John Graves Simcoe was a career soldier before being named Governor of Upper Canada.

In 1791, John Graves Simcoe became the first Lieutenant-Governor of a new British colony to the west of Quebec. It was called Upper Canada, and it consisted of the southern part of today’s Ontario. When Simcoe arrived, the colony was sparsely inhabited by Aboriginal peoples and small pockets of British Empire Loyalists who had fled the new United States (with their slaves).

John Wycliffe Lowes (J.W.L.) Forster
Archives of Ontario, Government of Ontario Art Collection
1903
Oil
692994
© 2008, Archives of Ontario. All Rights Reserved.


A modern re-creation of the meeting of John Graves Simcoe with his government in the backwoods

In 1793, Governor Simcoe managed to bring in the first law ever to limit slavery in the British Empire. It wasn't easy. The Legislative Assembly in Upper Canada was held in a log cabin in Newark (today’s Niagara-on-the-Lake). There, as shown in this modern re-creation of the assembly in action, Simcoe found himself facing an assembly of aggressive Loyalist settlers, many of whom owned slaves.

F.S. Challener
Archives of Ontario, Government of Ontario Art Collection
1955
Oil
619857
© 2008, Archives of Ontario. All Rights Reserved.


John Graves Simcoe, the only son of a widowed mother, wasn’t rich. He wasn’t an aristocrat either, but he had fought well for the British army during the American Revolution, and in 1791 he was rewarded with an important job – as governor of the new colony of Upper Canada (today’s Ontario). As Simcoe and his wife made the slow journey by boat across Lake Ontario to the wilderness capital of Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake), he was full of ambitious plans – one of which was to outlaw slavery in the new province. That turned out to be harder than he expected.

Most of the early inhabitants of Upper Canada were Loyalist refugees from the former American colonies. Many had brought slaves with them into Canada. With free workers in short supply in the wilderness colony, they were prepared to fight tooth and nail to keep their valuable slave labour. Fortunately, Simcoe was a deal-maker. The settlers also wanted to keep the form of local self-government they had been used to in the south. Simcoe worked out a compromise. The assembly passed a new law that – while it did not outlaw slavery – made the import of new slaves Read More

John Graves Simcoe, the only son of a widowed mother, wasn’t rich. He wasn’t an aristocrat either, but he had fought well for the British army during the American Revolution, and in 1791 he was rewarded with an important job – as governor of the new colony of Upper Canada (today’s Ontario). As Simcoe and his wife made the slow journey by boat across Lake Ontario to the wilderness capital of Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake), he was full of ambitious plans – one of which was to outlaw slavery in the new province. That turned out to be harder than he expected.

Most of the early inhabitants of Upper Canada were Loyalist refugees from the former American colonies. Many had brought slaves with them into Canada. With free workers in short supply in the wilderness colony, they were prepared to fight tooth and nail to keep their valuable slave labour. Fortunately, Simcoe was a deal-maker. The settlers also wanted to keep the form of local self-government they had been used to in the south. Simcoe worked out a compromise. The assembly passed a new law that – while it did not outlaw slavery – made the import of new slaves illegal and freed the children of all slaves at age 25. In return, Simcoe allowed the settlers a modified form of local government. Thanks largely to Simcoe’s forward-looking legislation – the first ever to limit slavery in the British Empire – slavery dwindled quickly in Upper Canada. By 1810, it had virtually disappeared. Just as importantly, Simcoe’s law helped turn Canada into a haven both for escaped slaves and for abolitionists at work.

UPPER CANADIAN ACT OF 1793 AGAINST SLAVERY. NATIONAL HISTORIC EVENT OF CANADA. DESIGNATED 1992. PLAQUE: NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE, ONTARIO
© 2008, Virtual Museum of Canada. All Rights Reserved.

