Canada and Slavery

The Underground Railroad was the name given to the system by which escaped slaves from the South were helped in their flight to the North. Opponents of slavery allowed their homes, called stations, to be used as places where escaped slaves were provided with food, shelter and money. The various routes went through 14 Northern states and Canada. It is estimated that by 1850 around 3,000 people worked on the underground railroad. Some of the most best known of the people who provided help on the route included William Still, Gerrit Smith, Salmon Chase, David Ruggles, Thomas Garrett, William Purvis, William Wells Brown, Frederick Douglass, Lucretia Mott, Charles Langston, Levi Coffin and Susan B. Anthony.

In Canada the Society of Friends purchased eight hundred acres of land for escaped slaves. This colony became known as the Wilberforce settlement. Austin Steward was one of those who joined this community and in his autobiography argued "that the experiment of the Wilberforce colony proves that the colored man can not only take care of himself, but is capable of improvement; as industrious and intelligent as themselves, when the yoke is taken from off their necks."

In January 1851, Henry Bibb joined with Josiah Henson to form the Refugees' Home Colony in Canada for escaped slaves. He also established Canada's first African American newspaper, the Voice of the Fugitive. One of the newspaper's regular contributors was Martin Delaney. During this period Bibb led the campaign to persuade fugitive slaves and free African Americans to settle in Canada.

Primary Sources

(1) Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1881)

The underground railroad had many branches; but that one with which I was connected had its main stations in Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, New York, Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, and St. Catharines (Canada). It is not necessary to tell who were the principal agents in Baltimore; Thomas Garrett was the agent in Wilmington; Melloe McKim, William Still, Robert Purvis, Edward M. Davis, and others did the work in Philadelphia; David Ruggles, Isaac T. Hopper, Napolian, and others, in New York city; the Misses Mott and Stephen Myers, were forwarders from Albany; Revs. Samuel J. May and J. W. Loguen, were the agents in. Syracuse; and J. P. Morris and myself received and dispatched passengers from Rochester to Canada, where they were received by Rev. Hiram Wilson.

(2) Francis Fredric, Fifty Years of Slavery (1863)

I came at last to a large station of what is called the Underground Railway, about 160 miles from the banks of the Ohio river. At this large station I remained over the winter, from November to the middle of May. I had now got pretty well assured of my safety, and had the range of a large house.

About the middle of May, I was sent to Sindusky city, on the borders of Lake Erie. I heard my friends bargain with the captain of a steamer to take me across the lake. He said, "Have you only one? I wish you had a hundred. I would gladly take them over." A noble, generous-hearted man he was!

I was landed at some town in Michigan, but I forget the name of the town. The mate took me to an Abolitionist's house, who said he would forward me on to Canada. From this town I went to another place in Pennsylvania, and from thence to a minister's house in York State. He said, for fifteen miles round they were all Abolitionists, and I was perfectly safe; that, although he was acting contrary to the Fugitive Slave Law, he did it with pleasure, since he believed that law to be contrary to the law of God, and he willingly trampled it under his feet; that he had had at least thirty fugitive slaves before me.

After a few months, the Abolitionist gentlemen held a Meeting, and I told them some of my sufferings in slavery. They prayed with me; and I remember an old Quaker lady, shaking me by the hand, and speaking kindly, said, "Thee must not, when thee gets to Canada, say, 'I have been smart.' Thee must remember, that it is the Lord who has been thy friend. Ask Him to give thee a portion of His Spirit; and give Him the glory and honour."

(3) Walter Hawkins moved to Brentford, Canada where he became a Methodist church minister.

Soon after the family arrived, a revival broke out in the town, and many new members were added to the church; by which means the minister got a little more generous support, which was very much needed, as sickness laid many of the family low and created fresh difficulties and additional expenses. The Fugitive Slave Law drove more black people into Canada, which gave Mr. Hawkins more anxiety for their bodily and spiritual well-being. Besides preaching at the head of the circuit, he had to travel day and night under very trying circumstances. Often he had to go out in the morning after a light breakfast, and walk, talk, pray, and sing a whole day before having any dinner. In some villages he had all that to do on an empty stomach, as the people had barely enough for themselves, far less to give anything away. Indeed, the man could not find it in his heart to take from people who ran away from slavery as penniless as he himself was when be made good his escape to Philadelphia. The poor wretches, on entering Canada, had to dive straight away into the wild woods to make a home for themselves as best they could. Not only had they to clear the land that had been given to them, but they were bound to work for the farmers around to get bread for their families to subsist upon, until such time as their own crops grew, and were reaped to turn into ready money.

What could a poor Methodist minister do in the midst of such poverty which stared him in the face? How little can we, who live in a country much more favourable than theirs, imagine what must have been the sufferings of a minister and his flock in a new country at such a time! What aching hearts, hungry stomachs, and destitution must have reigned in their midst! Hawkins often looks back on those dreary days, saying: "I would get a quarter of a dollar, sometimes a half, and maybe a little meat, flour, or potatoes, just as it might happen"; and yet he felt happier than when he was a slave. He would travel around his circuit once in four weeks, proclaiming the message of salvation to his race. His income was then about one dollar, or four shillings and twopence, for four weeks' hard labour. Though hard, the work was pleasant.

(4) After escaping from slavery, Austin Steward settled in Canada.

The Society of Friends at this time, however, with commendable sympathy for the oppressed and abused colored residents of Cincinnati, and with their proverbial liberality, raised a sum of money sufficient to purchase eight hundred acres of land of the Canada Company for the benefit of the colony. The funds were placed in the hands of one of their number, Frederick Stover, who went to Canada as their agent, purchased the land, and settled colored people upon it, which comprised nearly all of the Wilberforce settlement.

The settlers in Wilberforce, were in general, industrious and thrifty farmers: they cleared their land, sowed grain, planted orchards, raised cattle, and in short, showed to the world that they were in no way inferior to the white population, when given an equal chance with them. In proof of this let me say, that it was uniformly the practice of persons traveling from London to Goderich, to remain in our settlement over night, in preference to going on to find entertainment among their own class of people. And we believe that the whites are bound to admit, that the experiment of the Wilberforce colony proves that the colored man can not only take care of himself, but is capable of improvement; as industrious and intelligent as themselves, when the yoke is taken from off their necks, and a chance given them to exorcise their abilities. True, many of them had just escaped from cruel task-masters; ignorant of almost every thing but the lash, - but the air of freedom so invigorated and put new life into their weary bodies, that they soon became intelligent and thrifty.