The Underground Rail Road
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Owen Sound's Black History

William Henson

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The Underground Rail Road

In spite of its name, the Underground Railroad was not underground nor was it a railroad with physical tracks laid throughout the countryside. The last northern terminal on this railroad was Owen Sound. It was the largest North American freedom movement and, a highly secret one that transported the majority of escaped slaves from the Southern States to the Northern US and Canada.

The story of the Underground Railroad had its beginnings in Africa, when the Portuguese captured the first slaves in the 1400s. It has been estimated that twelve million Africans were uprooted from their homeland and sold into a life of slavery between 1450 and 1850. Of this total, five percent were delivered to British North America and to what later became the United States of America.

Slavery in Canada

In Canada, slavery was minimal as the short growing season made slave labour uneconomical. In 1793, the Upper Canada Abolition Act introduced by Lieutenant Governor Colonel John Graves Simcoe, freed any slave entering what is now the province of Ontario, and stated that any child born to a slave mother would be freed at 25 years of age. This act was later followed by the British Imperial Act of 1833 (and became effective on August 1, 1834). It abolished slavery throughout the British Empire, including the developing country of Canada.

Slavery in the US

In the United States, the Fugitive Act of 1850 increased slave owners’ rights regarding the capture and return of slaves, and even threatened free Blacks living in the Northern states. South of the Mason-Dixon Line, professional slave catchers could legally detain and hold anyone of African descent as a runaway slave; dogs were often used in the hunt for slaves. The Fugitive Act also increased the flow of traffic along the Underground Railroad. It took the United States about another thirty years and a bloody civil war before slavery was abolished in the Southern states. Many slaves freed themselves at the onset of the war, finding refuge behind the Union Army’s lines.

There is only one recorded instance in Canadian history of the law failing a Black refugee in the case of escaped slave, Archy Lanton. In 1856, two Canadian magistrates cooperated with US officials in his secret capture and transportation back to his owner. Both Canadians were immediately dismissed from their posts.

Because of the secrecy of the Underground Railroad, written records of those who took this route to freedom do not exist, nor do the numbers of the escapees. It is believed to have been in existence as early as 1837; some sources state even earlier. Historians and scholars have estimated that between 40,000 and 100,000 slaves escaped on the Underground Railroad. This number never presented a serious threat to the institution of slavery, but the escape stories filled slave owners with dread and fear. A former escaped slave, Harriet Tubman, has been credited with leading more than 300 slaves to freedom herself and making 19 trips to the South to do so, even with the threat of a $40,000 reward offered for her capture, dead or alive. Harriet was dubbed “The Moses of Her People”.

Ads placed by slave owners for runaway slaves included detailed lists of scars and disfigurements caused by owners’ beatings. Ironically, it was these lists that provided strong ammunition for abolitionists in the Northern states when the ads were quoted word for word in antislavery arguments.

Resisting the Yoke

Slaves were not passive victims waiting to be rescued by white abolitionists. From its very beginning, slaves resisted the yoke of slavery and fought aggressively for their freedom and the right to maintain their African heritage. The struggle to be free was constant. Becoming free meant more than a change of residence to a slave; once on the road to choosing their own destiny, slaves had to make the emotional transition of being an enslaved person to becoming a free one.

The earliest escape attempts were made by individual slaves and were not organized in any format at all. These escapes, however, formed the paths and trails that led to the Underground Railroad. Stories of the almost non-existent slavery north of the border were taken back home by US Army soldiers after the War of 1812. These stories encouraged slaves to make a break for freedom.

Other slaves, free blacks, and white abolitionists moved escaping slaves along the Railroad routes. It was Blacks, however, who formed the main impetus of the system. Free Blacks risked the most by their involvement with the Underground Railroad; namely, their freedom and their lives. Black sailors, too, aided slaves in their escape to freedom, stowing fugitives on their boats. These sailors with their knowledge of direction, and geography, also provided a link of communication between plantations. Slaves, although they could not read or write, often knew the layout of the land surrounding their plantation well. In the case of absentee plantation owners, the slaves knew the surrounding area better than owners did.

Safe houses offered shelter and nourishment along the route, but were changed often to avoid detection. “Agents”, “conductors”, and “station masters” provided shelter, food, money, directions, means of transportation, and changes of clothes. Often, slaves escaped in disguise—men wore women’s clothes, and women wore men’s clothes. Light-skinned Blacks dressed as upper class white citizens travelling with their entourage of “slaves”. Crates labelled “dry goods” concealed runaway slaves. They were hidden in secret spaces in homes, in secret compartments in wagons and in the hulls of boats. They hid by day, travelling under the darkness of night. They swam rivers, crossed frozen rivers on foot and on horseback, and walked tremendous distances. They slept in barns, in fields, in woods, and were hunted down by slave and bounty hunters with their tracking hounds.

Most of the Underground Railroad routes travelled north, following the North Star, eventually ending in Canada. Canada was the ultimate destination for most slaves; it was perceived as a safe haven because of the anti-slavery laws passed. Some of the routes ran southwards into Mexico; there are no records of how many slaves became assimilated into the Mexican population.

Modes of Travel

The Underground Railroad was not restricted to overland routes; escapes slaves were transported by sea, lake, river, canal and rail, when trains came into being.

Secrecy on the slaves’ part was the main ingredient that made the Underground Railroad work. Warning signals and escape messages were used in conjunction with the Railroad in the form of spirituals, phrases and quilt patterns. Even the continuing threat of recriminations could not stop the slaves from singing spirituals. The Underground Railroad was sometimes referred to as the “Gospel Train”. In the slaves’ world of intolerance and suspicion on the part of their white owners, secrecy and coded communication was a necessity of everyday life. It is the aftermath of slavery and the deep lack of trust created that have prevented the code of silence from being broken and the stories told. Even the youngest child was taught not to repeat secrets outside of the family circle.

Many faith groups and other organizations supported, aided and abetted the Underground Railroad, firmly believing in the emancipation of slaves and the abolishment of slavery. These groups included Quakers, Black benevolent societies and fraternal organizations, antislavery societies, and Native American Indians. Members of many churches worked against slavery, too, including the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Baptist church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. In 1837, the Upper Canada Anti-Slavery Society was founded in Toronto by Reverend Ephraim Evans, a Wesleyan Methodist and editor of the Christian Guardian. Thomas Henning, the secretary, was instrumental in starting an Owen Sound branch of this society.

The Underground Railroad cannot be viewed as solely a Black story. It is a universal story, based on the human need for individual freedom and is not restricted to any one skin colour. Blacks and whites worked together in an organization based on implicit trust and secrecy, where the threat of betrayal by whites or even another slave was a constant threat to escaping slaves and their supporters. It is an integral part of Owen Sound’s history, and of Canadian history, as well, for the role it played in the development of both the City and the country and their citizens.


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