Black History Month

By Jill Passmore, Visitor Experience Co-ordinator

This month I have had the privilege of visiting a number of schools and community groups to discuss Black History in Oshawa. My first lecture at an elementary school brought a profound realization from a few of the students. “I thought Black History Month was just about famous people,” they said after hearing about the Andrews/Dunbar/Pankhurst family. My mind was blown. They got it!

One of the things we are most proud of at the Oshawa Museum is our ability to tell the stories of everyday people, people who thought their lives weren’t special or they had nothing to tell. As a historian, I can tell you that these are often the most wonderful finds.

Years ago while I was working on the Olive French Manuscript, I came across a teacher named Wealthy Ann Shipman. In all my time working at the Museum, I had never heard that name before. I thought it must be a mistake, after all, Wealthy is not a common name. Wealthy was a teacher at Harmony School No. 1 in the early 1830s, who married Ackeus Moody Farewell Jr. circa 1835. It is possible she may have been named after the mother of a family friend, Wealthy Dunbar Andrews, one of Oshawa’s earliest Black settlers. Wealthy Dunbar Andrews was born around 1795 in Vermont, whereas Wealthy Shipman was born in 1813 in Quebec.  At this time it is unclear when the Andrews family moved from Vermont to Quebec, but research is ongoing.

During Black History Month, we make it our responsibility to tell the public about five generations of the Andrews/Dunbar/Pankhurst family. Wealthy Dunbar married Peter Andrews – a black woman marrying a free white man, as he was enumerated in the 1810 U.S. federal census. In the next three generations, there were interracial marriages and children. By 1861, after the death of her husband in 1851, the census records Wealthy living with the Shipman family.  Her daughter, Mary, and her family live in a log cabin on land owned by Thomas Conant . Interestingly, we can see many uncommon names appearing in both family trees – Wealthy Andrews’ daughter, Mary, named two of her children Marietta (1865-1911) and Lafayette (1858-1886), perhaps named after Moody and Wealthy Farewell’s children Marietta (1839-1877) and Lafayette (1841-1854).

File552 - Mary Andrews Dunbar

Mary Augusta Dunbar (nee Andrews), 1835-1887

This month also gives us the opportunity to discuss things like bias with the students. For years academics have argued the early Black settlers have been dramatically under counted in Canadian census record. This family highlights the problems encountered when looking at census records.  The 1851 census records the family as being “Coloured Persons/Negro,” the 1861 census does not note ethnicity, the 1871 census records the family as being African, and the 1881 census records the family as being of Scottish and English descent. These records show how difficult it can be to research early Black history.

We’re half way through the month and have already spoke to over 150 students about what life was like for Oshawa’s earliest Black settlers; this number will likely double by the end of the month. It feels good to know that we’re telling this family’s story, but there will be more. There is more. Research always leads to more questions! To learn more about the family and see photos, search for Black History in the top right hand corner and click on the other articles!


The Soo Family

By Alex P., Research & Publications Assistant

As covered by Jennifer Weymark in her earlier blog post, Wong Shee Soo and her husband Soo Min were some of the earliest Chinese immigrants to live in Oshawa. Soo Min came to Canada in 1902, arriving in the port of Victoria from Hong Kong. He paid the $100 Head Tax required by all persons of Chinese origin wishing to enter the country. It had just been raised from $50 the year before. This was a considerable cost, given that the average Chinese labourer earned $225 yearly in 1885.

Sometime between 1902 and 1915, Soo Min found his way to Oshawa and established a café at 4 King Street that later became known as the Boston Café. He did well enough to bring his wife over in 1917, paying a $500 Head Tax, and they went on to have nine children, four of which were born in Oshawa. The family moved to Toronto between 1921 and 1926, and directory records show that the Boston Café became a Ladies Wear store in 1926. The family later returned in 1938 to establish the Eden Inn, at 8-10 Ontario Street, between King and Bond Streets.

The question I have, is why did Soo Min come to Oshawa in the first place?

