Recollections of Thomas Robley, Son of William of Scarrowmanwick and Catherine Fraser of Merigomish, First Generation Canadian
Recollections of Thomas Robley, Son of William of Scarrowmanwick and Catherine Fraser of Merigomish, First Generation Canadian

Photograph contributed by Lorraine & Ford Hilton

Pictou Advocate , Christmas Number, December 17, 1910.


" I've just had an interesting hour with TOM ROBLEY ," said the jovial blacksmith as he smilingly saluted us near his shop adjoining the railway yard in Pictou, one day during the summer. Some of the cronies who have earned the right to take an hour or two to talk over old times had had a session, because it is not every day they can now meet with Tom Robley. " You should get him to tell you of his experiences in the South in slavery days and of how he ran the blockade from Mobile to Havana during the war. It would make a fine story for the Advocate, " continued our friend. His countenance, as he recalled some of the incidents he had heard, prompted us to make a mental note of his suggestion and some months later Mr. Robley was held up for the story that his friend has said was worthy a wider audience than that of a summer morning in the forge.

"Oh, I don't know," said Mr. Robley, " in a blacksmith shop -- Alex's particularly-- a fellow is as ease. He has an attentive audience, and thoughts come readily, but as for talking to a newspaper man, I never did much of that and I fear I am too old to begin now.

" But that is why you are now asked to talk," was the response, " because you are old and can tell of your experiences in a country on which the eyes of the world were centered before the majority of people now living were born."

" Yes," said Mr.Robley, " of those who had reached manhood while Abe Lincoln was President of the United States not many are left but I am not old, not physically old, at least," he protested smilingly, recalling his previous admission in this connection. And then he went on to tell of days when the blood coursed in his veins somewhat quicker than it does today, although his intellect is still active and he has reason to say " I am not old ", notwithstanding he has passed his eightieth milestone.


" I was born in Pictou in 1830," he continued, " in the house that still stands directly north of the skating rink. In those days most of the young men had a choice of but two occupations, the shipyard or the sea. I chose the former, but it was in Sackville that I began work. In '55 the Maine shipyards were busy and I journeyed thither. In '57 I was in Buffalo, N.Y., when a great financial panic struck the country. Money became scarce, I was actually unable to get what was due me, and as there was little use in waiting around idle, I started off with the impulsiveness of youth for the South, thinking little of the civil war then brewing and beside which the panic was a small thing, for the war caught me within the Confederate lines and I was detained there, practically a prisoner, for some years. " I went from Buffalo to Cincinatti, thence by steamer down the Ohio River. It was at Louisville, Kentucky, where a stop was made for three of four hours that I first put foot on the soil of a slave state. I was naturally a friend of the Emancipation cause but found no one in that section to share my opinions except my chum , a chap from Quebec, with whom I gazed in awe at the public whipping post or looked with sore heart at the poor devils driven about and dealt in like cattle. At Paducah, St. Louis and Omaha I worked for about a year, running on the riverboats as carpenter. Omaha at that time was litle more than a village and the Mississippi had not yet been bridged. '58 saw me in New Orleans and later at Mobile, Alabama where the slave traffic flourished. Most of the slave ships came to this port and I saw thousands of poor mortals bought and sold there. Some of the scenes connected with the sales were touching, I can assure you, to a free born Canadian. In no presentation of Uncle Tom's Cabin I have ever seen were the horrors of the slave traffic overdrawn. To this port were taken the last cargo of slaves to enter the United States. They numbered 104 and were taken from the West Coast of Africa by a Pictou captain. While we would all perhaps, prefer to forget that a Pictou man was thus engaged in traffic of human beings, slavery was not at that time regarded in the light that it is today and it is rather significant that the dollar made out of a profitable business was made by a Pictou Scotchman and that in the making of it he successfully ran the blockade of war then in force against Mobile, taking his ship safely into port under cover of night."

At this point in our narrative the face of our young-old friend brightened as he recalled the fact that many of the slaves were well cared for and grew so accustomed to their surroundings that a measure of liberty was allowed them and they were not devoid of humour.


