Among the most intriguing stories of widows and dependents in the Atlantic World are those of the African Americans who moved into Canada having escaped the shackles of slavery. In 1883, one of them was Priscilla Atwood. She made her home in Ontario, but had been born Priscilla Jane Hartsill in Jonesboro, Washington County, Tennessee in 1834. Her story had taken her through some of the most famous locations associated with the Underground Railroad, marriage to a man who had been at the centre of a controversial manumission case in antebellum Alabama, and life at the heart of one of Canada’s most vibrant African American communities.
It is unclear if Priscilla was born enslaved, but many of her friends and neighbours most certainly had been. Chatham, Onatrio- where she made her home in 1883- was one of the major locations where African Americans settled once they had crossed into Upper Canada. Prior to the Civil War, it is thought that around 20,000 blacks from the United States were making their home in British North America. In 1861 no fewer than 1,770 of Chatham’s 4,466 inhabitants were black. Canada proved attractive not only because it could provide sanctuary for runaways, but also because, at least nominally, the law treated blacks and whites equally, and African Americans could attain full citizenship after three years residency. By the time Priscilla was recorded on the 1883 roll, Chatham’s position as a centre of black-life in Canada seems to have diminished. By 1881, when Priscilla was recorded as a 44-year-old Baptist, just 781 of the town’s 7,867 inhabitants were enumerated as black. This reduction presumably resulted from families having moved on to other parts of Canada, or because they had returned to a United States where slavery had been abolished. (1)
Priscilla Atwood had first crossed the border into Canada in 1854. Prior to that date she had been living in Ripley, Brown County, Ohio. She had been there since at least 1850, when she was recorded as living in the home of Jesse Fenton, a merchant. Ripley was a famed stop on the Underground Railroad, sited as it was on the north bank of the Ohio River opposite the slave state of Kentucky. It was in Ripley that Priscilla met Alexander Atwood, who had grown up in the Prairie Bluff cotton plantation on the Alabama River, Alabama. The couple married on 13 June 1854, and immediately departed for Canada. (2)
The extent to which the Canadian black community where they made their home was a transplanted American one is apparent in the women Priscilla was able to call on to support her pension claim in the late 1860s. Many of them had been in Ohio at the same time as her- for example in 1866 Amelia Robinson and Sarah Finer Pearson, both of Chatham, gave testimony to state they had witnessed Priscilla’s Ripley marriage in 1854. Similarly, the maintained links between those who had endured enslavement and shared experiences of the antebellum South were maintained across decades. In 1893, Priscilla had to face down a threat to her pension based around a new rule which required her to prove her husband’s citizenship (this created a pension crisis for all international widows- see my piece on The Pension Crisis of 1893). Effectively, this meant Priscilla had to prove Alexander had been born in the United States. Despite the remove of years, she still knew other people in Chatham who had lived on the same plantation as her husband. One was Lucy Overstreet, 56-years-old in 1893:
My age is 56 years I was born in Alabama on the Bluff plantation I am colored I was on the same plantation with Alexander Atwood and have often heard his parents say that he was born on the Bluff plantation. I have never heard the exact date of his birth. I am not related to Alexander Atwood…
Even more telling regarding the maintenance of these networks is the fact that Priscilla also had contact with women from her husband’s plantation who were far removed from Chatham in 1893. Another who supported her was Delia Lawson, who lived almost 150 miles away, in Albion, Michigan:
I was born on the Bluff plantation in the state of Alabama I am about 40 years of age I am colored and was on the same plantation with Alexander Atwood I have always heard the he was born on the same plantation I do not remember of ever hearing of the exact date of his birth I am no relative of Alexander Atwood (3)
What of Priscilla’s husband Alexander? Born onto the Chilachi cotton plantation at Prairie Bluff around 1830, many of the details of his life have been examined by Canadian historian Bryan Prince. Alexander was the son of the plantation’s Massachusetts-born owner Henry Stiles Atwood and an enslaved woman named Candis. Atwood had five children with Candis, and two more with an enslaved woman called Mary. He was both their father and owner. As well as bequeathing each of them $8000, he intended to free his children upon his death, even though Alabama prohibited in-state manumission. To circumvent this, he left instructions with his executors for his children in Alabama to be brought to a free state where they could then be manumitted. When Atwood died in 1851, his controversial will brought legal challenges from his white heirs, which threatened both the inheritance and freedom of Alexander’s siblings (read more about the case here). Luckily both Alexander and one of his sisters had already been sent to Ohio, so their inheritance and freedom was confirmed by the courts on that basis. However, that of the children still resident in Alabama was initially denied. Both parties appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court, who ultimately determined that those still in Alabama should be brought to a free state, though whether they should receive their inheritance was left to the discretion of the executor. Finally, in 1853, Alexander was able to welcome the remainder of his family to Ripley. (4)
