Who Was John Baker?

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist – Oshawa Museum

This article was originally posted on the Oshawa Museum Blog in honour of Black History Month, January 25, 2019.

John Baker is an important part of Oshawa’s history, even thought it is entirely possible he never spent any time here. Baker was one of two slaves granted freedom from slavery, along with land and money, in the will of their master Robert Isaac Dey Gray, Solicitor-General of Upper Canada. His connection to Gray, along with being named in the will, resulted in Baker gaining a level of fame and notoriety. A quick search on the internet turns up a surprising amount of information on the man and his life.

In a publication on the early history of the town of Cornwall, Ontario, author Jacob Farrand Pringle wrote about Baker and provided information about the life of the man though to be the last surviving enslaved person of African descent in both Canada East (Quebec) and Canada West (Ontario).[1]   The Baker family can be traced back to a gentleman by the name of Cato Prime. Prime was native of Guinea, West Africa before being sold into slavery to John Low of New Jersey.  Prime had a daughter, named Lavine, who in turn had a daughter named Dorine, all of whom were slaves to the Low family. Dorine was given as a gift to Elizabeth Low, the daughter of John, and came with Elizabeth when she married Captain John Gray.  According to Pringle, Dorine was 17 years old when the Gray family brought her to Canada with them.

The Grays resided in Montreal from 1776 to 1784 when they moved to an area just east of Cornwall.  Dorine met and married Jacob Baker in Gray’s Creek, the area just east of Cornwall named for the Gray family. Baker’s history is unclear.  In an interview with a Toronto newspaper in 1869, John says that his father was a Dutchman; however, in his book on the history of Osgoode Hall, author James Hamilton states that Baker was a German Hessians who served with the British Army during the American Revolution.[2]  Either way, Baker was a free man while Dorine remained a slave to the Gray family.  According to Pringle, the Bakers had a large family.[3] The two eldest children, Simon and John, were born slaves as the law at the time stated that children inherited the status of their mother. Two daughters, Elizabeth and Bridget, were born free as laws had changed prior to their birth.[4] Upon the death of John Gray, Dorine and her sons became the property of Robert Isaac Dey Gray, the son of Elizabeth and John.

In that interview with the Toronto newspaper, Baker recounts his life with the Gray family. Referring to John Gray as Colonel, Baker spoke of how strict his master was.

“The Colonel had much property; he was strict and sharp, made us wear deerskin shirts and deerskin jackets, and gave us many a flogging. At these times he would pull off my jacket, and the rawhide would fly around my shoulders very fast.” [5]

Robert I.D. Gray was apparently less cruel to those he owned. After practicing law in Cornwall for a short time, he went to York and in 1797 was named the first Solicitor-General of Upper Canada. Gray took Simon Baker with him to act as his body servant.

In August 1798, Elizabeth Gray was granted 600 acres of property in Whitby Township.[6]  It is this property that connects the Baker brothers and Gray to Oshawa.  Robert Isaac Dey Gray and Simon Baker died when the ship they were travelling on, the Speedy, wrecked near Presqu’ile Point, Brighton Township. In his will, Gray finally granted the Baker family their freedom. Gray not only granted freedom to Dorine and her family, but he also made provisions for her future.  The will stipulates that £1200 from his real estate holdings be put into a fund for Dorine and that the interest be given to her annually.  He also left provisions in his will for Simon and John. To Simon, he left 200 acres of lot 11 in the second concession, as well as his clothes and a watch worth £50.  To John, he left 200 acres of lot 17 in the first concession along with £50. [7]  Land registry documents show that the property left to John was finally transferred to him on June 12, 1824.  John did not keep the property, as records indicate the lot was sold to Martin Sanford on June 14, 1824. The records are difficult to read, and it is unclear how much money John sold the lot for.[8]

john baker land registry

John Baker’s interview with the newspaper gives us glimpse into his life as a free man. After Gray’s death released Baker from slavery, he began to work for Justice William Dummer Powell.[9] While with Powell, he enlisted with the army and went to New Brunswick, fighting in the War of 1812.  According to Baker, he was with his regiment during battles at Lundy’s Lane, Fort Erie and Sackett’s Harbour. It appears that Baker was in the military until after the battle of Waterloo, where he apparently saw Napoleon and was not particularly impressed. From his interview with the Toronto newspaper, “I saw Napoleon.  He was a chunky little fellow; he rode hard and jumped ditches.”[10]

Once his time in the military ended, Baker returned to Canada and settled back in Cornwall. He worked in the area until age caught up with him.  Around 1861, he received a pension from the British government for his time in the military. John Baker died on January 18, 1871.

