During the American War of Independence, the British tried to cripple the American economy by offering freedom to any slave who could escape and join them in their fight. Many slaves jumped at the opportunity, especially when freedom came with promises of land grants and free provisions. The war did not go well for the British and during their retreat, many escaped slaves were recaptured by the Americans and returned to their slave owners. Those that remained with the British were employed cleaning, cooking and doing menial jobs. They were not allowed to join a regiment and bear arms.
When the war was lost, the British granted freedom to those slaves who had remained with them. General George Washington demanded a return of all slaves but the British refused and offered to pay compensation (which was never paid). More than 3500 slaves, then free, left by boat from New York for Nova Scotia and New Brunswick (which was still part of Nova Scotia at the time). Between April and November 1783, several hundred free Black ex-slaves arrived in Saint John. Although the British promised them land and supplies, very few ex-slaves received any. Many became slaves or indentured servants to the White Loyalists. Others worked menial jobs at low wages while waiting for the British to make good on their promises.
In 1785, 31 free Black ex-slaves each received a grant of 50 acres in Westfield near Negro Lake and Robin Hood Lake. The group was led by Richard Corankapone Wheeler. Some of the surnames were Morris, Heron, Malaby, Hutchins, Sampson, Cole, Cox, and Wansey. These "grants" were really annual leases with rent and were too small and too wooded to grow crops to support a family.
The Black community struggled to survive and many left to go to Saint John. Life there was no better, as the city charter of 1785 prevented them from voting, practicing a trade, fishing in the harbour or selling goods. Also, Blacks could not live in the city unless they worked as menial labourers or servants.
By 1790, many of the free Black ex-slaves had become disillusioned with life in Westfield and abandoned the land or sold out to White settlers. Some of the land reverted back to the government and was re-granted to Whites. One of the free slaves, Thomas Peters, went to England and persuaded the British to provide free transport to Sierra Leone and provide land grants there for anyone interested. Richard Corankapone Wheeler was so desperate to leave Westfield that he and several companions spent 15 days walking to Halifax from Westfield in December 1791 to catch one of the ships going to Sierra Leone. On January 15, 1792 he and approximately 1200 free slaves left Halifax in a flotilla headed for Sierra Leone. Many died en route and when the survivors arrived there, they faced more challenges. Many never got the promised land grants. Slave traders and hostile native people made life difficult for them. They did build a town called Freetown and many descendants of the first New Brunswick Blacks still live there.
Those that remained in New Brunswick had to endure discrimination, harsh winters, poverty, and ill health. Tales of the suffering can be found on many websites devoted to those brave, determined souls who made tremendous sacrifices for their freedom and the freedom of their children.
In 2017, two history panels were built and placed in Grand Bay explaining the history of Black Loyalists and Black refugees in the area.
(Submitted to the River Valley News, 2011 by Ray Riddell)