This was the context in which Alexander married Priscilla in 1854. He had apparently been married before; when he met Priscilla he had a daughter, Sarahfine. In later years, Priscilla had to provide evidence that Alexander’s first wife was deceased at the time of her Ripley marriage, in order to prove her pension entitlement. This led to Sarahfine providing a fascinating affidavit in 1879:
My…father frequently talked to me about my mother. He told me that he married her in Mobile…and that they lived together there till the time of her death…she died before I was able to speak and as a fact I do not recollect my mother…after her death he removed taking me with him to Ripley…where he married my step-mother…who now supports and provides for me. I do not know my mother’s name. I was only a small child about nine or ten years old when my…father enlisted in the American Army and went away and I never saw him after that time. My birth-day is the thirtieth day of June. I was told by my…father that I was born on the thirtieth day of June 1854. (5) *
When Priscilla, Alexander and Sarahfine crossed into Canada in 1854, Alexander used some of his inheritance to establish a grocery business in Chatham. But he never forgot the horrors of the institution that had so influenced the lives of himself and his family. When African Americans began to be accepted into the Northern military, Alexander decided to return to the United States to fight for freedom. On 2nd October 1863 he volunteered in Providence, Rhode Island, becoming a soldier in the 14th Rhode Island Heavy Artillery (Colored). He would ultimately rise to Sergeant in Company E. William H. Chenery, who served as Alexander’s company commander and later as the chronicler of the regiment, remembered him with great fondness:
He was known throughout the regiment as a modest and conscientious man, and was greatly respected by both officers and men. His patriotism was unquestioned, having journeyed from Canada to enlist in the Union army in the States. At home he was a man of prominence among his people, having acquired considerable property, and it is said he was the proprietor of a grocery store, and was doing a thriving business at the time of his enlistment…He was of great assistance to his captain in copying muster rolls, and performing the duties of a company clerk. He was a fit representative of the enlisted men of the colored troops of the Union. (6)
Alexander spent much of his service based in Louisiana. While he was there, Priscilla made the decision to make the long journey South to visit him. It was a remarkably brave decision, particularly considering the war was not yet over. The couple were reunited in early 1865, while Alexander was stationed on the Mississippi River at Camp Shaw in Plaquemine, Louisiana. When William Chenery came to write the regimental history decades later, it was a visit he still remembered:
While stationed at Plaquemine he [Alexander] was visited by his wife, who had come from her far northern home to meet her soldier husband. Little did she think when she started on her journey homeward that she never would look again on the face of her beloved companion, but so it was to be. (7)
Priscilla may well have agonised over her decision to travel to Louisiana, but it was fortuitous she did so. A little less than five months later, Alexander contracted dysentery, from which he died in Donaldsonville, Louisiana on 28th August 1865. Not long afterwards Priscilla received the following letter from Lieutenant Chenery, which stands as a measure of how highly her husband was regarded:
Aug 29th 1865
It is with feelings of pain and regret that I am compelled to announce to you the sorrowful intelligence, that your late beloved husband is no more. He expired yesterday, at 2 o’clock P.M. He had been ill two or three weeks before his death. He was conveyed to the Hospital about 10 days ago. While there, everything was done for him that could be dome by our good Surgeon, the Hosp. Attendants, and his brother soldiers But our efforts were of no avail. God has seen fit in his kind Providence, to call him home, to that world where the “wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest”.
He had not an enemy in this Battalion; on the contrary, hr was universally beloved respected and esteemed by all who knew him, from the officers to the private down. His gentlemanly qualities, kind arts and soldierly deportment endeared him to all. As a soldier, he was ever ready and willing to perform everything that was laid down for him to do. In the death of Sergt Atwood, the Country has lost a most worthy patriot soldier. He died in the service of his Country, and his name with hosts of other martyred heroes of this war, will be recorded in that glorious record, which will be read by coming generations with pride, veneration and respect.
I am aware that my poor sympathy and consoletion will not recompense and assuage the anguish and heart felt sorrow of those who were connected with him in bonds of relationship; but let us remember always, that God is a protector and comforter to the widowed and fatherless; and that not a sparrow falleth to the ground without His notice.
I was with the Sergt when he died, but he was then unconscious. In conversing with me…he expressed a desire to have his clothing & c sent home. As soon as I can collect everything together, I will send every article that belonged to him, to you. I converted over his money, and found that he had $16.00…I understand that he owed Private Jacob Smith of this Co (who is now at Plaquemine) $20.00. I will write and inquire about it and in the meantime, I will keep the money, till I hear from you. His watch, clothing, knife, pocket boos & c., I shall send to you immediately by Express. His funeral took place this morning at 10 A.M. It was largely attended by the members of this Battalion. His remains I have had interred in the burying ground at this place; so that if you wish at any time to have them conveyed home, you can send for them. I shall have a neat head board put up over his grave, and distinctly marked.
