Family Story

On Monday, February 7, 1876, Charity Harper died in the county of Halimand, North Cayuga, Ontario, Canada, at the age of 28 years, 10 months, 25 days of childbirth fever.[1]  She left behind her husband, John Harper, and 4 young children:  Frances age 7, John age 4, William age 2, and infant George.  By 1881, the four children were living with Charity’s mother, Lucy Street.[2]  The Canadian census for that year makes no mention of the children’s father.  This young family could easily have disappeared into the dustbin of history, particularly since the family was “colored”.  Fortunately, that was not the case. 

Canfield, Halimand County, Ontario

According to Wikipedia, the county of Halimand, Ontario, was opened for general settlement in 1832.  The land comprising Halimand County was surrendered by the Six Nations to the English Crown in an agreement that was signed in 1844.  Cayuga was incorporated in 1859, and became the county seat for Haldimand County.  William’s maternal and paternal grandparents were among the early settlers in the village of Canfield near Cayuga in Halimand County.[3]  Canfield was originally known as “Azoff”, having been named after a town in Russia, and was a wilderness area that provided the gift of obscurity.  The town was later renamed Canfield after Mr. Canfield who was a carpenter and was the first post master in the village.[4]  In 1851 the census records for Cayuga (which would have included the area of Canfield) show less than 140 black residents.  The path of the Underground Railroad ran deep into Ontario, and is likely that William’s grandparents were “baggage”[5] on the Underground Railroad (the code word for fugitive slaves carried by the Underground Railroad).  Of the American slaves that escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad the largest group settled in Ontario.[6]  

William’s Parents [Attach census records]

William A. Harper was born in or near Canfield, on December 27, 1873[7], to Charity (Street) Harper (1847 – 1876) and John Harper (abt. 1847 – 1921).  Both of William’s parents were born in Canada[8].  The map of “North Cayuga Township, Azoff Village From Halimand County 1879, published by H.R. Page and Co. in 1879” shows that the Street and Harper properties, where each his mother and father would have grown up, were located just outside of Canfield, and were separated by a single neighbor. [Attach map]  William’s father is listed in the 1871 census as a farmer.[9]  In 1871, William had three siblings, Frances (abt. 1869 – ?), John Wesley (1871-1914), and George (abt. 1874 – ?).[10]  Charity died when William was just over 2 years old of childbirth fever.  Childbirth fever, also known as childbed fever or puerperal fever was commonplace in the 1800’s.  There is no information regarding the fifth unnamed infant who must have died at birth or shortly thereafter with Charity.

In the 1881 Canadian census, 8 year old William is listed with his three siblings as living with his maternal grandmother, Lucy Street, and several of her children.  Lucy is listed as a widow.  William’s father does not appear on the 1881 census, and his location is unclear.  Given that William and his brother John joined his father some years later in Illinois, it is possible that he may have already immigrated to the U.S.

What happened to Francis and George is unknown. They are not listed in the subsequent Canadian census in Cayuga, nor are they listed in available death records for Cayuga.  Similarly, they do not appear to have gone to Illinois with their father and two brothers as neither are mentioned in any US survey with those other family members. Moreover, neither are mentioned in any article about William, nor are they listed in his obituary with William’s father and brother John being noted as his only surviving relatives.[11]  [Continue research.]

William’s Maternal Grandparents [Attach Street Escape Account, Street Family Record, and property map]

Charity (Street) Harper’s parents were Lucy (Canada) Street (1814 – ?) and Stepney (also Stephana, Stephen) Street (1808 – 1879).[12]  They were married May 4, 1833, shortly after arriving in Canada.[13]  A written account survives believed to have been given by the eldest daughter of Lucy and Stepney, Henrietta Street, describing her parents’ early lives in West Virginia and their escape to Canada.  According to that account, Lucy was born in Parkers Burgh, West Virginia, and was owned by a family named “Beckweth”.  Regarding the Beckweth family,

“Mother often said that they were not treated like slaves, but she could not bear the thought of not belonging to herself, especially, we Three Children.  Our names were, as follows:  Henrietta Street, Ellen Elizabeth, and Andrew Clark…The lady was Miss. Jane Beckweth, Miss Mary and Mandy and Penelophy Beckweth and Two sons, Barnes and Albert, they were all very kind, but that did not suffice.” 

Lucy’s parents are listed as Arion Keneday and Milla Canada.  [More information?]

