Sometimes grandparents stories can sound like good fiction, filled with heavy drama and a good dose of superstition. The story about Uncle John, one of the family from Jackmans, St. Michael was no exception. He had gone up to Canada to work and later sent for his wife and sons. My grandmother said that when she was about 9 years old, Mrs. Olton came back to Barbados for a visit and made her way up to St. Joseph to see her husband’s niece Barbara Leslie ask Lessie. After they greeted and talked, Lessie told her daughter Clarine, who was about 9 years old at the time, to take Mrs. Olton down Melvin’s Hill to see Jane Small. My grandmother took Mrs. Olton as instructed, and after the two women talked, Jane sent them on a journey. Mrs. Olton and my grandmother began to walk what turned out to be a very very long distance that didn’t stop until they reached a house with a line of people waiting in the front, and a red woman with rosy cheeks and a long head tie sitting in the window. It was a good while then before my grandmother made it back home, prompting her mother to ask “but whuh tek wunnuh suh long to get back?” After my grandmother recounted her experience with Jane Small and Mrs. Olton, her mother said, “if’n I did know that she (Jane Small) did ghine sen wunnuh to the obeah woman, I din’ ghun leh yuh go.”
I was surfing Ancestry.com one day when I discovered a 1914 travel record for John Olton, a 41-year-old shoemaker, affiliated with the Anglican Church. He arrived at Port Hawkesbury, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia in route to Sydney where he would work for Dominion Steel Co.
I discovered that Uncle John was among many skilled Barbadians recruited by Dominion Steel, a Canadian company in the coal mining business. While I have no evidence what job Uncle John actually did for Dominion Steel, it was around the time of the first World War, and there was a great need for coal to fuel many of the war machines in use. Interestingly enough, the persons shown on this travel records were all skilled workers and likely made up the many artisans found in the Whitney Pier section of Sydney in housing provided by the steel plant. Many other Barbadians were probably expecting lucrative jobs in the coal mines, but when they arrived, many found themselves working in the steel plant’s coke ovens where temperatures reached over 100 degrees. The belief was that because they come from tropical climates they would be well suited to these jobs. Travel records show that in 1918, Uncle Joh’s wife Amy Olton and his sons Numphrel (8) and Fred (10) were traveling to join him at 156 Laurier Street in Sydney, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
The records also show that in 1926, Mrs. Olton traveled on a return trip to Barbados, alone. This was not surprising because my grandmother told me that the reason why Mrs. Olton had come home was because Nomphrel was real sick up in Canada and she came back looking for comfort. This is why she was sent to Jane Small and why Jane had sent her to the Obeah woman. What my grandmother didn’t tell me I was able to discover in the records. I located a Province of Nova Scotia, Certificate of Death for an Earnest Olton, born in Barbados, April 21, 1911, a negro, single, male, schoolboy, son of John and Amy (Ford) Olton died from consumption and tuberculosis on May 21, 1926 after a six month hospital stay and was buried at Hardwood Hill Cemetery. He was only 15 years 1 month old.
It appears that the Olton family returned to Barbados sometime after 1930 where they lived out their lives. Uncle John is buried at St. Matthew’s cemetery. The story of Nomprel’s death impacted our family such that at least two family members gave their sons his name. Joseph Numprel Books and Errol Nomprel Olton are cousins that likely wondered how they got this funny name. Well, it turns out that what they got was a nickname. The young man for whom they were named was baptized Earnest Olton.
This summer when my husband said he wanted to take a vacation, I suggested we visit Charleston, SC. He said no, he wanted to go where it wouldn’t be too hot. Out of nowhere, I heard myself say let’s go to Nova Scotia. This is one of the many places in my family’s history was on my bucket list. We packed a cooler, and I set off to follow in the footsteps of my ancestor Uncle John.
