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Historic home one of the few remnants of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s “Coloured Village”

May 2023

A small, non-descript, wood-frame house in the historic, picturesque southern Ontario town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, may look a little out of place amongst the surrounding homes. Known as the William and Susannah Steward House, this 1.5-storey home is one of few remnants of what became known as Niagara’s “coloured village,” a community made up Black families in what was then known as Newark.

Serving as the first capital of Upper Canada, it was founded in 1781 as Butlersburg, in honour of Colonel John Butler, commander of Butler’s Rangers. Re-named West Niagara and then Newark in 1792 by Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe, the town became an important British military base and a haven for Loyalists who fled America after the American Revolution, including native allies and former slaves, some of whom arrived in Newark using the Underground Railway.

It was these former slaves who made up the population of the “coloured village,” a village with a population of around 400.

William Steward, a Black teamster and carpenter, and his wife, Susannah, bought a lot at the corner of John Street and Butler Street in 1834. They cleared the land, planted crops to feed themselves and built a small, 800 square foot wood-frame house and a barn, although it’s unclear from historical records if the barn existed prior to the Stewards buying the property.

The storey-and-a-half frame cottage was typical of the homes constructed at the time by the former slaves in Upper Canada. It features a transverse roofline and two windows in each gable end, six-over-six windows flanking a central doorway at the front. A single-storey addition, extending the entire back of the house, was built not long afterwards. 

The thickness of the walls suggests the house was constructed of sawn log and was covered with weatherboard. Access to the cellar is from an exterior bulkhead door.

William Steward was an affluent black man and was not shy about wading into politically-hot causes of the day. In 1837, William and Susannah Steward were amongst 17 Blacks in Niagara who signed a petition asking Lieutenant Governor Sir Francis Bond Head to refuse to extradite a fugitive former slave, Solomon Moseby, back to Kentucky on a charge of stealing a horse from his former enslaver. Moseby was rescued from the Niagara jail by more than 200 Black Upper Canadians, with two Black men dying in the subsequent riot.

In 1847, William and Susannah sold their house and moved to Galt (now part of Cambridge), where they lived out the rest of their lives.

Over the next century and a half, the tiny Steward house went through numerous owners, The Niagara Foundation, a charitable organization established in 1962 to promote the Niagara Region’s history and culture, bought the aging and deteriorating house in 1999.

The Foundation commenced an extensive restoration, completed in 2006, which included jacking up the house to repair the original stone foundation, and removing some modern additions. New joists and flooring were installed, insulation was added and the original staircase was replaced, as it was no longer deemed safe. While most of the original architectural elements were unsalvageable or had been pilfered by vandals, including the front door, the fireplace was retained.

The second floor features a small loft bedroom, with a half-bathroom.

After plans to turn the historic house into a small Black history museum or an interpretive centre proved impractical, the Niagara Foundation was forced to sell the house in 2009, but fortunately, it was bought by former Foundation member Bruce Harvey and his wife Janis, thus ensuring it would ultimately be preserved.

This unpretentious cottage is a good surviving example of local vernacular architecture, also known as architecture without the benefit of an architect, built by local tradesmen without modern building materials and technologies. cottage is an excellent . It also serves as an excellent memorial to the hardworking people who contributed to the building of Niagara-on-the-Lake and to protecting Black refugees in the region.

It was once included as a part of the Underground Railroad Heritage Tour of the Nagara area,  but navigating the large tour vehicles proved to be disruptive in this residential neighbourhood. 

Sources: New home proposed for lot next to historic Steward House – Niagara-on-the-Lake Local (notllocal.com), Ontario Heritage Trust | William and Susannah Steward House, Niagara-on-the-Lake – Wikipedia, Fort George, Ontario – Wikipedia, Fort Mississauga – Wikipedia, Historic Steward House has the perfect tenant – Niagara-on-the-Lake Local (notllocal.com).

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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