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Birchtown’s Historical Site

NATIONAL HISTORIC MONUMENT OF CANADA

In 1994 the Black Loyalist Heritage Society made application to the National Historic Sites and Monuments Board to have the landing of the Black Loyalists in Canada recognized as an event of national historic import. The National Historic Sites and Monuments approved the Black Loyalist Heritage Society’s application and honoured the Black Loyalists by creating a park and unveiled a monument in their memory in Birchtown, Shelburne County, Nova Scotia on July 20th, 1996. Legend and local oral folklore hold that this piece of land was a burial ground for Blacks. There is no formal record of the burial ground, though historical deeds from two adjoining plots of land mention that the properties border on “the burial ground”. Families in the area remember being told not to play on the site because it was sacred ground.

There are no records as to who may be buried on the site, though one church record suggests that a man named John Stevens, who died in the 1800’s, was buried “on the northwestern side of Shelburne Harbour” most likely in Birchtown. Unfortunately, most old church records were destroyed in a house fire.

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SAINT PAULS CHURCH

In 1996 the Black Loyalist Heritage Society acquired land in Birchtown, Shelburne County, Nova Scotia, to develop the heritage site. One of those buildings included St. Paul’s Church. Faith was and is an important part of the Black Loyalist life. The Birchtown Loyalists were primarily Anglican, Methodist or Baptist. Two of the community’s early spiritual leaders were; Moses Wilkson – a blind, lame, former slave know for his fiery preaching and David George – a Baptist who traveled the province preaching in Black communities. The earliest church building here in Birchtown was shared by several denominations.

The community built St. Paul’s beginning in 1888 and opened as the Anglican Church in 1906. Records show that a Black fisherman named Enoch Scott sold the land to the rectors, wardens and vestry of St. George & St. Patrick in 1888. When the present Church was completed, it opened with 33 charter members under Priest-In-Charge, Reverend Edward H. Ball and the Meeting Minutes of January 1905 note that there were 54 families wishing to be appropriated pews in the Church.

Among the Black Loyalist families were the Alexander Herbert family, the Austin Shepherd family, the Joseph Warrington family, the Leonard Scott family, and of course, the Enoch Scott family. Other Birchtown families with the well-known surnames of Acker, Boyd, Collupy, Goulden, Gregory, Townsend & Schultz dot the pages of the only known existing Minute Book of the parish.

Excerpts of the newspaper clipping from The Gazette describing the opening of the church read: “In spite of the wild snow storm and the very cold weather of St. Paul’s Day the 25th of January, a congregation of about 100 gathered for the opening service of the at-last-completed-church.”

“The architecture is after the Early English, or First pointed Gothic style . . . all the windows with stained borders and tinted centers are lancets and the chancel arch, doors, seat ends and panels … and altar correspond.”

The church served this community for many generations and upon closing as an Anglican church, it was purchased by the BLHS as a community landmark. On May 6, 2007, the church was officially deconsecrated by the Right Reverend Fred Hiltz and the baptismal font was donated to Christ Church, Shelburne.

The church is now used as a venue to host community events, weddings, concerts, historical re-enactments and house exhibit displays. In 2007, the BLHS decided to restore the stain glass windows of St. Paul’s Church to their original beauty and embarked on a sponsorship campaign to raise the required funds from community members & organizations. Cliff Armsworthy, a local stain glass restoration specialist, removed the cracked and damaged glass, and refitted the windows with the new panes. Thanks to your generosity, we now have windows to admire for another 100 years.

A dedication service was held on June 27th, 2010 to acknowledge and thank the sponsors. Deborah Davis Hill, ethno-historian, Genealogical Record Searcher – GRS (C) and Black Loyalist Descendant, spoke to those in attendance and her words could not have been more appropriate – “I believe these panels are a reflection of the restoration that happens when the community co-operates to see a project through to its completion in the interests of all . . . A reflection of diverse peoples coming together to recognize, and to relate the story of the Black Loyalist’s contributions, not only to this community, but to this great country of ours . . . I see this prophetically as a restoration, not of mere tinted glass, but of a synergy / a fusing together of the peoples of the community – African & European – Indigenous & Immigrant – Gentile & Christian – Catholic & Protestant – coming together in an attitude of forgiveness & understanding. And in future, whenever we view the light shining through these stained-glass prisms, we’ll see refracted the beautiful hues of the Birchtown Mosaic – a people who have made the effort to pay homage to the ideals our collective ancestors shed their blood, sweat & tears for. May God be glorified and add His blessing to this effort.

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OLD SCHOOL HOUSE MUSEUM

By the year 1997, the BLHS had acquired Birchtown’s one room school house. The school was built in the 1830’s on land that belonged to Roswell Brown, a White schoolmaster who came to Nova Scotia from Albany, NY, with the Church of England in the early 1800’s. After stints in Liverpool and Port Mouton, Brown came to Birchtown in 1825. It is believed this may have been the location of the original school which served the Black community, then served the White community as well, being probably one of the first integrated schools in the province.

The first school for Black children in Birchtown was established in 1785, with Stephen Blucke as the instructor. He was a prominent Anglican and the community’s best educated man, so it was logical that he be chosen as Schoolmaster. It appears as if Stephen Blucke closed his school in 1796. Two years later the second school at Birchtown was established for Black children under the direction of the warden of Christ Church.

This one room schoolhouse continued to serve the people of this area until the Birchtown Consolidated School was built around 1960. It became a community hall and storage shed before being purchased by the BLHS. The school house is now the Black Loyalist Old School House Museum housing various artifacts from the archaeological digs and other items community members have donated and loaned to the museum.The museum is open daily June to September and open by appointment in the off season – admission is charged. The historical site is open year round.

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ADMINISTRATIVE OFFICE

In the year 2000 the Society constructed and opened its office located on the Old Birchtown Road. On March 31st, 2006 the office building fell victim to an arsonist’s fire which resulted in the total destruction of the building, along with the library, computers, valuable genealogical data, planning documents, receipts, some artifacts, as well as furniture and furnishings. The current administrative offices are located in the annex of St. Paul’s Church, constructed in 2003. Originally the space was intended to be used for a gift shop, public washrooms and storage space. However, after the fire, the offices were relocated to the upper level of the annex and the lower level serves as a meeting room and public facilities.

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PIT HOUSE

Photo Credit: Nicki Taylor

With an influx of Loyalists fleeing American in 1783, the British government in Nova Scotia faced a backlog of settlers seeking land grants and supplies. As settlers were served in order of rank or status, Black Loyalists were left to the last and therefore received smaller parcels of land and few supplies. The first warrants were not issued until 1787.

With no land to call their own, most Black Loyalists had to face their new homeland’s harsh winter climates without shelter. In order to survive, they dug pit houses such as this replica. Shallow ditches were dug in the ground with a shelter fashioned out of tree branches. It is a testament to their resourcefulness and strength that they managed to survive the Nova Scotian winter in such a makeshift dwelling. Archaeologists discovered remnants of pit houses in the mid 1990’s.

Pit House Video:

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LOCATION AND HOURS

Birchtown is located approximately 7km north west of Shelburne, Nova Scotia on HWY 3.

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