Who Stayed? Historical Records After the Underground Railroad

The annual Black History Month blog series will look at the narratives and historical records of the Black community after the end of the Underground Railroad and through the 20th century.

Part 2 of a 6-part series.

The Census

Census documents are an invaluable primary source material that helps inform historians about a time and place.  Often the information contained in the official census reports provides additional depth of information about the nature of the population of a place at a very specific time.  The nice thing about census information is that it provides a snapshot of populations at 10-year intervals so has some regularity to the information and can be used to show trends across time.

What can the census tell us about the Black population of St. Catharines?

With this in mind, we thought it might be interesting to take a deeper dive into the census data to tell us more about the population of the community, and more specifically the Black community, over a 50-year time frame from 1871 to 1921.

Thanks to William Wells Brown, we know that in 1849, the Black population of St. Catharines was approximately 800 people living in what was called “coloured town” but what can the census tell us about the Black population of the community after this period?

Our analysis of the census begins with the 1871 census – the first population census of Canada after Confederation.

The chart below shows the population trends for the community at 10-year intervals up to 1921. 

A few notes about the information shown:

  • The numbers reflect the sum of the statistics from Grantham, St. Catharines, Merritton and Port Dalhousie, which made up the majority of the current land area that is present day St. Catharines.
  • The categories reported in the census from year to year were not always consistent, but every effort was made to compare similar statistics.
Census YearOverall populationNumber identifying as “African” or “Negro”
189113,790No stats
* This number represents all those in Lincoln County to identified as “negro”.

As you can see from the chart, the number of Black community members diminished over time.  There is no information available as to why this population change, although the historical record might help shed some light on some of the reasons, such as difficulty finding work due to discriminatory hiring practices, people moving to be closer to family or support groups in other communities, people moving back to the United States after the Civil War, etc.  We can only speculate based on the historical information available.  The numbers don’t illustrate motivations.

Of course, as historians, we should be wary of relying too heavily on census data to extrapolate information. Firstly, as noted, the numbers don’t reflect the reality on the ground and economic pressures that might impact trends over time.  Secondly, marginalized populations have tended to distrust official efforts to record demographic information for fear that information might be used against them in future policy decisions.  For this reason, it is possible that some people would have avoided the census takers as they visited each home and therefore the numbers may not accurately reflect total numbers in all cases. Finally, census data only provides a snapshot in time.  It doesn’t represent the nuances of year-to-year demographic changes that may have happened in the shorter time frame.

Mining census data is a useful tool for historians to help inform research and in this case can help to illustrate more clearly trends that might impact a population of people at a given time and place.  For St. Catharines, the census data from 1871 – 1921, a period of 50 years, shows that the Black population of the community diminished over that time period and by 1871 had already been significantly lower than the 800 people that William Wells identified approximately 20 years earlier.

Coming up on Wednesday, February 15: We’ll investigate the news media records for their coverage of Black experiences after the Underground Railroad.

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The 2023 Black History Month Blog Series is written by Sara Nixon, Adrian Petry, and Kathleen Powell.


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