Mount Allison University

Firman/Furman Family

James Firman enlistment papers. Credit: National Archives Trust Fund, Washington, D.C.

The Furman family, consisting of parents John and Susan L. with their son Ralph, is buried in St. Mark’s Anglican Cemetery, Mount Whatley, as is daughter Mary Anne (under the name Firman). The fate of their daughter, Susan, is unknown (though as she only appears in the 1861 Census, a year from which their daughter Mary is absent, it is possible they are one and the same). However, son Sydney can be traced through numerous records. The family in all probability lived in the Annapolis Valley during the 1830s, but as of 1851 they were in Westmorland Point, employed as unskilled labor. In 1871 John Furman was identified as Creole, born in the United States about 1789. While it might seem viable that the census taker preferred “Creole” to “mulatto,” the then-dominant term for mixed race individuals, it is unlikely; there were far too many in the region identified as mulatto on baptismal records and other documents who were simply identified as “African” on the census. Thus it seems likely that John was, indeed, a transplanted Creole residing in Westmorland. Given the nineteenth-century meaning of Creole, particularly pre-1820s when John is first identified as being the region, we can extrapolate that John was from Louisiana, of mixed African and French ancestry, and spoke English and French. (Certainly, there were Creole Furmans in nineteenth-century New Orleans, as well as white Furman families who owned slaves.) John may have also spoken some Spanish, as he was born during Spanish rule of Louisiana. If his sense of Creole identity was strong enough to identify as such after over forty years in Canada—and likewise convince the enumerator—it is probable he came of age in this world. By contrast, John’s wife Susan was born in New Brunswick circa 1801, and noted as African.  Both were, not surprisingly, illiterate. At the advanced age of 82, John still worked as a laborer.

It is viable that they were related to, if not the parents of, Sarah Matilda Firman, (abt. 1820-1893), who married Samuel Halfkenny (abt. 1818-1859), a stone-mason of Dorchester, New Brunswick. Another possible child is James Firman (abt. 1828-?) of St. John who enlisted in the 23rd Regiment Infantry United States Colored Troops June 20, 1864, serving in the last year of the U.S. Civil War. In enlisting in the U.S. Colored Troops, James Firman was not alone: many Canadian-born or resident black men made a similar choice, including at least ninety born in the Maritimes. Most memorably, as a member of the 23rd Firman would have participated in the pursuit of General Robert E. Lee, the Fall of Petersburg, and been present at the surrender of the Confederate Army at Appomattox Court House. Following the war, Firman resided in a suburb of Boston, and is included on the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

While John may have been mixed-race, it is undeniable that James was, and a number of Sarah Matilda Firman’s sons were said to be redheads. Of course, that in itself is not sufficient to prove a relation between these individuals. More compelling is the fact that a preliminary search of census records suggests that Firmans who were born in either New Brunswick or Nova Scotia during this time were a rarity. (The one earlier Ferman, Sylva, who has been located in 1815 appears to be a servant woman, of unidentified race, with possible ties to New Orleans.)

In part, the Firmans demonstrate that Westmorland’s black population was in no way homogeneous. Indeed, other residents are remembered as having ties to the Caribbean, passing traditions on to descendents. That James Firman felt compelled to join the U.S. Colored Troops also attests to the investment some residents felt in politics and events far beyond the borders of New Brunswick. While Westmorland may have been isolated in certain ways, it was certainly not insular.


Sources

1851 Canadian Census; 1871 Canadian Census; Anglican baptismal & burial records; U. S. Colored Troops Records; R. Wallace Hale, Early New Brunswick Probate Records, 1785-1835.

How to cite this page:

Harris, Jennifer. "Firman/Furman Family." Tracing the Black Presence in Nineteenth-Century Westmorland, New Brunswick. <http://www.mta.ca/faculty/arts/english/faculty/harris/tracing_the_black_presence/firman_furman_family.html  >2011. Date accessed.

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Special thanks to Genie Coates, Elizabeth Cooke-Sumbu, Rhianna Edwards of the Mount Allison University Archives, Jessica Emin, Raylene Fairfax, Brenna Clarke Gray, Susan Hill, Michael Liddell, Andrew Nurse, Al Smith, Daniel Vogel, and the Tantramar Heritage Trust and its members.