This is the third and final 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. Read Part I and Part II.
Life in the Black community in St. Catharines in the 1850s centered around the two Black churches: the BME Church and the Zion Baptist Church. In early June of 1858, the BME Church held a membership drive and announced a “Missionary Meeting” in which “they attempted to convert more individuals to Christianity.” Harriet Tubman or members of her family may have attended the missionary meeting.
Enslaved African Americans would continue to escape from the Eastern Shore in the summer and the fall of that year. Some were caught and were forced to return to a life of enslavement while many others made their way to St. Catharines.
At this time, even Free Blacks living in the Eastern Shore were being terrorized by white Southerners. Many Free Blacks were suspected of aiding freedom seekers and several were “dragged, tarred and feathered” and sometimes jailed. The numerous escapes “pushed white residents to hold meetings to devise if possible a remedy.” Eastern Shore enslavers “blamed Thomas Garrett, “one of these slave stealers,” who, they claimed, “showed his books to the society which employed him that he had run off to the free states 2,050 slaves. Funds in abundance are furnished by Northern and English fanaticism for this purpose.”
Abolitionist Activism in St. Catharines
Meanwhile, in St. Catharines, Southern vacationers would have the freedom to observe and participate in local events that pertained to Black British subjects. One annual event visitors could have attended would have been the August 1st Emancipation Day celebration. It was reported in the 1858 newspapers that “The commemoration of freedom was the biggest date on the calendar” for people of African descent. In St. Catharines, “despite a “very shabby turnout” due to rain, a procession led by a brass band marched along the town’s streets.”
Vacationers could also attend anti-slavery rallies that were common in St. Catharines. Some may have attended a headliner event that took place on August 18thof the same year. It was announced that Rev. Dr. Michael Willis of Toronto was scheduled to give an anti-slavery speech at the Town Hall. Willis was born in Scotland, immigrated to Canada, and in 1851 formed the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada. He was the society’s first and only president.
Visitors interested in local news and the freedom seeker community would have further been made aware of a Baptist conference that was taking place on a farmer’s property outside of the town. On August 24th, 1858 a local paper reported on a “Camp meeting – since last Friday, the colored Baptist’s (a couple of thousand) holding a great camp meeting on Mr. Junkin’s farm about 2 miles out of town until it ended today.”
In the early fall, according to one source, “While the Eastern Shore devolved into chaos, Tubman became more involved in the relief activities in St. Catharines, aiding newly arrived refugees.” Relief activities and soliciting for money to help newly arrived freedom seekers were common throughout the 1850s. However, imposters and scammers under the guise of preachers and agents would travel throughout Canada and the Northern States fundraising for the freedom seekers in Canadian towns and cities.
In early September 1858, Jermain Loguen, UGRR station manager at Syracuse, New York, and the President of the Syracuse Fugitive Aid Society learned that a man named Professor Brown was soliciting funds for the freedom seekers in Canada and “they never got the money.” Lougen, supported by his colleagues would continue to write warning letters and published an open letter in anti-slavery newspaper as late as 1860, exposing Professor Brown and his fundraising scheme. Loguen ended his public letter with the following: “For information in that land of refugees of the hunted fugitive, we can and do refer you with confidence to Rev. Hiram Wilson of St. Catharines and Rev. Dr. Michael Willis of Toronto.” Reverend Hiram Wilson, an American-born white abolitionist, was the station manager at St. Catharines at the time, the final destination of the primary branch of the UGRR eastern line.
The Final Terminus on the Eastern Line
The eastern line stations and managers were identified when Frederick Douglass affirmed in his 1881 autobiography that,
The Underground Railroad had many branches: but that one with which I was connected had its main stations in Baltimore, Wilmington, Philadelphia, New York, Albany, Syracuse, Rochester, and St. Catharines (Canada). It is not necessary to tell who were the principal agents in the Baltimore; Thomas Garrett was the agent in Wilmington, [Miller] McKim, William Still, Robert Purvis, Edward M. Davis, and others did the work in Philadelphia; David Ruggles, Isaac T. Hooper, [Napolean] and others in New York City; The Misses Mott and Stephen Myers were forwarders from Albany; Rev. Samuel J May and J.W. Loguen were the agents in Syracuse; and J.P. Morrisand myself received and dispatched passengers from Rochester to Canada, where they were received by Rev. Hiram Wilson. When a party arrived in Rochester it was the business of Mr. Morris and myself to raise funds with which to pay their passage to St. Catharines.
The remarks by Douglass identifying St. Catharines as the final UGRR terminus he was associated with are astounding. Imagine my reaction many years ago when I first read that Frederick Douglass, the great Black abolitionist, wrote over a century ago that my hometown was the last freedom seeker stop he was connected with. What a victory! To say I was overjoyed would also be an understatement. I will say that three days later I was in Rochester, NY standing at his graveside.
The Escape of Ann Maria Jackson
As the St. Catharines tourism season was drawing to a close in October 1858, Eastern Shore enslavers held numerous meetings condemning free Blacks and accused them of being “very efficient agents of abolitionists.” They were determined to silence and limit the movement of free Blacks and they wanted the state legislature to enact laws stripping free Blacks of what little rights they had. Others felt that “selling free people back into slavery” would resolve the problem.
One escape that would have surely garnered the attention of slaveholders would have been the escape of a widow named Ann Maria Jackson, and her seven children. Enslavedin Milford Delaware, Ann Maria was married to a free Black man. The law dictated that children born to enslaved women would be deemed the property of their mother’s enslaver; therefore, Ann Maria’s husband had no authority over his children. When Ann Maria’s enslaver sold off two of their children, her husband was powerless to keep his family together. According to one source, “the loss of the Jackson children was too much for their father to bear.” The “slave-holders preyed heavily on the mind of the powerless father.” His mental health quickly deteriorated and he was “rendered a fit subject for the mad-house” where he eventually died.
