Narratives of Fugitive Slaves – Part 3

Part 3 of a 4-Part Series

The Ignorance of Canadian Slavery

In his mission to present Fugitive Slaves as safe and happy in Canada, Benjamin Drew ignores the history of slavery in Canada in his publication The North-Side View of Slavery: Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada published in 1856.

There’s something about a romanticized version of 18th and 19th century Canadian history that persists today, even though historians and the public alike are generally aware that things were not as great as they have been presented to us. The ignorance of the existence of slavery in Canada is worrying. In many ways, our ‘national Canadian identity’ is built on identifying differences between Canada and the United States.

Drew’s entire publication is based on this fact that Canada (and perhaps the Free-States) are different, and therefore better, because of the absence of slavery. What most visitors to our Follow the North Star exhibit don’t realize, is that slavery was a very real institution in Canada. It is incredibly important that we acknowledge this because if we believe that something like slavery could never exist then we become ignorant to the signs of the past which might persist in our present day.

It is the terrible story of violence against slaves in Canada that led to the introduction of the Act to Prevent the Further Introduction of Slaves and to Limit the Term of Contract of Servitude in Upper Canada, in July of 1793. For more information on the Act and the story that pushed Lt. Gov. John Graves Simcoe to introduce the bill to a legislature sympathetic to slave owners, please visit the Canadian Encyclopedia powered by Historica Canada.

I doubt Drew was ignorant to the history of slavery in Canada, after all, the British parliament passed the Emancipation Act, abolishing slavery across the British Empire in 1833, and so the gradual emancipation of slaves over the previous 60 years was not ancient history. If we are to use his publication as a historical source, then the results of his intentions are to be included in our scrutiny.

Understanding these historical truths is vital to understanding the narratives of the fugitive slaves.

St. Catharines as Freedomland

“Rents and provisions are dear here, and it takes all I can earn to support myself and my children. I could have one of my children well brought up and taken care of, by some friends in Massachusetts, which would much relieve me, but I cannot have my child go there on account of the laws, which would not protect her. This is a hardship: but had I to struggle much harder than at present, I would prefer it to being a slave. Now I can lie down at night in peace – there I had no peace even at night, on account of my master’s conduct.” – Mrs. Ellis (pp 63-64).

There is a consistent sense of urgency in Drew’s publication, and through the interviews with the escaped slaves he included. Even if performed or edited to appear as such, there is evidence to support the general lack of happiness, if not prosperity for escaped slaves in St. Catharines. And in many of the interviews it feels as if they say: “I’m free from slavery. Now what?”

Reverend Alexander Hemsley prefaced his personal fugitive narrative with a discussion of the conditions of escaped slaves in the community with a plea to those more fortunate to “relieve the sick and suffering – the fugitive and the oppressed – to an extent sometimes fully up to the means in his hands, any ‘increase’ must come from those who may feel disposed to let their means assist his abundant opportunities of benevolent action.” (pp 54).

By highlighting a need to help fugitive slaves in the community, Hemsely gives an alternate perspective of the widely-held view that fugitive slaves were well contented while in St. Catharines. Again, I think it’s important to note that indeed, escaped slaves were pleased to be free from bondage, but that does not mean that they were also happy in their conditions in St. Catharines. Nevertheless, many other sources tell of the happiness and success of the fugitive slaves in the community.

Frederick Douglass noted on his visit to St. Catharines that he “saw no destitution, misery or starvation amongst the coloured people.” William Hamilton Merritt, and several other white abolitionist business leaders established the Refugee Slaves’ Friends Society in 1852 (which I keep calling the Friends of the Refugee Slaves Society, so I apologize for the confusion) which aided those arriving from slavery. Merritt famously sold the congregation of the Salem Chapel, a British Methodist Episcopal Church, the land upon which the church still stands today.

A photo of the congregation of the BME Salem Chapel in the 20th century.

William Wells Brown wrote a fantastic description of ‘Coloured Town’ (Welland Avenue at Geneva Street) in St. Catharines, where most escaped slaves had settled:

“The Coloured Settlement:

The coloured settlement is a hamlet, situated on the outskirts of the village, and contains about 100 houses, 40 of which lie on North Street, the Broadway of the place. The houses are chiefly cottages, with 3 to 6 rooms, and on lots of land nearly a quarter of an acre each…Each family has a good garden, well filled with vegetables, ducks, chickens, and a pig-pen, with at least one fat grunter getting ready for Christmas. The houses, with the lots upon which they stand, are worth upon average about $500.00 each.

The houses in the settlement are all owned by their occupants, and from inquiry, I learned that the people were generally free from debt. Out of the eight hundred in St. Catharines, about seven hundred of them are fugitive slaves….Among them, I found seventeen carpenters, four blacksmiths, six coopers, and five shoemakers. Two omnibuses and two hacks are driven by coloured men.”

