• Art Duval

The Black settlement of Wilberforce street, and what the Georgian Bay metis can learn from it

Black history month is upon us. What can we learn from our local black history. For those in Penetang, or descended from the metis in Penetang we can learn a lot in comparison to the settlement at Oro. Wilberforce Street as it was known, was a settlement of blacks, many of whom were veterans or allies of the British during the War of 1812. It was east of Penetanguishene Road, in what is now Oro (By Edgar)

The metis settlement was established in Penetanguishene after the war of 1812, similarly made of mostly veterans and allies of the British in the war of 1812. Wilberforce street and Penetanguishene were established on opposite ends of what was the Penetanguishene road and provides an nice comparison to the metis settlement.


Both groups, the metis in the western Great Lakes and the Black regiments in Queenston Heights, and Lake George had represented British interests in the war of 1812. Each community was granted land to be settled in recompense of those services. Since these are two distinct groups with similar dealings, we can better understand the why and when of the settlements.

We should start by explaining their involvement in the war. Neither group were volunteering per say, the metis, or more directly the Northwest Company, had been hired by the British to defend the western front of the country in the war. In essence, they were transformed from a indentured servant signed to paddle canoes into a military force that would go on to siege and secure Mackinaw.

The Black regiment was raised from men who had once been slaves, in fact some were still slaves, by a Man named Richard Pierpoint. Similar in both circumstances, although capable and experienced in commanding men and battle, they were placed under a British commander.

In both cases, the men were disrespected. The blacks under Robert Runchey were poorly treated, some he even hired out as domestic servants. In the metis camp, things were going better, but only because of the influence of the native allies. The British, explaining that they were to discipline the metis were met with the realization that the indian and metis were allied, and bonds to the British were contingent on it. So any attempt to make the metis obedient by force (flogging) may end that relationship.

By all accounts the black and metis warriors were excellent soldiers. Neither has received the accolades they deserve, at least in my opinion. Eventually both forces were turned to other endeavors. The metis were converted to Commissariat corp of voyageurs, and commanded by one of their own in William McGilvray. This it is thought would play on their ability to move supplies. It would also relieve tension as the voyageurs, though good warriors, were not into the implied cordiallity of British military. The black regiment was attached to the engineers, using them to construct and repair instead of fight. Even though they were good at it.

At the end of the war, the British had to deal with these groups of men, who were versed in battle and were accumulating dangerously close. The Brits recognized these groups and the danger they could pose and realizing they had a need of their extended services, sought to create settlements, by granting them land.

Land grants are supposed to be free, but they are far from free. Especially once the Government got to them. The Grantee had to apply for a grant in councils set up for settlements. He or she would then be given land that is on the most part completely forested. This is completely without grazing or fields to plant. Additionally there is a quota that must be reached in land cleared in the first 5 years and a habitable abode.

This is quite the expensive endeavor in time and work. The first year would result in no crops, or very little more than a garden, as there simply wouldn't be anywhere to plant and grazing would also be next to impossible. So the grantee, for the first few years would need to have enough money in hand to feed his family out of pocket. These groups, particularly the recently freed slave, did not possess any money to speak of. This would lead to the downfall of the community. The metis in Penetang would often move to a not to distant place, like Tiny township and squat or purchase land cheaper. This reason for the settlements failing, or close to failing is forgotten by many current historians who cite bad farming etc. Simply a matter of economics.

So for the early land grantee to be successful, they would need to feed their family out of hand. This would

be a difficulty, as stores were few and far between and many of the other settlers were in the same situation, no fields or grazing to raise food crops and animals. And even once cleared, the land they were given was not the highest quality.

All this would be the done under the ever watchful eyes of the Canada company, who would swoop in and take the land of those who would not fulfill their requirements. The Canada Company would then sell it to land speculators, and eventually white settlers.

The metis who succeeded, in comparison, had the advantage of being on Georgian

Bay. Many had made or purchased bateau, so turned to fishing. The American fur trade company, who employed some of them as voyageurs, also bought fish from the settlers, by the salted barrel.

So what we see as free land in return for service rendered is not as free as first represented. So land was offered, and some grantees, promised such land was not even received as they refused unable to fulfill the requirements. This is something that has not been fully understood by some as they make stupid claims about those who could not fulfill the requirements, and simply walked away.

The similarities of when the land was granted are interesting as well. Some grants were made in 1819 when the war first ended, others were made in 1828. What is amazing is that the date of 1828 is the date where the war of 1812 was being settled. It took that many years for the border and resolution of the war to be decided.

In both cases, at Penetang among the metis and at Oro were called upon during the Rebellion of 1837. In both cases, they once again proved their loyalty. Even though they could have perhaps sided with the rebels, they instead returned to their allies...


The settlement of the Black communities and the metis communities also show that the economy was not in their favor. The Blacks, many of them who were former slaves did not have any savings or old money to turn to. The source of money they would turn to was the British, so employment was often turned to ahead of settlement of land grants. The land grants were often poor agricultural locations, and were in need of much work before they could be worked. So when actions such as the 1837 rebellion arose, despite it's political reasons, the settlements sent their men.

