This is the first in a guest blog series written by Rochelle Bush, resident historian of Salem Chapel BME Church and community advocate in St. Catharines, as part of the Museum’s Black History Month commemorations.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the history of St. Catharines, and the local activities that took place here during the 1850s. This decade thrills me because, as we know, St. Catharines was Harriet Tubman’s last stop on the Underground Railroad (UGRR) during this time.
We know that in 1868, Tubman, when discussing the impact of the US 1850 Fugitive Slave Act with Sarah Bradford, her first biographer, said, “I wouldn’t trust Uncle Sam with my people no longer; I brought them all clear off to Canada.” We also know that in 1897, Tubman provided Professor Wilbur Siebert with a full account of her general UGRR route and told him when she reached Rochester, New York “she got on the train for the Suspension Bridge and St. Catharine’s (sic) in Canada.”
I do not claim to be a Harriet Tubman authority because I am not. I do not know everything. I am an independent researcher. As a tour operator, I am a fact-based storyteller; a purveyor of living history. Here is my brief narrative with a few thoughts about Tubman, the UGRR, and the town of St. Catharines in 1858:
Harriet Tubman was around 5 feet tall, weighed roughly 100 lbs., was physically fit, and in 1858, believed to be about 36 years old. She had a disability many referred to as “sleeping spells” which in actuality were epileptic seizures. Tubman was fearless, and she loved the Lord.
After Tubman escaped from bondage in 1849, she became involved with a secret organization known as the Underground Railroad (UGRR). This clandestine network of people aided the escapes of enslaved African Americans fleeing from bondage. Harriet Tubman’s secret code name was “Moses.”
At the start of 1858 Tubman was living in the boarding house she rented in St. Catharines, Canada West (now Ontario) with her elderly parents; Benjamin Ross Sr. and Ritta ‘Rit’ Green Ross. The town of St. Catharines was a hub for abolitionist activity. With a population of about 6,500 in 1857, around 600 were people of African descent, and the majority of them were self-liberated African Americans.
As with most members of the Black community in St. Catharines, Tubman and her parents came to St. Catharines seeking freedom and safety. Tubman brought her parents from Poplar Neck, Caroline County, Maryland in July 1857 after learning her father, Benjamin Sr., was suspected of being an UGRR operative and to be arrested. Maryland enslavers alleged that free Blacks living in several different counties were covert abolitionists and blamed them for the high numbers of escapes that occurred in 1856 and 1857. Tubman’s father was both a free Black man and a friend of Reverend Samuel Green, another free Black man, who was arrested on 4 April 1857 and charged with aiding and abetting eight freedom seekers the previous month.
The Delaware Eight
On or about March 7th, 1857 a group of eight runaways from Dorchester County, “six men and two women, armed with guns and knives” fled from bondage. This group was hotly pursued. A reward totaling almost $3000 was offered for their capture and return to slavery. Green was suspected of aiding in their escape.
Their journey was harrowing. Travelling at night, the group reached the Camden, Delaware area in the early morning hours on March 12th. Thomas Otwell, a free Black man, and Tubman associate, became their UGRR guide. As the group rested during the day, Otwell conspired with a white man named James Hollis to turn them in and collect the reward. They agreed that Otwell would lead the unsuspecting group to the Dover jail.
In the evening Otwell began to move the party of freedom seekers up the Delaware UGRR line to Dover. They reached the jail around 4 a.m. on March 13th. They went up a few flights of stairs and were “led to a cold room with no burning fire.” One of the fugitives noticed “iron bars across the moonlit window” and said “he did not like the looks of the place” and quickly stepped back into the hallway where the group was confronted by the Sherriff. The Sheriff moved down the stairs and the group followed. He entered his living area to retrieve his revolver. While one male fugitive tangled with the Sheriff, another smashed out the windows allowing the others to jump 12 feet, then he set the room on fire. The fleeing fugitives became separated. They ran off in different directions and probably did not come together again until they all reached Philadelphia. The Dover Reporter published the story later in the day on March 13th. This escape was headline news! The group of self-liberators became known as the “Dover Eight.”
