Nova Scotia Archives

The Eassons and the Hoyts

Two Hundred Years of Family and Community Life in Nova Scotia

The following introduction has been guest-authored by Dr. Barry M. Moody, Professor of History at Acadia University (Wolfville, NS) and an expert in the early colonial history of Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley, home to the Easson and Hoyt families. The essay provides, in easily accessible language, appropriate historical context and setting for the digitized documents that are the focus of this online resource.

Wherever possible in the text below, the discussion of specific events or predominant themes has been linked directly to corresponding documents in the Easson and Hoyt records. Read on to understand how these families fit into and represent their time and place, and use the hot-links to further explore their life-stories in Nova Scotia and beyond.

The Eassons — A Nova Scotia Family

When John Easson made the arduous trip from England to Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia, in the early 1730s, it was probably not with the intention of spending the rest of his life in that colonial outpost, nor of firmly rooting his future family in the new world. In 1734 Easson accepted a job with the British Board of Ordnance (the body charged with the upkeep of the Empire's many scattered military fortifications) as a master carpenter. A young man, and as yet unmarried, Easson probably expected to spend a few profitable years in Nova Scotia in the government's employ, and then return to Britain. The fact that he did not immediately send for his prospective wife, and in fact did not bring her to Annapolis until 1741, would perhaps indicate that he did not expect to spend the rest of his life in that community.

However, Easson soon found that the pay for his profession was good (certainly far better than that of a common soldier, for example), and that Nova Scotia offered many opportunities for advancement for a man of determination and business acumen, as he immersed himself in the expanding commercial life of Nova Scotia. By the time he died in Annapolis Royal in 1790, he had laid the foundations of a successful Nova Scotian family, and participated in some of the most dramatic events in the history of Nova Scotia and of North America.

John Easson not only founded a Nova Scotian family (one of the oldest continuing English families in mainland Canada) and established a strong entrepreneurial tradition, it is apparent that he also began the practice, followed by a number of his descendants, of retaining the business and personal papers that chronicle the social and financial life of the family through nearly two centuries. The over 1200 items in this collection of the Easson-Hoyt Family Papers is by no means all that has survived of the history of this family, but it is certainly the most significant part. It is through the papers so carefully preserved by Easson and his descendants that we are able to gain valuable insights into the everyday lives of Nova Scotians — and into the sometimes ordinary and occasionally extraordinary events in which they were involved. John himself, as revealed in these documents, lived through, and participated in, dramatic events which shaped the future of his adopted home.

He survived four French and/or Mi'kmaq attacks on Annapolis Royal in the 1740s and witnessed the transfer of the colony's capital from Annapolis to the newly-established Halifax in 1749. In 1755, he saw many of his acquaintances and clients among the Acadians forcibly removed from the colony in the "Grand Dérangement," or expulsion. Five years later, he assisted in (and profited from) the arrival of settlers from nearby Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island in the Annapolis Valley — the New England Planters — which would transform the Annapolis area, and other parts of Nova Scotia as well. 1775 saw the beginning of the rupture between Great Britain and many of her American colonists — the American Revolution — which would remake the map of North America. Easson and his son David were active participants in the events of those exciting, but dangerous, years.

The aftermath of the war brought even greater changes to the Eassons' world, with the flood into the Annapolis area of refugees from that conflict — the United Empire Loyalists. Again, Easson seized the economic opportunities of such rapid changes, meeting some of the increased demands for land, housing and supplies. By the time of Easson's death a few years later, his Nova Scotia, his Annapolis, had been transformed.

The Annapolis Royal to which Easson came, probably in 1734 or 1735, was a small English village within a large and sometimes hostile colony. What is now mainland Nova Scotia had been a British colony since its capture from the French in 1710 and its formal cession to Britain by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. However, with the exception of the small capital and garrison town of Annapolis Royal, and the even smaller fishing village of Canso, the colony was inhabited by the expanding Acadian population, centred in the Annapolis Valley and the Isthmus of Chignecto, and the Native Peoples, the Mi'kmaq. The French, while retaining the support and friendship of the Mi'kmaq, had been forced to withdraw to nearby Isle Royal (Cape Breton Island), where they built the impressive fortress of Louisbourg.