Indeed, there were small communities of Chinese emerging everywhere in Ontario at this time, like in Hamilton or London. Records show there was a number of Soos in Hamilton and London, and it is possible one of them was a relative who hosted Min when he first arrived.

Oshawa too had a small established community of Chinese laundrymen living in the area, as early as 1898. In fact, two brothers named Soo Tong and Soo Hum, had opened a Chinese laundry in Bowmanville as early as 1897. Soo Tong seemed to be a prevalent member of the community, as his goings on were often listed in the local newspaper, The Canadian Statesmen.

When his young seventeen year old son died, Soo Yen, the Canadian Statesmen included an anecdote of unfortunate death along with his obituary.

While it is unclear if Soo Min and Soo Tong were related, it is likely, given that they both chose to reside in the area and share the same Clan name. By 1921 there were a number of Soos living in Oshawa, working at Soo Min’s restaurant, the Boston Café, and in Bowmanville at a restaurant at 201 King Street. By this time both Soo Tong and Hum Soo are no longer listed, and it is reasonable to believe that they had retired and returned to China.

It’s around 1921 that the Soos appear to have moved back to Toronto. No proprietor is listed at the Boston Café in the 1924 Vernon’s Directory of Oshawa, and in the 1926 Directory the Boston Café is no longer listed as being at 4 King Street East, and instead it is a Ladies Wear store. It is unclear why the family moved to Toronto, but in 1931 Soo Min’s eldest son went back to China. Leing Soo’s C.I.9 record shows that he was born in Oshawa, but that his family now lived in Toronto, since 1921. Leing was 14 years old, and according the passenger records, he was going to Shanghai to live with an Uncle. Soo Min’s information is listed.

Leing Soo

Leing Soo returned to Canada in 1934, and the family later returned to Oshawa in 1938 to open the Eden Inn on Ontario Street, between Bond and King Streets. Leing, going by his North American name, Robert, worked with his father at the Eden Inn as a waiter. He married a woman named Kay, according to the 1952 directory.

A Duel in Old Oshawa

The book Upper Canada Sketches by Thomas Conant is the source of many interesting facts and tales concerning the early history of Oshawa.  One such tale he writes of concerns Oshawa’s only known duel.

The argument began at a ball thrown in Whitby in April 1838.  The event was apparently a very fancy affair that included a fine selection of most attractive cakes.  One young man accused another of pocketing some of these delightful cakes.  The accused did not take kindly to this and it was decided that the only way to clear himself of this accusation was through a duel.

The young man accused of stealing the cakes quickly made his way on horseback to the tavern operated by Mr. Richard Woon.  It was here, at the south-west corner of Oshawa’s Four Corners that the duel was to take place.

As the gentlemen positioned themselves at each end of the hotel’s front porch, Captain Trull who had command of a few troops stationed in Oshawa, attempted to put an end to this foolishness.  He placed one of his own men between the combatants in an attempt to prevent each of them from firing.

The idea was a good one, however, one of the young men just side-stepped the soldier and fired his weapon.  While his bullet missed, his intended target was spooked and immediately threw down his weapon and ran for his life.

Interestingly, this was not the end of the duel.  Capt. Trull, who worked hard to try and prevent the duel, found himself disgusted by the apparent cowardice of the man who ran away.  The story goes that he quickly picked up the discarded pistol and ran after the young man intending to fire on him for being such a coward.

“So laughably ended Oshawa’s only duel” – Thomas Conant.

The Month That Was – February 1862

A remedy for sleeplessness
February 5, 1862

How to get to sleep is to many persons a matter of great importance. Nervous persons, who are troubled with awakefulness and excitability, usually have a tendency of blood rushing to the brain, with cold extremities. The pressure of blood on the brain keeps it in a stimulated or wakeful state, and the pulsations in the head are often painful.


