Kingston has been seen as a conservative Anglo-Saxon bastion almost since day one, but of course it’s not surprising to learn that what we would today consider ethnic or racial minorities have also been part of Kingston since day one. Aside from the ever-present Native population in Canada, we began to acquire a black population immediately after the American Revolution when the first United Empire Loyalists arrived, occasionally with slaves in tow.
This is how George Mink, the son or possibly grandson of a slave brought under such circumstances, got his start in Kingston. Becoming a successful businessman and leader of the local black community, he also experienced conflicting levels of support and discrimination from white Kingstonians. Although early-to-mid nineteenth century Canada appears to have been a comparatively liberal place for blacks, as we’ll see, there could be limits to this freedom.
The blacks who entered Canada after the American Revolution came here by various ways: some were slaves who deserted their Rebel owners and joined the British with the promise of future freedom, others were captured as prisoners, and some were free blacks who joined the British. Notably, about 3,000 black Loyalists were sent to Nova Scotia, but it’s not known exactly how many slaves came to the Canadas. A hasty count was made by Sir John Johnson (June 6, 2015 update: but this count, made in July 1781, was probably inaccurate as it listed only fifty slaves). Johnson’s list happened to include a slave called Mink who belonged to Captain Johan Jost Herkimer, formerly of New York, who had been granted land in the Kingston area.
As mentioned, Herkimer, who owned three male slaves, two female slaves, and two children, was not the only Loyalist slave-owner. Several of Kingston’s other “founding fathers” owned slaves, such as Richard Cartwright and Reverend John Stuart; Molly Brant’s slaves were Abraham Johnston, Juba Fonda, and Jane Fonda (!). Moreover, in these early years the status of former or present slaves in Canada was unclear. Judah Johnson, the wife of one of Captain Herkimer’s slaves, claimed her husband should be free and yet Herkimer was keeping him. The slaves themselves were unsure of their entitlements. When their questions were made known to Sir John Johnson, he replied somewhat vaguely that they were “entitled to the same proportion of land as the other men are . . .”
Things continued in this way – though it should be noted that in Canada slavery was generally not large-scale or overtly cruel as in the common connotations of the word – until John Graves Simcoe, Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, made slavery illegal on July 9, 1793. This Act also banned the importation of slaves and guaranteed freedom for children of slaves at age twenty-five. Thus, while it’s important to note that slaves weren’t freed by this Act, their sources were killed off and the practice was gradually abandoned. Slavery was totally abolished in the British Colonies by an Act passed on August 28, 1833, which took effect the following year.
Meanwhile, Captain Herkimer’s will read in part:
. . . [A]t the same time I give in trust to my said wife . . . for her life my negro Mink, who is so far to have his freedom at my said wife’s decease . . .
Herkimer died in August 1795 and his wife died ten years later. It is likely that several years after this, c. 1813-17, George Mink was born. However, not a terrible amount is known about his activities or family until his first advertisement for livery stables was placed in 1837. This business, a short-lived partnership with a man called Serge Carmino, provided customers with various livery and horse equipment for hire. It was located at the current site of Vandervoort’s General Store, not unlikely in that very building. A few months later in 1838, Mink moved to the White Horse Inn, located at the approximate site of the current Queen’s Inn at Brock and Bagot, and established an independent livery stable and tavern.
Mink’s ventures rapidly expanded into the 1840s, especially where they concerned the mail, which was carried by stagecoach. After beginning a stagecoach route on Wolfe Island which connected the Kingston ferry with the Cape Vincent ferry, he gained a mail contract for this route from October 1846 to October 1850. He later got the mail contract for the Kingston-Brighton route, all while continuing his livery business.
By 1842 Mink had moved to a house in Clarence St., where in January of that year he held a “meeting for the Improvement of the Colored Population.” It was attended by prominent anti-slavery activists Dr. Thomas Rolph and Dr. William (Tiger) Dunlop, M.P.P., and was held to call attention to the need for a school for black Canadians. This school, named the British-American Institute, was actually built near Chatham and opened in December 1842. Although the committee formed during the meeting was mostly comprised of white citizens, it nevertheless helped Mink become the unofficial leader of Kingston’s black community.
