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.