The Underground Railroad and Oral Narratives


Detail of petition containing the signatures of 178 Black men living in the Hamilton area seeking the release of Nelson Hackett, 1842.

The 1793 Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada did not ban slavery, and individuals continued to be bought and sold in Canada until the Slavery Abolition Act of 1834. However, the 1793 act did ban the importation and transportation of slaves from the United States, and further stated that no 'person, who shall come or be brought into this Province after the passing of this Act, be subject to the condition of a Slave'. This allowed African-Americans born into slavery to escape to freedom in Upper Canada.  By the 1830s, the term 'Underground Railroad' described the organizational network run by Black and white Americans and Canadians to assist escaped slaves to enter Canada. The number of individuals entering Canada increased exponentially with the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act in the United States in 1850. It is estimated that a total of 30,000-40,000 African Americans fled to Canada between 1793 and 1865.

This page highlights the oral testimonies of African-Canadians, who provide first-hand descriptions of their lives, including escaping slavery and their experiences in Upper Canada. This sampling of accounts is consistent with the tradition of publishing the stories of African-Canadians to promote the abolitionist cause, largely by white writers and publishing houses. While subject to historical biases and embellishment, these narratives give voice to the early Black population of Canada and provides historical perspective and the everyday details of life.


‘Address of the Colored [sic] People of Hamilton to Sir Allan Napier MacNab’. [Hamilton, 1842].

In 1793, the first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe, introduced a law restricting the rights of slave-holders and abolishing the further importation of slaves to the colony. Thus Upper Canada became the first place in the British Empire to provide for the abolition of slavery. This petition preserves the autographs or marks of 178 black men living in the area of Hamilton who had fled the United States by the Underground Railway. They sought the release of one of their friends, Nelson Hackett, who had been retaken by American slavers. However, their petition was ultimately unsuccessful, as with the approval of the newly arrived Governor-General, Sir Charles Bagot, Hackett was returned to Arkansas, and then sold to a settler in Texas.

Joshua McCarter Simpson. Away to Canada: Adapted to the Case of Mr. S., Fug from Tennessee. [185?].

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Verse from Away to Canada by Joshua McCarter Simpson, [185?]

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This broadside features the best-known lyric poem written by Joshua McCarter Simpson. Simpson was born free around 1820 in Ohio but spent his young adulthood as an indentured labourer. While largely uneducated in his childhood, Simpson taught himself to read and write and attended Oberlin College from 1844 to 1848.  It was during this period, that he began to write poetry on the theme of Anti-Slavery.  Simpson was a staunch abolitionist and worked as a conductor for the Underground Railroad, and it is perhaps through this work that he heard the story of 'Mr. S. a fug[itive] from Tennessee'.  His first publication, Original Anti-Slavery Songs (1852), is widely considered to be the only collection of abolitionist songs composed and published by an African American. It is in this volume where Away to Canada first appeared. Simpson set many of his works to the tunes of well-known minstrel songs, and in the preface of Original Anti-Slavery Songs, he wrote his reasoning was to 'kill the degrading influence of those comic Negro Songs, which are too common among our people, and change the flow of those sweet melodies into more appropriate and useful channels'.  Away to Canada is set to the tune of 'Oh! Susanna', with refrains reminiscent of the song: 'Oh! Susannah, don’t you cry for me, I’m going up to Canada, Where colored men are free.' This song became enormously popular in Black communities in both the United States and Canada and was frequently sung by those escaping to Canada on the Underground Railroad.

It is unknown where or when this broadside was published. Published on single pieces of paper, broadsides are ephemeral in nature and were not intended to survive the test of time. The Fisher may be the only library in the world to hold this particular printing. Away to Canada was frequently re-published in periodicals and books; however, the secondary title, 'adapted to the case of Mr. S., fug from Tennessee', was only included in the earliest printings, indicating that this broadside could date from the early 1850s, around the same time as Simpson’s book was published. 

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Benjamin Drew.  A North-Side View of Slavery: The Refugee; or, The Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada, Related by Themselves, with an Account of the History and Condition of the Colored Population of Upper Canada. Boston: John P. Jewett, 1856.

