A re-enactment of the Freedom Crossing (Wikimedia/Lynn DeLearie/CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Underground Railroad was not an actual railroad, but instead, a secret network of people — known as abolitionists — who helped between 30,000 to 40,000 African Americans escape slavery. Freed slaves would find sanctuary in Canada, as well as some Northern states that abolished slavery.
In 1846, former slave John Freeman Walls and his white wife escaped from North Carolina to Canada where they raised a family and built a cabin. This cabin would become one of Canada’s famous stations in the underground railroad.
Abolitionist Josiah Henson is the inspiration for the character Uncle Tom in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom's Cabin, and his famous cabin was inspired by a home in Ontario. Henson was also an abolitionist who helped settle other fugitives at his New Dawn Settlement. He escaped to Canada from Kentucky in 1830.
The Sandwich First Baptist Church was a significant stop along the Underground Railroad. The land was granted to the newly freed inhabitants of Olde Sandwich Towne — now a neighbourhood of the city of Windsor — by Queen Victoria in 1847. During services, the ringing of a particular bell and the start of a certain spiritual song was a signal for runaways to hide in the church’s trap door cellar when bounty hunters swept through.
Class photo taken in front of the only school in Canada built (1861) by fugitive slaves at the Elgin Settlement in Buxton, Ontario. (Wikimedia/Public Domain)
The Buxton National Historic Site & Museum commemorates the Elgin Settlement: one of the final stops for the Underground Railroad. Founded in 1849 by Rev. William King, this settlement was known for its superior educational system and became a self-sufficient community for about 2,000 people. Today, descendants of the original settlers who remained in Canada still live in Buxton.
Long before the Underground Railroad, black settlers from both French and English backgrounds settled in towns like Annapolis Royal and Birchtown, Nova Scotia. These cities not only became a welcome home to freed slaves searching for sanctuary north of the border, but also to former black soldiers in the British colonial military forces, known as Black Loyalists, who were looking to relocate north to Canada after the American War of Independence.