Family History

Last updated July 13, 2020

Family Story

On Monday, February 7, 1876, Charity (Street) 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.  And this is William’s story.

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.  The town was later renamed Canfield after Mr. Canfield who was a carpenter and 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 some of 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]  Canfield was a wilderness area that, in the early part of the nineteenth century, provided the gift of obscurity for those who needed it.

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)[8] and John Harper (abt. 1847 – 1921[9]).  Both of William’s parents were born in Canada[10].  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.[11]  In 1871, William had three siblings, Frances (abt. 1869 – ?), John Wesley (1871-1914), and George (abt. 1874 – ?).[12]  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.

John re-married a year and a half later.  The record of Ontario, Canada, Marriages, shows that on October 4, 1877, John married Maria Laron in the County of Norfolk, Town of Simcoe.[13]  Maria was 21, and John was 30.  John’s parents are listed as John Harper and “Onner Harper’, one of many spellings of his mother’s name.  See discussion below.

Although John re-married, he apparently did not have the care of his young children.  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 at that time 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 William’s older sister and younger brother, Frances and George, is unknown. They have not been found in the subsequent Canadian census in Cayuga, nor are they listed in available death records for Cayuga.  Similarly, no mention of either has been found in any census survey in Illinois, where their father and brothers migrated.   Moreover, neither are mentioned in any article about William, nor are they listed in his obituary, William’s father and brother John being noted as his only surviving relatives.  A possible reference to George is found in the Decatur, Illinois city directory of 1893, the year of John’s marriage in Decatur, which records a “Harper George (col’d), lab 467 W. Main”.  Additional research is needed to determine whether this is in fact brother George.  Similarly, a possible reference to Frances may be contained in an article entitled “Praise Work of Negro Artist from Decatur” in the Decatur Daily Review, dated November 25, 1927, which references Harper’s “sister” who worked as a maid for the mother of A. F. Wilson (Mrs. Harry Haines, formerly Mary Judy Wilson) in Decatur.  Given that neither census records nor newspaper articles of the time from Decatur mention a Frances Harper, and given certain other inaccuracies relative to Harper in the article, it may be that the maid discussed was in fact Harper’s sister-in-law Eliza.  Again, additional research is required to determine the identity of this “sister”.  [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).[14]  They were married May 4, 1833, shortly after arriving in Canada.[15]  A written account survives, believed to have been given by Henrietta Street, the eldest daughter of Lucy and Stepney, describing her parents’ early lives in West Virginia and their escape to Canada.[16]  A copy of that account can be found in theHaldimand County Museum Archive, Edinburgh Square Heritage & Cultural Centre.  According to that account, Lucy was born in Parkers Burgh, West Virginia, and was owned by a family named “Beckweth”.  Regarding the Beckweth family, Henrietta stated:

“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 away 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.” 

In Astibula[17] 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” [18].  According to an article in the Hamilton Spectator[19], 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.[20]

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”.[21]  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 1881 Canadian Census, Lucy is listed as a widow.

Religion played an important role in the Street lives.  The Streets held church services initially in their log 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 later donated land for a brick and mortar church to replace the log chapel which opened in 1882. [22]  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.[23]  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

Searching the Canadian records in Cayuga, the only John Harper 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 (William’s grandfather) had the same name, and is listed in that 1851 census as John Harper. age 45 (abt.1806 – ?).  That census record 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 (abt. 1817).  In other words, she was most likely white.[24]  Given the birth year of their eldest child James (about 1841), Grandpa John and Honour were together 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.[25]  John and Honour would have two more children, Zach (or Zachariah) and Owen, for a total of 6 children.

[Information on how each Honour and John 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 of 15 at the time, does not appear in that census.

James, John’s older brother, likewise does not appear in the 1861 census, but a marriage record exists recording his marriage on December 1863, to Hannah L. Smith.[26]  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 “Onner”[27], “Honor”[28], “Hannah Clothyer”[29], “Honor Clothier” [30], and “Hannah Harper”[31]  James would go on to serve as a private for the Union in the U.S. Civil War (see section regarding James below).

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.[32]  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.

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[33].  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[34], who also lived in Decatur at that time.

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:  1) a Declaration of Substitute, and 2) a Substitute Volunteer Enlistment[35]

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.  The salary for a Union private was $13.00 per month, for in June of 1864, Congress had granted equal pay to the U.S. Colored troops.[36]  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 in Brownsville and at various points on the Rio Grande, and in Brazos Santiago, Indianola and Galveston.[37].  [From internet – need to cite?]

While in Texas, James would have been witness to an historic Texas event.  When the Civil War ended, General Gordon Granger was given command of the District of Texas.[38]  On June 19, 1865, shortly after the arrival of the 38th in Texas, Granger issued five general orders in Galveston establishing his authority over the state of Texas, including General Order No. 3 which began with[39]:

“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.  This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection therefore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.”

A year later, in 1866, Juneteenth, the celebration of the day that news of the emancipation proclamation (which was actually effective January 1, 1873) was announced in Texas, was celebrated for the first time.[40]

James served just one year in the military.  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. 

[Insert family tree.]


[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” – http://www.harriet-tubman.org/underground-railroad-secret-codes/

[6] The Wikipedia description of Cayuga (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cayuga,_Ontario) 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.”

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

[8] Dates from death record.  See footnote No. 1 above.

[9] 1871 Census of Canada put John’s birth about 1850.  The 1910 US Federal Census listed his birthday as 1847.  The date of death is from the Decatur, Illinois newspapers.

[10] 1871 Census of Canada.

[11] 1871 Census of Canada.

[12] 1881 Census of Canada

[13] Ontario, Canada, Marriages 1826 – 1938, https://www.ancestry.com/interactive/7921/ONMS932_24-1194/2684121?backurl=https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/person/tree/162479921/person/172118536721/facts.  Simcoe was located about 40 miles west of Canfield.

[14] 1861 Census of Canada; Street Family Record from Betty Browne.

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

[16] Existence of document courtesy of Sylvia Weaver, Canfield researcher.

[17] There is a town on Lake Erie called “Ashtibula” which may be the name intended. 

[18] 1851 Census of Canada East, Canada West, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia

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

[20] 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.

[21] 1861 Agricultural Census for Enumeration District No.1, of the Township of North Cayuga

[22] African Hope Renewed:  Along the Grand River, by Angela E.M. Files, Brantford, ON:  Taylor Made, 2004.

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

[24] The later 1920 US Federal Census, however lists John’s parents as having both been born in Maryland.  See discussion below.

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

[26] Ontario, Canada, Country Marriage Registers, 1858-1869 for James Nelson Harper, December 19, 1863.

[27] Ontario, Canada, Marriages 1826 – 1938.

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

[29] Ontario, Canada, Country Marriage Registers, 1858-1869 for James Nelson Harper, December 19, 1863.

[30] 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.

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

[32] 1861 Agricultural Census for Enumeration District No.3, of the Township of North Cayuga.

[33] 1920 US Census

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

[35] 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.

[36] “Black Soldiers in the Civil War”, National Archives, https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/blacks-civil-war/equal-pay.html

[37] http://lestweforget.hamptonu.edu/page.cfm?uuid=9FEC3DB3-D102-3E59-BF307294B0AF60A0.

[38] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Granger

[39] https://www.britannica.com/story/juneteenth-celebrating-the-end-of-slavery

[40] “Let Freedom Ring”, Texas Highways, Michael Hurd, June 2020, p. 54. 

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