BHM Series Part One: Welcome to St. Catharines, Canada West

Part 1 of a 4 part Black History Month series

Making the decision to relocate to a new home can be a difficult under the best of circumstances. Imagine, then, contemplating moving to a new home that you had only heard about through rumor. Freedom Seekers that were deciding where to settle after their long journey had few options and scant details on their choices. To make the decision more complicated they were often misinformed about Canada with the intent that they wouldn’t risk seeking their freedom here. Freedom Seeker, John Boggs, in a Freedman’s Inquiry Commission interview details the information that he had on Canada prior to coming.

“They said that Canada was the worst place that could be, and even the people of the North, after I started, told me that it was a very poor place to come to.”

– John Boggs as interviewed by S.G. Howe, 1863

A Plea for Emigration

With the depiction of Canada being widely spread as a cold land that held many dangers, Freedom Seeker and abolitionist Mary Shadd wrote a thirty-six-page book called A Plea for Emigration to share information on Canada. Shadd came to Canada after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 as a means of helping Freedom Seekers who had managed to make it across the border. Working in Canada as a teacher and an activist, she developed an understanding of the information that Freedom Seekers needed. Shadd felt that Canada provided an opportunity for the Black community to achieve independence and respect. Her motivation for writing, A Plea for Emigration, was to inform a community of what they could expect in Canada. Other British-Canadian provinces and Mexico are also mentioned as destinations for immigration; however, the focus is on Canada West. St. Catharines is not specifically mentioned in her work, however, with the community of Black immigrants living here makes it a destination for immigration. Mary Ann Shadd commented on the resourcefulness and enterprise of the refugees in St. Catharines. The community here was and example of the hard-working Black community she was championing.

Shadd’s intent was to combat myths about Canada designed to deter immigration. Knowing the purpose for a Plea for Emigration the question becomes, does Shadd’s information apply to all Canada West’s Black immigrant settlements? Interviews of St. Catharines Freedom Seekers from the Underground Railroad era provide accounts for examination of the accuracy of Shadd’s depiction of Canada West in terms of St. Catharines.

Freedom Seekers and The Great White North

A large portion of a Plea for Emigration is devoted to the environmental advantages of Canada West. The presence of so much information on the issue is indicative of the importance that Freedom Seekers placed on the issue. It is understandable that issues of climate and soil capabilities would be of importance considering that farming was one of the career paths open to Freedom Seekers. Testimonies taken in St. Catharines detail the different ways the Canadian climate was misrepresented. The narrative was crafted to perpetuate the myth that everything above the American border was polar in nature. In his testimony to the Freedman’s Commission, George Ross is quoted as saying,

“I had always heard that Canada was a very cold country, that nobody could live in but those brought up in it” I just considered that a man must clothe himself according to the weather- I had sense enough for that; and so, when I came to Canada, which was in cold weather, I clothed myself very well, and I have always got… as well as I could in Hagerstown, MD.”

George Ross as interviewed by S.G. Howe, 1863

While George and others managed the weather quite well, there were Freedom Seekers who found the weather, while not polar was not to their liking. Harriet Tubman’s parents were among those who found the weather too much and relocated to the United States.

Farming in Canada?

Shadd’s.  secondary reason for focusing on the weather and environment in A Plea for Emigration, was to make potential Canadian immigrants aware of the farming capabilities. Many immigrants had spent their lives working on farms and plantations so it makes sense that they would want to use these transferable skills to make a living for themselves. Much was said in their native homes about the poor capabilities of farming in Canada. Much the same as the rumours about weather, the rumours around the growing capabilities in Canada weren’t favourable. The information provided was meant to spread rumours that nothing grew this far North that was worth farming. The rumours were strong enough that St Catharines immigrant, Dan Josiah Lockheart, remarks during his interview with Benjamin Drew,

“I was told before I left Virginia, -have heard it as common talk… that corn wouldn’t grow there [Canada], nor anything else but rice; that every thing they had there was imported.”

Drew, Benjamin. Interview of Dan Josiah Lockheart in A North-side View of Slavery: . 50, United Kingdom: J.P. Jewett, 1856.

Most crops that traditionally grow in the southern United States are not suited for Canadian climates and therefore, some adaptations had to be made in the types of crops they decided to grow. Farming among the St. Catharines Freedom Seeker community tended to be varied in nature. They had some prosperous farmers including Rev. L.C. Chambers who speaks in his Freedman’s Inquiry Commission interview as renting a fifty-acre farm. He details that in the year before the interview he had grown, “350 bushels of wheat, 150 bushels of oats and 100 bushels of peas.” The accounting of the prosperity of his farm speaks to the pride Chambers takes in this accomplishment. Reverend Chambers expands on his interview to include other Freedom Seekers who have also great successes of their farms This nature of accomplishments that Chambers listed would have been the type of successful self-sufficient endeavors the Shadd had in mind to encourage when she wrote her book.

Mary Ann Shadd sought to help dispel the rumours that existed in the enslaved population about life in Canada. She spent a large portion of her work detailing the environmental realities of Canada and by doing so, provided hope for a community that they could prosper in towns like St. Catharines. While not all Freedom Seekers settled permanently, they did leave their mark on the community. The information provided in Plea for Emigration provided more then the specifics of Canadian weather and soil it provided imagery of a new life at the end of the Underground Railroad.

Watch for part two of the series on the daily lives of Freedom Seekers on February 13. In part two, Abbey will discuss, Abolitionist Activities in the community. Catch all four parts of this series from Black History Month 2022 using the tag or category ‘Black History’.

Abbey Stansfield is a Public Programmer at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.

Source Material

Drew, Benjamin. Lockheart, Dan Josiah. Interview in A North-side View of Slavery: The Refugee: Or, The Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada. Related by Themselves, with an Account of the History and Condition of the Colored Population of Upper Canada. 50, United Kingdom: J.P. Jewett, 1856.

Transcripts of Freedom Seeker Interviews conducted by S.G. Howe, 1863 –With special thanks to Donna Ford for transcribing the Howe Commission Testimony. The Transcriptions are available upon request at the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.

Hill, Daniel G. The Freedom-Seekers: Blacks in Early Canada. Toronto, ON: Stoddard Publishing Co. Limited, 1995.

S.G. Howe. The Refugees from Slavery in Canada West. Report to the Freedman’s Inquiry Commission (Boston: Wright & Potter, Printers, 1864)

Shadd, Mary A.. A Plea for Emigration, Or, Notes of Canada West: In Its Moral, Social, and Political Aspect : with Suggestions Respecting Mexico, West Indies, and Vancouver’s Island, for the Information of Colored Emigrants. United States. 1852.

Silverman, Jason. “Biography – Shadd, Mary Ann Camberton – Volume XII (1891-1900) – Dictionary of Canadian Biography.” Home – Dictionary of Canadian Biography. University of Toronto, 1990.

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