Thornton Blackburn's cab on King Street, Toronto, ca. 1845

The little horse-drawn cab going down a Toronto street in the centre of this mid-19th-century painting belonged to an escaped slave, Thornton Blackburn. The Thorntons made history – as the centre of a race riot in Detroit in 1833, as the focus of an historic court case in Canada and as the founders of the first cab company in Upper Canada. As business people in Toronto, they also invested in helping other slaves to escape.

John Gillespie
Canadian Department, Royal Ontario Museum

Oil
Image no. ROM2006_7417_1 / Acc. 955.175
© 2008, Royal Ontario Museum. All Rights Reserved.


A cab of the type that Thornton Blackburn operated in Toronto from the 1830s on

Thornton Blackburn, before escaping slavery, had lived in a busy port on the Ohio River, where hired transportation was plentiful. When he came to Toronto, however, he found no cabs at all. Though Thornton couldn't read or write, he was smart and ambitious. He found work as a waiter at Osgoode Hall, saved his money and eventually bought a cab similar to those already operating in Montreal and Quebec. He painted the cab a distinctive red and yellow.

W.H. Coverdale
Library and Archives Canada

Watercolour
17.3 x 25.4 cm
190-188-2287 / C-042305
© 2008, Library and Archives Canada. All Rights Reserved.


Detroit was in an uproar in 1833, and the free Black community took to the streets. A young couple who had lived among them for two years had been arrested as fugitive slaves. Thornton Blackburn’s destiny was likely to return to slavery in Kentucky, to be whipped, branded and sent south to be worked to death on a cotton plantation. His wife would be sold as a prostitute.

That’s not what happened. Two heavily veiled women asked to visit Mrs. Blackburn in her cell. There, one of them changed clothes with the prisoner, and the other whisked the girl out past the guards. Next day, as Lucie’s husband was led in chains from the jail, the crowd surged forward and grabbed the boy. Within the hour, Thornton and Lucie Blackthorn were together again – in Canada.

The story doesn’t end there. The United States applied for the Blackburns’ return as criminals, and the Canadian court made a famous decision – that no accused person may be returned to a country where the punishment for a crime is more severe than it would be in Canada. That’s still the law in Canada. The Blackburns were saved. They moved to Toronto, where Thorn Read More
Detroit was in an uproar in 1833, and the free Black community took to the streets. A young couple who had lived among them for two years had been arrested as fugitive slaves. Thornton Blackburn’s destiny was likely to return to slavery in Kentucky, to be whipped, branded and sent south to be worked to death on a cotton plantation. His wife would be sold as a prostitute.

That’s not what happened. Two heavily veiled women asked to visit Mrs. Blackburn in her cell. There, one of them changed clothes with the prisoner, and the other whisked the girl out past the guards. Next day, as Lucie’s husband was led in chains from the jail, the crowd surged forward and grabbed the boy. Within the hour, Thornton and Lucie Blackthorn were together again – in Canada.

The story doesn’t end there. The United States applied for the Blackburns’ return as criminals, and the Canadian court made a famous decision – that no accused person may be returned to a country where the punishment for a crime is more severe than it would be in Canada. That’s still the law in Canada. The Blackburns were saved. They moved to Toronto, where Thornton founded the first cab company in Upper Canada. He returned to Kentucky just once after that – risking his freedom and life in doing so – to bring his mother out of slavery.
LUCIE AND THORNTON BLACKBURN. NATIONAL HISTORIC PERSONS OF CANADA. DESIGNATED 1999. PLAQUE: TORONTO, ONTARIO
© 2008, Virtual Museum of Canada. All Rights Reserved.

John Brown (left) defends himself during an unsuccessful attack on Harpers Ferry.

One of the most famous events of the long campaign against slavery – some of it planned from Canada – was a raid on American territory led by abolitionist John Brown (on the left). His plan of attack against the United States was discussed and approved at a famous meeting in 1858 in Chatham, Ontario.

James E. Taylor
Western Reserve Historical Society

Sketchbook
© 2008, Western Reserve Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.


