In May 2011, after four years of life on McNutt's Island, we moved to Montreal. This blog remains, though, as a (sort of) daily record of our time on the island, and a winding path for anyone who would like to meander about among its magical places. For additional perspectives and insights I recommend Greg's book, Island Year: Finding Nova Scotia (2010), and my Bowl of Light (2012). I'll continue to post once in a while. If you do want to read this blog, one option would be to begin at the beginning of it (which is, as we all know, in blog-world, at the end), and read forward, concluding with the most recent entry. It's a journal, really, so it does makes more sense if you read it that way. But, you know, read it any way you like.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

A bill-of-sale from the black pilots

Clara Dennis was an energetic and devoted young Nova Scotian who traveled about her native province in the early 1930s, camera at the ready and pen in hand. She captured and recorded images and tales that would otherwise have been long-forgotten by now. Her photographs -- the glass negatives are housed at the Nova Scotia Archives -- are a treasured resource. She wrote two books about her travels into the nooks and crannies of the province.

In the first of these, published in 1934, she tells of her visit to Cape Roseway Lighthouse on McNutt's Island.

During her visit she has a long conversation with the lightkeeper, whom she does not name. Here is Clara's account:*

"Col. McNutt's house was on the northern end of the island," said the lightkeeper. "There were land holders all over the island later. Before the light was built, negroes used to live on the east side. They piloted vessels in and out of the harbour and were known as 'Black Pilots.' Four of them sold fifty acres adjoining the lighthouse to Alexander Cockeren [sic], the first lightkeeper. I'm going to show you the bill-of-sale. The building of the light put the black pilots out of commission."

The ancient document was produced. It ran:

Know all men by these presents that we, London Jackson, Richard Leah, James Robertson and Jane Thompson mother of James Jackson, deceased, -- black pilots now of Shelburne in the province of Nova Scotia, for and in consideration of the sum of five shillings current money of the province aforesaid to us severally in hand paid at the ensealing and delivery of these presents by Alexander Hood Cocken of Shelburne aforesaid, Mariner, the receipt whereof we do hereby severally acknowledge and so be therewith fully contented, satisfied, and paid, and thereof and of every part thereof do hereby acquit and discharge the said Alexander Hood Cocken, his Executors, Administrators, and Assigns have granted, bargained, sold and these presents do fully and clearly and absolutely grant, bargain, tell and release under said Alexander Hood Cocken, all and whole a certain tract, field, parcel and lot of land situate lying and being on the east side of McNutt's Island adjoining the lot on which the lighthouse is erected being Lot 23, containing fifty acres to have and hold the above ascribed lot unto Alexander Hood Cocken, his Executors, Administrators and Assigns forever.

We the above named Grantors for ourselves, our Executors, Administrators do covenant and agree to and with the above named Alexander Hood Cocken, his Executors, Administrators and Assigns to warrant and defend the sale of the above described lot against all persons whatsoever. In witness whereof we have hereunto set our hands and seals the fourth day of December in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-nine.

Dennis concludes: "The X's made by the dusky London and the other three, together with their thumb-imprinted seals, made the bargain irrevocable."

It all seems quite official and legal and final. But there are one or two details that make me wonder. The first lightkeeper was Alexander Cocken, who was the father of Alexander Hood Cocken. Alexander Hood Cocken the son became lightkeeper after his father's death, and served until his own death in the 1860s. But in 1789 Alexander Hood Cocken was either not yet born or a tiny child. It seems a curious inconsistency to name the son as party to the contract, rather than the father -- a tiny anachronism, like a little red flag.

It makes me wonder whether the bill-of-sale Clara Dennis saw that day was written down later on, as a record of something that had actually taken place without benefit of documentation. Or maybe the original deed was lost, and later reconstructed from a memory of how, once upon a time, the pilots sold Lot 23 to the lightkeeper.

Then, think of Clara here, in the lightkeeper's house, asking whether she could copy the bill-of-sale, and pulling out her notebook and pen to do that. As far as I know, the document that the lightkeeper showed her that day no longer exists. If it did exist we might be able to find clues in its physical appearance -- the paper it was written on, the kind of ink, the handwriting.

As it is, the bill-of-sale that you are reading on your computer screen is a bit ghostly: at best it's a copy of a copy of a copy. But for all its unknowns, it does tell us something about James Robertson and Richard Leach and London Jackson and James Jackson, the four black pilots who arrived in Port Roseway with their families in 1783 and who later received Lot 23 in recognition of their service to the British during the Revolution. Through this bill-of-sale the pilots whisper: "We were here."

*Clara Dennis, Down in Nova Scotia: my own, my native land (Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1934) 342-343. The Nova Scotia Archives has a wonderful virtual exhibit on Clara Dennis, here.

You can read earlier posts about the black pilots by clicking on the label black pilots at the right hand side of the blog.

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