At the time of his death, Baker was believed to be the last person to been held in slavery in the Canadas.  Many Canadians do not know that slavery existed here.  Baker’s life helps us to better understand slavery in the Canadian context.


[1] Pringle, Jacob Farrand. Lunenburg or the Old District: its settlement and early progress : with personal recollections of the town of Cornwall, from 1824 : to which are added a history of the King’s Royal Regiment of New York and other corps; the names of all those who drew lands in the counties of Stormont, Dundas, and Glengarry, up to November, 1786; and several other lists of interest to the descendants of the old settlers.  Cornwall: Standard Print House, 1890. Page 319.

[2] Hamilton, James Cleland. Osgoode Hall Reminiscences of the Bench and Bar. Toronto: The Carswell Company Ltd. 1904. Page 132.

[3] Pringle, page 319.

[4] Cornwall Community Museum Blog, “The Emancipation of Cato Prime & John Baker,” Published September 10, 2016; accessed January 22, 2019 from: https://cornwallcommunitymuseum.wordpress.com/2016/09/10/the-emancipation-of-cato-prime-john-baker/

[5] Pringle, page 321.

[6] Ontario Department of Lands and Forests. Domesday Whitby Township.  Page 174. Note, Whitby Township at that time referred to what is today the Town of Whitby and the City of Oshawa. The land that was owned by Gray was located in what is today Oshawa.

[7] In Pringle’s book, he notes that the will leaves 200 acres of lot 11 of the first concession to Simon and 200 acres of lot 17 in the second concession to John. The Domesday records indicate that the grants were for lot 17 in the first concession and lot 11 in the second concession.

[8] Ontario Land Registry – Abstract/Parcel Book, Durham (40), East Whitby, Book 189. Page 289.

[9] Of note, this is the same judge that employed Thomas Henry at the start of the War of 1812.

[10] Pringle, page 322.

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General Motors of Canada – Oshawa

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist, Oshawa Museum

This month marks the end of an industrial era in Oshawa. By the end of day on Friday, December 20, 2019 the last vehicle will have rolled off the assembly line at General Motors. Automobile production has a long history in the City of Oshawa and General Motors has been an important part of the community for over 100 years.

Interior of the General Motors car barn located on the north-west corner of Bond Street and Ritson Road

In 1907, R.S. McLaughlin, son of Robert, created the McLaughlin Motor Car Co. after visiting the United States and discovering that automobiles were becoming a modern luxury.  It was after this tour that R.S. McLaughlin decided to use Buick engines and chassis with McLaughlin bodies to create the McLaughlin-Buick automobile.

The company produced 154 of these McLaughlin-Buicks in 1907.  In 1915, the Chevrolet Motor Car Co. of Canada was formed.  It was also the same year that the original McLaughlin Carriage Co. was sold to Jim Tudhope of Orillia, after building and producing 270,000 carriages.  In 1918, McLaughlin and Chevrolet merged with General Motors to create General Motors of Canada.  According to R.S. McLaughlin, “that was a grand thing for Oshawa on the day that the sale was made, and the city of Oshawa and our workmen will never regret it.”

During the First World War, Oshawa’s auto industry had provided many of the military vehicles required by the Allied Nations, and in turn, the wartime effort assisted in the development of expanded facilitates.  Following WWI, new factory plant units were erected to support the production of the newly acquired automobile contracts.   In 1920 Oldsmobile joined Chevrolet and the McLaughlin Buick on the assembly lines.  In 1923 Cadillac was added to Oshawa’s production.  In 1926 there was further expansion in the company as additions to the north plant were made that enabled a further increase in production.  When the Pontiac name was added to the line-up more space was needed on the assembly line.

