Rose Fortune was one of Annapolis Royal’s most notable figures during the first half of the 19th century. A well-known image of her from a watercolour of about 1830 depicts her in middle age. Wearing men’s boots, a man’s overcoat over a dress and apron, and a straw hat on top of the lace cap tied under her chin, she carries a straw basket, and is every bit the picture of firm resolve. Some twenty years later, a Lieutenant-Colonel Sleigh of the 77th Regiment wrote of a chance encounter with Rose in 1852:
“I was aided in my hasty efforts to quit the abominable inn by a curious old Negro woman, rather stunted in growth.... and dressed in a man’s coat and felt hat; she had a small stick in her hand which she applied lustily to the backs of all who did not jump instantly out of the way. Poor old dame! She was evidently a privileged character.”
That strength of character elevated Rose to a special position within town. By the time her portrait was painted, Rose had carved for herself a role as a luggage carrier. Using a wheelbarrow, she made collections and deliveries between the town’s busy wharves and hotels. She protected her business vigorously, and any boys attempting to infringe upon her monopoly were severely chastised. In the process, Rose became an unofficial policewoman, known for her ability in keeping the more unruly youngsters in order. She was on familiar terms with the leading citizens of town. In other words, she knew everybody!
A child during the American Revolution, Rose Fortune was born about 1774 in Philadelphia, reportedly to slaves belonging to a Devone family.
Like thousands of other Blacks during the American Revolution, her parents presumably fled with her and crossed over to the British lines on the promise of their freedom. Rose does not appear by name in any of the extensive rolls of Blacks aboard ships leaving American ports at the conclusion of the war in 1783. She is, however, likely to be the only child aged ‘over 10 years of parents “Fortune and wife”, listed as “Free Negroes” in the muster roll taken at Annapolis Royal in June of 1783.
Details of her early life in town are a mystery. Despite extensive documentation for a number of other Black Loyalists of her generation in St. Luke’s Church of England records, there is no mention at all of her parents and the only record of Rose is her burial on Feb. 20, 1864, “age unknown, supposed about 90”. There are no baptismal records locally for any of her children, although their marriages are recorded in St. Luke’s register. This would seem to suggest that her early years may have been spent elsewhere, perhaps in a centre like Saint John, New Brunswick, where a number of Blacks from Digby had settled. She appears neither in the deeds record nor the early census returns.
As late as 1838, Rose was apparently not living independently. The Nova Scotia census for that year, which lists only heads of households, makes no reference to Rose Fortune. In her old age, she reportedly lived near the Union Bank, now the Royal Bank of Canada.
Rose had at least three children. Daughter Jane Fortune married Isaac Godfrey, son of Black Loyalist Edward Godfrey, on December 21, 1830. Isaac and Jane Godfrey had no children and are buried in the Garrison cemetery at Fort Anne. Their tombstones stand near the entrance to the Court House and are perhaps an indication of Rose’s final resting place.
Rose’s son John Fortune married Hester Godfrey, sister of Isaac, on January 13, 1838, and lived in the Annapolis Royal area. John Fortune was dead by the time of the 1871 Canadian census, but his widow, Hester, lived to a great age, and was living in the household of a granddaughter at the time of the 1901 census. John and Hester Fortune had at least two children. A son, George, died in childhood. Daughter Joanna Fortune married George Moses on February 27, 1862. He was the grandson of Rose’s contemporaries, Aesop Moses and John Prior. George and Joanna had four sons and two daughters and, although the Moses surname is no longer found in the area, their descendants include some members of the local Burrill, Currie, Bailey and Stevenson families.
Rose’s daughter Margaret Fortune married John Francis of Digby. John and Margaret Francis had at least six children baptized at Trinity Church of England in Digby: Rosina (1842), Charlotte (1844), John (1846), Amelia (1848), Margaret (1852) and Louisa (1856). Of these six children, son John Albert Francis married Melissa Jane Jarvis of Weymouth on April 1, 1867, and left descendants in that community. The two elder Francis girls married and settled in Annapolis Royal. Rosina married William Henry Moses, a first cousin of George Moses, on August 17, 1865. William Henry and Rosina Moses had six children, a number of whom moved to the United States. Charlotte Amazie Francis, known as Amberzene, married Albert Lewis of Annapolis Royal and had twelve children. Their descendants include members of the Lewis, Francis and Peters families. After Rose Fortune’s death in 1864, the business was carried on by Albert Lewis, who had married her granddaughter, Amberzene Francis. A great admirer of horses, Albert transformed old Rose’s baggage-handling business by the 1870s. His coaches and wagons were on hand at the railway station and wharves to transport passengers and freight. After the drowning death of Albert Lewis in 1882, the business was carried on by his son, James, as James Lewis & Son. Under Albert’s grandson, James Lewis Jr., the firm bought its first truck. As Lewis Transfer, the company survived as a black-owned business until the death of James Lewis in 1960. James’ daughter Daurene Lewis became the first Black mayor in Canada when she was elected Mayor of Annapolis Royal in the 1980s. She plays her ancestor Rose Fortune in “Ghosts of the Past”, a unique interpretive video presentation at the Sinclair Inn Museum.