Stepney belonged to another individual, and lived about seven miles from Lucy.  According to the account,

“His Master was about to sell him when he ran away, travelling under the name of Frank Hammond, fought his way out of the hands of the oppressor and fled to the Land of Freedom, landing in Canada, at Windsor.  Father left his Master’s about six weeks before Mother and three children followed him, her two Brothers and a fellow servant named Nero Bansom, he being so white in complexion that he could venture out to the near houses to seek aid while we lay in a hiding place while he found friends until we arrived in Astibula.” 

There is a town on Lake Erie called “Ashtibula” which may be the name intended.  In “Astibula” they boarded a schooner, landing in Point Abino, Canada.  Point Abino is located just west of Buffalo, N.Y.

According to Henrietta, they:

“settled in the neighbourhood of Bertie, then Mother advertised for Father and he came at once.  In a short time, the family moved to a farm near St. Catherines owned by one Peter Smith.  There they were converted and baptized by Elder Christian of Toronto and became members of the Zion Church in St. Catherines, so in time they moved to Grand River with the intention of making a home there, and there they found the same God that had brought them from the land of boundage and in that humble cabin they erected an altar to the Almighty God to whom they served with Four others, John Taylor, Rosana Allan, Robert Bailey and Kisie Allan.  Then at the age of Nineteen, Mother and Father were married, he was Twenty-six years old.” 

By 1851, Lucy and Stepney were living in the Township of North Cayuga with their nine children:  Henrietta, Ellen, Andrew, Eliza, George, William, Charity (William’s mother), Emelia, and David.  The 1851 Census of Canada East, Canada West, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia reports Stepney as a farmer, shows the family as Baptist, and notes their dwelling as a one story log cabin. They are marked as “Colored persons – Negroes” [14].  According to an article in the Hamilton Spectator[15], Lucy and Stepney were among the first black settlers in Cayuga.  Stepney and Lucy went on to have three more children Martha, Josephine, and Sarah (who died at birth), for a total of thirteen.[16]

Charity’s family seems to have been a family of some standing.  According to the 1861 Agricultural Census of Canada, Charity’s father, Stephey Street, owned 141 acres of land of which 35 acres were under crops, 5 acres were under pasture, and one acre was under “orchard or garden”.  The balance was “under wood or wild”.[17]  The value of the total acreage was placed at $3000, not an inconsequential amount at that time.  This property is located just outside (southwest) of Canfield, and is listed on the map of “North Cayuga Township, Azoff Village From Halimand County 1879, published by H.R. Page and Co. in 1879” with the name “Stepheney Street”.

Stepney last appears in the 1871 Canadian Census.  By the 1981 Canadian Census, Lucy is listed as a widow.

The Streets held church services initially in their cabin, but by 1857 Stepney and Lucy had donated land for the construction of a log chapel to serve specifically as the church.  The church became part of the Niagara Baptist Association, and welcomed non-blacks into the congregation.  The Streets likewise donated land for a brick and mortar church to replace the log chapel which opened in 1882. [18]  Stepney died before the building was completed, but Lucy was present for the opening.  Cemetery plots for Lucy and Stepney and other Street family members can be found at the site of the old church, which is now a private residence.[19]  Given that William and his siblings were living with Lucy in 1881, it may well be that he was present for the opening of this church which formed such an integral part of his grandparents’ lives.

[Information on Charity’s siblings?  See marriages on Street Family Record.]

William’s Paternal Grandparents

Determining William’s paternal grandparents is a bit more complicated.  Searching the Canadian records in Cayuga, the only “John” of the approximate right age to be William’s father appears in the 1851 Census of Canada East, Canada West, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.  That census shows a “John Harper”, age 6, which would mean a birth date of approximately 1845.  It is probably reasonable to assume that this John is William’s father allowing for the discrepancies in reporting created by birthdays falling early in the year vs. late in the year as relates to the timing of any given census.  

John’s father is listed in that 1851 census as John Harper. age 45 (abt.1806 – ?), and notes that he was born in the U.S.  (To avoid confusion John’s father is hereinafter referred to as “Grandpa John”).  John’s siblings are listed as:  James age 10, Anne D. age 4, and Henry A. age 2, all born in Canada.  Grandpa John and the four children are marked in the 1851 census as “Colored persons – Negroes”.  John’s mother, however, was not so marked.  She is listed as Honour, age 34, and born in England.  In other words, she was most likely white.  Given the birth year of their eldest child James (about 1841), Grandpa John and Honour were in Canada at least by 1841.  The family religion is listed as “Methodist African E”, and their home is noted as a one-story log cabin.[20]  John and Honour would have two more children, Zach (or Zachariah) and Owen, for a total of 6 children.

