A JOURNEY INTO SIMCOE'S PAST
Lynnwood is one of the oldest and finest houses in Simcoe. The two-storey brick building with Victorian verandas has looked out over the Lynn River at Argyle Street for more than 150 years. Today it is the Norfolk Arts Centre. Previously, it was Lynnwood Arts Centre, and before that it was the longtime home of the Reid family of lawyers. A century ago it was a sanatorium.
Dig deeper and you will find Duncan Campbell, Simcoe's original millionaire, who built Lynnwood in 1851.
In pioneer times, Simcoe wasn't much of a town. The parks that are the downtown's pride and joy were cedar swamps back then. Port Dover, Vittoria and Waterford all had headstarts over Simcoe. What Simcoe had going for it was location, location and location. In the 1830s, Simcoe was chosen the district capital, which gave Simcoe the advantage of a courthouse, jail, land registry office and, after 1851,meetings of Norfolk County council.
A SECRET SON
Duncan Campbell was a canny Scotsman who at age 17 was sent out by a Montreal bank to look after its affairs. He arrived in 1820. Through hard work and the right political connections, he became the richest man in town. When the post office opened in 1829, Campbell was the postmaster. Before long, he was the man who knew everything going on. He lent money and invested wisely. Known as "Duke" Campbell for his domineering and skinflint ways, Campbell died in 1892 a very rich man, leaving in his will $200,000 in cash alone. Ten years later, his son, J. Lorne Campbell, donated Lynnwood Park to Simcoe. The park, south of the high school along Norfolk Street, must be left in its natural state. However, there was another, secret side to the life of Duncan Campbell. It appears that in the early 1820s he fathered a son with his black housekeeper named Sarah Lewis. She was an escaped slave from West Virginia. Her son, John Lewis, apparently inherited his dad's business acumen and made his fortune in New York City. Sarah Lewis's story is told in a new historical novel by Simcoe author David Beasley.
Sarah's Journey costs $19.95 and is available from Beasley at 426-2077 or from the Eva Brook Donly Museum in Simcoe. Beasley is a retired professional researcher. The 457 pages of Sarah's Journey are jampacked with facts, names and descriptions of events more than some readers will care to know. Yet there's a good story here. Sarah Lewis , was a real person. She was born a slave in 1790, escaped to Simcoe in 1820, made a living as a cook and dressmaker but died in poverty in 1862. Beasley has an excellent grasp of the relations between Simcoe's black community, which was quite large, and its white neighbours. Although Southern Ontario was a haven for slaves who escaped from the United States on the Underground Railway, blacks were treated as less than full citizens. in Simcoe they lived in the southwest part of town with their own school and their own church, which was on Chapel Street. The villages and towns along the north shore of Lake Erie were dangerous for escaped slaves. American bounty hunters tracked down their quarry, plied them with liquor, grabbed them and whisked them to waiting boats at Port Dover to return to the U.S. Sometimes confrontations occurred. Blacks were often afraid that Americans would capture Ontario or force Canada to co-operate with slavery. These fears add dimension to Beasley's description of the Rebellion of 1837 and tensions along the border. Many prominent l9th-century Simconians play roles in Sarah's Journey: the Kents of Kent Street, the Landons and William Mercer Wilson, to name a few. The novel ends with John Lewis paying for a tombstone to mark Sarah's grave.
In actual life, there was an additional bizarre chapter. In 1874, John Lewis died as a wealthy merchant in New York City. His lawyers, seeking his heirs, advertised in the Toronto Globe and two of Sarah's children, Henry Lewis and Mary Smith, came forward to claim a share of his estate as stepbrother and stepsister to John Lewis. The shocking thing, for those days, was that the two claimants were black while John Lewis all his life in New York had passed as white. In John Lewis's possession were letters from Duncan Campbell in Simcoe, and at Lynnwood mansion, Campbell had letters from John Lewis and a picture taken of Lewis in New York.The connection between Sarah Lewis and Duncan Campbell was proven. Henry Lewis and Mary Smith were accepted as heirs of John Lewis' estate. Duncan Campbell, aka The Duke, must have been a tough, tight-fisted old bird, the Donald Trump of Victorian Simcoe. I like to think of him ensconced at Lynnwood, a symbol of thrift and propriety, secretly proud of the accomplishments of his black son in far-off New York.
