Struggle for Freedom in a Maryland Barn, engraving from The Underground Rail Road by William Still, 1872
Wikimedia Commons

Dear Professor Gates: 

I am looking into the origins of my enslaved ancestors. While searching the Maryland State Archives, I discovered that during the War of 1812, many of my ancestors escaped slavery with the assistance of the British through Chesapeake Bay and landed in Nova Scotia, Canada.

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During my investigation, I uncovered quite a long list of formerly enslaved persons, of which some are my direct ancestors, including records for “General and David Saunders—War of 1812 Escaped Slave, Calvert County, Maryland, 1814,” and “William Dear (Dare) (b. circa 1789-d. 1868), Escaped Refugee Slave, War of 1812, Calvert County, Maryland.”

Dear’s post details an incredible story of a “flight to freedom.” As an escaped slave, he took up arms with the British after Adm. Alexander Cochrane issued a proclamation of freedom for services in 1814. In the second part of his journey, Dear built the Stag Inn (Hotel), in Preston, Nova Scotia, Canada, and became the first successful black proprietor to own a business of this nature in that era.

I would love to know more about the origins of all three ancestors. Unfortunately, I live in Canada and cannot visit the archives in person, so I'm seeking additional online resources. —Kevin W.B.

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Your ancestors appear to have been caught up in a conflict during which black men fought for both the Americans and the British in the hope of defending their liberty and, in many cases, securing permanent emancipation: the War of 1812 (which actually lasted until 1815). Clearly, Adm. Alexander Cochrane’s offer of emancipation in 1814 was one your ancestors could not refuse.

How Your Forebears Escaped to Freedom

As you have read, the Maryland State Archives biography for General Saunders states that he “lived and worked on Thomas Reynolds’ farm near Chesapeake Beach in Calvert County, while his brother David, nicknamed Davy, and his sister (name currently unknown) were enslaved on John H. Chew’s farm in the same county. On a Sunday evening in October 1814, Saunders escaped with his brother and Harry Quary, both slaves of John H. Chew, and with Elleck, a slave of William Ward. Saunders’ sister had encouraged him to escape, but she did not accompany him.

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“The four men reached the British sloop-of-war Dauntless, part of a squadron lying near Sharp’s Island in the Chesapeake Bay by the Choptank River’s mouth. General and David Saunders had transferred to the HMS Orlando by March 6, 1815. … John H. Chew later heard that both General and David Saunders were serving ‘as Marines on board The British fleet after peace.’ … Saunders and his brother were listed among black refugees who arrived between 1815 and 1818 in Halifax, Nova Scotia.”

The biography for William Dear/Dare states that he was “enslaved at the Calvert County home of John Dare. William was married to another slave, Nancy, with whom he had a son also named William. In 1814 … the British placed a blockade on Maryland waterways up and down the Chesapeake Bay. …That July, William Dare escaped to the British forces in Calvert County, taking up arms with the British. However, Dare refused to leave the area until he had rescued his wife, Nancy, and her brother, similar to the demands of another Dare family slave, William Mitchel.

“Following the war, many slave owners in Maryland, Virginia, Louisiana and Georgia submitted claims for the loss of property that the British had taken or destroyed. … Although Dr. John Dare submitted a claim for the loss of one enslaved man, he died in 1826 before compensation. However, the claim was ultimately approved, with the estate of Dr. John Dare receiving $280 for the loss of William Dare. The Dare family and many other Maryland slaves were carried to Halifax, Nova Scotia, following the War of 1812.

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These biographies provide an astonishing amount of information about your kin, even describing their lives of freedom in Canada. They also provide you with the all-important clue of knowing who your ancestors’ slave owners were, since, as noted before in this column, during America’s antebellum period, enslaved people were considered to be property and very often recorded as such in documents, frequently without being named. Often, the only way to trace their lives in slavery is through their owners.

What We Know About the Men Who Enslaved Them

Since it was around 1814 when your ancestors made their freedom flights, one of the closest and most accessible records available for this date would be the 1810 U.S. census. It does include Calvert County, Md., where Dear/Dare and the Saunders siblings originated. This census also noted the number of slaves in each household, so finding the three slave owners (Reynolds, Chew and Dare) identified in your ancestors’ biographies enables us to locate your kin prior to their freedom flights despite the absence of any identifiers of age, race or sex for the enslaved.

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The household of Thomas Reynolds in 1810 consisted of just himself (age 26-44), a woman of the same age who was likely his wife and 30 slaves, one of whom could have been General Saunders. With the information gathered thus far, it is uncertain when or why General and David Saunders (and their unnamed sister) were separated between the Reynolds and Chew farms, so searching for records of both white households would maximize the potential return of relevant documents.

Finally, John Dare (pdf) and his wife (both age 26-44) were residing with one other young, free white male (age 16-25), who was perhaps their son, as well as 10 enslaved persons, one of whom may have been your ancestor, William Dear/Dare.

The Maryland State Archives site also includes biographical sketches for these three slave-owning men, containing information that could indirectly reveal more information about your own ancestors. For example, in the source list for Thomas Reynolds is a document titled “Definitive List of Slaves and Property, compiled ca. 1827-ca. 1828,” accompanied by a citation directing the reader to the National Archives at College Park. Tracking down this record either personally, or through an on-site representative, could provide additional information about the individuals who remained enslaved by the Reynolds family after General Saunders’ escape. Noting surnames, in particular, could provide insight into the composition of the enslaved community on the Reynolds property, their origins and any connections General Saunders might have had prior to his departure. It would also be wise to inquire whether such lists exist for John H. Chew and John Dare.

