STOKES, SUSANNAH AUGUSTA (Maxwell), housewife and laundress; b. 10 March 1805 in Lancaster County, Pa; m. Henry Maxwell, and they had five children; d. 11 Feb. 1923 in Richmond Hill, Ont.
Susannah Stokes was born to free black parents. Orphaned at an early age, she was indentured to a white family, with whom she remained until she reached her majority. The family apparently treated her well and sent her to school, where she learned to read and write. On reaching adulthood, she married and set up a home in Lancaster, possibly in the village of Christiana. Slavery had almost died out in Pennsylvania and the state had become a haven for runaways from the South, but with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, slave-hunters were invested with authority to recapture runaways. Unscrupulous slave-catchers even kidnapped free blacks and dark-skinned whites.
In September 1851 slave-catchers invaded Susannah’s village, whose inhabitants put up a fight. This incident was likely the “Christiana resistance,” in which Edward Gorsuch and a gang attempted to recapture his runaway slave William Parker and others. The blacks of Christiana fought them off, killing Gorsuch. Although Susannah’s name is not mentioned in the documentation of this resistance, the story of her presence in a village that was invaded and defended itself, and her flight from Pennsylvania, fits the narrative, in which several of the “resisters,” fearing arrest and imprisonment, fled. In 1855 Susannah’s daughter Charlotte Matilda (Tillie) was born in New York State.
By 1858 the Maxwells, like Parker, had come to Upper Canada. At least two of their children were born there. They spent some years in Toronto but, finding work short, they moved north about 1871 to Richmond Hill, where prospects were brighter. Susannah became a laundress, Henry a coal-burner. He soon died, leaving Susannah to support their children. Once her pursuit of employment almost cost her her life. After learning that wages were higher in Markham, she had started walking the seven miles to work there. On her return one evening, a snowstorm battered her into unconsciousness. A dog found her, half dead, and alerted local residents. Perhaps it was after this incident that she opened a laundry business in her home, assisted by her daughters Mary and Tillie. Such a move was one of the many survivalist strategies resorted to by women of Susannah’s race, class, and family status.
Susannah evidently joined the Methodist church in Richmond Hill – she is a Wesleyan Methodist in the census of 1871 – but later sources list her as a Presbyterian. Her home was opposite the Presbyterian church on Yonge Street and she was active in its affairs. For a long time, it appears, the Maxwells were the only persons of African descent in Richmond Hill. In 1897 Tillie, who had been in domestic service in Toronto and had not married, rejoined her mother. Eight years later the village celebrated Susannah’s 100th birthday at her church; her guests, including judge William Glenholme Falconbridge*, a former villager, gave her $75. By this time all of her children had died except Tillie. Following Tillie’s death in 1920, the families she had worked for appear to have provided for Susannah’s care.
On 11 Feb. 1923 Susannah herself passed away at the age of 117. Obituaries in Richmond Hill and Toronto newspapers, which differed in some details of her early life, claimed she had been Canada’s oldest citizen. She had evidently retained some link with the black community in Toronto because one of the pastors who conducted her funeral service was Richard Amos Ball of Toronto’s British Methodist Episcopal Church. Susannah Maxwell had lived through the reigns of six British monarchs, the American Civil War, and World War I. In her residence of over 50 years in Richmond Hill, she saw it evolve from a sleepy hamlet to a thriving town, and was an active participant in its development.
AO, RG 80-8-0-797, no.43303; RG 80-8-0-947, no.38945.
NA, RG 31, C1, 1871, Markham Township, Ont., div.2: 41; 1901, Richmond Hill, Ont., 2.
Globe, 9 March 1922, 12 Feb. 1923.
Richmond Hill Liberal, 13 May 1920, 15 Feb. 1923.
S. W. Campbell, The slave catchers: enforcement of the fugitive slave law, 1850–1860 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1970).
Directory, York County, Ont., 1871.
Jonathan Katz, Resistance at Christiana: the fugitive slave rebellion, Christiana, Pennsylvania, September 11, 1851: a documentary account (New York, 1974).
R. M. Stamp, Early days in Richmond Hill: a history of the community to 1930 (Richmond Hill, 1991)