In 1920 General Motors of Canada patented the adjustable front seat.  The subsequent year, the world’s first stoplights [brake lights] appeared on Oshawa built cars.  Sadly in this same year, Robert – the founder of the company – passed away at age 86.  A few years later, in 1924, George decided to retire from General Motors.

In 1922, the company employed 1700 workers with two shifts, producing 200 cars a day.  In 1928 at peak production, General Motors in Oshawa employed 5000 workers and produced a car a minute.  This figure was a far cry from the 154 cars the McLaughlin Motor Car Company produced in its entire first year.

General Motors aided the town of Oshawa greatly by having several roads widened and resurfaced, by purchasing land and donating Lakeview Park to the citizens of Oshawa, and by sponsoring various sports teams.  Although in 1928 the company experienced record production figures, the following year’s stock market crash and resulting depression had a serious impact on the automobile industry.  General Motors was not immune to this affect.  The business had no choice but to cut back on production and employment until the economy began to improve in 1934. 

Two women working on the line during WWII, 1944.

In 1938 the 1 000 000 000th car rolled off the lines – 31 years after the company’s first car was built.  This same year, the company began to build and test various army trucks and combat vehicles.  Being dedicated to the war effort, R.S. McLaughlin had approved the request brought before him the preceding year by the Department of National Defense to construct military equipment.  Tests had revealed the efficiency and reliability of the vehicles produced by General Motors and this is what prompted the request from the Department of National Defense.  By 1942 production on passenger vehicles came to a halt and full wartime production ensued.  Hundreds of thousands of assorted military vehicles, weapons, gun mounts, machine guns and Mosquito aircraft fuselages were among the military items made.  By 1943 completion of Canada’s 500 000th fighting vehicle was celebrated in Oshawa.  The Mosquito fuselage reached production of one per day.

General Motors plant in downtown Oshawa, 1940s.

By the end of WWII, when military production   was   terminated, the plant had to be re-converted to facilitate the production of civilian vehicles.  This retrofit involved major remodeling and a complete re-tooling of the plant.  Of course General Motors was up to the task and it wasn’t long before the plant began turning out civilian passenger cars once again.

When GM ceased wartime production after the Second World War, the first post-war car came off the lines by October 1945.  In 1950 the plant expanded, and in 1954 passenger car assembly began at a new south plant complex in Oshawa.  The year 1956 marked the three millionth vehicle produced since 1907, and five years later GM had produced four million vehiclesTwo thousand units were being produced daily by 1965.  The Canada-US Trade agreement (Autopact) was signed allowing GM of Canada to increase its production considerably in the years to follow.  During 1968 the plastic moulding facilities were enlarged so that instrument panels, fender liners and grille sections could be manufactured.

General Motors of Canada was no stranger to military production; it had created many weapons and vehicles in the first and second World Wars.  In 1975 GM of Canada began construction on trucks for the Department of National Defense.  It only took one year to modify the assembly line so that the trucks could be produced on the same line as the regular commercial vehicles.

In 1983, the year of GM’s 75th birthday, William Street in front of the GM Head Office was temporarily changed to “GM Way.”   A street sign was posted to reflect the change.  GM Oshawa was given the privilege of building 21 royal blue luxury cars worth half a million dollars for Queen Elizabeth II’s scheduled visit to Ontario in 1984.  About this time, the company was proposing a 4-year plan to revamp the truck plant, and build a metal stamping facility.  The stamping plant would be of great benefit because at the time the bulk of parts (roofs, hoods and floor pans) were imported to Oshawa from the United States.  There could be shipping delays, and keeping a supply on hand took up a large amount of storage space.  When the stamping plant was up and running, parts could be made as required, and sent to the car plant next-door for assembly and painting.  The planned expansion also meant 300 new jobs.  The much-anticipated Autoplex became the “largest, most modern, integrated vehicle-manufacturing complex in North America.” It is spread over three locations; made up of a 2-car assembly plant, the truck assembly plant and a fabrication plant (stampings, batteries, lamps, plastics, etc).  GM plants in Canada had advantages over their U.S. counterparts–the cheaper dollar and the government run medical and social benefits.  

