If you were a former slave living in Birchtown on Shelburne Harbour, you likely would have spent the first few Nova Scotia winters in a pit house like this replica. Birchtown -- the first town of free blacks in North America -- was a stony forest, its soil impossible to clear by hand and unfit for cultivation, and a long walk to the new Town of Shelburne where work might be found. The former slaves had moved heaven and earth to obtain their freedom, first by escaping from slavery throughout the American colonies and then through service to the British during the American Revolution. Now they lived in holes they dug in the ground, with planks laid over the top, plugged with moss and lichen and spruce boughs.
An excellent historical account of Birchtown can be found in Simon Schama's Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves, and the American Revolution (HarperCollins, 2006). There's also a wonderful novel by Lawrence Hill called The Book of Negroes (HarperCollins, 2007). At the Birchtown Museum you can see a compelling exhibit, as well as this replica, and you can visit the old burying ground, a peaceful place from which to gaze out at the harbour and the sea beyond, and contemplate the long journey to freedom.