This past February, Richmond Hill Public Library’s Local History and Genealogy Librarian Peter Wilson shared the story of Susannah Maxwell, one of Richmond Hill’s prominent historical figures with the Richmond Hill Liberal.
At the time of her death in February of 1923, she had reached the astounding age of 117 and only a month short of her next birthday. She was likely the oldest person in Canada at the time of her death, made even more remarkable by the life she led. Born to free black parents in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, she barely escaped being captured and sold into slavery after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. She and her family escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad, eventually settling in the Brick Tenement on Yonge Street across from St. Mary’s Anglican Church.
While Susannah could earn what was known as a York Shilling, or about 12.5 cents per day in Richmond Hill, she could make as much as 50 cents per day 7 miles away in Markham. To support her family she would make the trek until she collapsed on her way home in a blizzard. She likely would have died if she had not been found by a dog who alerted others to her location. She eventually ran a laundry business out of her home with two of her daughters, Mary and Matilda, or Tillie as she was known. Mary died in 1899 and the Village Council agreed to pay for her funeral and grave in the Presbyterian Cemetery. Tillie died in 1920.
Susannah was an early orphan, and early widow and a mother who outlived all of her children.