The Adventures of Susan Gee

Susan before her travels


Somehow or other, Susan Christian, a small town girl of African heritage, from Amherstburg, Ontario, decided to “pass” as white and made her way to Detroit where she was employed by a very prominent American family by the name of Newberry. John Newberry, a well known and respected admiralty attorney, was one of the earliest inhabitants of Grosse Pointe, Michigan, where he and other wealthy industrialist types built costly mansions. He was elected to the U. S. Congress in 1879 where he served just one term. His son, Harrie Robinson Newberry was Secretary and Treasurer of the Detroit Steel & Spring Works and served on the City Council.  Harrie and his wife, Harriet Dudgeon, had a daughter Gladys, born in 1885.

What exactly Susan’s role was in the Newberry family is a little unclear. According to Betty Kurkjian, Susan was a “cook/governess” and travelled with the Newberry family to France where she spent enough time to learn to speak fluent French. Bill Gee describes Susan as a “travelling companion” to Gladys Newberry, who was 22 years younger than her. Whatever the relationship, Susan travelled extensively with the Newberry family!

Harrie Newberry served the United States Department of State as charges d’affaires (or consul – general) in Constantinople and Madrid. On, I have found tons of passport and visa information for Harrie and his family, and although I have not found the same kind of travel documentation for our Susan, we know she accompanied her employers for some period of time between 1885 (when Gladys Newberry was born) and 1897 (by which time Susan was married and had had her first child).

Susan with Newberry
Susan Christian with her employer, Harriet Newberry during their time in Madrid?

So somewhere in her European travels, Susan Christian met a sailor named William James Gee. Again, there are a couple of versions of this story. Betty Kurkjian was told that Susan and William James met on a crossing to France on a ship on which he was a Chief Petty Officer. Bill Gee tells the story somewhat differently: “I’m more inclined to believe my Dad’s story that she was in Constantinople with the Newberrys when the British fleet came into port and the crew was given shore leave. We can only guess what happened next ….”


Susan Jane Christian Gee

Is it fair to say the Susan Christian is the most interesting person in my family tree? No … I find them all pretty interesting: Nolie’s sister who was married, had a child, was widowed and remarried all within 18 months – she’s pretty interesting. Garth’s ancestor who at the age of 20 fathered a child out of wedlock with a woman 10 years his senior, then married a different woman and had three children, then deserted them to homestead in Indiana with his common law wife – he’s very intriguing. (So is the common law wife, as she is my third great grandmother!) And I’m so curious about the couple of generations of Mormons – where did they come from and where did they go!

But Susan certainly came as the biggest surprise! When I first began researching my family tree, I knew next nothing to about Susan. All I knew was that that she was born in Ontario in 1863, went to England where she married, had four children, and then returned to Ontario. It always seemed to me that she was, well, going the wrong way. This is the only picture I had of her.

William James Gee, Susan Christian Gee and their children, William Bruce, Joseph Ronald, Thomas Cyril and Dorothy Gladys


In the spring of 2015, I took the DNA test and contacted a few people with whom I share DNA, my second cousin once removed (okay, I still don’t really get how all that nomenclature works) Jim Shreve, and my third cousin Irene Moore Davis. It was from them that I learned of the African twig on my family tree. And it was from Irene that I learned that my great grandmother “looked very much like her mother, Ann Wilson who emigrated to Canada from Lancashire, and far less like her father, Henry Christian who was born into slavery in Kentucky … The story in our family has always been that Susan did what a lot of people who could ‘pass’ did in those times: she moved away and lived her life as a white person. Passing often involved having minimal contact with one’s relatives or others who had known a person earlier in life: this was generally necessary to avoid being found out.”

Susan like her mother
The Christian siblings – Susan on the lower right looking indeed very much like her mother Ann

Imagine my surprise! I have often regretted not asking my parents more about their ancestors, but learning that I have some African heritage really got me wondering. No one ever saw fit to mention this to me or my brother Greg? Why not? There are, I know, people for whom this information would be distressing, but not us. I did, however get a few interesting comments from my own first cousins. Bill Wagner pointed out to me that “there is some bigotry in our family.” When I asked him who in particular he meant, he told me Nolie. Interesting … did she know that her mother-in-law was half Black? When did she learn this? What did she think? And my cousin John Gee told me that his mother Betty told him that she might not have married Jack if she had known.

So I guess Susan’s plan to live her life as a white person worked! And what was she up to between the time she left Ontario and 1904 when she returned with her young English family?


