As many as 1500 African Americans found their way to New Brunswick, a colony created in 1784 to accommodate the Loyalists. Following reports of good land in the St. John River area, many Loyalists, including prominent Black Loyalist Thomas Peters, shipped to the port of Saint John. Once there, many African Americans found that, despite the promises, neither the land nor the three years’ worth of provisions were ready for them.
The majority of Loyalists arrived in Saint John late in the summer and early fall, making shelter an issue of the utmost importance. In his influential study, The Black Loyalists: The Search for a Promised Land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, historian James Walker noted that “[w]ithout farms and without provisions they had no choice but to grasp at any opportunity, however unfair, to keep themselves alive.” (Walker 45-46). While the Black Loyalists waited in Saint John for their land, they were barred from practicing a trade, opening a business, fishing in Saint John harbour, or voting for representation in New Brunswick’s first Legislative Assembly. Their only option was to find work as domestic servants and labourers or starve to death.
Although one hundred African American families were eventually granted full allotments in Saint John, they soon discovered that their land was almost eighteen miles outside the town, making communication difficult. Large tracts of land were surveyed for African American settlements on the Nerepis River and Milkish Creek, and St. Martins, but none of these areas was ideal for farming. Like many of the white Loyalists, the African American population in New Brunswick often had little or no experience with clearing land, but many white families had the advantage of having at least brought some household goods and money with them.
By 1790, many free African Americans were so discouraged by their situation they had abandoned their land outside Saint John and in remote areas of the colony. Most of them found work in urban centres, often under conditions that were little better than the slavery they had just escaped. As feelings of alienation grew, and with no representative in New Brunswick’s government, many free African Americans looked for alternatives, one of which was the British colony for emancipated slaves in Sierra Leone, Africa. The petitions in this collection indicate that some Black Loyalists never gave up their efforts to obtain Crown land, which was freely available to bona fide settlers in New Brunswick until the 1820s. In a few instances the children of Black Loyalists also petitioned for land, as did slaves once they had secured their freedom.