We are presently working on the records of the Toronto Necropolis in the Cabbagetown neighbourhood where we’ve run across lots of interesting people including a Joshua Wilson of Yorkville who seems to have been 116 when he died of “old age” in 1861. (An understatement, don’t you think?)
While we resist the urge to research most of the names we transcribe—old Joshua deserved a second look. My first thought was a death notice in the newspaper. Surely dying at 116 deserved a note in the Globe. But although the digitized pages for the end of year 1861 were difficult to read, I didn’t find a notice for Joshua Wilson.
Joshua died on December 28, 1861, so I next consulted our Toronto Branch expert on the 1861 census, Pat Jeffs. Using a combination of her annotated transcription, and the images at Ancestry.com, Pat located a Joshua with a difficult-to-decipher surname that she had transcribed as “Wisbenon”. The name certainly didn’t look like Wilson, but this Joshua lived in Yorkville and was listed as 115 years old. He was also born in the United States, which matched our Necropolis entry, and was Wesleyan Methodist so burial in a non-sectarian cemetery like the Necropolis was logical.
So was Joshua a “Wilson” or some variation of “Wisbenon”? Had the census taker transmogrified the name, or was it the cemetery sexton?
Joshua lived in Yorkville, just outside the boundaries of Toronto in York Township, so the 1851/52 census returns survive. (Those for Toronto do not.) A quick search on Ancestry.ca located a Joshua WILSON in Yorkville, aged 106, born in the “States” and a Methodist. Clearly the same fellow, and confirmation of the surname Wilson.
The 1861 and 1851 census showed Joshua as a widower, living alone in a frame house. Both census returns also identified Joshua as “coloured”. So while we’ve managed to answer some questions about Joshua Wilson, I’m intrigued to know more about the circumstances of this African-American man.
Born in about 1746, nearly certainly into slavery, when and how did Joshua come to Canada? Was it as another man’s property, or as a Loyalist, or as a later refugee? He would have been an elderly man by the time the Underground Railroad was in full swing. In the months before his death, was he aware of the developing conflict that would lead to the US Civil War and the abolition of slavery?
Looking at Joshua Wilson’s life has also pointed out just how important the records of the Toronto Trust Cemeteries are, and why it will be so beneficial to have an index and the digital images available free online.
We’d love your help indexing these records. It can be done from the comfort of your home. All you need is a computer with a high-speed connection, and a little knowledge of Toronto communities. To find out more about the project, explore the pages of this website.
You can also hear more about the Toronto Trust Cemeteries project at OGS Conference 2010. The “New Toronto Research Tools” session, on Saturday afternoon, will highlight four new online Toronto Branch projects, one of which is the Toronto Trust Cemeteries project, and another is Pat Jeff’s 1861 Census project mentioned above.