 In 1986 there was a 4-month shutdown at the Oshawa truck plant, and a one-month shutdown at one of the car plants.  The interior of the plant was torn up, expanded, and modernized.  It re-opened with more than 120 robots, hundreds of Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV’s), and 526 automated welders.   Instead of the traditional assembly line where employees rushed to assemble parts on a moving conveyor, which could not be slowed down or stopped, the AGV’s, which run along tracks buried in the floor, would carry components to work stations of 8-15 people.  These AGV’s also tow units to booths where computer-controlled robots take over certain painting or welding tasks, jobs considered too repetitive or delicate for humans to perform. At this time, plans were underway to replace the production of the “A-Car” (Chevrolet Celebrity and Pontiac 6000) with the 10-car.  There was a major lay off for nightshift workers at Plant No. 1 from November 1987 to March of 1988. The layoff was due to a large drop in midsize car sales in the United States.   Shift workers would work two weeks of days and then two weeks off, for the duration of those four months.

General Motors Headquarters
David Dowsley Collection

Until 1989 the GM office staff was spread out over nine buildings.  In August of that year GM sought to consolidate its office staff in one massive Head Office.  The former 70-year-old Head Office on William Street was abandoned with plans to convert it to a parking lot.  A five level building was built at the east end of Wentworth Street (now called Col. Sam Drive) with a beautiful view of the lake.

Oshawa became the first auto assembly line in North America to run on 3 shifts when it added the 3rd shift to the truck assembly plant in 1993.  In 1995 the six millionth truck rolled off the lines, since the production of trucks began in 1919.

General Motors was hit hard by the economic downturn between 2008  and 2010.  The truck plant in Oshawa was closed in May 2009 and in June the company declared bankruptcy.  However, after massive restricting and bail-out loans from both the federal and provincial governments, the company began to rebound in 2010 and posted profits for the first time in years. 

November 2018 saw the announcement that the company was closing the Oshawa plant as part of their global restructuring plan. For a community with close ties to the company for over 100 years, this news hit hard. While the company is not completely leaving the community, a portion of the plant will be retrofitted to build car parts and a portion of the plant property will become a new test track for autonomous vehicles, the closure of the plant will mean the end of a large part of Oshawa’s identity.

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Christmas Wishes From Overseas

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist, Oshawa Museum
This article originally appeared in the Oshawa Express, Dec 21, 2011

In 2011, the archives acquired four Christmas cards sent from an Oshawa man serving overseas during WWII.

Christmas card sent from Earl Hann, 1944

Pte. Earl Hann was overseas serving as a member of the Canadian Corps, under the 8th Army, as World War II battled throughout Northern Africa and Italy.  This meant that he was away from his young family during the holiday season in 1944.

Standardized Christmas cards were made available to the soldiers so that they could let their family back home know that they were thinking of them.  The cards were really a single sheet of paper with a drawing on it meant to represent the area where the soldier was stationed.  Once the soldier had completed personalizing their card in the little space made available to them,  and the card was passed by the censors, the army would  copy the card and reduce the size so that it would be less expensive to send back home.

Christmas and Anniversary Card

Pte. Hann made the best of the limited space available to let him family know just how much he was missing them.  Three of the cards are addressed to his wife Irene with the fourth being addressed to his young daughter Joyce.

The lengthiest of the notes written by Pte. Hann also lets us know that the holiday season was extra special as his wedding anniversary also fell during that time.  He writes:

“Happy Anniversary My love.  With Best Wishes that this is our last spent apart.
All my love and Millions of Kisses
Forever yours

He chose to send his daughter a card showing where her day was when he wasn’t with her.  The card has a map of the Mediterranean Sea, showing both Italy and North Africa.  This time the card is simply signed from “Daddy with all his love and best wishes for 1945”.