By the end of the 1840s, George Mink was resident and businessman in a “new stone house” in Clarence St. called the Telegraph House, and was esteemed enough by his fellow citizens to be recommended as alderman of Ontario Ward. A notice in the British Whig read:
The good people of this city have felt themselves so utterly disgusted with the disgraceful conduct of the present City Council, that they think the presence of a respectable, well-conducted man, like Mr. George Mink, though a man of color, would be a comparative credit to the coming Board.
Mink was pleased, but hesitant. Meanwhile, the electors of Ontario Ward felt the need to prove they weren’t joking, and two to three hundred people gathered at Pollard’s Hotel to drum up support. Pollard, owner of the hotel, said:
Mr. Mink may be black, but he has . . . as white a heart as any man. I have known him a long time, and think him perfectly qualified to do justice to the Ward as Alderman . . . We want a working man on the council and Mr. Mink is a working man. And what, I should like to ask, has color to do with the matter?
However, Mink eventually declined, feeling that some of his supporters were merely trying to advance their own political intentions, or were secretly hostile. Had Mink accepted, he would have been the first black person in Canada elected to public office. As it turned out, the first was a councillor in Amherstburg, elected in 1852 (also greeted with rumours of a “joke”).
One wonders, however, if Mink should have accepted the offer. After 1850, his fortunes began to decline. Although in 1852 he gained the Kingston-Cobourg mail route and the Kingston-Montreal route the year after, he also lost the Kingston-Brighton contract. And a bigger threat was looming: the Grand Trunk Railway. With the mail now being carried by rail, Mink auctioned some of his equipment, and made a contract in 1856 to run his coaches to and from the train station and hotels. It was an auspicious beginning, but doomed to opposition from Kingston cabmen, the resulting price wars, and even violence: Mink himself was assaulted and his omnibuses stoned. The British Whig opined that this hostility was a wasted opportunity to benefit from rail traffic.
By the 1860s, Mink began to feel that the community was treating him and his family hostilely. In 1863 he was charged with assault, but the charge was dropped when it was revealed he had been defending himself from an aggressor. He still had some short local mail routes, but they paid little and Mink was forced to auction more of his possessions and move from Clarence St. to Princess St. During this time he also faced minor legal troubles, mostly for selling liquor and cab services without a license.
Mink then lived quietly until his death on February 9, 1873. He left behind a number of children and his second wife, Mary Jane (his first wife had died of cholera in 1849). According to Cataraqui Cemetery records, he died of “paralysis” – possibly a stroke – and had been born in the United States. He was buried in an unmarked grave. Later, Mary Jane moved to Detroit to be with one of her daughters.
Apparently, George Mink’s life has sometimes been confused with that of his brother James, who was well-known in Toronto. For example, a TV movie from 1996 entitled Captive Heart: The James Mink Story includes an unverified event wherein James’ daughter is sold into slavery in the American South: this story was also circulated about George. Perhaps this confusion is a likely scenario, considering the family allegedly had eleven siblings, several of which made a name for themselves.
George Mink’s own story, though its ending is sad, should rather be remembered for its otherwise notable success: despite systemic racial prejudices, a black man, not far descended from slavery, established a thriving business in a small community and became a leader therein. Although Kingston never had a historically strong connection to the black community as other areas in Ontario did (e.g. Southwestern Ontario through the Underground Railroad), this only makes George Mink’s life stand out even more.
Neilson, Rick. “George Mink, a Black Businessman in Early Kingston.” Historic Kingston 46 (1998).
The following pages take chunks from Neilson’s article, but also provide additional details. February 21, 2015 update: The Stones website has been revamped since I wrote this post. I have (finally) updated the links below, but I’m not sure if any information has been changed since the website was updated.
You may also be interested in the Ontario Black History Society.