So, if the population of escaped slaves was doing so well, then what are the fugitive slaves in Drew’s book referring to? Again, we must watch for any bias in editing by Drew but it does directly question this rosy picture of escaped slaves in Canada. Just because they were free, doesn’t mean that they were happy. So often, we assume that they were happy to be here. One might be pleased to be free from violence, war, or slavery, but would one be happy to be away from home, friends, and family? It is important to try to understand the emotional conflict that refugees like escaped slaves went through so that we might have some element of empathy in understanding the challenges and conditions refugees are escaping today.

Hemsley’s story is one of fear and I would encourage you to read his entire interview contained within Drew’s publication (pp 53-60). Per his narrative, he had escaped his master in Virginia, had evaded capture, and lived on his own for approximately 8 years. Though, when some bounty hunters and local police force found out that he was an escaped slave, they arrested him and brought him to trial. He spent most of February in jail, but was eventually declared free and was released. Here is where I pick up the story of his journey to St. Catharines:

“My friends were afraid my claimants would waylay and smuggle me, and thought I had better leave for the North, which I did. I travelled some two hundred miles, most of the way on foot into Otsego County, New York, which I gave out through fatigue. I was sick when I got there. Here I was joined by my wife and children. I remained here until navigation opened – we were forty miles from the [Erie] canal at Utica…I went on directly to Rochester, where I remained but one night…I felt that my persecutors who brought this trouble on me were actuated by a demonlike principle. We embarked from Rochester on board a British boat, The Traveller, for Toronto.

When I reached English territory, I had a comfort in the law – that my shackles were struck off, and that a man was a man by law. I had been in comfortable circumstances, but all my little property was lawed away. I was among strangers, poverty-stricken, and in a cold country. I had been used to farming, and so could not find in the city such assistance as I needed: in a few days, I left for St. Catharines, where I have ever since remained…

When I reached St. Catharines I was enfeebled in health. I had come to a small inferior place; there were pines growing all about here where you now see brick houses. I rented a house, and with another man took five acres of cleared land, and got along with it very well. We did not get enough from this to support us; but I got work at half a dollar or seventy-five cents a day and board myself. We were then making both ends meet. I then made up my mind that salt and potatoes in Canada were better than pound-cake and chickens in a state of suspense and anxiety in the United States. Now I am a regular Britisher. My American blood has been scoured out of me; I have lost my American tastes; I am an enemy to tyranny…

I am now about sixty years of age, and have been lying sick about nine months. I have here a house and a quarter of an acre of land. I have had a deal of sickness in my family, and it has kept me comparatively poor: it would take $200.00 to clear my estate of encumbrances. Had it not been for sickness, it would be have been paid for long ago.”

Historians will sympathize: if one thing is certain, it is that we remain uncertain. How common a phrase in so many histories. It can be incredibly frustrating when the historical evidence contradicts itself and makes something that was once easy to understand and to be proud of into something that is messy. We like certain histories so we can easily understand and process the stories. Messy histories complicate the very ideas of who we are. And so, I am certain in my uncertainty about the livelihood and prosperity of fugitive slaves in St. Catharines, and likely in other Canadian towns.

If Canada’s Black History is to be woven with Canadian history, and therefore a part of our national identity, then we must check and give up our romanticized notions that Canada was the perfect terminus of the Underground Railroad. It is likely that the picture of a welcoming, racism-free ‘Freedomland’ community for fugitive slaves was as much a performance for Drew’s abolitionist audience, as it is a performance of our own national identity as Canadians today.

For more information about Black History in St. Catharines, please consider attending a guided tour of our Follow the North Star exhibit: Tuesdays, February 21 and 28 at 2 p.m. and Thursdays, February 23 at 10 a.m.

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 Slavesin Canada. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2008. 





  1. Thank you Adrian. There is a story William Wells Brown told of a kidnapping in St. Catharines organized by a slave trader. The Stanford family were the victims and the story leads the reader through much tension before the little family made it home to St. Catharines again. It is Chapter 12, of his autobiography, ‘Narrative of William W. Brown, Fugitive Slave’
    A worthwhile read.

    • Thank you for the comment, Isabel! Stories like that definitely add to the questioning of the purpose of Drew’s publication. Very interesting, indeed.

  2. Great Post as always. As you say many Canadians have a “romanticized” vision of their country especially when it comes to their own history. Most people as a rule don’t like to dig into what is true and what is not. I think one of the reasons for this is that when they dig into the past they find themselves confronted with a truth that doesn’t support the narrative that they believe is true. Good work!

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