Easson's new home, therefore, with its small and rundown fort and its inadequate garrison, faced a precarious and uncertain future. The garrison numbered considerably fewer than 150 men, and the town's population was comprised of the families of some of the officers and men of the garrison, along with a handful of English merchants. After the outbreak of war between France and Great Britain in 1744, the town and garrison were attacked by French and/or Mi'kmaq forces, twice in 1744, and once each in 1745 and 1746. On at least one occasion, a British defeat appeared almost certain.

After the declaration of peace in 1748, another threat to the future of Annapolis Royal appeared the following year. The British government decided to build a new military and administrative centre for Nova Scotia, this time on the south shore of the colony — the town of Halifax. Annapolis Royal's days as the political capital and main military centre in Nova Scotia were over. Much of the garrison and most of the government officials withdrew to Halifax, leaving Annapolis a far less significant community than it had once been. Nonetheless, Easson made the crucial decision to remain there, rather than remove to the new colonial capital.

During these early days, the town of Annapolis Royal itself, situated on a small peninsula surrounded on three sides by water, was comprised of little more than a single street, which wound its way from the waterfront, up past the fort, and then out into the countryside, which was inhabited by the Acadians. There was as yet no church in the town, except a building in which services were held for the Acadians, nor any other government buildings except the fort itself. Most of the wooden houses were small, and some even retained the thatched roofs of the earlier French period. At first glance, it would not appear to be a place that would long hold the attention of an ambitious person such as John Easson.

While Easson's job — to keep the fort (present-day Fort Anne) in reasonable repair — was a difficult one, given the little that Britain was prepared to spend on it, his new situation provided other opportunities which he soon seized. The surviving papers from this period make it clear just how varied and widespread his activities were. A number of the documents refer to Easson as a "housewright," or house builder. In addition, he dealt in real estate, built and operated grist and saw mills, developed a farm and, both individually and in partnership with other men, established an extensive trade with the Acadians, Louisbourg, New England, and the British West Indies.

Most of these activities were carried on by a number of his descendants. The papers kept so meticulously by Easson and his family provide marvelous insight into these commercial activities, as well as shedding light on the social life of the family and the community in which they lived. The bulk of the papers concern the many business dealings of the Eassons over the decades. While at first glance these receipts, bills, promissory notes and business letters might appear rather dull and uninteresting to the modern reader, a closer examination provides important glimpses of the precariousness and difficulty of commercial life in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and the daily life of the residents of a small British outpost. At a time long before the presence in Nova Scotia of banks, cheques, and credit and debit cards, much of the commercial life of a community had to operate on credit and trust, and the absence of a ready supply of hard currency forced most people to resort frequently to the barter system.

A number of the letters in the collection deal with John Easson's relationship with his agent in London, the man who would receive Easson's salary from the British government, pay his bills in Britain, and act as his "banker." This agent might also undertake other business transactions for him, make purchases and forward them to Annapolis (deducting the costs, plus commission, from the funds of his client being held.) In such a situation, trust and good bookkeeping were essential ingredients. ( MG 1 vol. 3478 A/3,  A/4,  A/11,  A/14 ) Promissory notes, essentially IOUs, are also found in the Easson Papers; they were used extensively in a largely cashless society, and often circulated like currency. John Easson might give a signed note to X, acknowledging that he owed the latter a certain amount of money. X might transfer that note to Y, because X owed Y money, and Y in turn might use it to pay Z for some goods or services. Z would then come back to Easson to collect the amount owed, the note having circulated for possibly several years. ( MG 1 vol. 3478 A/39,  A/91,  A/109,  A/110,  A/129,  A/167,  B/6,  B/14 ) These notes had legal status, and one was bound by law to pay, or face the consequence of being unwilling or unable to pay one's debts — jail —, as happened to David Easson, one of John's sons. ( MG 1 vol. 3478 A/83 )

