This collection consists of petitions relating to land grants in colonial New Brunswick in which African Americans are either the petitioners or the land granted to African Americans is the subject of attention. The collection featuring petitions written between 1783 and 1854 also includes petitions from African Americans who fought in the War of 1812-14 between the United States and Great Britain under inducements similar to those that prevailed during the American Revolution. Nearly 400 of the over 3000 slaves who were emancipated as a result of the second war between Great Britain and the United States were brought to New Brunswick in 1815. Known as “Black Refugees” to distinguish them from the “Black Loyalists,” they, too, suffered from the reluctance of authorities to issue land grants in a timely manner and in the same generous spirit accorded to white settlers.
Located in RS108 at the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick, the land petitions offer valuable primary evidence about the experience of African Americans in colonial New Brunswick. Anyone seeking a grant of Crown land, which was freely available in the early years of European settlement, could petition the Lieutenant-Governor (and later the Crown Land Office) outlining their circumstances and any services to the Crown that might support their case.
Although the petitions are often expressed in conventional language, they offer details about the individual petitioners that might not otherwise be available. We learn, for example, that John Annis, who had served in the New Jersey Volunteers, had been a spy during the American Revolutionary War, that Catherine Dyer purchased land that had once been settled by the Acadians living on the St. John River, and that, as the case of Zimri Armstrong suggests, Loyalists masters thought only of their own interests where the fate of enslaved families was concerned. Petitions also offer information on family size, occupation, and the living conditions of some of the Black Loyalists and their descendants.
A quick perusal of the documents reveals that most black petitioners were illiterate, signing with a “X” documents that had been written by someone else. Although few slaves had the benefit of formal education in colonial North America, they were aware of its value, as the petition of Thomas Peters and others confirm. Two petitions in this collection under the name of Thomas Peters, a former sergeant in the Black Pioneers, and the exchange of letters between New Brunswick’s Lieutenant Governor Sir Thomas Carleton and Colonial Secretary Lord Dundas suggest why Peters and other free Black Loyalists decided to leave the colony.
Other petitions document the poverty of many Black Loyalists who lacked the resources to develop their land once it was grudgingly granted. Often assessed with survey fees that white Loyalists were not obliged to pay, blacks gravitated to Saint John and Fredericton to find work just to survive. Some worked for wages as labourers and domestics; others became indentured servants for a period of years. Either way, life was hard and it took a long time to accumulate the money required to establish a successful farm. Several of the petitions in this collection are from white settlers applying for land grants that, it was alleged, had been abandoned by African Americans.