In 1881 the Nova Scotia Historical Society included in its publications the journal of an early Annapolis settler, John Witherspoon. The journal was tattered, incomplete and in places indecipherable. However, John Witherspoon lived through a turbulent period in our history and the Society believed his observations and impressions were worth preserving.
In the autumn of 1757, John Witherspoon had the misfortune to be cutting wood near the fort at Annapolis when a band of Micmacs raided the area. Taken prisoner, Witherspoon was sold to the French and carried to Quebec. Witherspoon spent two years in Quebec until he was liberated by Wolfe and his journal, written in tobacco juice, records that period.
On the journey to Quebec, there was a brief period of freedom when Witherspoon and several other prisoners seized a canoe and fled into the wilderness. Pursued by the Micmacs and the French, the escapees were taken only because Witherspoon’s companions found alcohol and drank themselves into a stupor. “How easy we might have got ofe (off) had it not been for strong drink,” Witherspoon lamented in his journal.
While his spelling in places was atrocious, Witherspoon’s journal tells us he was intelligent and a keen observer. He lived at a time when hunger and disease were rampant in village, town, and city, and Witherspoon often refers to the terrible living conditions. In an entry dated March 19 (1758) Witherspoon writes: “I understand the smallpox is in Canneday (Canada) of which a great number have died. This sore and contagious disease the French call pockot. As to the number of dead I do not rightly hear, but some say seven hundred. Here is three sore calamities on this people at once, the sword, famine and pestilence.”
Subjected to starvation rations in Quebec, Witherspoon’s health deteriorates rapidly. Oddly, he takes a friendly attitude towards his captors. Describing almost unbearable conditions, he sympathizes with the people who hold him since they seem to be suffering as much as he is. “One almost every day see’s men executed for deserting from their colours and, indeed, these men’s living is so mean I do not wonder at it; and their work very hard, their allowance is the same as the prisoners, one pound of bread and half of pork per day.”
Quebec is under siege during the latter part of Witherspoon’s internment and as the battle for Quebec culminates Witherspoon writes that “my flesh is clothed in worms and clods of dust, my skin is broken and becomes loathsome.” Witherspoon describes the various skirmishes which he can witness from a distance through the prison bars. Then came the news that Wolfe and Montcalm had been killed. “These two Generals fell near about one and the same time and died very near together,” Witherspoon wrote in his journal.
Soon after this entry, Witherspoon is released but we are unable to read of his rejoicing. The last pages of his journal are incomplete or missing.
John Witherspoon returned to Annapolis and to his farm. There he raised a family and apparently lived a long and happy life. This note by the Historical Society gives us an inkling of his life after his release from the dungeons of Quebec:
“In the census for 1769 he (Witherspoon) is enumerated, and in the census of 1770 as at Granville, the master of a family of eight persons, one man, three boys, one woman and three girls, all Protestant and Americans; had 2 oxens, 3 cows, 3 young cattle, 5 sheep and 2 swine.”