Black History Month: Nelson Able (c.1822-1875)

You may recognize the name Nelson Able; we’ve shared his story before – particularly the fancy dinner party he threw for his friends in 1863. Born around 1822 in Virginia, he was enslaved until his escape in 1850 via the Underground Railroad. After settling in Dundas in 1851, he established the Hamilton-Dundas Stage Coach in 1854, which he ran until shortly before his death in 1875. He was a well-respected and esteemed member of the Dundas community. This year we found a few more examples of just how true that was.

We finally located his obituary printed in the Dundas True Banner on May 13, 1875. This eloquently written account of his life highlights his time in Dundas and the deep connections he made within his community. Although we haven’t been able to locate his grave yet, we now know that he was laid to rest in Grove Cemetery by local undertaker Isaac Latshaw and his funeral was paid for by Lieutenant J.F. Smith thanks to additional information found in Latshaw’s Account book from 1848-1881. This obituary also helped point us in the right direction to make another discovery, but more on that next week!

Obituary Transcript:
Death of Nelson Able
On Sabbath afternoon, the mortal remains of Nelson Able were deposited in the Grove Cemetery in the presence of a very large number of our citizens. For months past, poor Nelson had been struggling for an existence under an attack of consumption, and almost up to the hour of his death, which took place on Friday evening at about eight o’clock, he had hopes that he would be able to conquer the disease and live. It was ordered otherwise, however, and at the age of about 48 this much respected and useful public servant was called upon to pass “that bourne from whence no traveller returns.” Nelson took up his residence in Dundas about 25 years ago, he having previously been a slave on a plantation near Raleigh, in Virginia. While a slave he had a kind master, and notwithstanding the strong feeling of respect and admiration which Nelson ever manifest for British institutions, he used to love to talk to those with whom he was intimate of the fine times he had when a boy “down south,” never having been engaged in any other occupation than that of coachman for his master, and in whose company he was in the habit of spending a good deal of time in making tours through the county. He thirsted for liberty, however, and assisted by kind friends he succeeded in escaping from slavery, and found a home on British Soil. – During his long residence in Dundas, 23 years of which time he constantly drove his stage twice a day to Hamilton, he earned for himself a reputation for strict honesty and trustworthiness which did not fail to secure for him the respect of his fellow citizens. He was possessed of strong impulses and prejudices, but no more painstaking or faithful public servant could be found than Nelson. By steady industry he had succeeded in accumulating considerable property, and prior to his death he presented Alex Moore, who had been very kind to him during his illness with $350, and to Mr. Geo. Ball, who had recently purchased his stage line, he gave $800, or the amount of the purchase money which he (Ball) had agreed to pay for the property, and to Mrs. Logan the whole of his furniture, &c. In addition to this he was possess of the dwelling house where he resided, and had, we believe, some money in Stinson’s Savings Bank, Hamilton. By the death of Nelson Able Dundas has lost an honest man and a much respected citizen.

Black History Month: Dr. Anderson Ruffin Abbott (1837-1913)

A young Dr. Anderson Ruffin Abbott standing in his Union army uniform

We’ve made some really cool discoveries while researching for an upcoming project on Black History in Dundas, and we want to share them with you!

Dr. Anderson Ruffin Abbott was the first Canadian-born Black doctor. He served in the Union army as a civilian surgeon during the American Civil War and attended to President Abraham Lincoln in his last moments. Afterwards, he returned to Canada and married Mary Ann Casey. We knew that he and his family moved to Dundas in 1881, where he held many prominent positions, including President of the Mechanics Institute, Church Warden at St. James Anglican Church, and Assistant Editor of the Dundas True Banner. But we never knew for sure whether he practiced medicine while he was living here…until now!

An older Dr. Anderson Ruffin Abbott with an impressive moustache is seated wearing robes.

While perusing through a prescription book from H.W. Ralph’s Dundas Drug Co. store, we came across several entries which had been prescribed by Dr. Anderson Ruffin Abbott, proving that he was indeed practicing while he was living in Dundas! This entry is especially interesting – the name above the prescription was the patient, in this case, Sam Lightfoot. Samuel Jackson Lightfoot was a Freedom Seeker born June 3rd, 1816, in Kentucky, USA. With the assistance of Josiah Henson, he escaped enslavement and eventually settled in West Flamborough. Samuel Lightfoot married Jane Brackstone, and their first child, John Samuel Lightfoot, was born in Dundas in 1838. Samuel and Jane had another son before she died in 1845. Samuel then married Ellen Ball and had another 10 children. He died in 1889 in New York, only a few years after this prescription was written.

1)      Scanned image of a handwritten prescription. Sam Lightfoot’s name is at the top of the image, followed by a list of ingredients and instructions for the prescription. The initials A.R.A. are in the bottom right corner.

Although Dr. Anderson Ruffin Abbott and his family moved away from Dundas in 1889, he was an integral member of the community. He made a tremendous impact on the town and its inhabitants – especially his patients!

