Figure of the Week

John Hedgman

Born 1776 - Died 1887

John Hedgman was born around 1776. He died in 1887 in Detroit, Michigan. His obituary reads:

“John Hedgman, Aged 111 years. John Hedgman, who died in Detroit last Sunday, was perhaps one of the oldest persons of modern times. He was born in Fauquier Co., Virginia, in August 1776, and in that state spent nearly half a century under the galling chains of slavery. He could remember General Washington and assisted in quarrying the stone for the foundation of the White House, which was procured from a Virginia quarry. Deceased removed to Kentucky in 1819 and 13 years subsequently came to Canada, settling in Amherstburg. In 1797, deceased was married to Charlotte Boyles, who died August 28th 1868, leaving a family of nine children, out of a total of fourteen, those surviving being Jane (Mrs. James Wright), of Amherstburg; Caroline (Mrs. Joseph Holbert), of Amherstburg; J. H. of Detroit; Moses, John, George, Sarah, Dorcas and Clara. When Mr. Hedgman left his southern home for Canada, he left his hard taskmasters secretly and therefore was compelled to leave Mrs. Hedgman behind and after 13 years separation she joined her husband in the land of the free. Having doubts of the legality of their marriage, they had the ceremony re-performed in Sandwich. Deceased had lived in this vicinity for about 54 years, following farming and shoemaking alternately, and about a year ago he went to live with his son in Detroit, where he breathed his last, his death being solely due to old age. The funeral took place, Tuesday forenoon, from the Baptist church (of which body deceased had been a member for 18 years) to the Amherstburg cemetery (Amherstburg Echo, Sept. 23, 1887).”

The information about John’s early life that is included in the obituary makes sense. The white Hedgman family settled in Stafford County during the early years of the eighteenth century and most of them remained there for several generations. An exception was William Hedgman (1732-1765) who moved to southern Fauquier County, Virginia where he raised his family. The presence of the Hedgman family in Fauquier is reflected in the naming of Hedgman River and Hedgman Run.

John recalled “assisting” with stone used in the lower level of the President’s House. Work on that building commenced in 1792 and the lower level is believed to have been completed the following year. During this period, the only sources of stone for this project were Brent’s (Government) Island and Gibson’s both of which were then being operated by the government. Thus, if John’s memory was correct, he would have been at one of those two sites. Whether or not he was actually quarrying is unknown.

Inconsistencies in the Canadian census records lead to questions about John’s actual age. (It was not unusual for someone at that time to not know their exact birth date.) If John was actually born in 1776, or shortly thereafter, then he would have been old enough to have been working at the quarries. If he was younger than that, he might have been the son of one of the men hired for that work and was helping or “assisting.” Whatever the case, it was an experience he remembered for the rest of his life.

Apparently, John was taken to Kentucky in 1819 when his enslaver moved there. Around 1829, he was sold to someone in Alabama. (Being sold down south was frequently a punishment for a recalcitrant slave with repeated infractions.) He managed to escape, and by 1832 was residing in Amherstburg in Ontario, Canada. When he was sent to Alabama, his wife remained in Kentucky. She made it to Amherstburg around 1836 and they were reunited.

By 1839, John had saved enough money to purchase 100 acres in Malden Township. In 1841, the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church was established and its members erected a sanctuary on John’s farm. He served as a deacon and clerk in the church and in 1852 represented Mount Pleasant at a meeting of the Canadian Anti-Slavery Baptist Association. Black males living in Canada also had the right to vote. A commemorative journal entry from 1883 notes, “27 Feb 1883 – At Amherstburg, Ont., a vote is poled at the Prov. Legislature election by a man, Hedgman, who is 106 years old, and has to be carried up a flight of stairs to vote.”