By VICTOR LAURISTON
IN the decades immediately preceding
the American Civil War, the famous Underground Railroad was instrumental
spiriting thousands of negro slaves from the Southern
States to the free soil of Canada. Kent county, by reason of its proximity
to the border, became the location of several refugee colonies.
Many of the refugees made their homes
in the county town of Chatham. At the peak of the influx, approximately
one-third of Chatham’s 6,000 people were colored. These refugees settled
the eastern part of the town, were, naturally, the more
enterprising among the southern slaves. Many of them were well educated and
some in time became quite well-to-do.
Meanwhile, aided by Northern
Abolitionists and Canadian and British sympathizers, ambitious plans were
made for placing other fugitives on the land and giving them an opportunity
to work out their own salvation. Funds were subscribed, and lands acquired
to be resold to the negroes on easy terms. Town sites and farm tracts
designed especially for the newcomers were surveyed in the rural parts of
Kent; and settlements established.
One of the most famous of these
colonies was the Dawn settlement, also known as
Fairport, southwest of the present town of
Dresden. Among the first to settle there was Rev. Josiah Henson. Born at
Port Tobacco, Maryland, in 1789, Henson spent some 40 years in bondage,
escaping to Canada about 1830 and shortly after settling at Fairport where
his abilities speedily made him a leader in the colony. With financial
assistance from white sympathizers, some 250 acres of heavily timbered lands
were purchased, and the British and American Institution established, the
purpose being to educate the negroes, train them in farming and industry
till they could support themselves.
The Institution was, probably, the first technical school in Canada.
Henson got funds from Boston to build
a sawmill, and a grist mill and other pioneer industries were started. With
the profits of lumbering, helped out by donations, the enterprise at first
prospered. Henson made three trips to England, lecturing and raising funds,
and on one occasion was presented to Queen Victoria. Later, the Institution
fell into financial difficulties; so much so that the Courts had to take
charge and dispose of the properties. The lands were sold in 1871 for
$30,000, the net proceeds, $21,730, being constituted a fund for the
education of the negroes in Kent. Wilberforce Educational Institute at
Chatham was the outcome.
Henson is famous as the original of
Uncle Tom, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s celebrated fiction character. The
novelist is reputed to have secured much of her material from Henson, whom
she visited at Fairport. Henson died on May 5, 1883, and lies buried on the
Institute site, long since lapsed back into farm land.
Fairport was, however, only one of the
negro colonies in Kent. Another was New Kentucky, in Chatham township close
to the town line and just south of Concession 6; where, in 1860, the main
street was lined with cabins. On the borders of Rondeau, another settlement
was established at Governor Simcoe’s empty and far reaching townsite of
Among the leaders in the various
movements to help the fugitive slaves was Rev. William King. A native of
Ireland, he married a Louisiana heiress and thereby became a slave-owner.
Later he freed his slaves and brought them to Canada, where, in 1849, a
grant of 9,000 acres was secured
in Raleigh township and the Buxton or Elgin settlement established. As
originally planned, farms of 50 acres each were sold to the negroes at $2.50
an acre, repayable in instalments of $12.50 a year without
interest. In no great time the land was
all taken up by colored settlers. King was head of the mission, supervised
the school, and had oversight of the various local industries established
for the benefit of the colony; and visited the Old Country to raise funds
The mission station, opened November
28, 1849, became a regularly
organized congregation on June 6, 1858. By 1864, the settlement possessed a
steam grist mill, saw mill, two pearl ash factories, one shoe shop, two
general stores, one blacksmith shop, one wagon shop and one cooper shop.
With timber plentiful, its principal business was the manufacture of square
timber and staves. The school had an average attendance of 40 pupils, and
the mission church, built in 1850, a seating capacity of 200.
The most striking episode in the
history of the negro settlements in Kent was the visit of John Brown, the
celebrated abolitionist, to Chatham in 1858. Brown, a fanatic in his hatred
of slavery, had conceived the idea of fomenting a widespread slave
insurrection in the south with a view to securing control of the United
States government and freeing the slaves.
Many of the Chatham negroes were well
educated and prosperous, the various settlements in Kent were thriving, and
Brown sought and confidently anticipated strong support.
Brown’s initial conferences with
Chatham sympathizers were held in the office of Israel D. Shadd’s
"Provincial Freeman," which occupied a portion of the brick building still
standing at the southeast corner of King and Adelaide streets. As the scheme
developed, meetings were held in the First Baptist church on King Street
East, and in a little frame school on Princess Street. On May 8, 1858, a
conference of white and colored sympathizers adopted a constitution and
elected a congress and cabinet to take. control of the United States on the
anticipated success of the conspiracy.
Brown revisited Chatham in the summer
of 1859. Meanwhile the enthusiasm of his Chatham supporters had time to
cool, and the counsels of Hon. Archie McKellar, Rev. Wm. King and others
prevailed against the fanatic enthusiasm of the abolitionist. When, on
October 16, 1859, Brown made his celebrated raid on Harper’s Ferry, his
desperate band contained only one recruit from Chatham.
The slaves failed to join Brown, who
was captured and hanged at Charleston on December 2, 1859. But in the eyes
of the North, his death on the scaffold transformed the crazy abolitionist
into a martyr, and did much to precipitate the Civil War.
Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation in
1863, and the fall of the Confederacy, reversed the entire trend of negro
settlement in Kent.
After 1865, the refugees were no
longer hunted slaves, but free men. Doubtless through the years in this
colder northern clime their thoughts had turned longingly toward the land of
the palmetto and the cotton. Now the refugees flocked back to the United
States. The more ambitious became in many instances officials of the "carpet
bagger" governments which for many years after the Civil War dominated the
southern states. The majority found less spectacular but perhaps more useful
activities in the everyday life of America.
With the end of the Civil War there
ended, also, the need for refugee colonies, and, likewise, the need for
British and American donations to sustain them. In no great time, the
industries which had sprung up, and the communities dependent on them,
disintegrated. Henson’s settlement at Fairport fell upon evil days, and the
British and American Institution passed out of existence. In the once
populous Buxton settlements, white farmers gradually replaced the colored
folk. New Kentucky lapsed back into farm land; and most of the cabins of
Shrewsbury were deserted and weeds grew in its far-reaching streets.
This trend has continued through the
years; and while a small proportion of the descendants of the original
refugees clung to the lands which had first set their fathers free, the
majority gravitated to Detroit and other American cities which offered
larger opportunities. The negro influx, which for a time threatened to
change the whole complexion of Kent, proved merely a passing phase in its