Death from a cat’s bite
February 5, 1862

The Courrier de l’ Isere records the death of a farmer named Journet at Paladra, in that department, under the following circumstances:- “Journet had promised to give a cat about six months old to one of his neighbours, and shut it in a basket to have it ready. When his neighbour came Journet went to take the animal out and she bit his finger, but so slightly that he thought nothing of it. The next day he tended his cattle as usual, and passed the afternoon in breaking hemp, till evening, when the finger became intolerably painful. A surgeon was sent for, who made an incision and dressed the wound; but the whole hand was soon after affected and turned quite black, as did also the arm. Other doctors were then consulted but in spite of all that medicine could so, the poor man died on the fifth day after receiving the bite. As to the cat, she is still alive and apparently quite well.

picture gallery

Arrival of “The Asia”
New York, February, 15 1862

The steamship Asia, from Liverpool, on the 1st instant, via Queenstown, on the 2nd instant arrived at this port this morning. Her dates are four days later than those already received.


Village Offices
February 19, 1862

It will be seen by reference to our account of the proceedings of the village council, that all the offices of the village have been given to Mr.Hercule Craig, with exception of that of Clerk, Which Mr. William E. Mark still continues to fill with his accustomed ability.


The American War
February 19, 1862

Some lively news from the Burnside Expedition, and the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers, will be found in today’s issue, to the publication of which we devote large space, the rebels are undoubtly getting the worst of the fight at present, the Union arms being successful at every contact.


Coup- Its symptoms, treatment and prevention
By Joel Shew, M.D
February 19, 1862

There is perhaps, no other one disease, in the whole catalogue of human maladies which parents have more to fear than the one of which I now speak.

This is one dangerous of all inflammations. It affects locally the mucous membrane of the trachea, extending to the bronchia on the one hand, and to the larynx and sometimes the fauces on the other.

In most fatal cases a false membrane is deposited, lining the trachea, and extending often to the bronchia and fauces. Rarely this membrane is coughed up; but when even this apparently favorable effect has been observed, the membrane has been again soon reproduced, and death the result.


Who Was John Baker?

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist

John Baker is an important part of Oshawa’s history, even thought it is entirely possible he never spent any time here. Baker was one of two slaves granted freedom from slavery, along with land and money, in the will of their master Robert Isaac Dey Gray, Solicitor-General of Upper Canada. His connection to Gray, along with being named in the will, resulted in Baker gaining a level of fame and notoriety. A quick search on the internet turns up a surprising amount of information on the man and his life.

In a publication on the early history of the town of Cornwall, Ontario, author Jacob Farrand Pringle wrote about Baker and provided information about the life of the man though to be the last surviving enslaved person of African descent in both Canada East (Quebec) and Canada West (Ontario).[1]   The Baker family can be traced back to a gentleman by the name of Cato Prime. Prime was native of Guinea, West Africa before being sold into slavery to John Low of New Jersey.  Prime had a daughter, named Lavine, who in turn had a daughter named Dorine, all of whom were slaves to the Low family. Dorine was given as a gift to Elizabeth Low, the daughter of John, and came with Elizabeth when she married Captain John Gray.  According to Pringle, Dorine was 17 years old when the Gray family brought her to Canada with them.

The Grays resided in Montreal from 1776 to 1784 when they moved to an area just east of Cornwall.  Dorine met and married Jacob Baker in Gray’s Creek, the area just east of Cornwall named for the Gray family. Baker’s history is unclear.  In an interview with a Toronto newspaper in 1869, John says that his father was a Dutchman; however, in his book on the history of Osgoode Hall, author James Hamilton states that Baker was a German Hessians who served with the British Army during the American Revolution.[2]  Either way, Baker was a free man while Dorine remained a slave to the Gray family.  According to Pringle, the Bakers had a large family.[3] The two eldest children, Simon and John, were born slaves as the law at the time stated that children inherited the status of their mother. Two daughters, Elizabeth and Bridget, were born free as laws had changed prior to their birth.[4] Upon the death of John Gray, Dorine and her sons became the property of Robert Isaac Dey Gray, the son of Elizabeth and John.

In that interview with the Toronto newspaper, Baker recounts his life with the Gray family. Referring to John Gray as Colonel, Baker spoke of how strict his master was.

