History In A Grocery Bag: The Mysterious Mary Cannon

Over the past two years several Tantramar Flashbacks have resulted from reader contacts. Equally important, many both within the region and beyond continue to keep in touch on a regular basis. I welcome this input; it’s the very life blood of the column. Keep the telephone calls, letters and e-mails coming!

A number have been generous enough to go beyond personal contact and correspondence. They have loaned items of family memorabilia, scrapbooks, diaries and letters. Others have accepted the suggestion that they look twice before recycling or trashing old papers, documents and records. A few weeks ago a grocery bag filled with such items was delivered to our back door. The donor (who wishes to remain anonymous) said: Have a look at these… If they’re of no use, get rid of them. I don’t want them back.

As it turned out, only a few of the old newspapers were of historical value. Some interesting articles and clippings were set aside for later filing. I then turned the bag upside down, as something was caught on the bottom. Out fell two rolls of parchment tied together with rubber bands. Hastily unwrapping the bundles, I discovered, to my surprise and delight, a set of legal documents dating from 1784. This find immediately suggested today’s column.

But first, some background to set the stage for the entrance of the mysterious Mary Cannon. In the 18th century much of the land on the Isthmus of Chignecto and adjacent areas was in the hands of absentee landlords. Two in particular became well known — Michael Francklin and J. F. W. DesBarres. It was Francklin who, in seeking tenants and buyers for his extensive properties, was largely responsible for encouraging the Yorkshire migration to this region, There will be more on his career in a later Flashback.

J. F. W. DesBarres saw service as an army officer, military engineer, surveyor and lieutenant governor of both Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island. Along the way he managed to accumulate land holdings in the Petitcodiac-Memramcook area of New Brunswick and at Nappan-Maccan, Tatamagouche and Falmouth in Nova Scotia. It was at the latter location that he built his colonial home which he named Castle Frederick.

Because of DesBarres busy career he was frequently absent from Castle Frederick. One major achievement, surveying and mapping much of the coastline of the region extended over a decade; while the two terms as lieutenant governor required residence in Sydney and Charlottetown. Interspersed were frequent trips to London to visit his family, and maintain business and political interests. His wife, Martha Williams and their eleven children, stayed behind in London. She did not join her husband overseas until much later in his career.

Juggling all these responsibilities was no easy task and DesBarres was forced to delegate administration of his estates to someone else. But who would this be? In a move almost without precedence in the late eighteenth century, he turned to a woman, one Mary Cannon. To her he granted the power of attorney, the collection of all rents and general oversight of his vast landholdings. It was her name that caught my eye on the documents that tumbled from the grocery bag.

Briefly stated the defendants, two local farmers, were in arrears to the DesBarres estate. In the words of the writ: they were indebted to the said Mary Cannon in the sum of twenty two pounds fifteen shillings and six pence in lawful money of New Brunswick for divers goods, wares, and merchandise… sold and delivered by the said Mary Cannon to the defendants. She also sought to recover damages of fifteen pounds and one penny. Court costs were assessed at four pounds five shillings and ten pence.

Of interest were the other actors in the legal drama played out in the Westmorland Point court room on August 13, 1784. Mary Cannon was represented by her lawyer Amos Botsford (1744–1812) a recent Loyalist settler in the area. Well qualified for the task, Botsford was a graduate of Yale and had been called to the bar in Connecticut before fleeing to New Brunswick. The two presiding judges were our well beloved James Law and Charles Dixon, Judges of the Inferior Court of Common Pleas.

Unfortunately, we do not have the outcome of the trial as not all of the pertinent documents survived. This is unimportant, for today’s focus is on Mary Cannon and not the court case. By now, it should be evident that Polly as she was affectionately known, was more than an employee of DesBarres. In eighteenth century wording, Mary Cannon was described variously as his housekeeper or companion and sometimes more grandly as the chatelaine of Castle Frederick. It is also on record that they had a family of six children.

For many years Mary Cannon appeared to fulfill her two roles diligently. Hers was a difficult task, as the status of women in the workplace was far different from today. She was also answerable to an individual whom one historian described as: possessed of an abrasive personality; at times impatient and quarrelsome.

1784 marked a turning point in their relationship. The year saw New Brunswick created as a colony separate from Nova Scotia. All land holders were required to register their properties with the new colonial administration in Fredericton. For some unaccountable reason, DesBarres failed to do so. This oversight was to embroil him in numerous lawsuits against squatters on his New Brunswick lands. Later, he was to place unfairly, total blame for this oversight on Mary Cannon.

By this time, DesBarres had begun to ignore Cannon’s regular written reports on the estates. Her letters and requests for expenses went unanswered and it became clear that the arrangement between the two was falling apart. The same year also saw his assumption of the post as lieutenant governor of Cape Breton. To further complicate matters, Martha Williams appeared in Sydney as the lieutenant governor’s wife and consort.

Most accounts credit Cannon with shrewdness and capability in business affairs; however, she received little or no support, financial or otherwise, from DesBarres. Although shabbily treated, Mary Cannon was not entirely blameless. As time went on she became obsessed with attempts to find financial security for her children. Further her dalliance with an Irish labourer on the estate at Castle Frederick provided certain fuel for gossip. Although outliving DesBarres by three years, Mary Cannon died in poverty at Castle Frederick on October 7, 1827.

Following completion of his term as lieutenant governor of Prince Edward Island in 1812, DesBarres lived near Amherst until he retired to Halifax in 1817. To celebrate his 100th birthday, it is claimed that Desbarres danced a jig upon a table top. He died on October 27, 1824. At a time when the average life span was 60, DesBarres had reached the incredible age of 102. He and his wife Martha Williams lie buried in the crypt under St. George’s Anglican Church, Halifax.

Of Mary Cannon, her biographer has concluded: She reaped bitter rewards for her hard work, but there was a measure of justice in the fact that DesBarres heirs, succeeding to his vast colonial properties, soon squabbled away a legacy they could neither comprehend or control.