Canadian Refuge #2 – The North Star

This is the second in a series of posts that will look at the long history of Americans seeking refuge and opportunity in Canada. The previous post looked at the history of the Vietnam draft and draft dodging.  Upcoming posts will examine Native Americans who fled to Canada, Rum runners who used it as a supply station, and Loyalists who found sanctuary there during and after the American Revolution.

Harriet Tubman grave, Fort Hill Cemetery, Auburn NY

Harriet Tubman first crossed the border into Canada in late 1851. She was only two years removed from slavery, having escaped her Maryland plantation in 1849, fearing sale into the Deep South, a common fate for many Atlantic slaves in the mid-1800s. She had escaped with the help of a group of Quakers who were part of a growing organization of northerners (and a few southerners) called, informally, the Underground Railroad. Their mission was to help slaves escape the South and find refuge in the North.

At first, northern states offered refuge.  Many escaped slaves sought free lives in the Northern cities of Philadelphia, New York, and especially Boston, a center of abolitionist thought and activity. However, as the political landscape shifted in the 1840s and 1850s, the North ceased to be a haven and became a battleground. For most of the slaves who escaped captivity in those years, Canada was the only possible refuge.

Assisted escape from slavery was not a new practice; in fact there is evidence that Quakers in particular were helping slaves attain freedom as early as the American Revolution and just after. However, the realities for slaves changed drastically in the 1820s as a result of a variety of factors: the end of the Atlantic slave trade in 1818, the Missouri Compromise of 1820, and especially the slave revolt of Nat Turner in 1829, which led to far harsher laws governing slaves in the South. By 1830, a vocal abolitionist movement had begun to grow in the North, and Southern slaveholders – worried that such agitation might cause additional revolts – further reduced the ability of slaves to gain an education, move freely, and associate with others outside of strict control. Treatment on plantations themselves grew even harsher, as an attempt to frighten slaves out of revolt (a tactic that, predictably, met with only occasional success). These laws and practices saw a corresponding increase in the number of slaves seeking escape beginning in the 1830s.

Harriet Jacobs grave, Mount Auburn
cemetery, Cambridge MA

Among those who escaped in those years was Harriet Jacobs, who left her North Carolina plantation in 1835, largely due to the sexual predation of her master, who threatened to sell her children south if she did not submit. For seven years, she hid out in a nearby barn to keep an eye on her children, who had been separated from her, but she was unable to help them, and by 1842 had fled north to Philadelphia, and then to New York. Reunited with her brother John – also an escapee and involved in anti-slavery activity – Harriet lived in relative safety in New York for several years. In 1850, however, life for Harriet – and every other fugitive slave in the North – changed forever with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act.

California’s fast-tracked entry into the United States in 1850 had caused a political standoff between North and South; California had submitted a constitution that outlawed slavery, which would have denied Southern slaveowners access to California’s gold riches, discovered two years earlier. Many in the South threatened secession if California was allowed into the Union as a free state, and panicked Northern politicians, led by Kentuckian Henry Clay, proposed a compromise: California, as well as other smaller concessions, in exchange for opening additional western territories to slavery, and for a strengthened Fugitive Slave law which would give the South unprecedented power to retrieve escapees in the North, and which committed both the federal government and individual northerners to assisting slavecatchers in their efforts. President Zachary Taylor refused the compromise (to the surprise of many, as Taylor was a Virginian and a slaveowner), but later that year he died, leaving the decision to his successor, Millard Fillmore.

Millard Fillmore grave, Forest Lawn Cemetery,
Buffalo, NY

Fillmore signed the compromise into law, believing it was better to stave off the growing sectarian conflict than take a stand over these issues. The effect of the law, however, served only to inflame the conflict.  Northerners were outraged; slavery was no longer something they could safely ignore, but something that now landed on their very doorsteps, and eve forced its way into their homes. They could be deputized by slavecatchers to inform on friends and neighbors, or to help apprehend people who had lived in their community for years. Boston became a battle zone, with residents threatening violence if slavecatchers attempted entrance to their homes to search for “contraband”. The effect on fugitives themselves was also dramatic: most who had settled in Boston, New York, and elsewhere were no longer secure in their homes and neighborhoods, and they looked north to Canada. The Underground Railroad began ferrying people even further north, mostly into Ontario, or by sea to Nova Scotia. Canada was welcoming (though there was still a fair amount of racist resistance), and most of those fugitives who left never returned.

One of those who stayed was Anthony Burns*. Burns had escaped from his Virginia plantation in 1853, and arrived in Boston, but was soon apprehended under the Fugitive Slave Act. Like many who were caught, Burns was put through a system that was designed to funnel people back to slavery; alleged fugitives had no legal recourse, and were unable to offer evidence or testimony. Magistrates hired especially for these tribunals were paid $10 for any person they determined was a fugitive, but only $5 for any set free. These sham trials were funded by the federal government itself, a rare pre-Civil War moment of exertion of federal power. Anthony Burns’ trial was no different, until groups of abolitionists, black and white, stormed the trial to take Burns to safety. In the process, a sheriff’s deputy was killed. Fearing mob violence, President Franklin Pierce sent in the Marines to capture Burns and bring him back to Virginia at enormous expense. Boston abolitionists were furious; William Lloyd Garrison burned the Constitution, and Henry David Thoreau threatened vengeance against the government. Eventually, abolitionists raised enough funds to buy Burns’ freedom; he moved to St. Catharine’s, Ontario, just over the border from Niagara, and stayed for the rest of his life, becoming a Reverend and a staple of the community.

St. Catharine’s itself was the final stop on many of the Underground Railroad’s land routes, and continues to be a site of annual gatherings of the descendants of fugitives who found freedom in Canada. Other cities in Ontario became centers of Black Canadian life, as former slaves moved deeper into the country. While they faced some resistance, they thrived there more than their counterparts in the United States, even after slavery had been abolished by the Civil War. Many moved west, into the rapidly expanding Canadian frontier, and founded black communities in Calgary, Winnipeg, and other new cities. While there are no clear statistics on how many slaves escaped into Canada, estimates suggest at least 100,000 escaped via the Underground Railroad, with many of those making it to St. Catharine’s and beyond.  Harriet Tubman herself used the city as her base of operations as she brought more and more people out of slavery and into freedom in Canada. She lived in St. Catharine’s between 1851 and 1861, when the Civil War called her into service; she used her knowledge of the southern frontier to become a Union spy, and never again lived in Canada. She lived until 1913, fought the US government for the army pension owed her, and was buried near her home in Auburn, NY.

Rear view of Harriet Tubman’s grave in Auburn, NY. The history of the headstone itself is a long one; it was destroyed at least twice by vandals
with unclear motivations, most recently in 2008 when it was knocked over along with several others nearby.

*Much to my dismay, I realized as I wrote this article that I had never looked up where Anthony Burns was buried, and only today realized that I drove within a mile of his grave twice in the last two weeks, on the way into and then out of Canada. Alas – I guess I’ll have to go back.

City of St. Catharine’s Ontario – Underground Railroad
PBS – Africans in America: The Capture of Anthony Burns
In Motion: Canada, The Promised Land – Schomburg Library


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