" I recall having known" he went on, " a slave auctioneer in Mobile who had a handy man - a slave named George- about his place of business. George had so often presumed on his owner' s leniency by flirtling with dusky damsels until late at night or drinking too freely that his owner decided one morning to square accounts with him. Not caring to personally whip his trusted servant the auctioneer thought of a plan that might be equally effective. George could neither read nor write. " Here, George," he said, "Take this basket and this note down to the Chief of Police and he will give you something for me." George started off obediently but had grave suspicions as to what that note might call for. Having turned a corner, out of sight of his owner, George stopped a boy to have the note explained. The boy read - " Dear Chief - Please see that the bearer gets lashes. He needs them." Geeroge was wise at once to the situation. Across the way was 'Court House Bill', a slave of the Sheriff's, so called because he was janitor of the court house. George appealed to Bill that he was very busy. Would Bill help him out by doing an errand - take the note and the basket down to the Chief of Police? Bill obligingly consented. George, in due time, presented himself at his owner's place of business to be met with enquiry -" Well, George , did you get THAT ?" " No massa", was the reply, " Court House BIll is getting THEM now."

" From Mobile I went to New Orleans, I was there the day that Lincoln became President. Ship- carpentering was brisk at every point, and in New Orleans I formed a partnership with an acquaintance with whom I went to Florida to take over the management of a marine slip. The venture would have been all right , but declaration of war upset all our calculations. I was in Montgomery, Alabama, the day of Jeff Davis' inauguration as President of the Confederacy. 1861 found me again in New Orleans, and liable to be drafted into the army under the Conscription law then in force. The Confederate government, however was always in need of mechanics, ship-carpenters particularly, and my qualifications in this respect saved me from being drafted into their army. To get out of the country then was all but impossible. Every avenue of escape was guarded and it was useless to attempt to travel without an official pass. I had thus far sought protection as a British subject, and as every shipyard has been temporarily seized for war purposes, I was compelled to accept employment in the fitting out of the Sumpter as a privateer.


" The Sumpter played an important part in the fight around the coast. She was a wooden steamer with screw propellor, and had previously been called the Habana, having been used as a packet between New Orleans and Havana. It was at Algiers, a town across the Mississippi from New Orleans, that I worked on her. Captain Simms, who commanded her later on, was about all the time. He was a grim looking fellow who had little to say to anyone. The chief engineer was a Mr. Freeman, who had been on one of the Cunard steamers that used to run to Halifax - the Hibernia, I think. The night before the Sumpter was to go down the river for earnest work outside, a party of us were in New Orleans attending a theatre. On our way home, the carpenter, who had volunteered for service on the Sumpter abruptly left us and went into a drugstore. Coming out he placed a small packet in his pocket, and remarked, " Well, Abe Lincoln's men will never hang me." It was some years later that I read an account of the memorable fight between the Kearsage and the Alabama and the writer told of this same man, our carpenter, having shot himself on the deck of the Alabama, rather than be taken prisoner with his fellows. The Sumpter got to sea all right, notwithstanding that the United States cruiser Brooklyn had been placed at the mouth of the Mississippi to intercept her, and , if I am not mistaken, the commander of the Brooklyn was severely reprimanded for having failed to land the expected prize. The crew of the Sumpter, I think, all joined the Alabama when the latter came out."

" It was that summer that the Battle of Bull Run was fought. The building of floating batteries and repairing work kept me busy, and in the spring of '62, I again tried a business venture with an acquaintance who had been offered the work of constructing a small steamer for the Confederacy for protection purposes at Pensacola. Our yard was about 20 miles from Pensacola, on the Blackwater River. While our craft was nearing completion the Northerners were forcing the fight with vigour. Pensacola would surely be taken and the order came from the Confederacy to evacuate. The city they suffered to stand for seizure by the Northerners, but shipping along the river and some twenty of the largest lumber mills, with millions of feet of valuable sawn timber, they burned. It was a thrilling sight. I was in Pensacola when the fork of destruction began but returned in time to witness the most of the blaze and to find not a trace of the craft on which our efforts had been spent. Later on I saw in Pensacola the gallows on which were to be hanged next day two coloured men and one white man - the white man for the abolition sentiments expressed too openly.