Pte. Hann was happily reunited with his family once the war was over and he went on to become a 50 year member of the Oshawa Historical Society.  It is fitting that these letters have found a home with a museum he loved so much.

Christmas card sent to daughter Joyce
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Jack Humphreys – The Story of a Veteran of Two Wars

Written by Jennifer Weymark – Archivist, Oshawa Museum

Jack Humphreys was born on September 15, 1879 in Newton, North Wales. For many who lived in Oshawa in the late 1970s, Humphreys was known as one of Oshawa’s oldest citizens. Each milestone birthday, beginning with his 100th birthday in 1979, Humphreys was celebrated in the local newspapers and with letters from local and provincial politicians.

Jack Humphreys seated with his medals.
Archival Collection at the Oshawa Museum A002.9.34

His life before arriving in Oshawa seemed to be out of a movie script. At the age of 15, Humphreys joined the army and was stationed at Hamilton Academy in Scotland. Just 5 years after joining the army, the Boer War began and, on October 11, 1899, he sailed from Glasgow to Africa with the Cameronian Scottish Rifles as part of the mounted rifles battalion.

While in Africa, Humphreys’ and another soldier were out on a patrol when they were spotted and fired upon. As the two pushed their horses to get back to their battalion as quickly as possible, Humphreys’ heard his partner yell out and turned to see his horse crash down after being shot. Thinking quickly, Humphreys’ raced back to help. In an interview with the Oshawa Times in September 1974, Humphreys recounted this harrowing experience:  “I turned around immediately to get him.  I pulled my foot out of the stirrup so he could swing on behind the saddle. For that I was promoted to Queen’s Corporal.  No one could ever take that rank away.”

With the end of the war, he returned to England to take part in the coronation ceremony for King Edward VII. Illness postponed the coronation but two months, during which time Humphreys was given leave to travel. He, along with a bunch of the men he served with, hoped on a ship heading to Canada. They travelled across North America and found themselves in San Francisco during one of their larger earthquakes.  He and the men he was with were able to use their experiences during the Boar War with assisting during clean-up efforts.

Eventually he stopped travelling and settled in Joliet, Illinois. He lived there with is wife Amelia and worked as a machinist until he travelled to Winnipeg and enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Force on October 11, 1917. He enlisted with the No. 10 Forestry and Rail Company Depot. 

Humphreys left Halifax on November 27, 1917 and arrived in Liverpool, England on December 14. His stay in England was short and he arrived in France on January 17, 1918.  As part of the railway troops, Humphreys used his experiences as a machinist to work on railway maintenance.  Members of the Corps. were expected to build, repair, operate or destroy militarily relevant railway lines and associated infrastructure. During his time serving, Humphreys earned the rank of Sapper.  This rank indicated that he was a soldier who performed military engineering duties.

He was discharged from the army on April 8, 1919 and stated on his discharge papers that he planned to return to Illinois. Sadly, it appears that Amelia died while Humphreys was overseas, as the beneficiary noted with his pay was changed from his wife to a Sawyer Coy.

Humphreys found himself back in Canada and found his way to Oshawa and a job at General Motors in 1922.  In June 1924, Humphreys married Ruth Upper and together they had a son Alvin.  He worked at G.M. until his retirement in 1954. He marched in every Warrior’s Day Parade at the C.N.E. representing Boer War veterans until CNE officials stopped his participation at 96 out of concern for his safety.

Jack Humphreys lived to 104 years old. He celebrated this milestone birthday with his wife of almost 70 years by his side. He passed away on October 31, 1983 after a long and fascinating life.

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This Months Header

This header comes to us from the Lowry Collection. This collection features a series of images taken in Oshawa’s Lakeview Park in the 1930s. The photographs provide researchers a glimpse into the activities at the park in the decade after the park opened.