Tubman was in St. Catharines with her brothers when she heard that a highly prized manhunt was taking place along the UGRR eastern lines and slave catchers were after people she knew. She most likely provided the Dover Eight with escape instructions.
Tubman understood the gravity of the situation. She knew that the fleeing fugitives were five days out, at the very least, from completing their journey ― if they were moved along with rapid speed and all would go well. It was up to Tubman’s colleagues to “work the line and pass the Dover Eight through.”
On March 20th after a hairbreadth escape, the Dover Eight arrived in St. Catharines. One member of the group was missing.
Tubman in all likelihood gathered information from the group about the escape and sheltered them at her boarding house before leaving for Philadelphia where she appeared nine days later. There she told her UGRR colleague William Still, an African American abolitionist and area station manager that she was “headed south.”
Around the same time Tubman was in Philadelphia, law enforcement in Dorchester County found out that Reverend Samuel Green assisted the Dover Eight. It turned out that the eighth member of the group gave up his desire to escape after the jail incident and returned to a life of enslavement. Over a few days, he revealed details about the escape to his enslaved wife and she used the information to “curry favor from her master.”
Tubman was more than likely on Maryland’s eastern shore on April 4th when Reverend Green’s home was searched and he was arrested. Green was accused of harbouring the Dover Eight. Law enforcement confiscated letters from freedom seekers in British Canada, railway maps, and abolitionist propaganda. Several charges were leveled against Green but only one stuck. After a month-long trial, Green was sentenced to ten years in Maryland’s Rockville Penitentiary for illegal possession of an anti-slavery novel called “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Tubman, around mid-May, headed back to St. Catharines and was probably in central New York when she heard that her father was suspected of being a UGRR operator and was going to be arrested.
In all likelihood, before leaving Maryland Tubman, after the trial of Rev. Green, would have made another attempt to bring her parents to St. Catharines. Her father however, refused to leave because her sister Rachael was still in bondage.
One source, after speaking with Tubman in 1855-56 documented that, “There still remained behind one sister & her two children, & the old father of the family, who, however, being free, can leave when he pleases, but will not so long as any of his children remain in bondage in MD.”
Wherever Tubman was in New York State when she heard the news about her father, she was broke and she panicked. She asked people for money so she could collect her parents and no one would help her. Years later, when talking to a friend about the rescue of her parents Tubman said, “I sold my silk gown to get money to go after my mother.”
The sale of the garment advanced Tubman to New York City. There, she went to the Anti-Slavery Society office and told one of the men, probably Oliver Johnson or Sydney Howard Gay, that she wanted twenty dollars to rescue her parents.
This account in Tubman’s narrative went something like this:
The man asked, “Who told you to come here for twenty dollars?” Tubman said, “The Lord told me, sir” and the man responded with, “Well, I guess the Lord’s mistaken this time” to which Tubman sharply replied, “I guess he isn’t sir. Anyhow, I’m going to sit here till I get it.” Then she fell asleep.
At one point a man woke Tubman up and asked her to leave. Her reply was, “No sir. I’m not going till I get my twenty dollars.” Then she fell asleep again.
After a few more hours of rest, Tubman woke up and found that $60 had been raised for her to collect her parents.
Tubman was on her way to Maryland to rescue her parents. It was late May 1857.
The rescue of Tubman’s parents was undoubtedly her “most heartfelt journey.” When she ventured to Maryland she more than likely checked-in or communicated somehow with her father. There was no contact with her mother. Tubman only spied on her. She refused to approach her mother, fearing the excitement it would surely cause. Tubman had not hugged her mother in eight years.
Tubman collected her parents and moved them along the Delaware line with help from Thomas Garrett, a Quaker abolitionist and station manager in Wilmington and his local contacts. They were in Philadelphia and met with William Still. By mid-June Tubman and her parents were in Rochester, New York at the home of Fredrick Douglass, a Black abolitionist and primary UGRR station manager for that area. They stayed with Douglass for two weeks before they left for Canada.