In 1858, a secret meeting took place in Chatham, Ontario. John Brown, a violent American abolitionist, had come north to seek support from Canadian abolitionists for an armed rebellion. He planned by force of arms to establish a slave-free state in the mountains of West Virginia.

That meeting was just one of many that took place in Canada as the years passed. Canada’s nearness to the United States and its forward-looking laws had encouraged many leaders in the fight for freedom to settle here. Abolitionists used Canada as a staging ground for the campaign. Here, they organized meetings, speaking tours, fund-raising appeals and rescue missions to the south. They founded newspapers, schools and church communities. The people who gathered at Chatham had tried everything. Now, they were ready to experiment with war. They gave John Brown their blessing.

On Sunday, September 17, 1859, John Brown and 18 men – including one Canadian – attacked a federal armoury at Harpers Ferry in West Virginia. The few who survived the battle – including Brown – were executed. His last words were: “I…am now quite certain that the crimes of t Read More

In 1858, a secret meeting took place in Chatham, Ontario. John Brown, a violent American abolitionist, had come north to seek support from Canadian abolitionists for an armed rebellion. He planned by force of arms to establish a slave-free state in the mountains of West Virginia.

That meeting was just one of many that took place in Canada as the years passed. Canada’s nearness to the United States and its forward-looking laws had encouraged many leaders in the fight for freedom to settle here. Abolitionists used Canada as a staging ground for the campaign. Here, they organized meetings, speaking tours, fund-raising appeals and rescue missions to the south. They founded newspapers, schools and church communities. The people who gathered at Chatham had tried everything. Now, they were ready to experiment with war. They gave John Brown their blessing.

On Sunday, September 17, 1859, John Brown and 18 men – including one Canadian – attacked a federal armoury at Harpers Ferry in West Virginia. The few who survived the battle – including Brown – were executed. His last words were: “I…am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood.” He was right. His execution helped spark the American Civil War in 1861. More than 600,000 Americans died in the fight that ended slavery.

THE ABOLITION MOVEMENT IN BRITISH NORTH AMERICA. NATIONAL HISTORIC EVENT OF CANADA. DESIGNATED 2004. PLAQUE RECOMMENDED: CHATHAM, ONTARIO
© 2008, Virtual Museum of Canada. All Rights Reserved.

[Book Illustration] The Story of the Life of John Anderson, the Fugitive Slave, ed. Harper Twelvetrees. London: W. Tweedie, 1

John Anderson was both an escaped slave and a murderer. A court case in 1861 confirmed that Canada was unwilling to return men and women to slavery, even if they had committed criminal acts.

Archives of Ontario

Book (paper)
E 450 A54-T9
© 2008, Archives of Ontario. All Rights Reserved.


A meeting was called in Montreal on January 17, 1861. Hundreds of people turned out that night in freezing weather to demonstrate support for a man – an escaped slave – who was facing return to the United States to stand trial for murder. John Anderson, during his escape, had killed a man. After eight years, the American government was demanding his return, and a panel of Toronto judges had decided to obey the request. Montreal was outraged.

John Anderson in the 1860s was one of an estimated 20,000 slaves who had made their way to Canada over the years. The movement swelled from a trickle to a flood after 1850, when the Americans passed a new and tougher Fugitive Slave Law. Escaped slaves who, until then, had felt safe in the "free" states decided to flee further, to Canada. More slaves were also leaving the plantations, and the loss of money and manpower was beginning to hurt the South. An exceptionally healthy and skilled slave was worth anywhere up to $2,000 ($40,000 in today’s money). With some estimates suggesting that 1,500 slaves fled every year in the 1850s, the South was literally hemorrhaging Read More

A meeting was called in Montreal on January 17, 1861. Hundreds of people turned out that night in freezing weather to demonstrate support for a man – an escaped slave – who was facing return to the United States to stand trial for murder. John Anderson, during his escape, had killed a man. After eight years, the American government was demanding his return, and a panel of Toronto judges had decided to obey the request. Montreal was outraged.

