Book about blacks fleeing to Canada sheds light on South Carolina’s Revolutionary War history
Carmelita Robertson was wrapping up an internship at the Nova Scotia Museum when its assistant history curator, Ruth Holmes Whitehead, invited her to lunch.
“Black Loyalists: Southern Settlers of Nova Scotia’s First Free Black Communities” can be purchased from amazon.com for $22.05 and barnesandnoble.com for $22.25. The 240-page book is published by Nimbus Publishing.
As the two shared their meal and interests that day in 1995, Robertson revealed she was tracing her family history, that it extended down into South Carolina, but she had never visited the state.
Whitehead is a Charlestonian, who began her career at Charleston Museum and moved to Canada in 1972. She worked at the Nova Scotia Museum for more then 40 years.
In 1999, the two would visit Charleston to research.
Robertson is descended from black loyalists who fled South Carolina to Nova Scotia, siding with the British, during the American Revolution.
Andrew Izard, the first of Robertson’s ancestors known to have been there, was among 800 to 1,000 mostly runaway slaves to settle there from South Carolina, the largest group from any of the former British Colonies. He was on the Ship Nisbet, bound for Port “Mattoon Wilson” (Port Mouton), on Nov. 19, 1783, according to British records.
“Previously, I had no idea that South Carolina blacks had emigrated en masse to Nova Scotia,” says Whitehead, who has written “Black Loyalists: Southern Settlers of Nova Scotia’s First Free Black Communities.” It was published this year after 18 years of study.
Though Robertson is Canadian, she grew up in Germany where her father, a retired Canadian Army officer, was stationed.
She began delving into her family’s history as an adult who felt the need to know more about their lives. Her relatives’ stories were limited to recent history. Her great-grandparents were not mentioned.
Roberston did not expect to find a lot of information about the family of Andrew Izard, a maternal ancestor, in South Carolina. She told Whitehead that she longed to at least walk on the ground they walked on.
Robertson found Andrew Izard’s name in the “Book of Negroes,” a register the British kept of blacks evacuated by its ships. The register contains information, such as blacks’ former slave owners and the plantations they lived on.
“It was a godsend,” Robertson says. “I was working at the archives and I kind of tripped over it. I said ‘Oh my God! You are kidding me.’ ”
Some of the names of slave owners in the book are the same as those in her family, including Izard and Broughton.
“It’s important for me to know the names of the people who went before me,” Robertson says of her ancestors. “But, there is so much more to a person than the names and dates. For me, being able to trace them gives me a sense of their experiences.”
Knowing the challenges they faced and overcame gives Robinson strength, she says.
“That’s what keeps me going when things are tough. I know what my ancestors survived and that we are still in the game.”
Why this book
Whitehead wrote “Black Loyalists” for people like Robinson whose family history has been forgotten over time, she says.
Why this book
In visiting Canadian communities where black loyalist descendants live, they repeatedly told Whitehead and Robertson that all they knew about their history was that they arrived on ships.
“Black Loyalists” provides detailed information about what life was like for some before they fled South Carolina and as they settled in Nova Scotia. While the book focuses on those from South Carolina, it also includes information about people from Georgia and Florida.
Whitehead’s research of black loyalists, genealogical research by Robertson and other blacks, a traveling Nova Scotia Museum exhibit, archaeological digs and Lesley Ann Patten’s documentary, “Loyalties,” about the search for black loyalist roots in South Carolina and Nova Scotia all signal a burgeoning interest in black loyalists. The documentary (www.youtube.com/watch?v=gTQmjpWvjh0) won several awards, including the Canada Award, during the 1999 Gemini Awards by the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Televisions.
Robertson and Whitehead later traveled to South Carolina during the late 1990s and lived with Whitehead’s parents in Mount Pleasant to make the local connection.
Their initial research led them to Ralph Izard’s plantation ruins on a swamp near Charleston Southern University, Whitehead says. But they later figured out they should research the papers of his cousin of the same name, and who had an Izard plantation on the Combahee River for documentation of Robertson’s ancestors.
In doing so, they found Andrew, Robertson’s earliest known black loyalist ancestor, his parents and siblings in an inventory taken when Izard’s father died.
Whitehead went on to amass 47 feet of photocopied documents from repositories in Canada, the United States and England for her work. They are digitally stored and can be accessed in the special collections department at the College of Charleston’s Addlestone Library, she says.
“I was surprised at how much information would be found on some of the people,” both here and in Canada, Whitehead says. It came from sources such as ship logs, muster rolls, diaries, newspaper accounts and court cases.
Names of many South Carolina slave owners were found as Whitehead researched.
“I either recognized their names or knew their descendants,” she says.
“I was personally shocked that my great-great-great-grandfather (William Trenholm) had been captain of a slave ship a couple of times and actually made voyages to the West Coast of Africa (to collect slaves).
“The whole thing was so painful that occasionally I had to stop working for a little while.”
White and black Charlestonians would be interested in reading the book because of the names in it, says Alexander Moore, South Carolina Colonial history expert and acquisitions editor at the University of South Carolina Press.
About 1,800 whites also left South Carolina. The names of those people include Ball, Moultrie, Rutledge, Wragg and others. Many families were split down the middle due to complicated sets of circumstances.
Not only were there divided loyalties within black families and white families, but some of those who left were of mixed lineage and became separate branches of their families, Moore says.
“It’s really a genealogical watershed,” Moore says.
Great personal details
Nicholas Butler, public historian at the Charleston County Public Library, is familiar with the book.
Great personal details
“Much of the book focuses on Revolutionary War era in South Carolina,” Butler says. “While many books focus on battlefields and marching armies during the war, ‘Black Loyalists’ also talks about what happened on the plantations after the army moved through.
“It’s a great view of what is going on behind the lines when the armies aren’t shooting at each other,” Butler says.
In talking about slaves running away, Whitehead gives great personal details as she follows them throughout the war, he says.
“She carefully chose individual stories to represent what happened, making the book more readable and giving readers an accurate view of how the war affected people.
“I do think this book will be very useful to people doing genealogy during this episode in American history, whether they are researching enslaved people or free people running up North, white soldiers or other white folks.
“Even if a family member is not specifically mentioned in the book, the reader should get a sense of the breadth of resources that are available (for researching their lives). She does a great job of touching on every available document.”
Passing stories along
Melissha Richardson of Huger is interested in the outcome of Whitehead’s research for personal reasons. The two have been in touch since Whitehead told her that she and Robertson may share an ancestor.
Passing stories along
“I was excited to find out there may be a connection between my ancestors and loyalists that went to Nova Scotia,” says Richardson.”
Before Richardson’s grandfather died, he told her stories that sustain her interest in family history. She recorded his talks about her about her great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather, but a house fire since destroyed the recordings and now he is deceased.
Richardson is hopeful that she can trace her family even further than she thought. Any additional information about family history, including about the loyalists, would be great.
“It would be something that I could pass down to the younger generations here. My cousins are always looking to me (for answers) because I was the one talking to my grandfather. I don’t want to disappoint them and maybe one day I could write my own book about our ancestry.”
Reach Wevonneda Minis at 937-5705.