The uncertainty and dangers of trade during these years are also reflected in the papers. One of the more profitable places for trade for someone such as John Easson was the French fortress of Louisbourg. It was also illegal, since trading with France and its empire was strictly against British law, since the two countries were at war. The dangers of venturing into enemy territory were also great. However, Easson and others thought it was worth the risks, although on one occasion his ship was seized by the Mi'kmaq and appears to have been a complete loss. ( MG 1 vol. 3478 A/27,  A/28,  A/29,  A/30,  A/30,  A/31,  A/32 ) Other difficulties and dangers of conducting business are revealed in the papers: confused and contradictory accounts; ships and their cargoes lost at sea; bankrupt business partners in an era before limited companies; the problems of collecting debts; and the difficulties all these activities created when settling the estates of deceased merchants. ( MG 1 vol. 3478 A/20.1,  A/21,  A/24,  A/36,  A/37,  A/66,  A/205,  A/207,  A/208,  A/209 )

The many bills and receipts also provide insight into the goods commonly traded and used in an earlier era that are largely unknown today. Most students now, for example, are unfamiliar with the uses or nature of such items as brimstone, flints, black crepe, millstones, porringers, indigo or snuff, yet these were part of the everyday lives of the early Eassons. ( MG 1 vol. 3478 A/5,  A/8,  A/9,  A/12,  A/39,  A/126,  B/53 )

The lives of ordinary Nova Scotia women in the 18th and early 19th centuries are seldom reflected in surviving documents from that era. While this collection consists primarily of documents created by and for males, glimpses of the activities of the female members of the family can be seen nevertheless. A woman during this time had few rights distinct from her roles as a wife and mother, and usually any property that she might possess on her marriage automatically passed to her husband. As these documents reveal, she did retain what was termed her "dower rights," a recognition that her husband's property could not be disposed of without her permission, and that on his death she was automatically entitled to the use of one third of the remaining estate. ( MG 1 vol. 3478 A/239,  A/241,  A/253,  A/257 ) Some women were able to use their control over their dower rights to gain at least meager protection of their welfare. Mothers did not even necessarily retain control over their underage children on the death of their husbands. In 1813, for example, Zeruiah (Fairn) Easson was appointed by the courts as guardian of her children when her husband David died. ( MG 1 vol. 3478 A/203,  A/204 )

Although women were not legally excluded from pursuing a career in business, it was seldom done. Before David Easson's death in 1790, there is almost no mention of his wife in the surviving papers, although he had been married to Elizabeth Fisher since 1770. However, after 1790, there are a great many business records generated by Elizabeth, as she obviously was conducting business in her own right, probably carrying on at least some of the activities and business relationships established by her husband. ( MG 1 vol. 3478 A/177,  A/178,  A/179,  A/186 )

When John Easson arrived in Annapolis Royal in the early 1730s, the Acadians constituted the largest single group in the entire colony. Although the papers do not provide as many insights into his relationship with this significant group as we might like, interesting information is nevertheless to be found. Easson traded extensively with the Acadians, both before and after the Expulsion of 1755, but the most intriguing documents in this category detail a series of loans that Easson made to Acadians in August of 1755. ( MG 1 vol. 3478 A/43,  A/44,  A/45 )

To the best of our knowledge, the Acadians did not normally borrow money, and certainly in the summer of 1755 it was a precarious and uncertain time for Easson to be making such financial commitments. Did both sides already know that forced removal of these people was shortly to take place? Was Easson providing some of his friends among the Acadians with hard cash to carry with them into an uncertain exile? We don't know for certain, but the evidence is suggestive. Easson was certainly sorry to see the Acadians removed, commenting later that it had dealt a serious economic blow to the colony. ( MG 1 vol. 2166 H/16 )

The beginning in 1775 of the armed struggle between Great Britain and her Thirteen Colonies brought opportunities, dangers and immense change to the Easson family. Although there would appear to have been no question as to where John Easson's loyalties lay, since Britain was both the place of his birth and his major employer for many years, during the 8 years of conflict he would attempt to retain his business and personal connections with New England, while still loyally serving the British government in Halifax. Certainly the war offered new opportunities for an astute businessman, on which Easson and his son David capitalized, providing supplies to the British forces in both Boston and Halifax. ( MG 1 vol. 3478 A/97,  A/98,  A/99 ) While conflict might be good for business, the family would also have faced new dangers to the conduct of their trade. American privateers prowled the waters around Nova Scotia, seizing fishing and commercial vessels and carrying them off to New England. In 1781, several of these privateers attacked Annapolis Royal itself, sacking the town and carrying off two residents to hold for ransom.

