The Story Was Written in Their Hands

by Wanda Taylor

Oral storytelling is a historical tradition in many cultures. In the small Black communities on the far east coast of Canada, the stories of brothers and sisters to the south, who made their way to Canada after the Revolutionary War, have stayed alive through multiple generations.

One of the most vivid stories that continues to hold great significance is the story of the early Black Pioneers and Black Loyalists who arrived in Nova Scotia, Canada with merely the clothes on their backs. They used their talents as skilled farmers and laborers to turn what was once miles of uninhabited, forested land into a viable means of survival.

There they were—as the oral story goes—standing at the opening of a vast and angry forest. They couldn’t see too far past the centuries of thick, overgrown bush and aged trees, but they could see the future. They decided it was going to be brighter than the past they’d left behind.

After receiving plots of land granted by the government, this new group of settlers—bonded by a shared journey—quickly realized the substandard land they were given was not conducive to planting crops. It was miles of rocky, uninhabitable land, deep unkempt forest, and acidic soil, situated about six miles outside of the city of Shelburne with no access to amenities or roads. They eventually called this place Birchtown, after Brigadier General Samuel Birch, who had signed their freedom papers.

The oral story continues: They knew there was a lot of work to be done if they were ever to make this place a home. The chill of cold weather was disheartening, but the glowing of the sun through the trees was a sign of hope.

Some of the Blacks in this new settlement had been in and around New England before arriving to Canada. They were already accustomed to a colder climate and soil that was similar to what they had been granted. For those Blacks who arrived from the south, Nova Scotia’s notoriously unpredictable weather was a difficult adjustment. But, as a group, they combined their skills—using their hands, some basic tools, and years of expertise to begin the work.

Clearly—as the oral story continues—it wasn’t going to be easy to turn that scrappy land into farmland. But if anyone could do it, they could. They had been sharecroppers and formerly enslaved people on vast plantations; they had labored as subsistence farmers and market gardeners. More importantly, they had no choice but to succeed.

Over the next few years, they toiled endlessly. They sawed down trees, cleared the brush, and slowly erected modest log dwellings. Everyone—men, women, and older children—contributed to the efforts. Women and girls held out their wide skirts to be loaded up with rocks, then would carry them away to the edge of the perimeter. Men and boys used hand saws to gnaw away at thick trees. Once they had fallen, others chopped them for firewood, and everyone used their skills to erect modest log huts. Those with exceptional farming skills began to work the land as small sections were cleared.

Fortunately, the forest was a habitat for lots of wildlife, including moose, bear, and deer. Every part of the animal was used. Even the bear fat was melted down and used as oil in their lanterns. They bartered and traded bear skin in the city for supplies and better tools needed to continue the work of establishing their settlement. The manure from the animals was important and was used to help fertilize the land that they were trying to farm. They worked the manure deep into the soil, tilling and cultivating. Practicing patience.

They had adapted their diets and farming habits according to the climate. They couldn’t plant okra seeds because it wasn’t hot enough for long enough, but a staple like corn would grow abundantly in the fields. It would take a few seasons before their work would yield any results, but they didn’t give up. And eventually it paid off.

The work of their hands had produced a harvest, and they celebrated by sharing their wares with each other. Many were able to carve a living by selling their harvests in the city. These settlers not only found a way to endure, but they taught their skills and expertise to their children. Farming skills passed down remain evident and strong on all the Black community farms that now stretch across the province and beyond. 

As the oral story concludes, they left a legacy of resilience and gave us the gift of their stories and their talents—both of which carry on today, so many generations later.

photo credit: Rui Silvestre, Unsplash

*This essay was originally published in the Farmer-ish Annual released in Fall 2021. You can learn more about and purchase a copy of our print annual here. Your support helps keep our online journal free to the public.