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.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Old gun and gun carriage at McNutt's Island

Clara Dennis NSARM accession no. 1981-541
This is a photograph taken by Clara Dennis when she visited Cape Roseway Lighthouse in the early 1930s. In her book Down in Nova Scotia,* Clara Dennis describes her visit to McNutt's Island and mentions the gun:

Just outside the lighthouse lay an old "twenty-four pounder."

"Have you ever run afoul of one of these?" the lightkeeper asked me. "This was the first fog alarm system here. In the fog, a vessel would blow their horn and the lightkeeper would answer with this cannon. Here's the touch-hole where the charge was ignited. A flannel bag of powder was put in the chamber and the powder in the touch-hole lit with a lighted brand. Don't you remember in the old schoolbook?

By each gun a loaded brand
In a bold determined hand."

The gun was mounted on a wooden carriage of wheels and bore the date 1831. The roar of the cannon is silent now. The god of Science has spoken and his voice, through the diaphone, sounds in the ghostly fog.

This photograph is not in the book Clara Dennis wrote, but it is in the collection of her photographs, at NSARM. It's likely that the photograph records her encounter with the cannon as she describes it in the book. I am just putting the two back together here. So this is probably a picture of the cannon that was used as the fog alarm before the new fog alarm building, with its diaphone, was built in 1916. I have heard that this old cannon got thrown down under the rocks in front of the lighthouse, maybe in the 1980s. Nobody seemed to know what to do with it.

You can find this photograph and many others at NSARM's Virtual Exhibit of Clara Dennis.

*Clara Dennis, Down in Nova Scotia: my own, my native land (Toronto, The Ryerson Press, 1934), 341-342.

Image courtesy of NSARM.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Timeless winter

Here are some pictures I took a year ago, in late January 2009. I was walking along the main road when I took this picture. The spruce topple over pretty easily when they are weighed down with heavy snow. I think the McNutt's Island road crew will have plenty to do when we get home.
This is one of the old signs along the main road to the lighthouse.
The island is all shades of grey and white this time of year, and the sharply defined darkness of bare branches, like pen and ink. Only the house stands out, a reminder of blue sky and sunlight.

Monday, January 25, 2010

More on the black pilots: who was Jane Thompson?

When Clara Dennis visited Cape Roseway Lighthouse on McNutt's Island in the early 1930s, she copied down what the then-lightkeeper called a "bill-of-sale." Four black pilots had been granted Lot 23 on McNutt's Island as a reward for their services to the British during the American Revolution. According to the "bill-of-sale" the pilots had sold Lot 23 to the first lightkeeper in 1789. The "bill-of-sale" lists Jane Thompson, the mother of James Jackson, deceased, along with the three surviving pilots as an owner/grantor of Lot 23.

And in The Book of Negroes* there is the tiniest hint that this could be the case. Though Jane Thompson does not travel onboard The Ann with James Jackson and several other members of the Jackson extended clan, she left New York at about the same time, on the last day of July 1783, on L'Abondance, also bound for Port Roseway. The Book of Negroes describes Jane Thompson on that hot summer day as seventy years old and "worn out," travelling with a five year old grandchild. She had been born free, and lived with "Col. Tucker, Norfolk, Virginia," before leaving him six years earlier. So Jane Thompson and James Jackson came to Port Roseway from the same plantation household -- Robert Tucker's in Norfolk.

Was the pilot James Jackson dead by 1789? There is a James Jackson who is later allotted land in Free Town, Sierra Leone. But there are several other James Jacksons in The Book of Negroes; and one James Jackson is listed among the group who went out from London to Sierra Leone in 1786 to the new settlement being established there. There is no indication that the pilot James Jackson and the Sierra Leonian settler are the same man.

The detail of Jane Thompson as mother of deceased James Jackson supports the authenticity of the "bill-of-sale."

