By: Justine Lynne
Black history research is often quite tricky and has been a focus at Heritage Mississauga for many years. We have shared other research findings in earlier articles in this series. In almost every case, we feel that there is so much more to uncover, and we are left with a lot of unknowns. Such is the story of the Spencer family of Cooksville, who appear in the 1861 census. The 1861 census is quite interesting to research because it represents perhaps the last push of refugees from the United States’ era of slavery.
In 1861, the Spencer family are listed on the census in historic Mississauga, then known as Toronto Township, living in a simple frame house. The father is recorded as John Spencer (aged 49) and the mother as Jane Spencer (aged 40), both of whom were Black and were born in the United States. They are also listed as being illiterate, which may support a link to slavery as slaves were often prohibited from learning how to read or write. However, we do not know.
John and Jane’s children included John Spencer Jr. (aged 8), Sarah Spencer (aged 6), Eliza Spencer (aged 5), and Maria Spencer (aged 2), all of whom were born in Canada. This would, therefore, place the family in Canada in or before 1853. This family caught our attention because their young son, John Jr., is listed as not attending school, but rather working as a labourer at the age of 8. This reminds us that life for early Black settlers in the area was far from easy once they arrived here. The family was living on or near Agnes Street in Cooksville.
Unlike many other black families in historic Mississauga, the Spencer family stayed longer than others. They appeared again in the 1871 census with the addition of William Spencer (aged 7), yet John Spencer Sr., the father, is missing from the record. The census show that only John Jr., now 18 years old, is supporting the family by working as a labourer.
Where did the patriarch of the family go? His wife is not listed as a widow. So, what happened to John? In an 1873 list of residents in Cooksville, a “Mrs. Jane Spencer” is listed, perhaps indicating that John Sr. still was not back in the picture. Without more information, it is hard to speculate on such family matters, but it does make one think about some of the challenges that this family might have faced. But this is where the trail goes cold … at least in Mississauga.
Fast forward to 1911, Sarah Spencer, the second child of John and Jane Spencer who was born c1855, is recorded in the Cobourg Asylum for the Insane, which operated from 1900 to c1914.
The asylum was established to alleviate seven other overcrowded institutions elsewhere in Ontario, meaning she could have been transferred from anywhere in the province. She is listed as single without any relations with her. She appears again in the 1921 Census at the Ontario Hospital in Toronto South.
In 1929, Sarah Louise Spencer died of a cerebral hemorrhage and “senility” in the Ontario Hospital. A note on her death certificate reads, “The patient was admitted to Ontario Hospital, London, 1873. Nothing known of antecedents.” To date, we have not discovered who committed her to such a fate or where the rest of her family went, but her life seems to be a sad tale. Sarah Spencer was buried in Mount Pleasant cemetery, with no additional family members noted.
What we know of the Spencer family is, of course, dwarfed by what we do not yet know, we strongly feel that there is more to their story. Were they former slaves and came to Canada as Freedom Seekers? Where did John Spencer Jr. go? Where did he work? What happened to John and Jane Spencer, the parents? What of the other children? There is still so much more to discover, and we remain committed to discovering more about the Spencer family who, for a time, called Mississauga their home.
The search for clues around our early Black history is ongoing. If you have more information, stories, remembrances, or pictures, please let us know!