Benjamin Drew, a prominent American abolitionist, was commissioned by the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada to interview and record the accounts of escaped slaves living in Canada. In 1852, the Society estimated the Black population in Upper Canada to stand at 30,000, and that 'nearly all the adults, and many of the children, have been fugitive slaves from the United States'. In the course of his journey, Drew visited St. Catharines, Toronto, Hamilton, Galt, London, Queen’s Bush, Chatham, Buxton, Dresden, Windsor, Sandwich, Amhertsburg, Colchester, and Gosfield, accompanied by members of the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada. In total, he published 117 accounts: 97 men, 17 women, and 3 institutions. The volume was published in 1856 by J.P. Jewett, who also pubilshed the first complete edition of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The title a North-Side of Slavery was meant to be a direct response to Nehemiah Adams’s A Southside View of Slavery, a text that was criticized by abolitionists for it’s pro-slavery sentiment.  The publisher’s statement at the beginning of the book states, 'as for the statements of the Fugitives from Slavery, they speak for themselves. Nowhere else can be found such a mass of direct and unimpeachable testimony as to the true character of the Peculiar Institution, by witnesses who have had the best opportunity of knowing its nature, and who occupy a point of view from which its characteristic lineaments can be most distinctly discerned'.

This book is widely considered one of the most comprehensive sources of first-hand accounts of escaped slaves living in Canada.  The accounts vary from a few lines, such as the account by Harriet Tubman, who then lived in St. Catharines and stated, 'I think slavery is the next thing to hell. If a person would send another into bondage, he would, it appears to me, be bad enough to send him into hell, if he could' - to several pages, such as the lengthy account of Charles Bentley. 

While some of those interviewed chose to use aliases, others were recorded using their actual names.  This includes Benedict Duncan, who reported his story in one page, finalizing his narrative by stating, 'I had rather have a day free, than a week of life in slavery : I think slavery is the worst evil that ever was'. Duncan was born into slavery in Maryland around 1823 and escaped at twenty-eight years old. He married Elizabeth Hailey in Toronto in 1860, who was also born into slavery in Maryland. By 1871, they had settled in Oakville, where they raised their seven children: Jeremiah, Benjamin, Levi, Elizabeth, Aman, Alexander, and Mary. Duncan died in 1903 at age 76.

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Account of Benedict Duncan as recorded by Benjamin Drew, 1856

At five pages long, Charles Bentley of Toronto wrote one of the longest narratives. He reported that although he was given the name Peyton Lucas at birth in Lessburg, Virginia, he changed his name 'in running' to Charles Bentley.  Bentley’s account records in detail his childhood, his family, his training as a blacksmith, and his escape after his sister overheard their master’s plan to sell him in 1841. Bentley and his companions travel through Maryland, across the Mason-Dixon line, and into Pennsylvania 'among the Dutch', where they 'struck the track of the underground railroad, which we followed into the northern free States'. At an unknown location, Bentley is told of an advertisement in a tavern describing him and offering a $500 reward, requiring him to move further north to Geneva, New York. There he remained until the passing of the Fugitive Slave Bill in 1850, when he came to Canada. In his 1855 book Autobiography of a Fugitive Negro, Samuel Ringgold Ward praised Charles Peyton Lucas: 'in his trade as a general blacksmith, will compare with any man in Toronto, where he resides ; but as a horse shoer, it is impossible for any man to exceed him'.


Early photographs of The Cataract House, [1860-1870].

The Cataract House, a hotel located on the American side of the Niagara River with a view of Canada, was an important location for the Underground Railroad. The Cataract House opened in 1825 to serve tourists visiting Niagara Falls. By the 1840s, their wait staff was entirely composed of African-Americans, many of whom were freedom seekers from the southern states. The hotel became a significant stop on the Underground Railroad, particularly after 1850, when the United States passed the Fugitive Slave Bill. The wait staff played a crucial part in ferrying people across the river to Canada during the night. On 1 August 1856 (the anniversary of Emancipation Day in the British West Indies), Cataract House head-waiter, John Morrison, was gifted a gold-headed cane by his friends and fellow waiters in honour of his tireless work.

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Glenelg; Jim Henson. Broken Shackles. Toronto: William Briggs, 1889.

John Frost, formerly Mayor of Owen Sound and a lawyer, recorded Jim Henson’s life story under the pseudonym, Glenelg, which was published by William Briggs in Toronto in 1889.  On the first page, Frost spies his 'old friend' Henson breaking rocks with a road crew to earn money for an Emancipation Day boat excursion in August 1888. He describes Henson as “broad-shouldered, square-built and heavy … greatly advanced in years … His mind is commensurate with his frame. He has a wonderful recollection of names, dates and facts, is possessed of good reasoning powers, a full sonorous voice, and is an excellent talker.” Frost spoke to Henson just as he received a letter from his niece in New Jersey, with news of his daughters and wife, the first he had heard of any family in thirty-six years. The letter is published in the book revealing, 'your daughters Comfort and Rose are both dead … Aunt Catherine, your wife, is still living'.

