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The Underground Railroad

The Niagara Region has always and will continue to be a gateway. It is the doorway that connects Canada to the United States, a doorway that for many refugees entering Canada in the early 1800's meant the difference between freedom and slavery. For these people the Niagara Frontier became the doorway to new life.

The War of 1812 brought many American soldiers into Upper Canada. When the war was over most of the military disbanded and these men went home to their farms in the southern U.S. Here they would relay stories of a country that didn't practice slavery, and in the mind of a slave Canada stood for a land of freedom.

And so the exodus began. Word would have travelled quickly amongst the slaves and anyone making it to Canada might have even been able to send information back to waiting relatives encouraging even more to undertake the arduous journey.

However all their attempts would have been in vain if they did not have the support of the people of Upper Canada and New York. By 1830 there was a growing movement especially among the Quakers to facilitate the movement and to provide shelter to these escaped slaves. Hiding places were established with the refugees often being moved from one "safe" home to another.

This form of underground movement became so highly organized that by 1844 as many as 40,000 escaped slaves had made their way to the Canadian border and freedom. Almost all of these refugees crossed into Upper Canada from points on Lake Erie, and the Niagara and Detroit Rivers.

In the mid 1800's there was substantial passenger travel on Lake Erie. Certain ships would become known as sympathetic to the underground movement and the captains would harbour a fugitive at great peril to themselves. Yet thousands of escaped men, women and children were brought to Canada this way.

Not all escaped slaves came to Canada via the Underground Railway. Many wealthy southerners were beginning to travel and Niagara Falls was a likely tourist destination. Once at Niagara Falls the negro butler or the slave girl would be sent to run an errand only to never return. Many of these escaped slaves would eventually find work in the newly built hotels springing up all over Niagara Falls or on a Niagara area farm.

Many people are under the false impression that slavery in Canada never existed when, in fact, this is untrue. Early in the history of Upper Canada many of the arriving United Empire Loyalists and other European immigrants brought their slaves with them. Many black men had already escaped to Upper Canada and enlisted in Butlers Rangers. They would have surely been granted their freedom after the disbandment of the Rangers.

However there was one person who would turn the tide on slavery in Upper Canada and act as a catalyst for the abolition of slavery in Colonial Niagara. Her name was Chloe Cooley, and she was a young black slave woman who had been sold without her children to an American. Her story is on a plaque in Niagara on the Lake close to the location where her story unfolded:

On March 14, 1793 Chloe Cooley, an enslaved Black woman in Queenston, was bound, thrown in a boat and sold across the river to a new owner in the United States. Her screams and violent resistance were brought to the attention of Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe by Peter Martin, a free Black and former soldier in Butler's Rangers, and William Grisley, a neighbour who witnessed the event. Simcoe immediately moved to abolish slavery in the new province. He was met with opposition in the House of Assembly, some of whose members owned slaves. A compromise was reached and on July 9, 1793 an Act was passed that prevented the further introduction of slaves into Upper Canada and allowed for the gradual abolition of slavery although no slaves already residing in the province were freed outright. It was the first piece of legislation in the British Empire to limit slavery and set the stage for the great freedom movement of enslaved African Americans known as the Underground Railway.