A Black Barmaid in Toronto, 1800

a black barmaid in toronto 1800s

Looking down into the Don Valley, I thought of Elizabeth (Betty) Johnson. Did this Black woman ever admire the view, from the top of the hill, of the river meandering its way through the vale?

In her day, and here I am talking about two centuries ago in the early 1800s, the broad valley hummed with bees, deer and bears. Those creatures are still there, well, except for the bears, hiding in the remnants of the mighty forests that once covered the land. We did not hear them that day, but we heard the incessant buzz of cars and trucks on the highway snaking its way through the dell.

We were on a city walk with my outdoors club, following Holly Brook, a lost stream of the Don River, from Bloor Street down to the mouth of the river on Queen Street. I was the thirteenth hiker, the only Black person, and the leader of the pack.

Black Men in the Woods

We started at Chester Hill, past the parkette with the historical plaque of the Playter Estate. In 1800 George Playter owned all the land that we stood on. It was his reward for being a British spy during the American Revolution. He fled to Canada for a fresh start, like thousands of other Loyalist troops, refugees and slaves.

Ely Playter, son of George, kept a daily diary from 1801-02. In it he mentioned two unnamed Black men whom he hired, and paid, to chop down the trees and bring the lumber out of the forest to the mill. We strolled passed the old Playter family home. When it was built the area was farm land. They grew crops to make beer – wheat, barley and hops – and took them down to the mills and breweries, along the river.

We then turned west and ambled along Greektown. There was no time today to sit on a patio and sample ouzo and tzatziki. We stopped briefly at Alexander the Great parkette to admire the fountain, its gurgling waters were an echo of the buried Holly Brook which used to flow nearby.

“Ring your bell,” I shouted at a cyclist as he zoomed by the group. We were now in Withrow Park which overflowed with gamboling dogs and children. The cyclists forgot or did not care that walkers had priority on the shared path. The little buggers.

Indigenous Hunting Camp

Warmed by the afternoon sun the hikers unzipped their jackets. A sweet zephyr played with my dreadlocks. Autumn fever was in the air. The park dipped towards the south and Holly Brook was buried somewhere under its grassy fields. The stream then meandered west towards where a housing coop now stands. I wondered if they had damp basements.

We ambled over to Withrow Avenue Public School on Bain Avenue. I wanted to see the plaque by the Toronto Historical Board: “As long as 4,000 years ago, this sandy knoll was the location of campsites for generations of native people. It provided an excellent lookout over the Don River Valley for observing game. Here small family groups probably lived in tents during hunting seasons.

Lost for many years, the site was uncovered by workers digging a roadbed in 1886. The discovery aroused great public interest and Ontario’s first professional archaeologist, David Boyle, conducted excavations. Only a small number of artifacts exist from the now destroyed encampments. Of the many native sites in the city, Withrow is one of the few for which we have archaeological evidence.”

Ely Playter wrote many times about the Indigenous people living in the valley. They came to his tavern to trade, talk and have a beer.

We kept walking south, the stroll was easier as it was now downhill all the way. We reached Gerrard Street and downtown’s second Chinatown. It was not thriving. The tall and narrow Victorian houses were ripe for gentrification.

Around the back of the street it was a different story. Here the houses were already restored, and the pretty gardens overflowed with tulips and shrubs. We headed to another historic plaque. This one said we were in a heritage conservation area, where all the houses were original and built in 1880-1920. At that time the area was a new subdivision, built on farm land at the edge of the city.

Finding the Lost Stream

Holly Brook flows under Jimmy Simpson Park. The park is big enough that the stream could be rescued from its burial in underground drains and brought back to the daylight.

“Café or bar? Choose one,” I said to the group.

It was the end of the hike and time for a drink and chat. We crossed over the Queen Street bridge and headed for the beer. In the bar-room of a Victorian hotel, now a pub, I ordered tea. It was not summer, and therefore in my mind beer was far too cold for the season.

I raised my cup to the early Black pioneers in the Don Valley. Ely Playter mentioned a few of them in his diary. There was Lester Stuard who told too-long tales and played the fiddle in the tavern. There was Peter Long and ‘Molat, Negro.’ Both Black men were frequent visitors at the pub. Peter Long is listed in the 1795 census or ‘List of Inhabitants’ of the new city of Toronto, built on Indigenous land.

I could not forget Elizabeth (Betty) Johnson. So some two hours later, I made a detour on the way home, to the corner of King and Sherbourne Streets. Mile’s Tavern was on that intersection in 1802. It was the first pub in Toronto, built and licensed by the city’s military government. The tavern was the social heart of the community and Ely Playter ran it for two years. There he recorded the daily activities of the women and men in the pub. Some came to drink, to eat and to sleep. All came to chat.

Elizabeth (Betty) Johnson worked in the kitchen. She was a servant. Was she enslaved or free? Johnson liked a drink or three. She was feisty too. She had a man charged for assault but he shipped out of town before he faced the judge.

Stopping at the Dollar Store, I bought a beer. When I got home I drank it to Johnson’s memory.

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