John Anderson in the 1860s was one of an estimated 20,000 slaves who had made their way to Canada over the years. The movement swelled from a trickle to a flood after 1850, when the Americans passed a new and tougher Fugitive Slave Law. Escaped slaves who, until then, had felt safe in the "free" states decided to flee further, to Canada. More slaves were also leaving the plantations, and the loss of money and manpower was beginning to hurt the South. An exceptionally healthy and skilled slave was worth anywhere up to $2,000 ($40,000 in today’s money). With some estimates suggesting that 1,500 slaves fled every year in the 1850s, the South was literally hemorrhaging wealth. Sympathy for the slaves rose to new heights in Canada, where abolitionists were well organized and ready to protest decisions like that in the John Anderson case.

Anderson’s story had a happy ending. With public opinion insisting that he had acted in self-defence, the case passed to a higher court, and Anderson was released on a technicality. The Montreal Gazette was jubilant. “Anderson, the now celebrated fugitive slave, was in town yesterday, and called upon us…to return thanks for the manner in which Montrealers stood by him.”


© 2008, Virtual Museum of Canada. All Rights Reserved.

"John Brown's Body" commemorated the execution of a leading abolitionist in 1859.

John Brown’s body lies a-mold’ring in the grave.
John Brown’s body lies a-mold’ring in the grave.
John Brown’s body lies a-mold’ring in the grave.
His soul goes marching on.

Glory, Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory, Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory, Glory! Hallelujah!
His soul is marching on

He captured Harper’s Ferry with his nineteen men so true.
He frightened old Virginia till she trembled through and through.
They hung him for a traitor, themselves the traitor crew.
His soul is marching on.

Chorus

John Brown died that the slave might be free.
John Brown died that the slave might be free.
John Brown died that the slave might be free.
But his soul is marching on!

Chorus

The stars above in Heaven are looking kindly down.
The stars above in Heaven are looking kindly down.
The stars above in Heaven are looking kindly down
On the grave of old John Brown.

Chorus

Unknown, based on traditional tunes with many variations
Smithsonian Folkways Archival, The Glory of Negro History

UNITED STATES
© 2008, Smithsonian Folkways. All rights reserved.


A song, composed by songwriter Stephen Foster in 1853, expressing the longing of a slave to return to his Kentucky home.

The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home,
’Tis summer, the darkies are gay;
The corn-top’s ripe and the meadow’s in the bloom,
While the birds make music all the day.

The young folks roll on the little cabin floor,
All merry, all happy and bright;
By ’n’ by Hard Times comes a-knocking at the door,
Then my old Kentucky home, goodnight.

Chorus
Weep no more my lady
Oh! weep no more today!
We will sing one song for the old Kentucky home,
For the Old Kentucky Home far away.

Verse 2
They hunt no more for the possum and the coon,
On meadow, the hill and the shore,
They sing no more by the glimmer of the moon,
On the bench by the old cabin door.

The day goes by like a shadow o’er the heart,
With sorrow, where all was delight,
The time has come when the darkies have to part,
Then my old Kentucky home, goodnight.

Chorus
Verse 3
The head must bow and the back will have to bend,
Wherever the darky may go;
A few more days, and the trouble all will end,
In the field where the sugar-canes grow;

A few more days for to tote the weary load,
No matter, ’twill never be light;
A few more days till we totter on the road,
Then my old Kentucky home, goodnight.

Chorus

Stephen Foster, 1853
Smithsonian Folkways Archival

© 2008, Smithsonian Folkways. All Rights Reserved.


Learning Objectives

After reading, viewing and listening to media files in the Learning Object, students will be able to:

• identify persons who promoted the abolition of slavery;

• identify laws that had an effect on slavery in Canada and, as a result, on the movement of Black refugees to Canada;

• compare and contrast Canadian and American laws in regard to slavery between 1790s and 1860s;

• consider the impact of John Brown’s last words in a historical context; and

• explain some reasons why Loyalists who had brought slaves to Canada were unwilling to free them.


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