Following the North Star: Canada as a Haven for Nineteenth-Century American Blacks

Article excerpt

Colonel Samuel Ragland, an Alabama planter, received an unusual visitor one day in the early 1850s. The caller was James Rapier, a relatively prosperous free black man, and the visit concerned Milton, one of Ragland's slaves. During a recent business trip to Toronto, Rapier had come across some potentially valuable information for Ragland. Milton's brother Sam, also a slave of Ragland's, had escaped some years previously and had made his way to Toronto, where he had acquired a home and several acres of land. A bachelor who had no relations in Canada, Sam had died without leaving a will. The Canadian authorities subsequently put his property, valued at five thousand dollars, in escrow until a legal heir claimed the inheritance.

Colonel Ragland, probably just as Rapier had planned, decided to claim the money. Hence he, Rapier, and Milton traveled to Buffalo, New York. Fearing that Canadian authorities might not relinquish the property to a slaveowner, Ragland remained in Buffalo while Rapier and Milton traveled to Toronto. There Milton proved kinship to the deceased, acquired the deed to the property, and then returned to Buffalo. When Ragland subsequently went with Milton to Toronto to have the property transferred to his name, the slave refused to sign the transfer and declared his freedom by virtue of being on British soil.

Why had Milton not declared his freedom during his first visit to Toronto? Simply because Rapier could then have been charged with slavestealing and, upon returning to the United States, no doubt would have lost his own freedom and property. When Milton's owner had, of his own free will, taken his slave across the Canadian border he had, under Canadian law, set him free. With no legal recourse either to force his slave to return with him or to claim the estate, Ragland returned to the United States minus his slave and the prospective inheritance. Now a free man, Milton traveled to the black settlement of Buxton where he purchased a hundred acres, married, and raised a family. (1)

This incident illustrates the freedom that Canadian soil offered American slaves and the ineffectiveness of slaveowner appeals to the Canadian government. Although the method of Milton's arrival in Canada was unique, like many other blacks he found freedom in Canada. Rapier obviously knew that Milton, once on Canadian soil, would be considered a free man and that his freedom would be protected. Milton's story thus reveals how American blacks viewed Canada as a place where they could live as free men and women. It was through examples such as this that the image of Canada as a haven from bondage developed.

Prior to the American Civil War thousands of blacks, both slave and free, crossed the border into Canada to seek refuge from slavery and racism in the United States. They journeyed primarily to Upper Canada, otherwise known as Canada West (the present-day province of Ontario), where they settled in cities such as Toronto, London, Chatham, and Windsor; in the rural areas along Lakes Erie and Ontario; and in the all-black communities of Dawn, Wilberforce, and Buxton. (2) Two fundamental questions arise from this migration: namely, why did black Americans--fugitive and free--choose Canada rather than the free northern states as their adopted home, their haven from the oppression and brutality of slavery and racism? And, following from this, was Canada in reality the so-called "Promised Land"? Was Canada the haven that American blacks of the nineteenth century saw it as? The answer to the first question combines several motives including resentment of increasingly restrictive legal prohibitions imposed upon blacks in the northern, especially northwestern, states; fear of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law; and belief that Canada offered a more favorable environment for blacks. Beneath any answer to the second question is a complex layering of law and custom, perception and reality. Previous studies undertaken by such noted historians as Robin Winks, Jonathan Walton, and William and Jane Pease have concluded that for the vast majority of black immigrants--whether fugitive or free--Canada offered only discrimination, segregation, poverty, and oppression. …