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Canada's Black Settlements & The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad was neither Underground, nor was it a Railroad. It was in essence a series of conductors, safe houses, trails along rivers, secret routes, sometimes walking, and other times hiding in wagons. Before Europeans arrived, North and South America was comprised of thousands of Native American Tribes. Native Cultures date back at least ten thousand years, having traveled over the Bering Strait into North America. As America was Colonized, the Native population was reduced by disease, wars, and intermixing. The Natives watched, as the land they lived on and revered, became commercial ventures for European Settlers. Having suffered through that institution it is understandable why some would assist with the escape of African Slaves. The Indian Trails slaves followed went north, to freedom. The further north, the more freedom,and Canada was about as far north as they could imagine. There were also trails that led South to Mexico and South America and Freedom. 

Conductors on the railroad came from various backgrounds and included free blacks, Native Americans, white abolitionist, and other escaped slaves. One of the most notable Conductors was Harriet Tubman, who was an escaped slave from Maryland. She risked her life to assist other slaves escape. Religious Organizations such as Quakers, Methodists, and Baptists, also assisted slaves. Individuals were often organized in small, groups, in which some knew of, Stations along the route but few details of their immediate area. Escaped slaves would move along the route from one-way station to the next, steadily making their way north.


The original inhabitants of what is now Canada were Native Americans, including the Aleutians (Eskimo), who lived further north. Remnants of the original tribes continue to live in that region. Slavery, which was practiced within Canada's current geography, was practiced primarily by the French Empire. Moreover, free and enslaved Blacks who fled the United States after the American Revolution had their freedom guaranteed upon arrival. Canada was also the final destination for thousands of enslaved Blacks who came to freedom in Canada, by the Underground Railroad.

The first recorded black person to set foot on land now known as Canada was a free man named Mathieu de Costa, who traveled with explorer Samuel de Champlain, and arrived in Nova Scotia some time between 1603 and 1608 as a translator for the French explorer Pierre Dugua, Sieur de Monts. The first known black person to live in Canada was a slave from Madagascar named Olivier Le Jeune, who may have been of partial Malay ancestry. As a group, black people arrived in Canada in several waves. The first of these came as free persons serving in the French Army and Navy; some were enslaved. Later, some were indentured servants, as were some white immigrants. From 1628 to 1759 (when the British conquered New France), 1132 slaves were transported to New France, all of African descent. In 1688, Governor Denonville’s request for royal permission to import slaves directly from Africa was denied.

A direct slave trade from Africa to Canada was never established. In 1796, a group of fiercely independent rebels known as the Trelawney Maroons, were moved from Jamaica to Nova Scotia, following their long battle against colonization. While there, these Jamaican Maroons deterred an attack by Napoleon and constructed parts of the Halifax Citadel and all of Government House. After only a few winters, the British government decided it would be cheaper to send them to Sierra Leone than to try to persuade them to farm in a cold country.
Slavery in Canada remained virtually nonexistent, due to a short growing season and the economic impracticality of housing and feeding idle slaves over the winter months. Most of the slaves were “body” or family servants for wealthy officials or for families living in urban areas. Unlike the large plantations in the South, where a large number of slaves were owned, Canadian households tended to have one slave only or, at the most, a very small number. Slaves usually served the same family during their lifetime. Very few slaves were in the Owen Sound area during the eighteenth century; most tended to be south, in the Niagara area. The majority of slaves in Canada originated from either the French West Indies or the colonies of British North America.

With the fight for independence from the British in 1776 came an awareness of the slaves in the colonies; the antislavery movement began to take hold in the Northern colonies. Slaves who fought in the war against the British were granted their freedom, creating a fairly substantial class of free Blacks in both the North and the South. Yet again, freedom for Black American citizens was not equal to that of free whites; there were still limitations place on them.

In 1779, all Black men, women and children were invited to fight for the British against the Americans in the American Revolution; they were promised their freedom in return. Ten percent of the Loyalists that arrived in the Maritime at this time were Black. White Loyalists fleeing to Canada brought with them about 2000 slaves. The majority (about 1200) of Blacks settled, with their owners, in the three Eastern provinces of Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. About 500 were in Ontario (Upper Canada) and 300 in Quebec (Lower Canada). Here, too, slave numbers per household were small and most were domestic servants, farm hands and skilled artisans.

