Nova Scotia

Halifax man traces roots to the Black Loyalists of Digby

Over the past two years, Halifax resident Allister Barton has uncovered documents that traced his family roots to the Black Loyalists of Digby.

'Here is a man who saw slavery, he saw war, he saw an evacuation of thousands to a new world'

Allister Barton spent two years tracing his family roots to the Black Loyalists of Digby. (Allister Barton)

Allister Barton's discovery that his family name does not appear in the Book of Negroes led him on a two-year journey to find out whether they had any connection to the Black Loyalists who settled in Nova Scotia in the late 1700s.

"Further questions about that led to an understanding that not all Black Loyalists who arrived in Nova Scotia were listed," Barton said Thursday.

The Book of Negroes was the British military ledger that recorded the passage of Black Loyalists on ships sailing from Manhattan to Nova Scotia.

"Some left before the book was beginning to document those who evacuated through New York, and not all were listed completely because of their connection to other Loyalists, white Loyalists who were also evacuating on the other boats, and in the odd time, perhaps, individuals were simply missed," Barton said.

Barton name found among Black Loyalist settlers

His research found a number of Black Loyalists and Black Pioneers who arrived in the Digby area had gone to live in a black settlement located in the Township of Clements. 

And Barton's fifth-great grandfather, William Barton, was listed among the Black Pioneers and Black Loyalists to populate that part of Annapolis County.

The earliest recorded document of William Barton's name is in a 1789 land survey warrant for Black Loyalists and Black Pioneers in the Township of Clements.

Allister Barton's grandfather, George William Barton, served 28 years in the Canadian Army. The Bartons trace their roots back to the Black Loyalists that settled in Digby in the late 1700s. (Contributed by Allister Barton)

"So that confirmed the affiliation of the Barton name among the Black Loyalists and Black Pioneers," Barton said.

Barton will give a talk about tracing his family roots to the Black Loyalists of Digby on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Dartmouth North Public Library.

During the discussion, Barton will also highlight passages from his grandfather George William Barton's military record. 

George William Barton served 28 years of service with the Canadian Army. He died in 1995.

Black Loyalists fought in American Revolution

Over 3,000 Black Loyalists settled throughout Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in the late 1700s.

Some gained their freedom by fighting for the British in the American War of Independence. They came from the southern United States, New York, New Jersey and parts of New England. In the Digby area, some also settled in Brindley Town.

The Black Pioneers were a non-combat military unit formed during the American Revolution. They included engineers who built roads and camps and cleared paths for troops.

In all, these black settlers were to be given 3,075 hectares of land but that never happened "because of those various displacements that were happening to Black Loyalists during that time," Barton said.

A 1789 land survey grant for Annapolis County showed that William Barton was to receive 50 acres of land. (Public Archives of Nova Scotia)

In his will, William Barton left four hectares of land to each of his children.

"Here is a man who saw slavery, he saw war, he saw an evacuation of thousands to a new world, a new reality and an opportunity to have a family," Barton said.

"His children's names are now in the family tree that I have. His four daughters married happily to have their own children without the fear of their children becoming enslaved. His family really established in Digby and that name fortunately lives on today."

Black Loyalist William Barton left four hectares of land to each of his children. (Contributed by Allister Barton)

Black Loyalists treated unfairly

The migration of Black Loyalists was significant because it dramatically increased the size of Nova Scotia's black population, said Isaac Saney, a Dalhousie University history professor.

"It also lays out … the existence of slavery in Nova Scotia previously because it's important to understand that Nova Scotia and Canada, or what was to become Canada, were slave societies until the 1830s," Saney said.

Once they settled in Nova Scotia, the Black Loyalists were treated unfairly. They faced racism, were given smaller plots of land than white settlers and paid lower wages. Many were skilled labourers and craftsmen.

"They played important roles in the economic development of this province because their labour was important and they were reduced to being cheap labour," Saney said. "They were paid one quarter of the wages of a white person."

Dissatisfied with their living conditions, nearly 1,200 Black Loyalists emigrated to Sierra Leone in 1792 and established the colony of Freetown.

About the Author

Sherri Borden Colley has been a reporter for more than 20 years. Many of the stories she writes are about social justice, race and culture, human rights and the courts. To get in touch with Sherri email