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  • "A Mixed Assemblage of Persons":Race and Tavern Space in Upper Canada
  • Julia Roberts

On our arrival yesterday many Indians were in town and a few of them stayed about the taverns pretty late in the evening. Some of them, as well as the blacks and whites, drank quite freely; and I heard this morning that a fracas occurred in our landlord's bar-room among the heterogenous assemblage there. Having retired early I knew nothing of it. The blame was thrown upon the "negroes" by the bar-keeper who was a "Yankee" of "high pressure" prejudice, but it did not amount to much; and to-day very few Indians or blacks are to be seen in the public places.1

This tavern story about an 1832 Saturday night on the town in Brantford, Upper Canada, addresses the complexities of racialized relations in "public places" generally and the tavern's bar room in particular. It juxtaposes tavern-goers who engaged in "heterogenous" sociability with the "'high pressure' prejudice" of a "'Yankee'" barkeeper. It challenges us to understand what such moments of multi-racial public life meant in a society permeated by racialized thought and practice.2 There was a strange contradiction between white settlers' marginalization of Black and First Nations peoples and the sometimes easy accommodation afforded them in the public houses. Although accommodation to people of colour was also illegally, and sometimes violently, denied, tavern stories complicate historical interpretations focusing on conflict. Without questioning these analyses, or the evidence supporting them, the stories suggest that something more subtle was also going on. They invite serious attention to the colony's many taverns as sites where people chose to relax racial boundaries as often as they chose to enforce them. Maybe it was just the whiskey and the wine; without comparable work on other public spaces, the typicality of a tavern-based history will remain an open question. But because "Indians" as well as the "blacks and whites" all went there, the taverns show how race, as one socially constructed category, shaped ordinary, everyday human interactions. [End Page s427]


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Figure 1.

Part of a page from Matthew Dolsen's tavern account book, showing an entry at the bottom for 'David Indian.' Chatham-Kent Museum

As the most numerous social institutions in the colony, taverns left traces everywhere in the historical record: in the correspondence of government administrators, Legislative Assembly journals, letters to local magistrates (who licensed taverns until 1849), notes judges made at the bench, personal diaries, published travelogues, newspapers, and tavern-keepers' account books. Some, such as tavern-keepers' accounts, capture quick moments, just a purchase, a person, and a debt: "David Indian … Rum 1s[hilling]." Or a judge might note, "witness and prisoner are coloured people," revealing the mixed clientele of the tavern they frequented.3 Others offer more sustained narratives about the relationships among people of colour and their white neighbours. Indeed, some intentionally chronicled racialized relations–as did the author of the opening quotation, Benjamin Lundy, an American Quaker and anti-racism advocate. European travel writers paid close attention to racialized groups. Although they never escaped the perspective of their "imperial eyes," their encounters with "otherness" depict the mixed use of public space.4 Racial incidents made the newspapers–as when a Sandwich tavern-keeper threw two Black men out of his bar in 1836–but it is not always clear why.5 Whether it was the men's attempt to gain access, or refusal of access, the press's interest flags public space as a contested zone. [End Page s428]

The combination of an early period, the little-known realm of the taverns, and the focus on people of colour means that evidence is fragmentary. There are interpretive tacks that it will not sustain. There is little information on women of colour as tavern-goers6 because, except for one account book, they do not appear, which is not to say they were absent. There is little discernible about racialized patterns of use inside the taverns. There is little opportunity to develop a chronology of racialized relations. Historians indicate that we might expect tightening access to public space...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-1093
Print ISSN
0008-3755
Pages
pp. 427-450
Launched on MUSE
2021-09-24
Open Access
No
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