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The Formation of the Brooklin Legion

By Sarah Ferencz, Archivist – Whitby Archives


The Brooklin Legion, 56 Baldwin Street, 1976. #A2013_004_021A

When the First World War ended in 1918, returned service men and women and soldiers’ widows and orphaned children served as an impetus for the formation of veteran support groups all across Canada. The Canadian Legion of the British Empire Services League, now known as the Royal Canadian Legion, was established through the unification of a number of these veterans’ groups and regimental associations in 1925. The goal of the Legion was, and continues to be, to provide support and advocacy for veterans, ex-service men and women, and their families. Legions provided support networks and camaraderie so it’s no wonder that the veterans in Brooklin sought to establish a local branch in 1929.

Working under the auspices of the Oshawa Legion Branch, resident Dr. James Moore, a veteran of the Battle of Hill 70 in France, and several other local veterans worked to establish the Brooklin Legion Branch No. 152. The newly formed Legion received the charter from the Legion provincial executive at a gala celebration on November 4, 1929 at the Whitby Township Hall, now the Brooklin Community Centre. Secretary-treasurer Robert E. Wilson announced the newly formed Legion’s program for the anniversary of Armistice, including a memorial service to be held at Brooklin United Church on November 10 and the Armistice Night smoker party at Whitby Legion Branch 112 on November 11. The memorial service was preceded by a parade involving members of the Brooklin Legion, the Ontario Regiment Band, Boy Scouts, and members of the Legions in Oshawa, Whitby, and Port Perry. The Oshawa Daily Times reported that the church was “packed to overflowing”.

After such a momentous and successful first month, it would seem the Brooklin Legion did not fare as well as its Whitby and Oshawa counterparts. The last entry in the Legion’s minute book dates to January 1931and it appears the branch disbanded shortly thereafter. It wasn’t until 1966 when the Legion was revived by Fred Phillips, a Brooklin barber. Mr. Phillips purchased the Brooklin House Hotel at the corner of Baldwin and Campbell Streets and began renovating the then 84-year-old building for use as a Legion hall. The Brooklin Legion hall was officially opened on June 6, 1970, the 26th anniversary of D-Day. It seemed the growing number of veterans from the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War required the support, advocacy, familiarity, and camaraderie that only the Royal Canadian Legion could provide and served as the foundation for the re-establishment of the Brooklin Legion Branch No. 152. Today, the Brooklin Legion has approximately 350 members and is a prominent and enduring landmark in the local community.

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People You Should Know – Chief Johnson Paudash

This article first appeared in The Commando, June 1945 Volume 3 No.11, p.2 and has not been edited, thus is representative of the language and terms used at that time.

Chief Paudash

Chief Joseph Paudash   The Commando, June 1945

Here is a chap that probably should have been written up long ago, but while we have had good intentions, we never seemed to be able to click with our subject before. Chief Johnson Paudash is one of the most amazing people we have ever talked to. Paudash is a direct descendent of a long line of Indian Chiefs, one of whom fought with Sir William Johnson against Crown Point in 1755. Since that day, one of Chief Paudash’s family has always been called Johnson.

Chief Paudash himself is a full blooded Mississagi Indian. He is at present 82 years old, and never have I talked to a man with a memory like his. The mass of detail, including dates, would be amazing coming from a man half his age, and it stumped us completely how he could remember so much.

The Chief was overseas in the last war from 1914 until 1918. He went over with the 21st Infantry as a sniper so he had a tough job cut out for him. The unusual part of his enlistment was that he was 52 years old at the time, but the Indians were in so much better physical shape than their white comrades that they were given active service even though they were twice the official age limit.

Johnson was wounded at Vimy, at Hill 90, and also at the Somme. At one time he was caught in the concussion of a large shell that knocked all his teeth out and caved in his ribs. He was lucky at that for the rest of the group he was with were all killed by the same shell.

Rice Lake, still the home of many of the Indians was where Paudash was born and spent a great deal of his life. At the present time he and his wife are living out North of the Plant on the Brock Road. He admits that he raised a good sized family, but they are scattered now and completely grown up.

Longevity seems to run in the Paudash family. His father, grandfather and great grandfather all lived to be over 100 years old, so it looks as though our friend still has a small lifetime ahead of him.

For more information on Chief Paudash or to research through more volumes of The Commando, click on this link to the Ajax Public Library.

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