“The Colonel had much property; he was strict and sharp, made us wear deerskin shirts and deerskin jackets, and gave us many a flogging. At these times he would pull off my jacket, and the rawhide would fly around my shoulders very fast.” [5]

Robert I.D. Gray was apparently less cruel to those he owned. After practicing law in Cornwall for a short time, he went to York and in 1797 was named the first Solicitor-General of Upper Canada. Gray took Simon Baker with him to act as his body servant.

In August 1798, Elizabeth Gray was granted 600 acres of property in Whitby Township.[6]  It is this property that connects the Baker brothers and Gray to Oshawa.  Robert Isaac Dey Gray and Simon Baker died when the ship they were travelling on, the Speedy, wrecked near Presqu’ile Point, Brighton Township. In his will, Gray finally granted the Baker family their freedom. Gray not only granted freedom to Dorine and her family, but he also made provisions for her future.  The will stipulates that £1200 from his real estate holdings be put into a fund for Dorine and that the interest be given to her annually.  He also left provisions in his will for Simon and John. To Simon, he left 200 acres of lot 11 in the second concession, as well as his clothes and a watch worth £50.  To John, he left 200 acres of lot 17 in the first concession along with £50. [7]  Land registry documents show that the property left to John was finally transferred to him on June 12, 1824.  John did not keep the property, as records indicate the lot was sold to Martin Sanford on June 14, 1824. The records are difficult to read, and it is unclear how much money John sold the lot for.[8]


john baker land registry

John Baker’s interview with the newspaper gives us glimpse into his life as a free man. After Gray’s death released Baker from slavery, he began to work for Justice William Dummer Powell.[9] While with Powell, he enlisted with the army and went to New Brunswick, fighting in the War of 1812.  According to Baker, he was with his regiment during battles at Lundy’s Lane, Fort Erie and Sackett’s Harbour. It appears that Baker was in the military until after the battle of Waterloo, where he apparently saw Napoleon and was not particularly impressed. From his interview with the Toronto newspaper, “I saw Napoleon.  He was a chunky little fellow; he rode hard and jumped ditches.”[10]

Once his time in the military ended, Baker returned to Canada and settled back in Cornwall. He worked in the area until age caught up with him.  Around 1861, he received a pension from the British government for his time in the military. John Baker died on January 18, 1871.

At the time of his death, Baker was believed to be the last person to been held in slavery in the Canadas.  Many Canadians do not know that slavery existed here.  Baker’s life helps us to better understand slavery in the Canadian context.


[1] Pringle, Jacob Farrand. Lunenburg or the Old District: its settlement and early progress : with personal recollections of the town of Cornwall, from 1824 : to which are added a history of the King’s Royal Regiment of New York and other corps; the names of all those who drew lands in the counties of Stormont, Dundas, and Glengarry, up to November, 1786; and several other lists of interest to the descendants of the old settlers.  Cornwall: Standard Print House, 1890. Page 319.

[2] Hamilton, James Cleland. Osgoode Hall Reminiscences of the Bench and Bar. Toronto: The Carswell Company Ltd. 1904. Page 132.

[3] Pringle, page 319.

[4] Cornwall Community Museum Blog, “The Emancipation of Cato Prime & John Baker,” Published September 10, 2016; accessed January 22, 2019 from:

[5] Pringle, page 321.

[6] Ontario Department of Lands and Forests. Domesday Whitby Township.  Page 174. Note, Whitby Township at that time referred to what is today the Town of Whitby and the City of Oshawa. The land that was owned by Gray was located in what is today Oshawa.

[7] In Pringle’s book, he notes that the will leaves 200 acres of lot 11 of the first concession to Simon and 200 acres of lot 17 in the second concession to John. The Domesday records indicate that the grants were for lot 17 in the first concession and lot 11 in the second concession.

[8] Ontario Land Registry – Abstract/Parcel Book, Durham (40), East Whitby, Book 189. Page 289.

[9] Of note, this is the same judge that employed Thomas Henry at the start of the War of 1812.

[10] Pringle, page 322.