The Upper Canada Abolition Act
In 1793, the Upper Canada Abolition Act, supported by Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe, freed any slave who came into Ontario (Upper Canada), and stipulated that any child born of a slave mother would be free at the age of 25. Upper Canada became the first British territory to pass an antislavery act. In the other Canadian provinces, by 1800, slavery was effectively limited through various court rulings. The onus was on the slave owner to provide positive proof of ownership; this proof was rarely available.

Slaves were treated differently in Canada from their counterparts in the United States. Gang labor with its accompanying brutality did not exist in Canada. Canadian masters did not feel threatened by their slaves. Canadian slaves were allowed to learn to read and write, while in the States it was illegal to teach slaves to do so. Slave marriages were legal and Christian worship was encouraged. Upon arrival in Canada, the first thing free slaves often chose to do was to reaffirm their slave marriage vows according to Canadian law.

All Blacks, whether in slavery or freedom, found a sense of community through their strong spiritual faith and in their churches. Here, too, under the teachings of Christianity, plantation slaves were able to gather together and exchange information through coded phrases and spirituals of which their white owners were unaware. Returning from the War of 1812, American soldiers took with them the knowledge of Canada’s virtual lack of slavery. This information enticed many slaves to make a bid for freedom. In Canada, by 1841, there were many Black communities. An 1850 Sandwich newspaper article stated there were 24-30,000 Blacks living in Canada.

The earliest Black communities were established in the Maritime Provinces; Birch town became the largest settlement of free Africans outside Africa. The first large wave of Africans to arrive in Canada were free Black Loyalists invited by the British government and promised land, provisions, and freedom for their support during the American War of Independence. Lord Dunsmore, governor of Virginia, invited all male slaves owned by Rebels to join the British cause, promising them freedom. As losses mounted, Henry Clinton, the British Commander-in-Chief, invited all slaves to join the British, again promising freedom. At least 3500 Blacks supported the British and were landed in Canada, 10% of all Loyalists.

Blacks were the last to receive plots of land, often waiting years. Part of the problem was the amount of land to be surveyed, with too few surveyors. Land was usually remote, rocky, and too small to feed a family. Those who came into Canada on the Underground Railroad faced different obstacles. Initially, they were seen as valuable workers. Then the trickle became a flood of Black arrivals. By the 1840s and following the American Civil War, they were not as welcome, since immigration from Europe had increased. They were expected to return to the United States, but the former enslaved Blacks did not necessarily have a place to return to. Free Blacks, some of whom had been born in Canada, would have had to forfeit their homes and businesses. However, they had established themselves and Canada was their home.

By the 1850's there were six 'firmly rooted' black communities in Ontario:
1. Central Ontario (London, Queen's Bush, Brantford, Wilberforce)
2. Chatham (Dawn, Elgin)
3. Detroit Frontier (Amherstburgh, Sandwich, Windsor)
4. Niagara Peninsula (St. Catharine's, Niagara Falls, Newark, Fort Erie)
5. Northern Simcoe & Grey Counties (Oro, Collingwood, Owen Sound)
6. Urban Centers on Lake Ontario (Hamilton, Toronto)

Other Settlements:
Buxton (Elgin) Settlement 1849 - The Elgin Settlement, also known as Buxton, was one of four organized black settlements to be developed in Canada. The black population of Canada West and Chatham was already high due to the area's proximity to the United States. The land was purchased by the Elgin Association through the Presbyterian Synod for creating a settlement. The land lay twelve miles south of Chatham. The Reverend William King believed that blacks could function successfully in a working society if given the same educational opportunities as white children. "Blacks are intellectually capable of absorbing classical and abstract matters.” Being a reverend and teacher, the building of a school and church in the settlement was a necessity to him. The settlement also was home to the logging industry. George Brown, who later became one of the Fathers of Confederation, was a supporter of William King and helped build the settlement.

