Last year we acquired a c. 1829 watercolour portrait of Gagetown Loyalist, Daniel Babbit, aged 85, painted by noted Canadian folk artist Thomas MacDonald. The portrait had been held by Babbit descendants for several generations. Also part of the Loyalist Legacy exhibition is a ladder back arm chair that belonged to the Babbit family.
Daniel Babbit was born about 1744 in New Milford, Connecticut, the son of Quakers Elkanah and Obedience Babbit. At the time of the Revolution he was living at Fredericksburg, Dutchess County, New York, and married to Mary Close, a sister of Lieut. Close of the American Army. On 16 July 1779, Babbit entered the British lines at Kings Bridge and during the war served as a farrier (blacksmith) on Long Island. At the close of the war he, like thousands of other Loyalists, migrated to the St. John River in the summer of 1783. That fall, he removed his wife and five children to the Gagetown area. Within three years he had built a house and by the 1790s he was a leading member in the Anglican Church and the wider community, working as a blacksmith and farmer and welcoming several more children. He was a strong churchman who served for forty years as warden of the parish church and donated the lot on which St. John’s Church was built in 1790. His first wife died in July 1795 and by 1798 he had married Rhoda Annis Cronk, with whom he had several more children. Daniel Babbit died in July 1830. His death notice in the Saint John City Gazette gives his age at 87 while the burial record of St. John’s Anglican Church states age 86.
The artist, Thomas MacDonald, was born in 1784 or 1785, migrated to New Brunswick from Scotland in 1819, and traveled the St. John River Valley in the early 19th century making a living painting portraits of local residents, including Samuel Leonard Tilley and his sister Elizabeth in the 1820s, and portrait of Daniel Babbit’s son, Daniel Jr. He died in 1862 and is buried at Gagetown. MacDonald, along with Anthony Flower and Reverend Abraham Wood, form an impressive artistic trio working in Queens County in the 19th century. Their art serves as a touchstone to the past that documents our ancestors and our community in a period for which we have few visual or written representations. MacDonald is recognized as a leading pre-Confederation folk artist of national significance and his works are in the collections of the National Gallery of Canada, Library & Archives Canada, the New Brunswick Museum, and the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. Queens County Heritage is privileged to have two of MacDonald’s works already in our collection: the portrait of Miss Charlotte Bell, 1820, and the McAlpine Family Record, c. 1850. This portrait of Daniel Babbit is one of the finest representations of MacDonald’s extant works, a tribute to the care taken by his descendents for so many years, and an extremely valuable addition to our fine art collection.
Despite his standing as a fine Anglican convert, there is an interesting postscript to Daniel Babbit’s story. His grave and those of his wives are missing! While the church records are clear about burial, no stone remains and no oral history of location. The story is told that when the original church was torn down in 1880 to make way for the present, larger structure, the builders weren’t that concerned about some of the older graves close to the walls of the old building. It is supposed that Daniel Babbit, being the church warden for 40 years and the person who donated the land upon which the church was built, was in 1830 buried up close to the chancel of the old church. With the enlargement, the implication is that the new chancel probably sits over the resting places of several of Gagetown’s founders, including Daniel Babbit and his wives! If you are ever at the Tilley House very late at night, you will hear someone walking the downstairs hallway. Don’t worry, it’s only Daniel Babbit out for walk, looking for his resting place.
The Daniel Babbit painting was purchased with the assistance of James Bogart, Duncan Campbell, Louis and Roselyn Devorsey, Paul and Rhoda Hill, Ronald and Mary Keith, Margaret Tarrel, Barbara Winn, Dr. Gwendolyn Davies, M. Dawn Bremner and Dr. Edward Walter. For more information about Daniel Babbit and to see the newly restored painting, visit the Loyalist Legacy exhibition at the Court House until 18 September. Note: summer students programs have ended so we recommend calling ahead to confirm we are open.