" The winter of ' 62-'63 saw me still employed by the Confederacy in building floating batteries on the Yasu River within sound of General Grant's cannons which were then pounding at Vicksburg, where Pemberton, a Confederate General, put up a hard fight. With the approach of Spring I was tired of the conditions under which I had so long been working with little benefit to myself. To get to Mobile, and try to escape from the country by water, was now my determination."


" Having been offered a pass held by a friend I accepted it and started for Mobile, with plenty Southern 'script and some experience. I recall having noticed dead soldiers being buried as the train sped along. Luck was against me. After the pass I held had been issued, an order had been given that all outstanding passes would require to be countersigned by a certain officer. Of this order I was not informed and the guard on the train held me up at midnight, on a Saturday, took me off the train and placed me in a temporary prison, a large warehouse, wherein I found many other hapless mortals. The pass, I took good care to chew to a pulp as I left the train. I was then up against a hard proposition. Alone I lay apart from the others all the next day, hungry, without a bite since the previous morning, and unable to eat the mess passed in for distribution. Monday was wearing on with no word of trial or charge against me until I bribed the guard to go to the authorities and arrange for a hearing for me. In court I claimed protection as a British subject and protested against being detained without food from Saturday to Monday. Fortunately there was at least one gentleman present - a Southerner, having influence with the authorities, who suggested that I be at once paroled, to report later. I was then sent under guard to Mobile where the nearest British Consul resided."

" I found the representative of the Crown, but he was a gruff old devil, and to my dismay,was not disposed to accept mt statements, but after making a demand and paying him his fee, he came down off his pedestal and gave me protection. A great many of the British Consuls in the South were in favour of the South, but when they found that you knew the ropes they always came down." "Again at Mobile I found that private undertakings in my line of work were now necessary if the war was to continue. The Confederacy was actually encouraging the shipment of cotton and aiding shippers to evade the blockade with the understanding that a certain proportion of the value of a cargo safely marketed would be brought back in the form of medicines, food, and munitions of war, which were now being urgently called for by the army."


"It was not long, therefore, until I was at work. Many old craft were being rebuilt and strengthened, river boats or barges particularly.

It was my lot to go to work with a gentleman named Davis, who had hauled up for refitting an old lumber barge, or a scow as we now call them. This old hulk was 100 ft. long, about 25 feet wide and 8 or 9 feet deep. Having strengthened her as best we could and built a bow for her, a mast was placed well forward. A boiler and engine from a discarded hull was next put in place, and a propellor taken from a third hull was connected therewith, with some misgivings as to how the whole would work. A trial trip in the harbour proved that she could go about five miles an hour and with this discovery I decided to try the Lizzie Davis as a means of escape from the warstricken country. I made a confident of the engineer, Mr. Culver, a Canadian from St. Catherines, Ontario and he expressed a willingness to help me hide myself on board when the time was opportune. I remember well how ,when that time came, I sought out Andrew MacDonald, a native of Cariboo, and taking him into the secret that Culver and I had kept, I bade him good-bye, behind a warehouse, fearful lest I might be noticed doing so, and with some misgivings as to what might happen to me. It was good to have a man from the old home to speak to just then. But with Culver's assistance I was out of sight when the Lizzie Davis was searched for stowaways, and the lights of Fort Morgan were fading in the distance when he declared me at liberty to go on deck. We were an odd company. The captain was a one- armed Dutchman, while the Chief Officer was an Englishman who had a masters certificate, and the crew were of all countries. The Captian was plainly displeased at finding me on board but Mr. Davis was there too - a gentleman he was- and between he and Culver I was relieved from duty below, at a leaky boiler, and signed on as " before the mast " - my first and last experience, but I am somewhat ahead of my story."


