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Settlements of the North Star, Part One: Stories of the Underground Railroad in Canada

Monday, September 13, 1999 at 11:01 AM

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In the years before the Civil War, tens of thousands of fugitive African-Americans followed the North Star to freedom in Canada. Many were helped along the way by a network of anti-slavery sympathizers known collectively as the Underground Railroad. After Emancipation, former slaves in the U.S. could finally begin their long journey out of bondage. But what happened to those others who fled to Canada? From North Buxton, Ontario, 90.3's Karen Schaefer brings us the first of two reports on "Settlements of the North Star," stories of the Underground Railroad in Canada.

Karen Schaefer- In 1849, a Scottish Presbyterian minister named Reverend William King arrived in Raleigh Township near Chatham, Ontario with fifteen former slaves. His intention was to build a community where Blacks escaping slavery in the United States could learn to become self-sufficient and make a safe home for their families.

Takesha Brown- Basically what Buxton is was the last stop on the Underground Railroad for a lot of slaves, so this was basically freedom to them.

KS- With the support of the Canadian government, they built the Elgin Settlement, now known as North Buxton. It was a thriving agricultural community that was to become a haven for more than 2,000 Black fugitives and former slaves from the U.S.

Larry Reynolds (re-enacter, 102nd U.S. Colored Troops, Detroit, Michigan)- I am Dr. Martin Delaney. I’m of African descent, born in Virginia, America. Well, if you think back and remember the Fugitive Slave Law. Here I was, a free man by birth with a wife and children, and every moment, every night, I worried about some slave catcher coming to take my family into slavery. What defense did I have? I tired of this fear and anxiety and so I looked north to Buxton…

KS- The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850—which made it illegal to help an escaping slave, even in ‘free’ states like Ohio—sent a flood of new refugees across the border into Canada. Sharon Sexton, President of the International Underground Railroad Monument Collaborative, says Detroit was the single busiest crossing point between Canada and the U.S. One Detroit man, a black Underground conductor named George de Baptists, bought a steamboat to ferry fugitives across Lake Erie.

Sharon Sexton- And they disguised what they did by saying they were taking various things up and down Lake Erie. But what they were actually doing was taking freedom seekers from Sandusky, which had at one time been a black settlement, up the Erie to Amherstburg.

KS- In fact, there were many routes that led across Lake Erie. Slaves and free blacks escaping through Ohio could take ship in Cleveland for Buffalo and Niagra or at Sandusky or Toledo for Detroit, crossing the Detroit River into Canada at Windsor, Amherstburg or even Colchester. By 1861, there were an estimated 40,000 Blacks living in Canada, many of them in southern Ontario. They included men like William Howard Day.

Re-enactment of William Howard Day by Buxton descendant- As the only black man in a class of fifty at Oberlin College, I participated in local anti-slavery efforts and spoke at numerous black citizen’s conventions. In 1853, I founded the Alien American, a Cleveland weekly newspaper to support the Ohio black community. Last year, I emigrated to Dresden. My main occupation is now farming.

KS- The Dawn Settlement near Dresden, just 25 miles north of Buxton, was begun by Josiah Henson, a former slave whose autobiography so fascinated Harriet Beecher Stowe that she immortalized him as Uncle Tom. But the real ‘Uncle Tom’ was an ordained minister and teacher whose primary goal was the education of his people. Barbara Carter, director of Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site, is his direct descendant.

Barbara Carter- The primary thing that I think my great, great grandfather focused on was wanting to build and education school and that’s really what he did. The school functioned not only as a school. A learning, educational facility, but also many, many skills, but also they soon built their own grist mills, factories, flour mills, potash—and it became a thriving community. That was when they could become self-sufficient, then the community would survive.

KS- It was the tools for self-sufficiency that made the Canadian settlements unique. After the Civil War, many Blacks left Canada and returned to the U.S., taking their new skills with them. The Dawn Settlement disbanded in 1868, but North Buxton survived. 17-year-old Takesha Brown is the great-great-great-great granddaughter of one of the original settlers.

TB- Once the States were freed, a lot of them went back to find family, friends, work, schooling and such, so the community did get smaller. But a majority of the settlement are descendants from the first settlers. And actually I’m a seventh generation from the first settlers.

Jerry Pickard- Today’s ceremony marks one of the greatest successes of the Underground Railroad. This year, on the 150th anniversary of its founding, Buxton and the vision of tolerance, cooperation and community are clearly alive and thriving. That their descendants continue to call Buxton home and care for the community is a testament to their great accomplishments.

KS- On Labor Day, 1999, the 150-year-old North Buxton/Elgin Settlement was dedicated as a National Historic Site in Canada. Both Dresden and Buxton are now on the African-Canadian Heritage Tour. But North Buxton is still very much alive. Today about 200 descendants from the Elgin Settlement live and work in its rural farmlands. And for the last seventy-five years ten times that number of descendants return to Buxton every Labor Day Weekend for a family reunion. For Infohio, I’m Karen Schaefer in North Buxton, Ontario.

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