“Loyalist Trails” 2013-46: November 24, 2013
It has been said that heroes are ordinary people who are revealed in the midst of extraordinary circumstances. This was certainly true of Silvia, “the heroine of Lunenburg.” Before the summer of 1782, most people paid the woman little regard. After all, she was just one of the African slaves of Colonel John Creighton’s family – a woman who worked about the house and cared for the six Creighton children. However, when five American privateer ships attacked the loyal Nova Scotian town, Silvia was able to show her true colours. As a consequence, she is the only woman remembered in the retelling of the Sack of Lunenburg. This is her story.
As the sun rose on July first 1782, one hundred seventy American privateers invaded Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. Rebels seized the town’s blockhouse, plundered the chief homes and shops, but limited their destruction to burning the homes of two officers of the local militia. The privateers took Colonel John Creighton and two of his men prisoner aboard their ships, threatening that they would burn the town down if Major Dettlieb Jessen and the local militia offered any resistance.
This brief recap of the American Revolution’s worst privateer raid on a Nova Scotian community outlines the rebel attack, but it ignores the bravery and quick-wittedness of the woman enslaved by Colonel John Creighton. Despite the fact that she was seen as the colonel’s property on a par with his horse and cows, Silvia sprang into action to save the family that had enslaved her for years.
As the privateers advanced on Lunenburg, Creighton dashed from his house to the nearby blockhouse, hoping to stop the enemy’s advance. Silvia could have remained in the safety of her master’s house, seeking shelter with Mrs. Creighton and the children. Instead, Silvia filled her apron with gun cartridges and musket balls, and ran up the hill to the blockhouse to aid her master. The uphill path, her long skirts, and her many years must have slowed her pace, making her an easy target for a privateer’s musket.
Once in the blockhouse, Silvia helped to load the muskets for Creighton and his fellow militia men. Some stories go as far as to say that she fired a gun herself. The enemy overwhelmed the blockhouse. Unaware of how helpful Silvia had been in the defence of Lunenburg, the privateers allowed her to escape.
Silvia returned to the Creightons’ home. The privateers fired upon it and would have wounded or killed the colonel’s youngest son, Joseph, had Silvia not thrown herself over him.
At this point in the accounts of the Sack of Lunenburg, historians are divided as to whether Silvia remained with the Creighton family or ran to the home of Major Jessen. But whichever house was her destination, Silvia’s subsequent actions reveal a clever mind.
Silvia hurriedly stashed away the family’s valuables. She hid their money and silverware in a small chest. With the enemy approaching the house, there was no time to hide the chest. Silvia quickly sat down on it, spreading the folds of her long skirt over the box. Using the men’s stereotypes of black women to her advantage , Silvia began to cry aloud, pretending to be terrified of the rebel invaders.
One privateer is reported as saying “See what’s under the old thing!”; Silvia responded by wailing even louder. “Let the old hag go” was the response of the rebel leader. Frustrated at finding little treasure — a small cream jug made of silver and a few other articles — the men left the house, whereupon Silvia promptly lowered the chest down a well.
Since the documents of the era report that the privateers robbed clothes, furniture, silver plate and £700 in cash from Jessen, it seems most likely that the chest Silvia saved belonged to the family of her master, the Creightons. All sources agree that the invaders burned their house down. However, the destructive fire did not damage the well which Silvia used as a hiding place.
Silvia’s bravery during the Sack of Lunenburg would have been completely lost to posterity were it not for D. Luthor Roth’s 1890 history, Acadia and Acadians. It was Roth who preserved the rebel quotes that so unkindly referred to Silvia as an “old thing” and an “old hag.” In 1895, Silvia’s story was also recorded in Mather B. Des Brisay’s 1895 History of Lunenburg. Archibald MacMechan’s 1923 Saga of the Seas was based on eyewitness accounts and local correspondence, but it is clear that he, like most other retellings of the black heroine’s story, referred back to the books written in the 1890s.
The historian Sylvia Hamilton, writing in the late 20th century, wondered what prompted Lunenburg’s enslaved heroine to risk her life for her masters. She also underscored the lack of recognition Sylvia received. “It was not Sylvia who was recognized for her efforts, but her master and a militia private to whom the provincial House of Assembly voted payments of money from the country’s land taxes.”