Black History Month: The Button Doll, c.1932

For the first day of Black History Month, we would like to introduce our Button Doll!

This amazing doll was made by Emma Green Lewis of Hamilton between 1929 and 1932. It’s covered, top to bottom, in a beautiful array of buttons Emma collected from family and friends, carefully sewn onto a green gingham dress.

Emma Lewis was the daughter of Mary-Anne Green, who came to Canada in 1858 after escaping enslavement in South Carolina. Emma was born in Collingwood and worked as a tailoress before moving to Hamilton and marrying Cornelius Lewis of Simcoe in 1900. Several of the doll’s buttons come from Cornelius’ time as a waiter on the Grand Trunk Railway.

They had 4 children, including Raymond “Rapid Ray” Lewis, the first Canadian-born Black Olympic medalist. Like his father, and many other Black men of the period, Ray worked as a railway porter. While training, he often ran along the train tracks during stopovers on the Canadian Prairies. The Canadian Pacific Railway buttons on the doll come from Ray.

Emma and Cornelius were both prominent members of Hamilton’s Black community and attended services at Stewart Memorial Church, Canada’s oldest black congregation. Many buttons perhaps come from Sunday dresses and suits.

Other buttons include one commemorating a Royal Visit, another from the Royal Canadian Flying Corps in which Black Hamiltonian Lincoln Alexander served, and one from the Hamilton Fire Department. Sadly, the stories behind many will never be known.

The Lewis family donated the doll in 1964, likely through the influence of Alden Brown, a family friend and a founding member of the Dundas Historical Society.

See this doll in person in our new Feature Exhibition, Valley of the Dolls, opening this Saturday, February 4th! 1pm – 4pm. You’re welcome to try to count the buttons for yourself!

With a Friends of the Museum Special Preview at 6pm, Thursday, February 2nd (that’s tomorrow!).

First Municipal Christmas Tree?

Last Friday’s tree lighting ceremony has a long history here in Dundas. It was held for the first time in 1914, and contemporary accounts boast that the tree was the first of its kind in Canada. It has been held yearly since then, with the exception of 2020, due to safety concerns, and was held virtually for 2021. Curiosity begs whether attendees of the 1918 ceremony had similar concerns or whether the deadly flu left as suddenly as it had arrived.

A brief blurb from the Dundas Star December 17th 1914, describing preparations for the first Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony
From the Dundas Star, December 17, 1914.
December 24th, 1914 article describing the Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony
From the Dundas Star, December 24, 1914.

While there are no surviving copies of the programme Santa supposedly arranged to be printed and distributed “so that everybody may obtain a souvenir of the first Municipal Christmas Tree celebration to be held in Canada,” the DMA collection does include the programme from the 2nd Municipal Christmas Tree celebration, held December 23, 1915:

2nd Municipal Christmas Tree Program
Programme for the Christmas Tree Lighting, December 23, 1915.

Although it’s difficult to be sure, this celebration may very well have been the first of its kind in Canada. The tradition of the Christmas tree originated in Germany, an older tradition first documented in the sixteenth century. It was adopted by the British after being popularized by the royal family, who had celebrated with one since at least 1800. Canada’s British and German immigrants brought the tradition with them, and evidence suggests the first North American Christmas Tree was hoisted in 1781 for a Quebec party of British and German officers. Electric lighting for these trees wasn’t invented until 100 years later, in 1882, by Edward Johnson of the Edison Electric Company, and available commercially circa 1890 (Canadian Encylopedia). The mayor of Dundas in 1914, W.H.C. Fisher, offers the town to Santa for the day, saying that he has “the freedom of Dundas, the “Hub of Hydro”. Much ado is made about the lights and lighting in the 1915 programme also, suggesting it was still both a novelty and luxury.

A souvenir coin from the DMA collection (2012.047.010), advertising Dundas as “The Hub of the Hydro and Highway Systems”, date unknown.
8.00 His Worship, Mayor Fisher, will press the button (illuminating the tree)

There are reports in Canadian newspapers of the 1913 New York City municipal Christmas tree lighting, referencing the success of their first in December 1912, as well as another in Chicago in 1913. If it wasn’t the very first in Canada, Dundas’ 1914 ceremony was certainly among the earliest, as the celebration’s popularity as a public event quickly brought it north of the border. While there were school trees, church trees, hospital trees, and business trees, so far, no references have emerged to an earlier municipal Christmas Tree in Canada.

The second celebration appears to have had a more military theme than the first due to the intensification of WWI, and the programme includes the phrase “Long Live Santa Claus” just above “God Save the King” at the bottom of the page. The event was also a fundraiser/clothing drive for soldiers’ hospitals “as comforts to our wounded soldier lads”, with children encouraged to bring either a monetary or homemade gift for Santa rather than receiving one from their “old friend”. These would be handed over to the “ladies who are doing such noble work”, the Women’s Patriotic League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and sent to the front, along with $123 raised by the organizing committee.

Dundas’ Christmas Tree has a 108-year history— may it shine on through another century!