Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Horizons: Canada Moves West - Deadly Journeys - The Underground Railroad

(Quakers frequently assisted fleeing slaves in their travels on the Underground Railroad)

Some of the settlers that came from the American colonies were escaped African or African-American slaves.  They settled in Upper Canada and the Maritimes.

To understand why so many escaped Africans and African-Americans came to Canada, it is important to understand the conditions under which the slaves lived.

In the late 1930s, an estimated 100,000 former slaves were still alive in the United States. In the midst of the Great Depression, from 1936 to 1938, more than 2,000 interviews with one-time slaves were conducted forming a unique firsthand record of slave life.

Unchained Memories - No Lies from Citizen Film Inc. on Vimeo.

Harriet Tubman and The Underground Railroad from Title IID - Queens, NYCDOE on Vimeo.

  • The Underground Railroad was a network of clandestine routes by which African slaves in the 19th century United States attempted to escape to free states, or as far north as Canada, with the aid of abolitionists.

  • It is estimated that at its height between 1810 and 1850, between 30,000 and 100,000 people escaped enslavement via the Underground Railroad
  • The escape network was "underground" in the sense of underground resistance
  • The Underground Railroad consisted of clandestine routes, transportation, meeting points, safe houses and other havens, and assistance maintained by abolitionist sympathizers.
  • Escaped slaves would pass from one waystation to the next, while steadily making their way North. 

  • The diverse "conductors" on the Railroad counted among their ranks free-born blacks, white abolitionists, former slaves, and Native Americans. Churches and religious denominations played key roles, especially the Society of Friends ('Quakers')Congregationalists, and Wesleyans, as well as breakaway sects of mainstream denominations such as the Free Methodists and American Baptists.
  • The Underground Railroad developed its own jargon, which continued the railway metaphor: people who helped slaves find the railroad were "agents", guides were known as "conductors", hiding places were "stations", escaped slaves were referred to as "passengers" or "cargo", slaves would obtain a "ticket".
  • Messages often were encoded so that only those active in the Railroad would fully understand their meanings. For example, the following message, "I have sent via at two o'clock four large and two small hams," clearly indicated that four adults and two children were sent by train from Harrisburg to Philadelphia. However, the addition of the word via indicated that they were not sent on the regular train, but rather via Reading.
  • Although it was possible for escaped slaves to live free in many northern states, it was increasingly dangerous after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. As a result, foreign destinations such as Canada became desirable. The importation of slaves into Upper Canada had been banned in 1793 by Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe, and slavery had been abolished throughout the British Empire in 1833
  • Approximately 30,000 slaves successfully escaped to Canada. Fugitive slaves were a significant presence in the then underpopulated Canadian colonies and formed the basis of the present-day black population throughout Ontario and Nova Scotia.
  • Although sometimes the fugitives travelled on real railways, the primary means of transportation were on foot or by wagon.
  • The routes taken were indirect to throw off pursuers. The majority of the escapees are believed to have been male field workers less than forty years old; the journey was often too arduous and treacherous for women and children to complete successfully.

  • It was relatively common, however, for fugitive bondsmen who had escaped via the Railroad and established livelihoods as free men to purchase their mates, children and other family members out of slavery and then arrange to be reunited with them.
  • Because of the risk of discovery, information about routes and safe havens was passed along by word of mouth.
  • Southern newspapers of the day often were filled with pages of notices soliciting information about escaped slaves and offering sizable rewards for their capture and return.

  • Professional bounty hunters pursued fugitives even as far as Canada.
  • Strong, healthy African men in their prime working and reproductive years were highly valuable commodities, and it was common for free blacks to be kidnapped and sold into slavery. Certificates of freedom, signed, notarized statements attesting to the free status of individual blacks, could be easily destroyed and, thus, afforded their owners little protection.

  • Estimates vary widely, but at least 20,000 slaves escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad. This had an important effect on Canadian society.
  • The largest group settled in southern Ontario, where a number of African Canadian communities developed, particularly in the triangle between TorontoNiagara Falls and Windsor, particularly in Toronto where 1,000 refugees settled and in Kent and Essex counties where several rural villages made up largely of ex-slaves were established.
  • Important settlements also developed in Nova Scotia and on Vancouver Island, where Governor James Douglas encouraged black immigration due to his opposition to slavery and because he hoped a significant black community would form a bulwark against those who wished to unite the island with the United States.

  • Upon arrival in Canada, many fugitives were disappointed. While Canada was free of slavery, discrimination was still common. Many of the new arrivals had great difficulty finding jobs, and open racism was common. However, most refugees remained. Of the 20,000 who emigrated to Upper Canada only 20% returned to the United States.

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