The war also brought the Eassons into closer contact with the native population of the colony. In the period before 1760, the relationship with the Mi'kmaq had been problematic for John Easson, having had a ship and some supplies seized by them. However, after 1775, David Easson was employed on occasion by the colonial government to distribute rations to them, in the hopes of ensuring at least their neutrality in this time of uncertainty. ( MG 1 vol. 3478 A/112,  A/113 )

The end of the war in 1783 brought rapid and significant changes to the Easson family, and to Annapolis Royal, with the influx of thousands of refugees — the United Empire Loyalists — into the Annapolis area. The winter of 1783 saw the largest-ever population for Annapolis, as the newcomers crowded into every conceivable accommodation the town had to offer — the Anglican Church, the buildings at the fort, and every home that could take in additional people. Everything was in short supply, including housing and land, and as merchants and landowners the Eassons must have done very well from the crisis. It was during this time that the Hoyt family moved from New York to settle in the new Loyalist town of Digby. The Eassons would become allied with the Hoyts through marriage, and that family figures significantly in this collection of papers.

It was not only white Loyalists, from all walks of life, who arrived in the Annapolis area at this time, but African Americans as well. Approximately one tenth of the total migration to Nova Scotia at this time (i.e. roughly 3000) was comprised of free blacks and those still in servitude. A few African Americans had come to the region as part of the Planter migration a generation earlier, but the Loyalist influx greatly expanded the number and importance of this group. We have only fragmentary documentation about most of these people, slave and free alike. It is fortunate that they appear on a number of occasions in the Easson family papers. There is no indication that the family owned slaves, which would continue to be legal in Nova Scotia until 1833, but almost certainly they employed blacks as servants and perhaps to work in the mill and other Easson enterprises.

A bill for shoes for the family headed by Elizabeth Easson in 1811-12 lists shoes and shoe repairs for "Black Mary" and "Black Charles." ( MG 1 vol. 3478 A/199 ) Clearly the developing relationship between the Eassons and some of the black families of Lequille (a village on the outskirts of Annapolis, where both the Eassons and most of the area blacks lived by the end of the 18th century) was a close one. Other documents indicate that Alexander Easson paid for medical attention for a member of the Prior (Pryor) family, and also supplied trade goods to one of them, and possibly set him up in business. ( MG 1 vol. 3478 A/235,  B/231,  B/252 ) The presence in the Easson collection of other Prior papers, bills and receipts, suggests that the Eassons might have been paying his bills, or at least assisting him in managing his affairs. ( MG 1 vol. 3478 B/273,  B/274,  B/275,  B/276,  B/277,  B/278 ) Such a close relationship between black and white was not necessarily typical of Nova Scotia, or Annapolis Royal, at this time, and provides additional insights into some of the ways that these two groups interacted.

While we do not know what level of education John Easson had before he came to the colony, some indication may be found by looking at his penmanship (considered an important part of education in those days) and comparing his grammar and spelling with letters written by well-educated contemporaries; John measures up fairly well indeed in these areas.

From the papers, we are able to gain considerable insight into family attitudes towards education and the opportunities available in the area. Until the passage of a provincial school act in 1864, education in Nova Scotia was often erratic, depending on either private enterprise or one of the religious denominations to provide it. In both cases, parents had to pay for the schooling, if indeed they could, or thought that it was important enough to devote often meager family resources to it. Many Nova Scotia youths received little or no formal education.