From Slavery to Freedom

My third great grandfather Henry Christian was born into slavery in Mason County, Kentucky in 1839. When he was about ten years old he and his older sister, Marguerite, accompanied their parents on the treacherous journey to freedom in Canada. After several months traveling the Underground Railroad, the young Christian family made it to Detroit and then to Sandwich, Ontario. The small town of Sandwich, just outside Windsor, was a haven for refugee slaves fleeing the United States. Hundreds of slaves crossed the Detroit River into Windsor, and their first stop was the Colored Baptist Church on Peter Street. My ancestors joined this church and in fact, the record of deacons and trustees includes the name of my fourth great grandfather, Charles Christian.

Originally built as a log cabin in 1820, the church was rebuilt in 1841 by free and fugitive slaves. Several still visible holes in the floor provided hiding places for those being sought by bounty hunters. Now known as Sandwich First Baptist Church, it is the oldest Black church in Windsor.


church plaque

The Christian family settled on a farm on Huron Line, near Malden Road. Later, they moved into the Town of Sandwich, residing on Sandwich Street. (Sandwich Street is now named Watkins Street after another Black pioneer.)

Sandwich Street

As a young man my third great grandfather, Henry Christian, found work with the Great Western Railway, which later became the Michigan Central. While working in Toronto, Henry met Ann Wilson, a young woman from Lancashire, England. They married in Toronto, and Henry brought her home to a farm in Anderton Township, Essex County.

Henry and Ann had seven children, among them my great grandmother, Susan Christian.


The Christians

I love exploring the history of the Shaws and the Pinkertons – my grandmother Nolie’s people – and I know that there are many more stories to tell. I very much want to dig deeper into my Scottish past – I feel like those Scottish calico dyers have a lot more to tell me!

And I continue to be fascinated by Margaret Pinkerton – did she really emigrate alone, leaving that seemingly functional and happy family behind? Why? There were many reasons to leave Scotland for Canada at that point – poverty, employment, education — but why did she leave her entire extended family who seemed to have resources, employment and connections?  I continue to search immigration records, but so far, I don’t even have a hint.

But now I want to take a look at my grandfather’s people – the Christians and the Gees. J. Ronald’s mother, Susan Christian Gee, if not the most interesting twig on the tree, was certainly the most surprising to me! But before we learn about Susan, let’s start with her parents.

Some time prior to the Civil War, there was a slave owning family by the name of Sauer residing in Mason County, Kentucky. They were of German descent, and this name is still fairly common on both sides of the Ohio River in southern Ohio and northern Kentucky.

In 1845, one of the Sauer family slaves caught wind of the fact that the Sauer family was going to sell off some “human property.” This woman’s name was Susan, and she was my third great grandmother. Fearing that her young family would be split up, Susan and her husband Charles, prepared to run away with their children. Dressed in extra layers of clothing, they took off on their way to freedom. (Enslaved people often ran away in the winter as their owners were less attuned to their slaves’ whereabouts during non-planting and non-harvesting seasons. Furthermore, it was more difficult for the dogs to trace their scent in the winter months.) On the run through the Underground Railroad with his parents was my great great grandfather, Henry Christian, about ten years old.

I like to think that I was always aware of, and certainly interested in, the Underground Railroad, perhaps because I have so often lived in its shadow, such as Pittsford Village and the Michigan Avenue African American Corridor in Buffalo which I travel every day. But it’s another thing entirely to acknowledge that my very own flesh and blood – my very own great great grandfather – actually made this treacherous journey.  I am in awe of the courage that this young family.



The Pinkertons in Scotland

My third great grandparents were William Pinkerton and Martha Moore. They were married in 1839 in Barony Lanark, southeast of Glasgow on the River Clyde. According to the Censuses of Scotland 1841, 1851 and 1861, my third great grandparents were both born in Ireland – William Pinkerton in 1816 and Martha in 1821. The 1841 Census of Scotland tells us that they lived with their first child, Jane, in Hill Square, Barony, Lanarkshire. By 1851, the growing Pinkerton family had relocated to Eastwood, Thornliebank, Renfrewshire, west of Glasgow. And in 1861, the family lived at 34 Abercromby Street in Glasgow.

Until the middle of the 18th century, the economics of this region were based on agriculture. At that time, however, the textile industry exploded as huge fabric mills, print works and bleachfields came into being.

Thornliebank Print Works
The Time House at the Print Works

My third great grandfather William Pinkerton was a blue dyer and a calico dyer – jobs that required skill and experience.  Mill workers worked long hours with few days off. Conditions were dangerous and diseases such as bronchitis, pneumonia and tuberculosis were common.

calico factory
East Renfrewshire Calico Dying Facility, circa 1900


Such hazards did not seem to have a large impact on the Pinkerton family! William and Martha had nine children – the first born when Martha was 19 years old, the last born when she was 42. Jane was born in 1840, followed by great great grandmother, Margaret in 1842. Then along came seven more: James (born 1845), John S. (born 1847), Martha E. (born 1850), William (born 1853), Robert (born 1858), James Alexander (born 1860), and Louise Victor (born 1863). I believe that all but one of these children survived into adulthood. Not surprisingly, however, my third great grandmother Martha Moore Pinkerton died sometime between 1865 and 1869.