Jane Thompson appears in other local records. In the Birchtown Muster of September 1784, she is living in a household of which Robert Jackson, age 15, is head. Note, again, the Jackson connection. ( None of the black pilots is listed in the Birchtown Muster of September 1784. That muster only listed those people who were in need of aid; it's possible that in 1784 the pilots were working as pilots and so were not in need. )

In 1792 -- in the summer after the mass emigration of former slaves from Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone -- Shelburne and the surrounding vicinity were devastated by a terrible fire. A list was made up: "Names of poorest and most distressed sufferers of fires, 1792." On the list is Jane Thompson, living alone, a resident of Birchtown, age ninety.**

*For references to The Book of Negroes, see The Black Loyalist Directory, ed. Graham Russell Hodges, New York, Garland Publishing Co., 1996, p.117. Or you can examine this fascinating document online. The list of those who suffered from the fire of 1792 can be found at PANS RG 1, vol.224, vol.I/3, p.99, cited at Birchtown Archaeological Survey, compiled by Laird Niven, Lockeport, NS, 1994.

**Ages given by former slaves were often approximate; it isn't significant that Jane Thompson said she was seventy years old in 1783 and ninety a decade later.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Report on Shelburne Light, 1816

In 1816 Anthony Lockwood made a report of the operating lighthouses in Nova Scotia. Here is his report on Shelburne Light, which was also called Cape Roseway Light:

Possesses a strong power. The lamps are better constructed, and burn a greater number of wicks, than those of Sambro [Nova Scotia's first light, in Halifax Harbour], and great attention is paid to the order and cleanliness of the lantern.

This light would have been of more general benefit in the neighbourhood of Cape Sable, yet its goodness is generally known and acknowledged. Vessels from America run confidently for it, and if caught by a gale of wind on shore. The light guides them to a harbor of perfect safety, and it requires no alteration or improvement whatever.

Today the light's goodness is not generally known and acknowledged; in fact it seems to be rather overlooked and forgotten. But it's still there, even after all this time.

You can find this document and other fascinating documents and photographs at NSARM's Virtual Exhibit on Nova Scotia Lighthouses.

Image courtesy of NSARM.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Odd messages

Once in a while when I am walking around on the island I come upon small wooden tablets containing what looks like ancient writing.I believe that these are messages written by the island's gnomes and left in particular secret places for each other to read and reply to.
The tablets seem to function like email, which would suggest that gnomes actually do not make use of the internet.
It appears to be a very difficult form of writing. It must take centuries to learn how to read and write it.
I am pretty sure that all the gnomes have left, since the McNutt's Island gnomes winter in Labrador. I hope these messages were not too important, and can wait until spring.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Reading locally: Alice In Paris Loves Art and Tea

I'm a big fan of Shelagh Duffett's Alice in Paris Loves Art and Tea. What a spirit! First of all, her photographs are gorgeous, every one. What an eye she has. Then, she lives in the great Nova Scotia city of Halifax. I think you really need a guide like Shelagh to take you around there, down the little lanes and alleyways, to the library, to the parks and the cafes and shops, and special events like the Queen's Birthday that you might not get to, otherwise. She is adventurous and she is filled with good cheer, and you will be, too, just from, as she says, popping by.
My Photo

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Audella Decker, the lightkeeper's wife

When Clara Dennis visited McNutt's Island in the 1930s she interviewed a lightkeeper whom she does not identify in her account of the trip. But she also took some photographs while she was here.
Clara Dennis NSARM accession no. 1983-468
Dennis identifies this photograph as "Lightkeeper's wife, Decker, McNutt's Island."

Beaumont Decker took over the lightkeeper's duties at Cape Roseway in 1919 and was still serving here during the Second World War. His wife's name was Audella. This is truly an unusual photographic record of the Cape Roseway light community in the 1930s.

This photograph can be found along with many fascinating images of Nova Scotian life from the early part of the twentieth century in NSARM's Virtual Exhibit of Clara Dennis.

Image courtesy of NSARM.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Mystery house

I suppose this is one of the summer houses of the gnomes, who have left for their winter homes in Labrador. Occasionally you come upon such indications of their presence on the island.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Reading locally: Post aus West Head

Margrit at Post aus West Head blogs in both English and German. (There's really quite a significant German population here.) West Head is a lovely place on the south shore, south of Lockeport, on Jordan Bay, which is the next bay east of Shelburne Harbour. It is not at all on the tourist path. Margrit's blog gives you the opportunity to see West Head and the south shore from her perspective. She takes beautiful photographs, and her posts give you the flavour of a quietly stunning part of the world.
My Photo

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.