomes to see if they match up with samples compiled in a worldwide data bank.
While waiting for the DNA results, Measha heads to the New Brunswick archives. Although the history of African Canadians is not well documented, an archivist finds a baptismal record for Hannah Gosman, born 1838. Hannah's brother John Thomas Gosman was Measha's great great grandfather. The 1851 census lists John Thomas Gosman's father's birthplace as Nova Scotia. To investigate this link to Nova Scotia further, Measha searches the Muster Book of Free Blacks online. There, in a listing dated 1784, she finds her great great great great grandfather (John Thomas Gosman's Grandfather) also named John Gosman.
Measha heads to Nova Scotia to follow John Gosman's trail. At the archives in Halifax, the archivist uncovers an extraordinary document: a court record that contains a voluntary confession given by John Gosman in 1789 to a justice of the peace in Shelburne. John Gosman confessed to killing an ox.
A devastating famine in the late 1780's made life extremely difficult for poor black families in Nova Scotia. It was a desperate time and many died. John Gosman, a woodcutter with a family to support, likely saw the ox as a last resort. But it would seem that his actions weighed too heavily on his conscience, and so he came forward and confessed. Measha is moved by her ancestor's fortitude of character and is reminded of her own father's struggle to overcome difficult circumstances. The records do not state what John Gosman's punishment was, but he and his family did leave for New Brunswick later in life. Measha wonders how the Gosmans came to Nova Soctia, in the first place.
The answer, she learns, is in the founding history of Shelburne, Nova Scotia. Shelburne was settled in 1783 by United Empire Loyalists fleeing New York City at the end of the American Revolution. They were accompanied by a large number of former slaves promised their freedom in exchange for joining the loyalist cause. The names of those people and the ships that carried them to Canada are listed in an embarkation manuscript known as the Book of Negroes. John Gosman, Measha's ancestor, was a former slave. He is listed in the manuscript along with his wife Rose Gosman aged twenty-two and their daughter Fanny, just five months old. John and Rose's former masters are listed as landowners in Connecticut and Rhode Island, respectively. Fanny is listed as â€˜born free within British lines'; she was the first of the Gosmans to be born free of slavery. John, Rose and Fanny escaped revolutionary America on one of the last ships out under British protection.
To better understand the story of John, Rose and Fanny, Measha heads to what was the last loyalist and free-black stronghold at the end of the Revolution - Staten Island, New York. There, she meets Graham Hodges a historian and specialist in black revolutionary history. During the American Revolution, many slaves were promised freedom in exchange for service in the King's army. Because John Gosman's master had died in 1779, John likely took this opportunity to flee Connecticut to get behind British lines in New York. Rose was also listed as a slave in Rhode Island up until 1779. Somehow they both escaped to New York City and to the British promise of freedom.
At the end of the Revolution, the peace treaty signed by American commander George Washington promised compensation to the American slave-owners who had lost their slaves to the loyalist cause. Each slave, in turn, received a certificate of freedom signed by the British General. Measha's ancestors would have had one of these passports to freedom and Canada.
Measha's journey ends with a phone call from the DNA lab. She logs onto a webpage that lists all of her genetic matches. The lab has found one person from Cameroon who is an exact match to her brother's Y chromosome. He is from the Bantu-speaking group known as the Bassa, a tribe renowned for its musical traditions. Measha Gosman's ancestors likely came from that part of Africa during the slave trade.
In the end, Measha's investigation into her background reveals exactly what she had hoped for - a profoundly moving story of triumph over adversity by men and women of strength and courage.