While Sylvia was not recognized in her lifetime, almost 200 years later, the black woman began to capture the imagination of writers. In 1981, Jan Andrews had her story of Silvia included in The Dancing Sun: A Celebration of Canadian Children. Through the magic of historical fiction, Silvia becomes “a young black slave” who is described as saving her master’s son from Yankee privateers.
Five years later, Nova Scotian author Joyce Barkhouse wrote a short story about Silvia, titling it “The Heroine of Lunenburg”. Using artistic license, Barkhouse made the black slave a sixteen year-old girl, named the Creighton’s youngest son Timothy, had Creighton grant Sylvia her freedom, and ended the story with her marriage to a Black Loyalist. One can only wish that this was how things turned out for Silvia, but the historical records are absolutely silent. We know nothing more of this clever middle- aged woman after the events of July 1, 1782.
But what we do know is certainly worth celebrating. When rebels attacked a seaport town in loyal Nova Scotia, an enslaved woman rose to the occasion and risked her life for those she served. Her quick wits and bravery make Silvia a feisty heroine we can all admire.
To secure permission to reprint this article, email Stephen Davidson.
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It has been an eventful two weeks as we have moved from Ho Chi Minh City to Danang, Hue, and Hanoi in Vietnam to Juang Prabang in Laos ands now in Siem Reap in Cambodia. Most everything has gone well, except that in Hue my computer died (perhaps due to a power outage and ensuing power surge?). I bought a new one in Hanoi, but it speaks only Windows 8 which is new to me. (I never thought I would spend “14 million” for anything! But the exchange rate is 20,000 Vietnamese Dong to 1 Dollar, so the actual cost was roughly similar to home.) Between that new operating system and lack of reliable internet access, my work and Loyalist responsibilities have backed up. When I get home, I may be able to recover my email messages (or not). If you sent me anything following November 10, you should probably send it again unless I have recently acknowledged it. If you had sent me anything before that and I have not yet responded, you should probably send that again as well.
Al passed away peacefully on Wednesday, November 13, 2013, at the Stedman Community Hospice, in his 86th year. Husband of Marjorie “Midge” Hughes and the late Elizabeth “Betty” Hughes (1989). Father of Darlene (Don) Menhennet, Allana (Rudy) Horvath, Lynn (Roger Craig) Haig, Debbie (Wayne) Toombs, Ritchie (Caroline) Hughes, Sandra Miller, Rick (Sharon) Fink, Lynn (Bill) Royle, Terry (Ellen) Fink and Roger (Pat) Fink. Grandpa of 22 and great-grandpa of 27. Brother of Catherine (Don) Thompson. Predeceased by brothers Wray and Maurice.
Al was passionate about golf and from 1980-1994 he owned and operated with his family the Bluewater Golf Course and Campground in Bayfield, Ontario.
A Funeral Service was held at the BECKETT-GLAVES FAMILY FUNERAL CENTRE, Brantford ON on Friday, November 14, 2013. Donations in lieu of flowers to the Stedman Community Hospice. Online condolences, tributes and service details at www.beckettglaves.com. A tree will be planted in memory of Al in the Beckett – Glaves Memorial Forest. (London Free Press)
At Sandfield Place on Thursday November 21, 2013. Douglas P. Johnston of Cornwall, age 91 years. Husband for 71 years of Alberta (Herrington) Johnston. Father of Alberta “Bobbie” (Martin) of Pointe Claire, PQ, and John (Elizabeth) of Toronto. Predeceased by daughter Hilda (Henry). Grandfather of 4. Son of the late Herbert Johnston and the late Hildred (Thompson) Johnston. Brother of Everard (Norma) of Cornwall. Predeceased by two brothers Clifford (Norene) and William “Billie” (Eileen of Cornwall), and one sister Areta Bilmer (Donald).
Member of St. Lawrence Branch UELAC, Douglas was born 26 Feb 1922, died 21 Nov 2013. His Loyalist Certificate was approved 15 May 1985, to Loyalist Henry Empey.
Visitation was held at Mcarthur Bros. & MacNeil Funeral Home & Chapel, Cornwall on Sunday from 7-9 pm and on Monday Nov 25 at St. John’s Presbyterian Church from 10 am until the time of the service. Interment Woodlawn Cemetery.
Donations to St. John’s Presbyterian Church would be appreciated. Messages of condolence may be left at www.mcarthurbrosfh.com. (Cornwall Standard Freeholder)