What’s in a Name?

The fact that General and David Saunders possessed a surname distinct from that of their slave owners is significant. Many previously enslaved persons, like William Dear/Dare, assumed the name of their prior owners after acquiring their freedom. However, General and David Saunders were both identified consistently in the compensation claims of Reynolds (pdf) and Chew (pdf) by the Saunders name, which suggests that they had it even before they were free.

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One explanation could be that the siblings began their lives on another farm, perhaps that of a white Saunders family that owned them, and the siblings were adopted or given the surname when they were sold apart, as a way to maintain a sense of their family unit. The name could also have been adopted not from former owners but perhaps from another white family that did not own them but with whom they were associated through work, proximity or other circumstances.

For these reasons, it could be helpful to search for white Saunders households in the area around Calvert County before and during this time period. In 1810 there were three white Saunders families in Anne Arundel County, just to the north of Calvert County, which we pulled up via Ancestry.com (subscription required): James, Samuel and William Saunders (the 1810 census can also be viewed for free via FamilySearch).

The household of James Saunders included three slaves, and that of William Saunders contained 33. We also searched the 1800 U.S. census, since it would have been closer to the time at which the Saunders siblings were born and thus may have been closer to the adoption of the Saunders surname. In this earlier census were the households of Bailey and Phillis Saunders, also in Anne Arundel County, neither of which contained slaves. It would be worthwhile to research these families, looking for any connection through vital, land and probate records to the Reynolds and Chew families. Finding such connections might get you closer to uncovering the origins of the Saunders siblings. You can find digitized Anne Arundel County probate records here.

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In regard to William Dear/Dare, since he assumed the name of his former slave owner, it would be best to focus your attentions on the Dare family until other information is uncovered.

A Clue Uncovered in a Land Record

The next step we usually take when researching enslaved persons is to search for probate and land records involving the former owners. One online resource available to everyone that can help when you begin this stage of the research is FamilySearch’s research Wiki system, which contains informational sketches for counties and states. These pages will inform you about when certain states or counties were formed, if there were any boundary changes or record destruction, and where to find certain records.

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We browsed the entry for Calvert County, Md., and found out that most of the records for the county prior to 1882 were destroyed in a fire. Fortunately, abstracts of some early deeds from this county (spanning the years 1785-1817) were housed at the Hall of Records in Annapolis, Md. The library of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, for which this column’s co-author Anna L. Todd is a researcher, contains a transcription of these records composed by Ailene W. Hutchins (“Calvert County, Maryland Early Land Records”). We found a number of deeds pertaining to Thomas Reynolds, John Chew and John Dare that described their various land transactions before, during and after the freedom flights of William Dare/Dear and the Saunders brothers. While the deeds do not mention any enslaved persons, there are clues within the text that can help reconstruct the material lives and relationships of these households.

Most importantly, there is a deed from July 6, 1807, in which Thomas Reynolds sold land in the area of “Robinson’s Rest” to John Chew for 5 shillings. We already know that Reynolds and Chew must have been acquainted to the degree that they owned members of the same Saunders family, and that the Saunders siblings were able to be in touch enough to have coordinated their joint escape with the British. This deed provides further and more explicit evidence of a link between the Reynolds and Chew households and could hold clues as to how the Saunders siblings came to reside in the area.

The Lives Your Ancestors Lived in Canada

Finally, do not discount Nova Scotian records in your search for the origins of your formerly enslaved ancestors. The Nova Scotia National Archives has a number of records digitized online for convenience, including death records for this period. Through their vital-records collection you can find the death records of General Saunders, who died on June 26, 1869, and William Dear, who died on May 12, 1868. Critically, both of the records reveal that the identities of their parents were not known—an unfortunate consequence of the realities of slavery and the displacement often required of those seeking freedom. This information largely came from the informant, who was less likely to know this information than the deceased individual, but it also raises the possibility that the names of the parents of General and David Saunders and William Dear/Dare are lost to history.

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The Nova Scotia National Archives’ collection “Census Returns, Assessment and Poll Tax Records 1767-1838” aligns nicely with the period of arrival for your ancestors. When we performed a quick search, we found a David Saunders listed among the black population of Frog Lake, East Preston, Nova Scotia, in the 1827 census returns digitized by the archives. Saunders did not appear to own any land, and there were no crops attributed to his households. This document also notes Saunders’ religious leanings of Presbyterianism, marking him a member of a large black Presbyterian community that lived, worked and congregated together. William Deer (sic) can also be found in the Frog Lake area in 1827, part of the same Presbyterian community, with his household consisting of four males and two females. On his 1 acre of land, Deer farmed 100 bushels of potatoes and 1 ton of hay.

Finding these records can provide you with a tangible frame of reference for your ancestors’ lives after they settled in Halifax as free persons. Their circumstances also bring to light some of the financial difficulties and racial discrimination faced by the black refugee population in Nova Scotia, numbering about 2,000, as described by Lindsay Van Dyk in her poignant article for the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, “Shaping a Community: Black Refugees in Nova Scotia.”

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

This answer was provided in consultation with Anna L. Todd, a researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today about researching African-American roots.