[Information on how they got to Canada?]

By the time of the 1861 Census of Canada, Grandpa John is listed as a 58 year old widower.  The census lists the following children living with Grandpa John:  Henry age 9, Zach age 7, and Owen age 3.  Owen’s age means that Honour died sometime after 1858 when Owen was born, but before 1861.  John, who would have been 14 or 15 at the time, does not appear in that census.

James, John’s older brother, does not appear in the 1861 census, but a marriage record exists recording his marriage on December 1863, to Hannah L. Smith.[21]  His parents are listed as “John Harper” and “Hannah Clothyer”. This is the first appearance of Honour’s maiden name in the records.  Honour’s name is alternatively written in Canadian records related to the family as “Honor”[22], “Hannah Clothyer”[23], and “Hannah Harper”[24]  James would go on to serve as a private for the Union in the U.S. Civil War (see section regarding James below).

A.D. Harper (Anne D.?), John’s younger sister, is listed in the 1861 census as 13 years of age and living with a family named Johnson.  A marriage record in the Ontario, Canada, County Marriage Registers in 1866 reports the marriage of “Ann D. Harper” ito Androw Williams.  In that register, her parents are listed as “John Harper” and “Honor Clothier”.[25] 

The 1861 Agricultural Census for Grandpa John indicates that he owned 100 acres, of which 22 were “under crops”, 8 were “under pasture”, and 70 were “under wood or wild”.  The value of the total acreage was placed at $1,000.[26]  This property is located just outside (southwest) of Canfield, and is listed on the map of “North Cayuga Township, Azoff Village From Halimand County 1879, published by H.R. Page and Co. in 1879” with the name “J. Harper”.  Grandpa John does not appear in the 1871 census.

The 1927 Canadian death record for Henry lists his father as “Nelson Harper”, born in the U.S., and his mother as “Hannah”, born in England.  Zach was married on October 8, 1874, and his parents are listed as “John and Hannah Harper”.  

As if the spelling differences in Honour’s name were not confusing enough, a U.S. Census was taken in Decatur, Illinois in 1920 during the last year of John Harper’s (William’s father) life which introduces a question as to Honour’s place of birth.  That census lists John’s parents as having both been born in Maryland[27].  This may have been correct as to Grandpa John (although no corroborative evidence has been found), but the 1851 Canadian census and at least one subsequent marriage record lists Honour’s place of birth as England.  There is no indication from whom the information in the 1920 census was obtained, but it must have been either from John or his daughter-in-law, Eliza Harper[28], who also lived in Decatur at that time.

Family Tree:

William A. Harper Family Tree
William A. Harper Family Tree

Other Family Members – William’s Uncle:  James Nelson Harper [Attach military records]

On March 9, 1865, at the age of 24, William’s uncle James Harper enlisted in the 38th U.S. Colored Infantry as a substitute for George Cummings of Rochester, N.Y, who had been previously drafted.  During the Civil War a draftee who was sufficiently wealthy and could find a willing volunteer could pay that volunteer to enlist in his place. Two legal documents accomplished that substitution:  a Declaration of Substitute and a Substitute Volunteer Enlistment[29]

In the Declaration of Substitute, James is described as a laborer from Haldimand, Canada, having blue eyes, dark hair, dark complexion, and being 5’ 8” tall.  The Substitute Volunteer Enlistment is signed by James, and details his obligations.  James signed on as a private for three years “unless sooner discharged by proper authority”.  He agreed to accept “such bounty, pay, rations, and clothing as are, or may be, established by law for soldiers.”  The Company Muster Roll for March and April 1865 shows under Remarks:  “Recruit amount on check book $662.49 Substitute”, which must have been the amount that Cummings paid James to take his place in the service.  James first posting was in Virginia, where he was “rec’d from Depot” in Varina, Virginia on March 17, 1865

The 38th was organized in Virginia in 1864, and served in Virginia and North Carolina. On April 3, 1865, the 38th occupied Richmond, and continued there through the end of the war and into May.  It is not clear whether James saw any combat since the war officially ended on April 1, 1865, when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant.  At the end of May 1865, the 38th moved to Texas, where it would stay for the balance of its time of service. The unit saw duty along the Rio Grande, as well as Indianola and Galveston.  [From internet – need to cite?]