"We had many anxious hours after leaving Mobile. Our Captain was shrewd, however, and with our light draught we could hug the shore, almost on the surf at times, while a way off we could see the lights of ships that would have given us trouble. We were in absolute darkness all night, save for the binnacle light and it was so protected as to show only for the man at the wheel. After getting clear of the blockading fleet our captain left the straight course all the blockaders took and ran over toward the Texas shore and made Cape San Antonio, the western point of the Island of Cuoa. Thus we steamed along for several days until the coast of Cuba was in sight. A Northern cruiser sighted us about this time but we were so well in shore, in Cuban waters in fact that she did not attempt to pursue us, could not reach us a matter of fact, for our course lay well in where vessels of very light draught alone could go. Of our more humorous experiences with Spanish officials as we went from one harbour post to another according to the local law, or having to lay to patch our boiler, or make some other ncessary repairs I need not speak. Mr. Davis had with him a Spaniard interested in the sale of the cargo and as Morro Castle loomed in sight we were a grateful group. The Lizzie Davis' carreer was a short one though. She never saw Mobile again. On her return trip she was seized by a Northern Cruiser and taken into Key West. Whether Mr. Davis was aboard or not I do not know, but she was descibed by a Key West paper as being more like a saw-mill adrift than a steamboat." "At Havana I took passage by the S.S.Roanoake for New York where I arrived safe and sound in the Fall of '63. I was in luck in having made the run when I did for on her next trip the Roanoake fell into the hands of the Southerners."


" I was then 10 years away from home, but the thought of a cold winter about due, coupled with a feeling of independence that would not permit me to come home without means prompted me to accept work in Panama, through New York agents of the Panama Railway Company. Off I went again, in the month of October, by the regular line taking passengers to California. We went to Panama under Northern convoy. Our passenger list numbered about 600. Artermus Ward was among the number. He was going out to lecture to the Mormons in Utah. My employment took me to the Pacific side of the Ithmus. Completing my contract with the railway company I made a satisfactory settlement which released them from paying my return passage tp New York, and San Francisco claimed me shortly afterwards. There I worked for a time, making good money, and my resolve to reach Nova Scotia with funds to spare found fulfillment in November 1864. In 1865, I went back to San Francisco again via Panama, and remained there for 5 years. By this time the railway bound East and West and I came back to Nova Scotia by rail, my wanderings at an end."

Pictou Advocate, 22nd December, 1916

Thomas Robley

It was on Wednesday that a telegram came somewhat unexpectedly, from Montreal to relatives here announcing the death of Thomas Robley, at the home of his daughter, Mrs A.M. MacKay. Although Mr. Robley had not resided here for upwards of twenty years he was so long identified with the town and its interests that his passing will be noted with regret by many people, for “Tom” Robley, as he was familiarly known hereabouts, was a generous-hearted man who valued highly his friendships, more especially those of his earlier years in and around Pictou. Here he would have ended his days had it not been that rheumatism made it next to impossible for him to move about and he chose the ease and comfort afforded him in the homes of his daughters. He was a most companionable man, had travelled much, read a great deal, and had a most retentive memory. He was the oldest living member of New Caledonian Lodge of Freemasons, of Pictou, and was , less than a year ago, honored by his brethren who presented him with a jewel on the attainment of his fiftieth anniversary as a mason. Tomorrow they will attend his funeral which will take place at 2.00 p.m. Mr Robley’s wife, who predeceased him by twenty odd years, was an American woman from New York State. The family numbered six, all girls, exceptionally fine women, viz: Mrs. Mackay, Mrs (Rev) A.J. Macdonald, Mrs. H.B. MacLaughlin, Montreal; Miss Jennie, now a nurse in one of the Canadian hospitals in France; Mrs. W.E. Loutitt, Prov. R.I.; Mrs. W. Morris, Nfld. That he might be spared to see the war end, to chat once more with his daughter now in the danger zone, and his son-in-law, Rev. A.J. Macdonald was the hope of our departed friend, but it was not to be. He took a heavy chill, pneumonia, and it was soon evident that there was no hope.

Contributed by Beverly Campbell 2001