Narratives of Fugitive Slaves – Part 1

Part 1 of a 4-Part Series

As a historian, I look at Black History Month as an opportunity to deepen my appreciation of the stories of those in our community who have a specific shared history as members of the Black community. Though it is important to observe Black History Month, it is vital we recognize Black History as Canadian History. It is important that we recognize that our histories are tied together and that we celebrate and remember all stories as a part of our national story, and not solely individually on a month-by-month basis.

I try to observe Black History Month by furthering my research, understanding, and appreciation of the stories of those who travelled on the Underground Railroad in the search for freedom. The stories of the refugee slaves are daunting, exciting, terrifying, and important for us all to understand how slavery could drive people make the trip from the southern United States to Canada on foot.

St. Catharines played an important part in the success of the Underground Railroad. In railroad speak, the city was a destination, or terminal for refugee slaves. Many who made it to Canada settled in the city, which for reasons associated with the success of the Welland Canal, was, by mid-19th century standards, a thriving and bustling city rivaling Hamilton and London in population and industrial activity.

By the nature of the secrecy on the Underground Railroad there are not a lot of historical sources available that feature information about the refugee slaves themselves. Most of our information about the Underground Railroad comes from the abolitionists who published their stories and writings in books and newspapers. One exception is a collection of interviews published by white, American abolitionist Benjamin Drew of Boston, in 1856, titled: A North-Side View of Slavery; the Refugee: or the Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada.

drewtp.jpg

As historical sources go, it answers a lot of questions regarding the actual travel between slavery and freedom, what kind of conditions slaves endured while enslaved, and what St. Catharines and other Canadian cities were like when they arrived. Though the publication was created specifically as a response to Nehemiah Adam’s pro-slavery A South-Side View of Slavery (1855), we should be aware of any possible abolitionist slant to create a rosy picture of life in St. Catharines. Even still, the interviews still reveal a lot about what kind of life refugee slaves could look forward to in Canada.

Over the next three Sundays in February, I will share some of Drew’s interviews and provide information and context to give a wider picture of the refugee slave experience on the Underground Railroad and settlement in Canada.

Black History Month is an extremely important time for us as Canadians to reflect on this important shared history, and, with purpose, examine and check our present attitudes about race, history, inclusiveness, education, and community. Black History is Canadian History.

To conclude, I will include one of the shorter interviews from The Narratives of the Refugee Slaves given by a man named John Sewell:

The man that owned me was not fit to own a dog. I had been waiting to get away for the last twenty years. I grieved over my condition, and groaned over it. A few months ago, I succeeded in escaping. After I got among some abolitionists, I was almost scared; they used me so well, I was afraid of a trick. I had been used so ill before, that I did not know what to make of it to be used decently.*

Benjamin Drew (1812-1903) was an American abolitionist from Boston whose work was made possible thanks to the support of the Canadian Anti-Slavery Society and John P. Jewett, a renowned anti-slavery sympathizer from Boston who had unexpectedly reaped a fortune from publishing Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852.

Adrian Petry is a public historian and the Visitor Services Coodinator at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.

*Benjamin Drew. The Refugee : Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2008. pp 60. 

2 comments

  1. FYI,.. a 2007 book “From midnight to dawn” by Jacqueline L Tobin ( The last tracks of the underground railroad ) would be interesting to anyone reading about this subject. I found it in a used book store here in Virginia and paid only a couple of dollars for it. It especially deals with what happened to those who moved to Canada to be safe…. and then after the civil war many moved back.

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