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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Theme: FreedomTheme: EnslavementTheme: CommunityTheme: IdentityTheme: Emancipation
Theme: Community

Fugitive slaves in Canada, ca. 1850
Fugitive slaves in Canada
- Welcome statement to fugitive slaves in Canada, ca. 1850 (PDF)
- Fugitive communities in Canada, descriptions, 1856 (PDF)

When Great Britain abolished slavery in its empire in 1834, thus making all its possessions free territory, thousands of African Americans escaped to the refuge of Canada. The migration was further spurred in 1850 with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act that permitted the capture and return of escaped slaves anywhere in the U.S.—thus the North was no longer a safe haven for escaped slaves. Up to thirty thousand slaves fled to Canada and, as in the northern U.S., many free blacks joined together to provide aid and advice. Henry Bibb and Josiah Henson, themselves escaped slaves (whose narratives are excerpted in this Toolbox), formed the Refugees' Home Colony in Canada in 1851, and Bibb established the first black newspaper in Canada, the Voice of the Fugitive. In an anti-slavery meeting (ca. 1850), Bibb delivered a welcome statement to fugitive slaves arriving in Canada. Interwoven in his brief statement are the themes of self-determination, self-respect, and, at last, self-ownership.

Fugitive settlements in Canada grew steadily, primarily in western Ontario. In 1855 the white abolitionist Benjamin Drew travelled through "Canada West" to interview fugitive slaves who had settled there, publishing their narratives in A North-Side View of Slavery: The Refugee (the narratives of John Little and his wife are included in Theme I: ENSLAVEMENT: Runaways). In these selections we read from Drew's descriptions of seven fugitive communities—from large planned settlements developed by anti-slavery activists, to groups of African Americans in large Ontario cities, to isolated backcountry groups of black farmers—and of the "True Bands" which he describes as "colored persons of both sexes, associated for their own improvement." Brief excerpts from fifteen of the fugitives' narratives are included. How did newly free African Americans create communities for themselves in the safe haven of Canada? (8 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. How did fugitive slaves create communities for themselves in the safe haven of Canada?
  2. What aid did they receive from others (blacks and white)?
  3. How did their experiences compare with those of fugitive slaves who stayed in the northern U.S.?
  4. To what extent was the sense of community among fugitive slaves influenced by their slave experience, their escape experience, and the threats to their security although in free territory?
  5. Compare the "True Bands" in Canada with other groups created by African Americans for their mutual benefit (see #5: Mutual Benefit.) What needs and goals were considered top priority in these groups?
  6. Why, and for what audience, did Benjamin Drew publish The Refugee? What rumors, "doubt and perplexity" was he trying to dispel?
  7. What hindered and enhanced communal efforts by antebellum African Americans?
  8. Compare the migration experiences of these African Americans with those who migrated to the northern U.S. in the early twentieth century (See The Making of African American Identity, Vol. III, Theme II: MIGRATIONS).

Framing Questions
  •  How did enslaved and free African Americans construct communal identities in antebellum America?
  •  What obstacles did they confront from white people? from other African Americans?
  •  How did they respond to these obstacles?
  •  How did African Americans exercise autonomy and influence through community?

Welcome statement: 1
Canada fugitives: 7
TOTAL 8 pages
Supplemental Sites
Canada: The Promised Land, in In Motion: The African American Migration Experience, from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (New York Public Library)

The Black Canadian Experience in Ontario, 1834-1914: Flight, Freedom, Foundation, from Archives of Ontario

The Underground Railroad: Niagara's Freedom Trail, from the City of St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada

A North-Side View of Slavery: The Refugee, 1856, by Benjamin Drew, full text in Documenting the American South, from the University of North Carolina Library

Interviews with five fugitive slaves in Canada, in Drew, A North-side View of Slavery, 1856, in From Revolution to Reconstruction, University of Groningen, The Netherlands

Account of escape to Canada through Wisconsin, from the Wisconsin Historical Society

History of Buxton, early African American community in Ontario, Canada, from the Buxton National Historic Site and Museum

On fugitives in Mexico: Rebellion: John Horse and the Black Seminoles, from J. B. Bird and the Southwest Alternate Media Project General Resources in African American History & Literature, 1500-1865

- Group of fugitive slaves in Ontario, Canada, photograph, ca. 1850. Reproduced by permission of the New York Public Library, Schomburg Center for Research on Black Culture.
- "Free Slaves in Canada," broadside, 1859. Library and Archives Canada, William King funds, MG 24 J 14, p. 863. Permission pending.

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

1. The Enslaved Family   2. Plantation Community   3. Religion   4. Petitions
  5. Mutual Benefit   6. The Black Press   7. Fugitives   8. Canada

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Freedom | Enslavement | Community | Identity | Emancipation

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