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.


Endnotes

[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: https://cornwallcommunitymuseum.wordpress.com/2016/09/10/the-emancipation-of-cato-prime-john-baker/

[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.

5 thoughts on “Who Was John Baker?

  1. Pingback: “Benevolent Slave Owners” and Other Historical Myths | Oshawa Museum Blog

  2. Pingback: Who Was John Baker? | Durham Region Area Archives Group

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