Richard Pierpoint – Former Slave, Loyalist, Soldier, Community Leader, and Storyteller
Richard Pierpoint (also Pawpine, Parepoint; Captain Pierpoint, Captain Dick; Black Dick), loyalist, soldier, community leader, storyteller (born c. 1744 in Bondu [now Senegal]; died c. 1838, near present-day Fergus, ON). Pierpoint was an early leader in Canada’s Black community. Taken from West Africa as a teenager and sold into slavery, Pierpoint regained his freedom during the American Revolution. He settled in Niagara, Upper Canada, and attempted to live communally with other Black Canadians. In the War of 1812, he petitioned for an all-Black unit to fight for the British and fought with the Coloured Corps.
Richard Pierpoint was born in Bondu (now Senegal), in West Africa, around 1744. His original name is unknown. In the early 18th century, life in Bondu — a state south of the Sahara, northeast of the Gambia River and slightly inland from the Atlantic Ocean — was chaotic and diverse. The region covered more than 30,000 km2 with a population as high as 30,000. It was ruled by Fulani Muslims. Bondu’s citizens endured decades of war and unrest through the late-17th and early-18th centuries. In Bondu, Pierpoint would have learned the storytelling traditions of the griot, some of which he would later use as a Black community leader in Upper Canada. (A griot (or jali or jeli) is a West African storyteller, historian, and troubadour who preserves and shares genealogies, histories and oral traditions.)
In 1760, at the age of 16, slave traders captured and imprisoned Pierpoint. They likely sold him on the coast at Fort James to English traders, who brought him across the Atlantic Ocean to be sold in the British Thirteen Colonies. A British officer purchased and enslaved Pierpoint, who then worked in the officer’s home. Pierpoint was enslaved for nearly 20 years and was likely given the name of the officer who enslaved him.
Exactly how Richard Pierpoint regained his freedom is unclear, but it appears that the American Revolution was the cause for change. In 1775, the royal governor of Virginia granted freedom to all persons enslaved by rebels in that colony in exchange for their military service against those same rebel Americans. Pierpoint may have been promised his freedom in exchange for service, assuming the British officer who had purchased him remained loyal to the Crown. On 30 June 1779, British army general Sir Henry Clinton issued the Philipsburg Proclamation, promising freedom to all persons enslaved by American rebels.
In 1780, Pierpoint was listed as a pioneer in Butler’s Rangers, a Loyalist unit. That same year, he was stationed with the Rangers in the Niagara region, where they engaged in guerrilla warfare against American rebels. During the war, Pierpoint was likely stationed at Fort Niagara. In 1784, Pierpoint was still in the Niagara region. Having been honourably discharged, he was named on a list of settlers in the area, among other disbanded Rangers. In 1791, he was granted 200 acres — the same grant given to officers and twice that of a private — in Grantham Township (now St. Catharines, Ontario)
When Richard Pierpoint received his 200-acre grant in Grantham Township, he still needed to clear and develop the land in order to receive letters patent and be officially recognized as the owner. Pierpoint would have been required to clear at least 5 acres of land per 100 acres granted for farming and road frontage and to build a log cabin of a minimum size.
On 29 June 1794, Pierpoint signed “The Petition of Free Negroes” with 18 other Black residents of Upper Canada. Some scholars believe that Pierpoint may have written the petition himself. The petition was sent to Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe and reflects the reality many early Black residents in Canada faced. Perhaps because they encountered difficulties in clearing and settling their land grants alone, the petitioners — many of whom were former soldiers — asked for the ability to settle adjacent to each other so that they could establish a community and work collectively to clear their lands. They specifically asked for the opportunity to “give assistance (in work) to those amongst them who may most want it.”
In addition to the desire to live communally, the petition specifically expressed the wish that the signatories be allowed to live on a tract of land separate from White settlers. This suggests that the problems these men faced went beyond isolation; Black Loyalists and settlers in colonial Canada very likely faced prejudice and discrimination from White settlers.
The Executive Council of Upper Canada heard the request on 8 July 1794 and rejected the petition, refusing to separate the Black community from the majority White settlers. Pierpoint successfully cleared his land and received his patents on 10 March 1804, but sold his lots two years later, on 11 November 1806. Now more than 60 years old, he remained in the Niagara region, likely working as a laborer or farmer.
When war broke out between Britain and the United States in 1812, Richard Pierpoint was 68 years old. Nevertheless, he petitioned military leadership to create an all-Black militia to fight for the British. Shortly thereafter, Pierpoint joined Captain Robert Runchey’s Corps of Coloured Men (the Coloured Corps), a militia of free Black men.
Serving as a private from 1 September 1812 to 24 March 1815, Pierpoint saw action with the Coloured Corps in multiple battles in the War of 1812. He fought at the Battle of Queenston Heights, where the Coloured Corps was among the first reinforcements to arrive in support of John Norton’s Six Nations warriors. After enduring the Battle of Fort George on 27 May 1813, the Coloured Corps supported British troops in the Battle of Stoney Creek from Burlington (almost 13 km away).
On 19 January 1820, in recognition of his contribution during the War of 1812, Richard Pierpoint was granted 100 acres of land on the Grand River in Garafraxa Township (near present-day Fergus, Ontario). Now in his mid-70s, Pierpoint was still living in Niagara and finding it difficult to support himself as a laborer.
On 21 July 1821, he petitioned the government of Upper Canada at York for passage back to West Africa. In his petition, Pierpoint pleads that he is “above all things desirous to return to his native country.” The colonial government did not grant Pierpoint’s wish, and he accepted his land grant in Garafraxa. His presence there predates the settlement of Fergus.
Pierpoint fulfilled the settlement requirements for his grant in 1825, probably with the help of a younger man named “Deaf Moses.” Some histories describe Pierpoint’s land in Garafraxa as a settlement for Black Canadians — either persons fleeing enslavement in the United States via the Underground Railroad or people simply in search of the same communal living Pierpoint had asked for in the 1794 “Petition of Free Negroes.”
Richard Pierpoint died in the winter of 1837–38. He left no family or successors and left his estate to Lemuel Brown of Grantham Township. His burial place is unknown.
According to oral history in the Black Canadian community, Pierpoint was a gifted storyteller in the West African tradition of the griot. He traveled around Upper Canada with Deaf Moses, recounting stories to members of the Black communities in both the Niagara and Garafraxa regions. To retell the stories, it’s said that he would pull a pebble from his pouch and launch into a story. By the end of his life, he had amassed 94 years of personal experience and countless more through the voices of his community.
His legacy is that of a leader in the early Black Canadian community who fought and petitioned for causes important to himself, his community and to Canada as a whole. His petitions provide the picture of a man taken from his home and enslaved as a teenager, who fought for his freedom in two wars and who worked to build a Black community amid prejudice and discrimination.
In 2013, the Government of Canada named a federal building in London, Ontario, the Richard Pierpoint Building in recognition of his contribution to the Coloured Corps in the War of 1812.
* CBC News Canada http://www.cbc.ca/news2/interactives/black-history-month/
* The Canadian Encyclopedia http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/richard-pierpoint/