Objects Legacies: Leg Shackles

Museum Collections vaults are naturally very curious and intriguing places. You could spend hours wandering through our vaults, examining the artifacts and considering who might have owned them, what these objects meant to them, and how they might have been used. Though each artifact sits unassuming in their allotted shelves locations, certain artifacts compel certain feelings just by looking at them. For most artifacts, it’s a sense of nostalgia or affection. Yet, each museum collection likely includes artifacts that also exude something darker.

The leg shackles are stored rather inconspicuously in a white box in the Museum’s Collections Vaults.

In the St. Catharines Museum’s Collections vaults, carefully arranged in a specially cut translucent white box and placed upon two long grey acid-free storage boxes, is a pair of leg shackles. They are made of wrought iron, with a clasp on one end of the chain and two large triangular shaped linked at the other end. From these parts, we see that the shackles functioned by restraining its wearer, attaching to their ankle to restrict movement and physically restrain. We know that wrought iron is unforgivable in its inability to bend or give ease. It would have felt hard, cold, and rough against the wearer’s skin. We wince at the thought of wearing these. This artifact, as an object of material history, immediately evokes feelings of discomfort and unease. The artifact, in itself, alludes to a sinister past.

Leg Shackles, c. 1850. STCM 1979.51.1.

The historical relevance given to this artifact further corroborates this gut reaction. Written in its catalogue record, under the Object Name “Shackles,” is the following statement of provenance:

“Leg irons used on slaves during the 19th century.”

Based on the style and material of the object, the artifact is given an approximate date of 1850. Neither a location, nor name of the owner associated with the object is recorded. Yet, we know its function, and we understand its purpose.

Due its age and intricate parts, there are a number of threats that could harm the integrity of the artifact, including temperature, humidity. The artifact is stored in acid-free polyethylene foam.

As a part of material history, this artifact viscerally reminds us of the brutal and cruel reality of slavery. The shackles represent the reality that so many refugee African-Americans escaped when they journeyed the Underground Railroad into St. Catharines. They are a stark reminder of centuries of racial oppression and enslavement, but can also offer us an opportunity to think about resistance and the fight for emancipation.   

The story of Chloe Cooley, for example, begins with physical restraints that may have been similar to these. Chloe was an enslaved Black woman in Queenston, Upper Canada who became the catalyst for the abolitionist movement in the province in 1793. In March of that year, Chloe was violently bound and thrown in a boat to be taken across the river and sold in the United States. She resisted so fiercely that her screams and struggles caught the attention of concerned onlookers and the incident was reported to Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe.

Simcoe, who supported the abolition of enslavement, responded to Chloe Cooley’s experience by introducing the 1793 Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada. The motion was opposed in the House of Assembly, as some of its members were slave owners, but eventually a compromise was reached and the Upper Canada legislature passed “an Act to prevent the further introduction of slaves, and to limit the term of contract for servitude.” While this law did not free enslaved persons outright, it did prohibit the importation of enslaved people into Upper Canada and allowed the gradual abolition of enslavement. It was the first legislation in the British colonies to restrict slavery.

While the leg shackles in the Museum’s Collection are not directly connected to Chloe Cooley, this artifact helps us understand her story more tangibly. As a physical object, the shackles offer us a more visceral sense of the brutal oppression faced by Black individuals. They also serve as a catalyst for starting and sustaining difficult conversations about this violent past.

It is easy to be complacent, to avoid such challenging topics, and to keep artifacts with such sinister histories hidden away from view. However, we have a responsibility to our past and to our community to talk about the dark, difficult parts of our history. Each artifact in the Museum Collection tells us story that helps us more deeply understand the complexities of our community’s history, both the good and bad parts. It is important for us to highlight these artifacts, and to bring their stories from their unassuming locations on storage shelves and into the public. Only then can we learn from them.

To learn more about Chloe Cooley and Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada, please visit the Canadian Encyclopedia.

To read 1793 Act to Prevent the further Introduction of Slaves and to limit the Term of Contracts for Servitude Statutes of Upper Canada in its entirety, please visit the Archives of Ontario.

Sara Nixon is a public historian and Public Programmer at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.

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