When setting out to learn more about our city’s early Black history, it is an all-encompassing endeavor that can sometimes leave us with more questions than we began, but it’s always an enriching experience.
Such is the case with the Canada West census in 1861, which shows a Black family living in Toronto Township, Peel which is now the City of Mississauga.
It lists a William Bell -Negro (aged 46) and Mary Ann Bell -Negress (aged 60), recorded as married in 1847, though it is unclear where their marriage took place. It also lists a John Shepherd -Negro (aged 10).
Although there are still many questions around their origins and arrival in Canada, it is believed that they arrived sometime in the mid-1850’s, well before the 1861 census, but after the 1851 census as they do not appear in previous Canada West census records.
By the next census in 1871, the family no longer appears in Toronto Township. Who was this family that for a time called historic Mississauga home?
One possible theory that has been brought forward by historian Richard Ruggle is that the family is none other than the Shepherd family of the Stewarttown (Georgetown) area in historic Esquesing Township.
According to family stories, John Henry Shepherd was always described as “a babe in arms” of a Mrs. Shepherd.
Could Mrs. Shepherd be the “Mary Ann Bell” recorded in the 1861 census?
They were freedom seekers from the USA who traveled to Canada via the Underground Railroad. Some stories indicate that they may have come from Maryland and that some of “Mrs. Shepherd’s” other children were separated from her on the journey northward. In other family stories, the Bell name has been spoken of.
Could this be the William Bell referred to on the 1861 census?
Could this be the missing link to tie the family from historic Mississauga to the Shepherd family of Stewarttown?
At this point, it is too early to say.
According to family stories, the Shepherd family then moved to the Georgetown Park area. Mrs. Shepherd walked along the railway tracks between Georgetown and Stewarttown where she worked as a housekeeper on the farm of Colonel John Murray located on the 15th Side Road.
Mrs. Shepherd passed away before 1871; a fact indicated not only by family stories, but also her absence from the 1871 Canada Census records.
Also, a person named “William Bell- widower” is recorded in the 1871 census living in a predominantly Black neighbourhood in Camden, Bothwell, Ontario. In 1871, young John Shepherd (farm hand) is recorded on the census in the care of Colonel John Murray and his family in Stewarttown.
According to available records, Colonel John Murray organized the militia company in the area and commanded the 20th Halton Battalion of Infantry 1871-1881.
Interestingly, between 1868 and 1876, there was a “Private John Shepherd” who went to militia camp with Captain Barber’s Georgetown Company of the 20th, and it seems John Henry Shepherd was the only one to fit his description in the area.
John’s son, Henry Thomas Shepherd (1895-1960) would likewise go on to have a remarkable military career, and he is being recognized for his military and community services in Georgetown/Oakville (Halton), Brampton (Peel), and Newmarket (York). The Shepherd family is identified on the information sign at the Greenwood Cemetery/Georgetown as one of seven historical families buried there.
Could historic Mississauga have been a transitory spot for the family?
Was this the same family?
More research is needed to definitively link Mississauga with the Shepherd family. If this link is proven true, Mississauga would have only been a small part of the Shepherd family’s long and storied history. Though we may not have all the answers at this point, we feel it is always meaningful to research the stories of early Black settlers. Though they are gone, their memories live on in their communities and their families.
We would encourage you to learn more about the Shepherd family and their history of service to community and Canada through the Halton Library’s online exhibition on Henry Thomas Shepherd MBE and the Shepherd family:
If you would like to learn more about Black Canadian veterans, feel free to watch Black Canadian Veteran Stories with Kathy Grant as part of Heritage Mississauga’s “Black Heritage Matters” Webinar Series:
The search for clues around our early Black history is ongoing. If you have any information, stories, remembrances, or pictures, please email [email protected]
All photos accompanying this article are courtesy of “Kathy Brooks/Shepherd Family Collection”.