John Easson obviously felt that education, both formal and informal, was important, a view he apparently passed on to the next generations as well. One form of education is indicated by the formal agreement drawn up in 1760 between John and his 11-year-old son David, whereby the latter would be apprenticed to his father to learn the trade of "housewright" (one of the earliest such indentures of which we have record in Nova Scotia). This on-the-job form of education was resorted to by many parents in the 18th century and well into the 19th as well.

As important as it was to learn a trade, John Easson was not content to provide only this for his son. Later, he sent David to Boston for more formal schooling, since little was available in the Annapolis area. 70 once private schools were established in the town, later Easson children were sent there as the various bills show, although such costs were often paid in kind, using the produce of the family farms and mill. ( MG 1 vol. 3478 A/182,  A/227,  A/233,  A/244,  A/245,  A/251,  B/98,  B/102,  B/102.1,  B/102.2 ) Only with the introduction of publicly-funded schools in the 1860s did this practice end, and the Eassons begin to pay school taxes whether they had children attending school or not. ( MG 1 vol. 3478 B/311,  B/311.2,  B/311.3 )

As early as 1752, Easson in partnership with another Annapolis merchant, Daniel Dyson, had developed an interest in the economic potential of trade with the British West Indies. Although this initial venture was a disaster, the partners losing both the vessel and its cargo, ( MG 1 vol. 3478 A/15,  A/20 ) the Easson family interest and involvement in that area would continue in the following generations. ( B/124 ) At least as early as 1770 (and probably much earlier), John had established a successful trade with Jamaica, based on the staples of rum and sugar, for which he would trade Nova Scotia farm produce, and probably fish. ( MG 1 vol. 3478 B/7,  MG 1 vol. 2166 H/58,  H/59,  H/60,  H/61 )

In 1773 or 1774 John's son William settled in Jamaica, although whether this was part of a family plan, or done idenpendently is unclear. ( MG 1 vol. 3478 A/131 ) There, in addition to his job as clerk, he began to invest in land and apparently in slaves. ( MG 1 vol. 2166 H/43 ) Well into the 19th century, Eassons traded with, lived in, and visited the British West Indies, mirroring the strong relationships and activities that other Nova Scotia families were developing with these islands. ( MG 1 vol. 2166 H/52,  H/53,  H/57,  H/76 )

Although the Easson-Hoyt Family Papers are primarily financial in nature, they nonetheless shed much light on the social and material lives of the people, and the society of which they were a part. The two handwritten ball invitations, one a "Bachelor's Ball" in 1833 and the other a "Calico Ball" in 1875, provide intriguing insights into the social life of Annapolis, and raise the question: "What is a Calico Ball?" ( MG 1 vol. 3478 A/238,  A/282 ) Detailed inventories for the estates of John and David Easson provide much information about the way the families lived, and with what level of comfort. ( MG 1 vol. 3478 A/173,  A/174,  A/201 ) The costs of John Easson's funeral, including the wine, are given in other documents, telling us something of the rituals that surrounded death. ( MG 1 vol. 3478 B/40.2,  B/111.1,  B/122 ) Itemized expenses for the building of a house from the late 18th century are rare in Nova Scotia; not only do we have these details for the Easson house erected in 1799-1806, but the actual house still stands in Lequille. ( MG 1 vol. 3478 A/188 )

Changes over the years are also heralded in the papers. The early generations dealt extensively in alcohol, especially rum, but in 1855 James Easson joined the Temperance Union which, contrary to its name, stood not for the temperate use of alcohol, but its complete eradication. ( MG 1 vol. 3478 A/271 ) By mid-century as well, other Easson descendants were moving into new careers, some taking advantage of the new technologies of the time, such as the telegraph. ( MG 1 vol. 3478 A/266,  A/267 )

Given the extent and quality of the documents, this collection greatly enriches not only our understanding of the family members who generated the bills, receipts and letters, but also of Annapolis Royal and area, especially for the 18th and early 19th centuries. Together with other Easson papers, scattered through various collections and repositories such as the Registry of Deeds, a remarkably detailed picture of a significant Nova Scotia family begins to take shape, which in turn will help us understand more about the commercial and personal evolution of individuals and communities in the early British colonial period.

Barry M. Moody
Port Royal, Nova Scotia
June 2007