David Judd - managing editor, Brantford Expositor
This book joins a growing number of really well researched historical fiction covering the Revolutionary period in North America. While the backbone of the book recounts the believable story of a black slave escaping from the oppressive and inhuman slavers in the southern states, the feature of this historical novel is the number of social and political hot spots that it skilfully deals with while following Sarah's life story. Those readers who have a passing knowledge of issues leading to the Civil War in 1865 will appreciate how the politics at the time influenced people supporting or using Sarah and her family. The forces of change favouring the factory labour economy of the North over the slave-based economy of the South are revealed through the actions of the main characters in this novel.
The laws passed against slavery encouraged by the abolitionists in both countries and the Wilberforce society in Canada illustrate how the fledgling country struggled to have an effect against the prejudices and greed in a closed and narrow-minded society. As Beasley reveals through the living example of his characters, discrimination defined itself along lines of colour, not slave versus free. Through Sarah's life, vicariously, Beasley reveals how policies of the nineteenth century so vainly tried to defend the rights of slaves. Without preaching, this book balances historical content and fiction and comes out on top.
Written in the currently popular style of chapter by chapter flip-flops of plot lines, this book can't help but captivate the reader's attention from start to finish. Sometimes the author allows us to follow Sarah like the proverbial fly on the wall. Sometimes we learn more about her through what her family members say or do around her. Skillfully, as if reading the diaries of Sarah and all her family members, the reader learns not just the bare, cold facts, but the emotional depth of Sarah's character as well and can identify with her pain and jubilation at life events. Again this novel rises above the fault of many historical novels in that the characters have depth and personality. The author steers clear of moralizing and judging the lives of the female characters who he spends more time with as the novel progresses. We, the readers, therefore learn a lot more about the lives and desires of the daughters of slaves than their sons.
Another thing that I like about this novel in particular is that the author has spent some time with choice of words. It has been a long time since I have read a novel with vocabulary that is stimulating.
I would recommend this novel to mature readership at the high school level or above because of the increased degree of appreciation of the story if one is acquainted with the social and economic and political issues surrounding and shaping the environment into which Sarah was born.
Reviewed by Grietje R. McBride, UE, B.Sc.
David Beasley writes fiction and nonfiction. Sarah's Journey is set in the United States and Canada in the 1800s. Sarah, a half-negro girl, is born into slavery in Virginia but flees in 1820 to freedom in Canada, where there is no slavery. The story starts when Sarah is 16 years old and follows her life to her death in upper Canada. As the story unfolds, Sarah encounters the violent face of racism that marks her life as a slave and later on as a free woman. She has a lot of children, many of whom are white. What is going to happen to them? Are they going to be regarded as slaves forever?
Sarah is a heroine of admirable courage and spirit whose saga is inspiring and positive. She overcomes the difficulties in her life with optimism and helps other people cope with their lives. The author has managed to depict a real-life character in the most skillful way and make the readers identify with the plight of Sarah, who is struggling to gain the privileges she was denied. This story is a document against racial prejudice and is based on real events and characters. The author's views on racism are echoed in many parts of the story such as these quotes: "If blackness was a stigma in society then she would bring up her children as whites," and "They think of black and slavery together now." Although it is a historical novel it is by far very different from the other novels of this kind as it presents a historical account worth reading.
Sarah's Journey is a real page-turner. The reader follows Sarah's life step by step and is curious to know what happens next; once started, this novel will be read from cover to cover. The novel includes elements of romance and mystery and a lot of adventure to keep the readers' interest intact. The writing style is rich and complex at times, yet simple and easy to read by all kinds of readers. It caters to a wide readership but those who are keen on historical novels will love it best.
Liana Metal - Rambles.net ( http://www.rambles.net/beasley_sjourney04.html)