Frost recounts Henson’s memories and life story in great detail, including oral history passed down from his mother and his grandmother, back to his great-grandfather, named Middobo, a chief in the Bagirmi tribe in modern-day Chad, who was killed when his wife and daughters were captured as slaves and transported to Maryland. The text, clearly with historical and editorial additions made by Frost, explores Henson’s childhood and young adulthood in slavery in Maryland, before he was tricked by a slave owner who promised his freedom. He made his escape in 1829, settling first in Philadelphia, before moving on to New Jersey after his former owner spotted him. In 1850, Henson decides to travel to Canada, although his friends and relatives attempt to dissuade him: 'Thee couldn’t live in Canada a single winter. The cold is intense and the snow deep. Why, I’ve heard that milk vendors there in the cold season carry their milk around in sticks and deliver milk icicles to their customers'. Henson is not convinced and responds, 'But I prefer snow and frost to de crack of the slave-whip'. Henson’s account, although likely augmented and exaggerated by Frost, stands as an important text, which accounts the extraordinary life and struggle of an African-Canadian, born into slavery, living in small-town Ontario.


Letter received by Jim Henson from his niece, Julia Truitt, 5 July 1888

Janet Carnochan and Mary Ann Guillen. 'A Slave Rescue in Niagara Sixty Years Ago' in Niagara Historical Society (no. 2), 1897: 9-18


In 1897, Janet Carnochan, a historian and principal of the Niagara Public School, delivered a lecture, 'A Slave Rescue in Niagara Sixty Years Ago', to the Canadian Institute, Lundy’s Lane Historical Society, and Niagara Historical Society. The speech, which began 'Not all heroes are known to fame. Not all heroes are of the dominant races, nor are they always of the class trained by ages of culture to do knightly deeds', was published that same year in the Niagara Historical Society Publication.  The topic of Carnochan’s speech was the imprisonment of Solomon Moseby and subsequent riot for his freedom in 1837 in Niagara, Ontario. In 1837, a Kentucky slave owner came to Niagara and demanded the return of his escaped slave, Moseby. He was charged with stealing his owner’s horse and imprisoned in the Niagara jail. Between 200 and 400 African-Canadians surround the jail and when Moseby was brought out of the prison to be transported back to the United States, the crowd charged the jailers and freed Moseby. Two African-Canadian men, Herbert Holmes and Jacob Green, were killed by the constables during the melee.

To add historical integrity to her accounting of the event, Carnochan sought to find a witness to the event and in the process gave three pages of her speech over to a direct oral history of a local seventy-year old woman, who witnessed the event when she was thirteen years old. While the woman is unidentified in Carnochan’s telling, she is later identified by the Niagara Historical Society & Museum as Mary Ann Guillen, the daughter of William Riley, an escaped slave from Fredericsburg, Virginia, who came to Canada in 1802 and Fanny Riley, an American-born white servant. Guillen’s account records her father’s escape, her mother’s background, and their marriage, as well as her own childhood in Niagara-on-the-Lake’s 'Coloured Village', where she attended a Black school and was taught by Herbert 'Hubbard' Holmes, who was later killed by Moseby’s constables.

Guillen states, 'I remember how Hubbard Holmes used to drill the boys, and when the holiday time came he would march us all in twos to a grocery kept by a black woman, and treat us all to bulls’-eyes and gingerbread'. Guillen recalls the 1837 event, which she watched with her mother on the top of their house: 'many of our people had sword cuts on their necks. They were armed with all kinds of weapons : pitchforks, flails, sticks, stones. One woman had a large stone in a stocking, and many had their aprons full of stones, and threw them too. […] Hubbard Holmes and Green fell dead, but Solomon Moseby jumped out and ran off in the direction of Mr. Hiscott’s. Oh, I can remember the screaming and the shouting – but Hubbard Holmes was dead! Tragedy! Yes, he was a martyr, he gave his life to free his brother'. In Carnochan’s lecture, Guillen’s personal stories are given historical weight, and stands as a significant source on the earliest Black settlement in Niagara, Ontario.

Nineteenth Century
The Underground Railroad and Oral Narratives