We arrived in Cape Breton on a Sunday afternoon around 4pm. We were going to overnight and finish the journey the next day, but when I saw it was only 125 miles to Cape Breton, I suggested to my husband that we conclude the drive as it was just two more hours. Little did I know, the road would transition from an open highway to a densely forested two-lane, twisted and dark passage that meant very slow going. Since it looked like we wouldn’t arrive until very late, I got a little concerned about what would await us at the end of the journey and I decided to see if I could make contact with a Black church that I had read somewhere was a meeting place for West Indians in Sydney. I pleasantly surprised when I heard a voice at the other end of the phone announce that I had reached the Phillips African Orthodox Church. She identified herself as Isabel Waterman, wife of Bishop Waterman. I explained to her that we were coming into Cape Breton for a visit, that we knew no one there, but that my uncle and his family lived there in the 1920s and we wanted to explore the history of the West Indians that had come there to work for Dominion Steel. I told her we would be staying at a local Hotel and she assured me it was a beautiful location. Isabel said that she too was a descendant of parents who came to Sydney to work the mines, her mother was Cuban and her father Grenadian. She told me that her husband the Bishop was from Barbados. This was all music to my ears. I had made a valuable connection to my family history. Isabel agreed to meet us at our hotel the next day.
I woke up Monday morning refreshed and on a mission. The hotel staff was very warm and helpful. I knew we had to meet Isabel at 1pm so after an English breakfast at the hotel where we sat with a local couple who gave us some insight into the place. I called ahead to Hardwood Hill Cemetery and explain to a very nice man named George that we wanted to visit Nomprel’s gravesite. When we arrived, George met us near the shed. He came over to the van and explained that he couldn’t give us the exact grave because we were in the pauper’s section where there were no headstones. After about 20 minutes of maneuvering, we settled on an area where he believed the grave was located. I said a few words to let Nomprel know I was there. I paid homage to the ancestors. I gave George and his workers a hug and drove out of the cemetery feeling very accomplished and very sad at the same time.
It was almost time to meet the Waterman’s at the hotel, but we had enough time to find 156 Laurier Street where Uncle John and his family lived. I was so excited to be retracing their steps, and it turns out that in daylight, Sydney, Cape Breton was a very very pretty place. I had my cell phone on record as we crossed over the short bridge into Whitney Pier. Max took a right down Laurier Street, and I could hardly contain my excitement while looking for the numbers on the house. Then I saw it, 156 Laurier, a tiny white duplex on the right side of the street. I got out of the car and headed over the door, but no one answered. I decided to see if the neighbor was home at #154 and she was. After I explain who I was and what I was doing, Katey told me that the building had been there since the early 1900s as far as she knew. I asked her if I could see the inside and to my surprise, she agreed. It was a three bedroom duplex with a finished basement. If this is what it looked like when the family lived there, it was not too shabby at all. Katey gave me a history of the entire area and told about the museum and the mural up the street that showed what Whitney Pier was like in its heydey. I thanked her and headed back to the hotel to meet the Watermans.
It wasn’t until 3 that we connected with Isabel and she invited us to meet her at the church. We all arrived about the same time, and we introduced ourselves to her and her husband and proceeded into the church. It was a modest building, but it really came to life when they began to share its history. Isabel had given me a little of its story when we first spoke on the phone. She told me that many of the West Indians used to attend the Anglican church in town, but in 1930 things got terrible so that the Anglicans said the Blacks that they had to bury their own. The Waterman’s were amazing people, and the church itself had a lot of great history. In fact, they told us how the ancestors asked the steel plant for assistance in getting a church and how the plant responded by giving them an old tool shed for use as the church building. From there the congregation went to work to build the benches and the altar. They showed us the pipe fittings from the plant that displaced West Indians used to make rails for the platform. They handcrafted wood benches, and I couldn’t wait to see what records the church had. I wondered if Uncle John was in the congregation. Isabel must have read my mind because they brought copies of the early church registers and allowed me to flip the pages. Overwhelmed is probably the best word to describe what that feels like, especially when I got to the page on confirmations and saw the name Ernest Olton and Amey Olton. They had been there in the same spot that I was standing 80 plus years ago. I scanned all the other names and recognized so many to be Barbadians.
Isabel directed my attention to the photos on the wall. One was the Honorable Mosiah Marcus Garvey whose movement inspired the Cape Verde Bajans to build their own. There were photos of Isabel’s father who was the bishop of the Orthodox African Church for 43 years. There were the choir members, the plaque on the wall in memory of the founders, and a photo of Isabel’s sister, the first Black on record to have a leadership role in the Government of Nova Scotia.
I was intrigued by the Scottish, Irish culture all over Nova Scotia too…to be continued…