William Parker, a former slave and Abolitionist, from Lancaster County Pennsylvania, Joined the Settlement in 1851. Although a Free man, Parker was forced to flee to Canada on the Underground Railroad, after a fatal incident. On September 11, 1851, his home in Christiana was besieged by Edward Gorsuch, a slaveholder from Maryland, a Federal Marshall, and a Posse. Gorsuch was demanding that Parker turn over his property (slaves), to him. The fugitive slave law, allowed Gorsuch to cross into Non-slave holding states seeking escapedslaves. The confrontation that occurred resulted in the death of Edward Gorsuch, and the attack of his party, by angry blacks.

Following the incident of September 11th, William Parker and his family set out for Canada. The way to Canada was long and dangerous so William went on without his family. Newspapers contained the accounts of Christiana and stores of reward money for William Parker required William to go on to Canada alone. In Rochester, New York William received assistance from Frederick Douglass. They knew each other from their days as Maryland slaves. From Rochester, the party crossed over into the freedom of Canada.

The party landed at Kingston on the September 21, 1851. From Kingston, William Parker moved on to Toronto. When he arrived in Toronto, Parker learned of Pennsylvania Governor Johnston's demand for his return under the Extradition Treaty. Canadian officials assured him that he would not be returned to Pennsylvania. His wife joined him in Toronto. She had experienced a difficult period following the Resistance and Williams escape to Canada. She had been arrested twice and her master had pursued her. They settled together, free on fifty acres in the Buxton Settlement. William Parker returned to the United States and fought in the 54th Massachusetts, and then returned to Canada. William Parker is now a Folk Hero in Christiana Pennsylvania, and has been the subject of plays and books. The House where the incident took place on September 11, 1851, and has a street named after him. The blacks who participated in the event at Christiana were tried and acquitted of treason. There are thirty-eight streets in Christiana Pennsylvania named in honor of the black citizens who participated in the incident.

Little Africa On Hamilton Mountain (part of the Niagara Escarpment) - Near Fort Erie, a small village called 'Little Africa' came into being and by 1840 it had a population of 80 blacks. Over the next forty years the population reached a height of 200 before inhabitants moved away and left the their village a 'ghost town' by 1880. Dawn (Settlement Founded by Josiah Henson) In February 2005, an agreement was reached with the St. Clair Parks Commission and the Government of Ontario to transfer ownership and operation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin


At a bend in the Sydenham River near the town of Dresden stands Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site. The museum – built on the site of the Black settlement that Rev. Josiah Henson helped found in 1841 – preserves the settlement where Henson and his wife Nancy lived. Today,
thousands of people make pilgrimages to Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site to discover more about our past. Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site takes its name from Harriet Beecher Stowe's successful 1852 anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, featuring a character named Tom (loosely based on Josiah Henson). Henson's own story is told in his autobiography, first published in

Josiah Henson was born into slavery on June 15, 1789 near Port Tobacco in Charles County, Maryland. As a slave, Henson experienced horrifying conditions. He was separated from his parents, sold twice and maimed for life after being beaten. In 1829, Henson
arranged to purchase his freedom with money he earned by preaching to Methodist congregations. Betrayed by his master, Henson was taken to New Orleans to be sold. Henson escaped slavery by fleeing northwards with his wife and four children using the Underground Railroad, eventually crossing the Niagara River into Upper Canada (now Ontario) on October 28, 1830.

Upper Canada had become a haven for Black refugees from the United States after 1793 when Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe passed an "An Act to prevent the further introduction of Slaves, and to limit the Term of Contracts for Servitude within this Province." Although the legislation didn't free slaves living in Canada, it prohibited the importation of slaves to the province. This meant that refugees from slavery were free as soon as they set foot in Ontario. By 1830, when Henson arrived, the Black community in Upper Canada consisted of Black Loyalists who had fought for the British during the American Revolution, African American refugees from the War of 1812, and others.

