Some of the lesser known stories of our history are those of the Black Loyalists who arrived in 1783. Queens County Heritage is fortunate to have a tangible link to this fascinating history in the form of a ladder-back rocker made about 1855 by Sylvester Wright (1836-1893). This type of chair is typical of the late 18th and early 19th centuries in New Brunswick. Made of readily available wood, the pattern was easy to follow and made for an inexpensive and solid chair; rockers are rare, but not unusual. The finish appears to be original, and if not from 1855, quite early nevertheless.
Sylvester Wright was the grandson of Loyalists through his mother, Ann Woods. Ann was born about 1797 at Cumberland Bay, and when she died in 1887, she is identified as being of African descent, meaning one or both of her parents, Joshua Woods and Mary Hopewell, were Black Loyalists. Ann Woods married Gilbert Wright (born 1798), a farmer, 22 May 1812. Sylvester Wright married first Jane Owens and had two children: Ann (1851-1923) and Sylvester Jr (1853-1896). A very young father, indeed, being only 15/16 at the time of Ann’s birth. Later in life in 1890, Sylvester Sr married Mary Ann Hogans.
Through the 1870s the Wright family can be found in Waterborough Parish, and are noted in the census in the terms of the day as mulatto or coloured; in the 1871 Census the family race is termed African. In the early 1870s, the family made connections with Elm Hill, Otnabog Lake. By then, Sylvester Sr’s daughter Ann had married James Haines (born 1852) of Elm Hill and Sylvester Jr. was living in Gagetown. In her 1887 obituary, it notes Ann Woods Wright lived at Cumberland Bay until about 1875, when she moved to Otnabog, and that she was the mother of a large family. Her age at the time of her death is listed in the newspaper as 101, but other evidence suggests the 1797 date given above.
Sylvester Jr died in a fire at the Estabrooks house at Upper Gagetown in 1896 where he worked as a servant. The Fredericton Daily Gleaner described the disaster, 14 October 1896:
A disastrous fire occurred at Swan Creek, two miles above Upper Gagetown, 2 o’clock this morn. by which two servants lost their lives and Mr. and Mrs. Henry ESTABROOKS their home, furniture and all other things contained therein. Mr. and Mrs. Estabrooks and family and servants were all sleeping soundly upstairs when awakened by the crackle of the fire, which had then gained such headway that they had hardly time to escape through the windows in their night clothes. Miss SIMPSON of Gagetown was sleeping in a room downstairs. She too was aroused barely in time to escape with her life. .. The hired man was Sylvester WRIGHT, colored, 35 years of age and unmarried. He belonged to Gagetown. The girl’s name was Amelia APPLEBY, 16 years of age, of Gagetown. … Mr. Estabrooks is an uncle of Whalen PORTER of this city.
The New Brunswick Reporter and Fredericton Advertiser described it this way:
Two people, Sylvester WRIGHT, colored and Amelia APPLEBY, a domestic, were burned to death in the fire which destroyed Henry ESTABROOK’s house at Lower Burton, near Upper Gagetown, Tuesday night last. How the fire started is not known and when the family awoke they had difficulty in escaping with their lives, some being forced to jump from the upper windows. In the confusion at first none were missed, but it was soon discovered the above mentioned were still in the building. Then it was impossible to reach them and in a few minutes the shrieks of the unfortunate people were heard above the roar of the wind and flames. Their charred remains were found among the ruins the next afternoon. Mr. Estabrook’s loss is estimated at $ 3,000. The family escaped in their night clothes only. There was $ 1,200 insurance on the building. It was thought not necessary to hold a coroner’s inquest.
Sylvester Sr died in 1893 at the Victoria Hospital, Fredericton, from blood poisoning after the removal of three fingers “at the Victoria Mills a few days ago”. Through his daughter, Ann who married James Haines, were descended the musician George Hector and the first caretaker of the Queens County Museum, Phyllis Hector, the donor of the chair.
For more information about Sylvester Wright or to see the chair in person, visit the Loyalist Legacy exhibition at the Tilley House, Gagetown.