The Company Muster Roll for the 38th states that James was discharged “by reason of expiration of term of service” on March 8, 1866.  His “Individual Muster-out Roll” states that his muster-out date was March 9, 1986 in Brazos Santiago, Texas, and that he was due U.S. $8.03.  Under “Remarks” it states, “Joined Co. as recruit March 15 1865, served as private to discharge.  He retains his knapsack, haversack, canteen and Gt. Coat.”  Transportation and sustenance were furnished to Galveston, Texas.  The salary for a Union private was $13.00 per month.  In June of 1864, Congress had granted equal pay to the U.S. Colored troops.[30]


[1] Ontario, Canada, Deaths and Deaths Overseas, 1869-1947

[2] 1881 Census of Canada.

[3] The Blacks of Haldimand County, Young Canada Works, 2005 Summer Research Project for Edinburgh Square Heritage and Cultural Centre, by Tracy Vandervliet Heritage Assistant, Oral Historian, publication of the Halimand Museums.

[4] Courtesy of Sylvia Weaver, Canfield researcher.

[5] Term for fugitive slaves carried the Underground Railroad workers.  “Harriet Tubman Historical Society” –

[6] The Wikipedia description of Cayuga states:  “One of the termini for the Underground Railway was St. Catharines, Ontario, which is about 45 minutes northeast of Cayuga.[ Harriet Tubman‘s nephew Lorne Barnes was the barber in Cayuga and was held out to the still-enslaved as an example of the success to be found by escaping to Canada.]”  Verify?

[7] Obituary of William A. Harper, Bulletin of the Art Institute of Chicago (1907-1951), Vol. 4, No. 1 (July 1910), p. 11.

[8] 1871 Census of Canada

[9] 1871 Census of Canada.

[10] 1881 Census of Canada

[11] An article entitled “Praise Work of Negro Artist from Decatur” in the Decatur Daily Review, dated November 25, 1927, references Harper’s “sister” who worked as a maid for the mother of A. F. Wilson.  Given that neither census records nor newspaper articles of the time from Decatur mention a Frances Harper, and given certain other inaccuracies in the article, it is most likely that the maid discussed was Harper’s sister-in-law.

[12] 1861 Census of Canada; Street Family Record from Betty Browne.

[13] Street Escape Account, on file with Haldimand County Museum Archive, Edinburgh Square Heritage & Cultural Centre.  Street Family Record, from Betty Browne.

[14] 1851 Census of Canada East, Canada West, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia

[15] Hamilton Spectator, “Tiny hamlet unveils rich history of welcoming runaway slaves in the 1800s”, by Carmela Fragomeni, September 22, 2017.

[16] 1851 Census of Canada East, Canada West, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia; 1861 Census of Canada, 1871 Census of Canada; op. cit., Street Family Record.

[17] 1861 Agricultural Census for Enumeration District No.1, of the Township of North Cayuga

[18] African Hope Renewed:  Along the Grand River, by Angela E.M. Files, Brantford, ON:  Taylor Made, 2004. It is interesting to speculate as to whether the decision to keep the church open to all races was impacted by the fact that one of the Street’s close neighbors, and the mother-in-law of one of the Street daughters (Charity), was white.

[19]Ibid.  The Blacks of Halimand County, op. cit.

[20] This Methodist connection may be the reason one of John’s sons (and William’s brother) was named John Wesley.

[21] Ontario, Canada, Country Marriage Registers, 1858-1869 for James Nelson Harper, December 19, 1963.

[22] Ontario, Canada County Marriage Registers, 1858-1869 for Ann D. Harper, June 5, 1866

[23] Ontario, Canada, Country Marriage Registers, 1858-1869 for James Nelson Harper, December 19, 1963…

[24] Marriage Record of October 8, 1874 for Zachariah Harper lists his parents as John and Hannah Harper.  Ontario, Canada, Marriages, 1826-1937

[25] Ontario, Canada County Marriage Registers, 1858-1869 for Ann D. Harper, June 5, 1866.  Also Province of Ontario Certificate of Registration of Death lf Ann Delilah (Harper) Williams dated April 2, 1934.

[26] 1861 Agricultural Census for Enumeration District No.3, of the Township of North Cayuga

[27] 1920 US Census

[28] John was predeceased by both of his sons, John (1914) and William (1910).

[29] The National Archives at Washington, D.C.; Washington, D.C.; Compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served with the United States Colored Troops: Infantry Organizations, 36th through 40th.U.S., Colored Troops Military Service Records, 1863-1865; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

[30] “Black Soldiers in the Civil War”, National Archives,