Henson started his life in Canada working as a farm laborer and a lay preacher in the Waterloo area. In 1834, he moved to Colchester with 12 friends and established a Black settlement on land rented from the government. There, in 1836, Henson met Hiram Wilson, a missionary from the American Anti-Slavery Society who ministered to Black Canadians. Wilson introduced Henson to one of his friends, James Canning Fuller, a Quaker from New York. With financial assistance from Wilson and a silent partner (probably Fuller), Henson purchased 200 acres in Dawn Township to build a self-sufficient community for fugitives from slavery.

The Dawn Settlement, as it was called, centered on the British-American Institute – an all-ages manual school that trained teachers and provided a general education. The school opened in 1842 "to cultivate and elicit the fairest and fullest possible development of the physical, intellectual and moral powers," and to provide Black Canadians with the skills they needed to prosper and to disprove the racist beliefs of proponents of slavery who argued that Blacks were incapable of independent living. The Dawn Settlement grew to include mills and a brickyard. Settlers cleared their land and grew crops – mainly wheat, corn and tobacco – and exported locally grown black walnut lumber to Britain and the United States. At its peak, about five hundred people lived at the Dawn Settlement. Henson purchased two hundred acres of land adjacent to the community, where his family lived (one hundred of which he sold back to the Settlement at a discounted price). He preached in the Dawn Settlement's community church and served on the executive committee of the Institute.

The Dawn Settlement developed administrative problems and in 1849, the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society took over its management. After the school closed in 1868, the Dawn Settlement began to fade. Most residents either returned to the United States where slavery was abolished or moved to other communities in Ontario. Josiah and Nancy Henson, however, continued to live in Dawn for the rest of their lives.

Throughout his life, Henson was an important leader for Canada's growing Black community. He led a Black militia unit during the Rebellion of 1837, advocated in support of literacy and education for Blacks, toured parts of the United States and Britain to raise funds to support his activities and helped Black Canadians to join the Union Army to fight against slavery during the American Civil War. Today plaques from the Ontario Heritage Trust and the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada commemorate the remarkable contributions of this man.

The Queen's Bush

The term Queen's Bush was a general reference used by early settlers. Since it didn't exist, we cannot give it an official definition. Within Wellington County, "Queen's Bush" usually refers to Peel and Mary borough Township. You could probably also include Arthur Township and Minto Township, such is the arbitrary nature of this definition.


On 26 Apr 1819 the settlement of Oro was authorized by Maitland. To promote settlement (Upper Canada officials wanted the Lake Huron/Georgian Bay areas protected in the event of a backdoor attack from the US), black 1812 veterans were offered land grants in Simcoe
County. They were given (.4 ha), while white settlers were given 80 ha. Blacks who took up this offer were among the first settlers in Simcoe County. By the late 1820's land tickets were no longer required. Instead land was sold for one shilling per acre (.4 ha), then by 1831 the price was raised to five shillings. The village of Edgar was the main center of Black life in Oro.

Pierpoint Settlement

From Claude Smith: Sometimes called the "Pierpoint Settlement", was in Garafraxa Township just outside present-day Fergus. The first settlers in this area were black soldiers who fought in the Butler's Rangers regiment and in the War of 1812. Richard Pierpoint and approximately eight to ten other black veterans of War of 1812 were given land grants in Garafraxa. The settlement broke up about 1840 and the people left to other black settlements near Glen Allan, Priceville and Collingwood.


Established when Blacks in the Cincinnati area found that remaining in Ohio would be dangerous. They sent a committee to Canada to petition for help. They were given a welcome and decided to go ahead and purchase an area of land in Biddulph Twp. In Oct 1829 five to six families arrived in their new home. A few weeks later they were joined by 15 families from Boston. They became the first settlers of the township. Poor leadership & other factors caused this new settlement to fail and by 1835 the settlement only contained a few families.

The settlements and towns formed and settled by blacks continue to thrive in Canada. During the Civil War, many Canadian Freedmen returned to the United States and fought with the Union. Some returned and settled in the United States while others visited family and friends. The connections between Canadian Freedmen and African Americans remain a strong one. Canadian blacks have not forgotten that their history in the Unites States, and their commitment to freedom.

We salute our Canadian brothers and sisters whose Ancestors followed the North Star to Freedom!
(c)February2010 Anita L. Wills 

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