In 1869, my third great grandfather married Annie Ferguson in Glasgow. Annie was born in Campsie, Sterling in 1841. She was 25 years younger than her husband and just a few years older than her oldest step daughter. Jane! Annie and William had two more children, Andrew (born 1870) and Annie (born 1872).

There’s someone missing … what has become of my great great grandmother Margaret Pinkerton?



Charles Norvell Shaw

Charles Norvell Shaw is, to me, an interesting twig on the family tree. He was the son of Joseph Marsden Shaw and Alice Engler. Norrie was the nephew of my second great grandfather Charlie Shaw, but they were born the same year: 1866. They apparently were … accomplices … in the previously described Shaw Shenanigans!

Most of what I have learned about Norrie comes from two obituaries that are in Beatrice’s scrapbook. It seems he was a member of the Dresden Citizens’ Band, which was made up of some of Dresden’s well-to-do industrialists and merchants. Perhaps our Norrie did not exactly fit that description — his death notice states that at the time of his death in July of 1896, he was a bartender! But clearly, he was enormously popular, and well loved.


Norrie obit

From one of the posters on the Facebook page Dresden Virtual History Group, I have learned that Reverend T. D. McCullough was the pastor of the Dresden Presbyterian Church from 1895 to 1899. He was known for his ministry to the youth of his community, although only in his 20s himself.

norrie obit

Norrie’s death notice states that his death was caused by neurosis of the spine, which I believe is the old fashioned name for stenosis of the spine. He was only 31 years old.

norrie death

Charles Norvell Shaw was buried in Dresden Cemetery with the inscription, “In my father’s house there are many mansions.”

Norrie Base Drum

This photo is from a composite photo of the Dresden Citizens’ Band provided to me by Marie Carter with the Dresden Virtual History Group. It is dated 1895. I can’t be at all certain that this is a photo of my ancestor, Charles Norvell Shaw — there were quite a few C. Shaws around in those days. It is dated 1895, so if it is Norrie, it was taken a year or so before his death.


After rereading the clippings about the Shaw young men and their shenanigans, I wondered about the Dresden Grand Opera House. Googling turned up nothing, so I contacted the Facebook page, “Chatham-Kent Pictures of Our Past.” They referred me to the Facebook page “Dresden Virtual History Group.” Here, I was welcomed by the amazing Marie Carter and found a treasure trove of photos and information. Marie is unaware of any Dresden Grand Opera House, but she did provide me with some great photos.

The Cast of the Womanless Wedding from Feb. of 1931

It doesn’t appear that any of my ancestors are pictured here, but it’s hard to miss the gent in blackface in the front row! This group performed at the Shaw Theater, over the old creamery in Dresden.

Shaw Shenanigans!

I have a scrapbook — originally a booklet called a “Souvenir of the Canadian Association of Stationary Engineers.” It is full of advertisements for such things as boilers, pulleys, ovens steamfitters’ equipment, etc. as well as photos of public building throughout Eastern Canada. Over these ads are pasted newspaper clippings about everything from football games and bicycle races to obituaries and inspirational stories. Mona told me the scrapbook was Nolie’s, but I think it is a generation older. Nothing in it is dated, but there are references to events that happened prior to and not long after Nolie’s birth. Perhaps is was Beatrice’s? I find it pretty remarkable that no one tossed it, and that it made it’s way from Beatrice, to Nolie, to Mona, to me.

I mentioned earlier that I thought being married to Charles Sylvanus Shaw might not be easy. The clippings below concern the exploits of Charlie Shaw and his buddies. There are references to “Norrie” and “C.N. Shaw” — I think this was Charles Norvell Shaw. He was the son of Charlie’s half-brother, thus Charlie’s nephew and Nolie’s cousin. And there were also mentions of a Sylvanus Shaw — possibly another son of Charlie’s half brother.

The Shaw boys appear to have been part of The Dresden Minstrels who performed at the Dresden Grand Opera House as well as at dinners at “Mr. H. Crowe’s Restaurant.”

mistrels 2

My mother once told me that her grandfather Charlie “got in trouble for being too friendly with Black people.” Given his participation in minstrel shows and the references to “darking up,” I am highly skeptical.

mistrels 1


It seems that even the Presbyterian Sabbath School experienced Charlie Shaw’s theatrical expertise:

minstrels 3