In early July 1857, Tubman and her parents reached St. Catharines where they were reunited with their sons, who escaped in December 1854, and with other loved ones from the Eastern Shore.
Later, when retelling the story about her parent’s escape to a friend, Tubman said, “I brought my father to a higher court in Canada.”
Tubman worried about her sister Rachel who remained in bondage. One source states that in the early fall of 1857 she returned to Maryland to bring her sister out. Rachel was separated from her children and she would not go to Canada without them. During Tubman’s fall visit to Maryland, over forty people absconded from the Cambridge area in three weeks. Local newspapers covered the October exodus with one calling it a “Negro Stampede.” Eastern Shore enslavers were furious. They increased their vigilance and the “slave patrols.”
Tubman could not collect her family and “could not be sheltered safely anymore.” She was back in St. Catharines where she remained from mid-November to the end of December 1857. She spent the holidays with the family she did have.
St. Catharines and Tourism
In early January 1858, the prestigious New York Journal of Medicine published an article and claimed that the town of St. Catharines, Canada West was “first place in the ranks of saline springs” and that the springs “show a close resemblance in the results of analysis to that of some of the most popular and efficacious waters in Europe.” The St. Catharines business community was ecstatic. The northern medical journal, without directly saying it, encouraged its readers who were ailing and struggling financially because of the current economic slump to bypass the competition, the Saratoga Springs of New York, which was a major visitor attraction, and to visit St. Catharines.
Businessmen in St. Catharines began marketing the local mineral springs around 1817. By 1840, hundreds of vacationers were partaking in the healing waters which strengthened the town’s economy. After 1850, workers in the tourist industry catered to about 6,000 annual visitors from all over the continent with the majority arriving from the South. In the 1850s, the annual visitors nearly doubled the town’s total population.
The medical journal article concluded: “The proximity to the Falls of Niagara, and the extreme beauty of the surrounding countryside, render a summer visit to St. Catharines a most delightful relaxation to our citizens, from the cares and anxieties of the counting house.” The beautiful countryside mentioned in the article highlighted the picturesque Village of Port Dalhousie. It was about a 60-minute leisurely carriage ride from the bustle of the St. Catharines downtown core. There was plenty for vacationers to do in Port. It had all the amenities. Visitors could shop, play cricket, enjoy fine dining, sailing on Lake Ontario, or simply relax on the beach. The villagers and merchants went to great lengths to create an “at home” atmosphere for the tourists.
The St. Catharines “summer season” was still four months away. Thanks to the journal article it was looking very prosperous. The town could not have asked for better advertising. And it was free.
During the summer months, hundreds of Black men and women found work as coachmen, waiters, cooks, gardeners, and housekeepers. Tubman would have needed to find work to support herself and her parents. She more than likely worked in the St. Catharines hospitality industry. We know when Tubman lived in Philadelphia she found employment at the hotels and in private homes as a domestic. She probably found the same type of work when she lived in the seaside town of Cape May, New Jersey.
At the time of the New York Journal of Medicine publication,Tubman travelled to Rochester, New York in early January 1858 to visit with Fredrick Douglass. During this visit, Douglass wrote to his anti-slavery colleagues in Ireland to solicit funds for his UGRR work and to let them know about Tubman and her courageous exploits. During her visit, she probably learned that a white man was secretly making plans to overthrow slavery and he wanted to pay her a visit in Canada…
Who was this man? Stay tuned for next week’s continuation of this series to find out as I uncover more of Harriet Tubman’s story in St. Catharines.
Rochelle Bush is the owner and operator of Tubman Tours Canada, the resident historian at the Salem Chapel, BME Church Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad NHS, a member of the Historical Society of St. Catharines, and a past Advisory Board Member of the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre. Bush is a native of St. Catharines and a descendant of African American freedom seekers.