Thursday, September 27, 2012

Hannah Jarvis (1763-1845)

Hamilton Family Burial Ground, Queenston, Ontario
The Hamilton Family Burial Ground is a small cemetery located in village of Queenston, halfway between Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake. As would be expected, most of the gravestones commemorate members of the Hamilton family—a family of considerable influence and power during the early days of Upper Canada (Ontario). The graveyard is situated on the grounds of the Greek Revival mansion known as Willowbank, built by Alexander Hamilton around 1834. Willowbank is now a National Historic Site, and is also the home of the School of Restoration Arts.

The School of Restoration Arts offers a Diploma in Heritage Conversation, and is making the effort to restore and maintain the cemetery. A blog entry by one of the students describes repairs that were recently made to two of the gravestones. A number of other stones, however, still require attention.

Alexander Hamilton

One of these stones belongs to Alexander Hamilton, third son of the merchant Robert Hamilton. Alexander was born at Queenston in 1794. He served with distinction during the War of 1812, and afterwards held a variety of important positions including sheriff of the Niagara District. As sheriff, Hamilton was required to perform the hanging of a condemned prisoner when the executioner failed to show. Some sources claim that Hamilton was so affected by the hanging that his health failed, and that this resulted in his death in 1839.

Alexander Hamilton's widow, Hannah, continued to live at Willowbank until her own death in 1888. Hannah was the daughter of William Jarvis, provincial secretary and registrar of Upper Canada. Alexander's untimely death left Hannah with the task of managing the estate, and of raising their numerous children, one of whom was born after the death of his father.

Hannah Jarvis with
her daughters Maria
and Augusta
(James Earl Raise,
1791, oil on canvas,
Royal Ontario Museum)
Hannah received help from her widowed mother, Hannah Owens Peters, who had been living with her daughter at the time of Alexander's death. Born in Connecticut in 1763, and having spent several years in England, the elder Hannah became an influential member of the "aristocracy" of Upper Canada. A significant amount of correspondence written by and about Hannah has been deposited at Library and Archives Canada, the Archives of Ontario, and the University of Guelph, providing a fascinating glimpse into her life.

One such glimpse is given by a former slave. Although uncommon, slavery did exist during the early days of Upper Canada, and several were owned by the Jarvis family. The 1797 wedding of "Moses & Phoebe, Negro slaves of Mr. Secy. Jarvis" is recorded in the records of St Mark's Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Henry Lewis, who escaped and fled to New York, wrote a letter to his former owner in 1798.
The reason why I left your house is this. Your woman vexed me to so high a degree that is was far beyond the power of man to support it.
Different attitudes towards slavery was one the reasons why Hannah Jarvis was not impressed with John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada. Simcoe took measures to limit slavery in Upper Canada; measures that ensured the eventual end of the institution. Hannah wrote that Simcoe, "by a piece of chicanery has freed all the Negroes by which he has rendered himself unpopular..." Hannah firmly believed that Simcoe's appointment as Lieutenant Governor was entirely due to his wife's money and influence, and frequently complained of "petticoat rule."

Hannah Jarvis was highly critically of Elizabeth Simcoe, the wife of the Lieutenant Governor, calling her a "little stuttering Vixon" and at one point referring to her as "a walking skeleton." Hannah was quick to notice Elizabeth Simcoe's absence at a ball celebrating the King's Birthday, suggesting that Mrs. Simcoe had been deliberately sick. Hannah seemed to blame Elizabeth Simcoe for just about everything. Writing about how a chest of linens had become mildewed, Hannah noted that "Mrs. Simcoe's things escaped."

For her part, Elizabeth Simcoe barely mentions Hannah Jarvis in her diary, although other members of Upper Canada society make frequent appearances.

In other letters, Hannah Jarvis complains about the difficulty of finding servants, since the best servants would frequently "take up land and work for themselves. She complains about a cook she was able to employ: "Nasty, Sulky, Ill Tempered Creature." She complains about the prevalence of disease: "Ague and Fever are so prevalent that whole Families are confined at once..." In letters to her family in England she complains about the high costs of goods in "this Grim country," and asks that shoes, fabric, castor oil, and other goods to be sent to her.

John Graves and Elizabeth Simcoe returned to England in 1796, but Hannah Jarvis remained in "this Grim country" for the rest of her life. After the death of William Jarvis in 1817, Hannah made lengthy visits to her daughters, and eventually moved in with her daughter Hannah and son-in-law Alexander Hamilton in Queenston. Alexander Hamilton's death in 1839 reduced the family to poverty, and forced the elder Hannah to take over the housekeeping at Willowbank. A woman who once had slaves and servants, spent the last few years of her life cooking, washing, ironing, and cleaning.

Hannah Owens Peters, wife of William Jarvis, was buried in the Hamilton Family Burial Ground in 1845.

Hannah Jarvis (1763-1845)

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