Any information that I can give you concerning your late beloved husband will be cheerfully given by Your sincere friend,
Wm H. Chenery
1st Lt 11th U.S.C.A. (Hy)
Comdg Co E (8)
Priscilla lived as a widow in Chatham for the remainder of her life, cared for in later years by Sarahfine. Her final correspondence with the Pension Bureau was written when she was in her late seventies, and seeking guidance as to what she might do in her infirmity:
Chatham April 22nd 1911
To the Pension Agent Washington D.C.
Now as I have become A Burdon on others also Helpless with many weeknesses, my only help has been in the Care of me the Little Girl that my Husband Alexander Atwood left with me She has been with me in all my afflictions now she is Broken in health not Able to give me Care, I have had to divide all all thes many years with this wooman now what is best for me to Do in regards to a home for me please let me know Just as soon as you can what you think best for me in this Sad State.
if it should be the Soldiers Widow Home what will be the Charges
Please send me the particulars
I am as ever A well wisher to thos that rule this Great work for the Soldiers Poor Widows
Priscilla J. Atwood
My Address #185 Grand Ave East Chatham ont (9)
Priscilla did not enter a widow’s home, but she did return to the United States for a final time. She is recorded as having crossed the border at Detroit on 31st January 1912, en-route to visit a relative, Mrs George Hatsell, in Dayton, Ohio. At the point of entry she was said to be suffering from senility and slight deafness. These proved to be the final weeks of Priscilla’s life. Having suffered from heart disease since 1908, she finally succumbed in Ontario on 2nd March 1912. The last piece of correspondence on her file was written by Sarahfine, informing the Pension Bureau of Priscilla’s death:
Chatham April 2nd 1912
the Department of the interior
Bureau of Pensions
I recd your Card and letter Mrs Priscilla J Atwood. My dear Aunt said if she passed A way at any time her Lawyer must notify you of her Death As that would be the Last you would have to Send to her I would of used it towards her expences As I Am at present with[out] Any mony At hand, the Judg has Gon for his health. it may be too months I will have to waite for him to return. I send you her Last pension Paper. please Send me All of uncles [Alexander’s] papers you dont need the Lawyer Sent them. My Address 119 East King st Chatham
Please Answer Sarahfine P.A. (10)
The Pension Bureau covered the expenses for Priscilla’s final sickness and funeral, bringing to a close a file that had been active for almost half a century, and told a story that spanned more than eighty years. Aside from bringing to light Alexander Atwood’s determination to do all he could to bring an end to slavery, it charts the life of a woman who was equally remarkable in her own right. Along the way, it preserved the statements of a host of African American women whose voices would otherwise be lost to history. In the end, Priscilla’s journey came to a close in an appropriate location- she was laid to rest in Maplewood Cemetery in Ripley, Ohio, near the graves of a number of the Atwood family, including Alexander’s mother Candis. (11)
If you would like to learn more about the Widows & Dependents in the Atlantic World project of which this forms a part, you can check out the project page by clicking here.
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(1) Hepburn 1999: 92, Farrell 1955: 216, 1881 Census of Canada; (2) 1911 Census of Canada, 1850 Federal Census, Pension File; (3) Pension File; (4) Prince 2015, Atwood’s Heirs v Beck, Manumission By Last Will in Antebellum Alabama; (5) Pension File; (6) Pension File, Alexander Atwood CMSR, Chenery 1898:134; (7) Chenery 1898:134; (8) Pension File; (9) Ibid.; (10) Detroit Border Crossings & Passenger Lists, Ontario Canada Death Records, Pension File; (11) Find A Grave;
* When Sarahfine had crossed the border in later life, she stated that she was born in East Tennessee, where Priscilla was from. While she may have simply done this as default, it raises the potential that she was actually Priscilla’s daughter rather than Alexander’s.
References & Further Reading
Priscilla Atwood Widow’s Pension File.
Compiled Military Service Record of Alexander Atwood, Company E, 11th United States Colored Heavy Artillery.
Detroit Border Crossings & Passenger Lists.
Find A Grave.
Ontario Canada Death Records.
1850 Federal Census.
1881 Census of Canada.
1911 Census of Canada.
Auburn University. Atwood’s Heirs v Beck, 21 Alabama 590 (1852).
Auburn University. Manumission By Last Will in Antebellum Alabama.
William H. Chenery 1898. The Fourteenth Regiment Rhode Island Heavy Artillery (Colored) 1861-1865.
John Kevin Anthony Farrell 1955. The History of the Negro Community in Chatham, Ontario 1787-1865.
Sharon A. Roger Hepburn 1999. ‘Following the North Star: Canada as a Haven for Nineteenth-Century American Blacks’ in Michigan Historical Review Volume 25, No. 2, Fall 1999, pp. 91-126.
Bryan Prince 2015. My Brother’s Keeper: African Canadians and the American Civil War.