Despite the opposition, the communities would still venture forth and raise important community hubs. Churches were raised in Penetang and Oro, simple buildings, little more than a shed were the first places of worship in these communities. The one in Oro remains to this day, (pictured above) and is a National Heritage site.

Over time the fortune of the two communities diverged. The community at Penetang was supporting the military establishment, and post war, there was a move to make the establishments a location for pensioned military personnel. These military personnel would not be mailed cheques or money for their pensions, they had to make their way to a base that would pay them their due. Penetang was one of those places, so that the settlement, which was suffering from being in a remote location was revitalized, and the road improved. This led to a Railway, which brought more industry to the town, and the community flourished.

Whereas the community in Oro, dwindled. The black settlers were forced economically to sell land, or became in the employ of other settlers, who had wealth accumulated (old money as we know it)


Another interesting comparison is the size of the lots. Previously lots were laid out in two hundred acre parcels. Many grantees of earlier times were granted the full 200 acres. In Oro, these were separated into two, 100 acre lots. In Penetang, just 40 acres were received. Despite the diminishing land size, the requirements of clearing and shelter was not changed, so that a majority of the land received had to be cleared. The original land grantee was bound by these rules, so that if found to be wanting, the Canada Company would take over the land. In later years, many family farms were lost due to tax. These properties were auctioned off, and the land speculators were to profit.


The Oro settlement has some comparisons to Coldwater as well. After the war of 1812, the native allies were given land at Coldwater. Coldwater was a good agricultural location, and whereas not all of the native families were interested in farming, many were. So much so that reports by the Indian department were glowing as to the potential success of the settlement. This would lead to pressure and eventual relocation of the settlement off of good land by white settlers. This pressure would also be on the Oro settlement by white settlers to appropriate their cleared land. This did not result in official relocation but most relocated anyway. To the point where the settlement became a ghost town, there is not much remaining of the settlement aside from the church.

Although we do not know much about those on Wilberforce street, we should recognize them as brothers. Born of the same need, (the communities not people) these communities were formed following the war of 1812 as communities of allies needed to be settled somewhere. This was botched in both locations, and although those who had probably promised these people land tried to honor it, a corrupt and uncaring oligarchy resulted in both loyal peoples marginalized and mistreated. Both were given secondary land and were pressured by those who had not risked their lives to defend the country. Although different in motivation, the metis voyageurs wishing to return to trading in the old Northwest (west of Mississippi) and the former slaves wanting to suppress their oppressors, their situation during and after the war were the same. Neither group was, on the most part, in the war for land grants. Were they promised such at the time is unsure. If they were promised land, it would have been understood as at least 200 acres. Land was plentiful, and previous land grants were made in generous portions.

But prior to the war of 1812, and by extension the War with France, Britain was flush, they had been benefitting from their colonies for awhile and riches were abounding. However, the wars with Napoleon and the colonies here and in India, and elsewhere, had made the bounty smaller, so the policies were changed.

Some military personel who had made promises, or were operating under the assumption of promised land, found those promises and assumptions minimized by the post war of 1812 government.

The British still needed protection for their bases without having a paid militia. The metis and Black veterans were fingered for this position. IN Penetang, the metis were placed on the road into Penetang from Nottawasaga Bay, the final leg of the Nine mile Portage and in proximity to Penetang Road. At the other end, the Black settlement was placed close to the southern end of the Penetang road and protected against a land force coming up from Carrying place trail, or Yonge Street. Or conversely, down from Georgian Bay to York. We forget that the expansion west was the goal of both the Canadian (British) colonies and the new United States. Penetang, had a post War of 1812 reignited into another war would have been the key to the west.

The US dropped into their own rebellion and revolt in the 1860's which led to the American civil war, which took the focus away from the Canadian west. Both the community of metis in Penetang and the black settlement in Oro sent men to the war. Of course, the black community wanting to suppress their former oppressors sent more. (One family member of mine, a Beausoleil served and settled in Detroit, becoming the Sun family. ) Over and over, the Black and metis families remained loyal, despite the British letdowns.

Now some would tell you that for the first time blacks were treated equally to whites when referring to Wilberforce street. They were not, they simply did not have the ability, on the most part to become equals. This was simply a economic truth. Money, cash money was only available to and from the Brits. Successful farms were only a little more than subsistent. To make money to pay taxes and such you needed to find some one with money. And only the British veterans who were on pension received any cash. Neither Metis nor Black, on the most part were advanced in the forces to officers, and only officers were paid anything respectful in retirement. The inequalities would linger on and the net results would not prove out the assertion that they were treated equally.

Both communities can be grateful for the British creating these communities and amassing them in one place. These community bonds continue to this day. But they were not magnanimous creations showing how they believed in equality, as some might tell you.


Art Duval Pipesmoke of the past



377 views1 comment

Recent Posts

See All