Underground Railroad
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Underground Railroad

In the 1850s and 1860s, British North America became a popular refuge for slaves fleeing the horrors of plantation life in the American South. In all 30,000 slaves fled to Canada, many with the help of the underground railroad - a secret network of free blacks and white sympathizers who helped runaways.
Harriet Tubman helped hundreds of slaves safely across the Canadian border. She became known as the Moses of her people. (As portrayed by Barbara Barnes- Hopkins in Canada: A People's History)
Harriet Tubman helped hundreds of slaves safely across the Canadian border. She became known as the Moses of her people. (As portrayed by Barbara Barnes- Hopkins in Canada: A People's History)

Canada was viewed as a safe haven, where a black person could be free. In Upper Canada (officially called Canada West), slavery had been illegal since the end of the 1700s.

Southern slave-owners tried to discourage flight by telling slaves that the Detroit River was 3,000 miles wide and that the abolitionists (people who opposed slavery) were cannibals: "they get you darkies up there, fatten you up and then boil you."

But others countered the slave-owners' propaganda and encouraged slaves to take flight. Mary Ann Shadd was a freeborn black woman - not born into slavery - from Delaware who settled in Canada. She wrote a 45-page booklet for American blacks entitled, A Plea for Emigration, or; Notes of Canada West in its Moral, Social and Political Aspect.

"In Canada as in recently settled countries, there is much to do, and comparatively few for the work... If a coloured man understands his business, he receives the public patronage the same as a white man," Shadd wrote.
Some black people fled to Canada from northern American cities after an 1850s law gave slave owners the right to pursue escaped slaves anywhere in the United States. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Some black people fled to Canada from northern American cities after an 1850s law gave slave owners the right to pursue escaped slaves anywhere in the United States. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Many blacks were willing to risk everything for a chance at freedom and one of their heroes was a black woman named Harriet Tubman. Tubman was born into a slave family in Maryland. After she fled north to freedom, she became one of the chief organizers of the underground railroad.

"There are two things I had a right to - liberty or death. If I could not have one, I would have the other for no man should take me alive," Tubman said.

Month after month Tubman helped blacks safely across the Canadian border. They followed rivers, hid in swamps and forest and always feared slave-hunters at their backs. Tubman became known as the Moses of her people and slaves owners put a bounty on her head of $40,000.

Tubman made 19 trips to the South between 1850 and 1860 leading around 300 people to freedom. After the American Civil War, Tubman remained active for such causes as equality in education and women's rights.

In the cities and town of British North America anti-slavery societies sprang up to welcome the newcomers. But sympathy for the new arrivals only went so far. For every meeting in favour of abolition, there was another wanting an end to black immigration. Some citizens openly demanded slaves be sent back.

"... let (them)... be free in their own country; let us not countenance their further introduction among us; in a word, let the people of the United States bear the burden of their sins," wrote one colonist.
Despite hostility from white colonists, thousands of black Americans, many fleeing slavery, settled in pre-Confederation Canada. (Courtesy of the Archives of Ontario)
Despite hostility from white colonists, thousands of black Americans, many fleeing slavery, settled in pre-Confederation Canada. (Courtesy of the Archives of Ontario)

One incident highlighted the colonists' ambiguous attitudes towards the blacks and their place in the colonies.

American slave-hunters followed escaped slaves into Canada. If they could not find who they were looking for, the slave-hunters sometimes took someone else to sell into slavery.

In September 1858, slave-hunters captured a 10-year-old boy named Venus. The boy was to be sent to the Southern states aboard a train scheduled to pass through Chatham, a town of 3,585 where half the citizens were black.

When Mary Shadd's brother Isaac heard about the capture of Venus, he marshalled a crowd and stormed the train. Although Venus turned out to be a freeborn black, the raid on the train still angered some white Canadians.

"A great outrage has been committed on the Great Western at Chatham," wrote Amelia Harris, a society matron from London, Canada West. "A southern gentleman was passing through with a slave boy of ten years old. Some Negro made the discovery here and telegraphed to the coloured people in Chatham who assembled a mob of three hundred and when the train stopped at the station they took the boy forcibly from his master although the child cried and did not wish to go... It will turn the American travel from Canada."

Isaac Shadd and six others were found guilty of rioting. Several of them went to jail when they were unable to pay the heavy fines. Isaac's aunt, E.J. William, wrote from her home in Delaware.

"I am much afraid that Canada is not going to prove what it was cracked up to be ... American gold will bye it in time and Canada will... become the hunting ground for the American bloodhound."

Still many slaves did find a home in Canada and they became part a new land that was on the verge of transformation.
In Victoria, Vancouver Island, escaped slaves formed a regiment to defend British North America. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)
In Victoria, Vancouver Island, escaped slaves formed a regiment to defend British North America. (Courtesy of the National Archives of Canada)

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