Shortly after her husband’s death, Ann Maria learned that her enslaver planned to sell her and her children. She put her faith in God, collected the remaining children in her care, and in mid-November 1858 made a run for it. Slave catchers and spies were everywhere. Ann Maria and her children managed to reach the home of abolitionist Thomas Garret in Wilmington, Delaware. Garret provided the Jackson family with aid and arranged a carriage to secret them to Chester County, Pennsylvania. From there the family was passed along to Philadelphia and received by William Still. Still recorded his thoughts about this daring escape and said, “The fire of freedom obviously burned with no ordinary fervor in the breast of the slave mother, or she never would have ventured with the burden of seven children, to escape from the hell of Slavery.”
By November 25th Ann Maria Jackson and her children were in St. Catharines at the home of Reverend Hiram Wilson. On November 30th Wilson informed Still that he received and sheltered the Jackson family. He also told Still that he tried to find Ann Maria’s seventeen-year-old son, James Henry. James Henry was one of her children that was sold away and separated from his family. He escaped from Frederica, Delaware in September 1858 and passed through Philadelphia. He eventually told Still that he fled because his enslaver “had him in the market for sale.” Wilson relayed to Still that he sent the Jackson family to Toronto that same morning “trusting that they will be better cared for in Toronto than they could be at St. Catharines. We have so many coming to us we think it best for some of them to pass on to other places.” Ann Maria Jackson was not reunited with her son James Henry in St. Catharines. He followed his family to Toronto sometime later and is listed with them on the 1861 census.
Harriet Tubman was more than likely in St. Catharines when Ann Maria Jackson and her children arrived. News of this sort always spread quickly throughout the Black community. It was a time to rejoice and to possibly reunite loved ones.
A Child Found
For many years I thought the research relating to Tubman in St. Catharines had been exhausted. As early as the 1940s, scholars and local researchers had been researching and cataloging information relating to local Black history and Tubman.
In 2011, a certified genealogist and researcher with York University’s Harriet Tubman Institute’S “Breaking the Chains” online project, discovered in the December 20th, 1858 St. Catharines town council minutes, that Harriet Tubman appeared before council with news. The records indicate that Tubman told council she “had taken a child off the streets” and needed financial assistance to care for the child. Council deferred their decision for ten days.
When I was informed about this amazing local discovery I was elated. It was a new account to add to Tubman’s remarkable narrative and it was about her life in St. Catharines. I will also admit that I was deeply saddened by this discovery. To this day I still have difficulty processing this information. According to scholarly research, the majority of Black residents in St. Catharines were once enslaved. With this being true, why would any freedom seeker, after gaining the courage to escape to St. Catharines and then abandon their child?
As she waited a response from the council, Tubman would also learn that the radical abolitionist who first labeled her “General Tubman” made the headlines again. John Brown grew restless as he waited in Osage County, Kansas for his financial supporters in New York and New England to provide resources for him to resume his campaign to end slavery.
While in Kansas, Brown was approached by an enslaved man from Missouri. The man told Brown that he was scheduled to be sold away in a few days and he, along with his wife, children and others wanted to escape. Brown agreed to assist with their escape. He collected a group of men and travelled to Missouri. Brown and a group of men took a few pro-slavery men as captives, confiscated horses and wagons, and liberated 11 enslaved African Americans. The Governor of Missouri announced a reward of $3,000 for John Brown’s capture.
One of Brown’s contemporaries wrote that “Brown asked the slaves if they wanted to be free, and then promised to take them to a free country – Canada. Thus Brown led to undertake one of his boldest adventures, one of the boldest in the history of the Underground Railroad. With a mere handful of men he proposed to escort his band of freedmen on a journey of 1000 miles to Canada, in the dead of winter, and surrounded by the dangers that the publicity of his foray and the announcement of a reward of three thousand dollars for his arrest were likely to bring upon him.” John Brown’s journey would end 82 days later. The 11 freedom seekers he rescued were put on a ferry boat and sent to Canada.
In the meantime, Harriet Tubman again appeared before council on December 30, 1858. The council minutes affirm that the town clerk was “authorized to pay Mrs. H. Tubman one dollar per week for four weeks: for keeping child found in streets.”
The identity of the abandoned child Harriet Tubman found on a street in St. Catharines remains a mystery.
After serving the Union army during the Civil War, Harriet Tubman settled in Auburn, New York. As part of her humanitarian and community service she opened her home to people in need of shelter and care as she did in St. Catharines and this would include young orphans.
With all the hype about John Brown due to the semi-fictionalized mini-series about him, I wanted to write this blog series about 1858 because I remain captivated by the fact that John Brown, travelled to St. Catharines to meet with Harriet Tubman to reveal his plans to over throw institutionalized slavery in the United States.
Brown’s course of action one year later (1859) shook the core of the “Slave Power” and sparked the Civil War. To know that he discussed his insurrection plans in this town, at a time when it was a favoured international vacation destination for Southerners is nothing less than phenomenal.
Image how many times I have stood on the property where the boarding was once located and thought about John Brown, Tubman and my ancestors hatching the plan to end slavery. Praise God!
That concludes my brief account (blog) of Harriet Tubman’s time in St. Catharines in 1858. Thanks for reading it. All information mentioned in parts 1, 2, and 3 of this blog can be found in the resource list below.
Follow me on Facebook at Tubman Tours Canada.
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.