There is a growing fascination across North America with the story of the “Underground Railroad” – the informal network of daring people and safe refuges, in both the United States and Canada, that helped thousands of fugitives escape the evils of slavery. In the United States, academic institutions, historians, genealogists, and media outlets have for years been sharing the American side of the story with an increasingly enthusiastic audience. Less well known, but an essential part of the story, is the role that Ontario – once known as Upper Canada, then as Canada West – played in this drama. Scattered across the province are individuals, museums, churches, and historical societies striving to conserve and present this enthralling tale. Numerous National Historic designations assigned within the past decade testify to the value Canada places on the struggles and triumphs of the people who followed the North Star to freedom. Thousands visit these historic sites annually, vastly more thousands make contact by phone or by mail, or visit the websites, and many groups invite Underground Railroad historians to address their members. Perhaps most important, the story of the Underground Railroad is now taught in many classrooms across the continent, ensuring that future generations will not forget the importance of those tumultuous years.
Some of the photographs that appear on the following pages can be found in the museums and heritage sites listed at the end of the book, where there is also a map of their locations.
The stories celebrated in these historic sites are many; our pages here are few. We hope you will come and visit the sites themselves, for a closer experience of these remarkable people, and the desperate times in which they lived. For more information, see the last chapter, “Tracing Their Steps Today.”
Human Cargo, Human Wares
“wanted, to purchase a negro girl, from seven to twelve years of age…”
The story of the Underground Railroad is a chapter in a much larger story. That story began in Africa, where people were captured, traded, and sold. It continued on board ships that carried them across the Atlantic Ocean, in a nightmare trip known as the Middle Passage. Next, the victims – those fortunate enough to survive the voyage – found themselves driven onto auction blocks, and sold to the highest bidder. In the fields and businesses and homes of their new masters, they would labor and suffer and die as slaves. Their children would inherit their slavery and their pain, which would be passed down through the generations.
The Atlantic slave trade began around the early 1500s, not long after Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World. Many European countries, including Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, England, and France, participated. Millions of Africans were captured, usually by other Africans, and forced to march to holding pens on the coast until they could be loaded onto sailing ships. Some of these unlucky people had been captured by their enemies, as prisoners of war. Others had been sentenced to slavery as punishment for crimes – even crimes as minor as stealing a tobacco pipe. Yet others were tricked into boarding the ship, believing that they were going on business; or were fooled into sending their children to Europe “to be educated.” Sometimes children were sold by their own parents, as payment for debt.
Historians estimate that, one way or another, between thirteen and fifteen million Africans were boarded onto slave ships for the trip across the ocean. Of that number, perhaps only ten million survived.
The largest number of slaves were shipped to the Caribbean islands of the West Indies. Many were put to work in the sugarcane fields, helping produce sugar for the European market. While they were making their owners rich, the slaves were also becoming conditioned to the work and the climate. Those who survived could then be resold to more lucrative markets, particularly in the American south. Almost three and a half million slaves were sent to Brazil, in South America. Nearly two million were delivered directly to the North American continent, and others arrived there via the Caribbean.
Although this book talks about slavery as part of the history of the Western hemisphere, slavery has played a role in history around the world. Wherever people have been enslaved, they have longed to escape, and other people – people of conscience – have lent their assistance, or at least their sympathies, to aid in that escape. “Underground Railroads” would develop, in different forms, in many of those places – in the ancient biblical time of Moses and the Egyptian pharaohs, for example.
Although many people think of slavery as part of American history, it was also very much a part of early Canadian history, from the Maritimes to the coast of the Pacific. Records show that, as early as 1501, a Portuguese explorer enslaved fifty native Canadian men and women. In 1632, a “Negro” boy, Oliver Le Jeune, is mentioned in Jesuit documents; he may have been the first African to be transported and sold into Canada. A brief but touching account of his life appears in The Blacks in Canada: A History, by the late Robin Winks. At about six years of age he was taken from Madagascar by the English. After traveling to England, he came with his new masters to New France (now Quebec) and was sold to a French clerk. Shortly thereafter, he was given to a person who seems to have been kindhearted. Oliver helped tend to his owner’s family of ten children, and – unlike most slaves, who were kept illiterate – was allowed to be educated by a Jesuit (Catholic priest) teacher. He was also allowed to be baptized, and to take a family name; he chose “Le Jeune,” his teacher’s surname. Oliver died at about age thirty, apparently as a free person. We don’t know how he was able to regain his freedom.
Slavery was very common in New France. Following the French surrender to the British in 1760, when French territories in Canada became British possessions, the French governor of Canada, the Marquis de Vaudreuil, described the liberal terms of surrender he had accepted: the French inhabitants would be allowed to keep their household goods and furs, and to continue to practice their religion. He added: “They keep their Negro or Panis [native] slaves but are obliged to give back those taken from the English.” It seems that neither the English nor the French commanders minded the custom of slavery, as long as neither side could take away the other side’s slaves.
For almost two centuries, both blacks and natives continued to work as slaves in Canada. They served as domestics and field hands, worked in the fur trade, and performed many other duties. Matthew Dolsen, who was of European descent, owned a tavern near present-day Chatham, Ontario, and had among his slaves a Panis woman who had been stolen as a child by members of the Chippewa tribe. His native neighbor, Sally Ainse, owned “Negro” slaves.
Even whites occasionally became slaves. Margaret Kleine was “adopted” as a slave by native chief Joseph Brant after her family was killed in the Mohawk Valley of New York. Brant later moved to what is now Brantford, Ontario, and brought his slaves with him. Margaret Kleine had better luck than most slaves – she married Jean Baptiste Rousseau, who helped to found the town of Ancaster – but her early experiences left a lasting mark, and so soured her disposition that she became known for being incapable of any acts of kindness.
Another young white girl, from a prominent family in Pennsylvania, was captured prior to August of 1782 – while the British and the Americans were still at war – and made a slave by a band of native raiders. Her name was Sarah Cole and she was ten years old. Sarah was sold to a prominent man near Kingston, Ontario, but when this came to the attention of the Canadian authorities they were outraged, stating that “national honor” was at stake. They threatened to make the owner forfeit the money he had paid for the girl and “if possible to punish and make him an example to prevent such inhuman conduct for the Future.” In the end, they purchased Sarah for the equivalent of $42.50 and a string of wampum (beads) and returned her to the American colonies, with other prisoners of war.
Stories such as Sarah’s and Margaret’s are poignant but rare. Overwhelming in their number are the stories of the darker-hued children whose bondage did not arouse public indignation – children such as the boy and girl slaves of William Jarvis, of York (now Toronto), who got little sympathy from the Canadian court in 1811. Accused of running away and stealing, the boy was packed off to jail and the girl was returned to the mercy of their master. National honor, it seems, was not involved.
The common image of slaves is of adults, strong-bodied men and women who were able to toil in the houses and the fields. For example, a Niagara Herald newspaper advertisement placed by the Widow Clement offered to sell a man and a woman who “have been bred to the business of the farm.” The York Gazette and Oracle of February 19, 1806, advertised “Peggy, age forty, who two years before had absented herself without leave” and said Peggy’s skills had been learned as a house-slave; she was touted as being a “tolerable washerwoman” who could also make soap and candles. Many other advertisements reinforced this image of experienced, capable grownups.
However, the reality is that slaves came in all ages. We are left to wonder what young life may have been sold to W. and J. Crooks, of West Niagara, who advertised in the October 11, 1791 Gazette, in chilling commercial jargon, “wanted, to purchase a negro girl, from seven to twelve years of age, of good disposition. For fuller particulars apply to the subscribers…”