“I grew up like a neglected weed — ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it,” Harriet Tubman told abolitionist writer Benjamin Drew when he was interviewing escaped slaves living in St. Catharines in the mid-1850s. “Now I’ve been free, I know what a dreadful condition slavery is. I have seen hundreds of escaped slaves, but I never saw one who was willing to go back and be a slave. I have no opportunity to see my friends in my native land. We would rather stay in our native land, if we could be as free as we are here. I think slavery is the next thing to hell.”
To the many escaped slaves she led to freedom during the 1850s, Tubman was known as “Moses.” Over the course of 19 trips from Maryland via the Underground Railway network of abolitionists and safe houses, Tubman is estimated to have conducted around 300 people to Canada, including many members of her family. For most of the decade prior to the American Civil War, she used St. Catharines as a base to build a network of supporters in Canada West (present-day Ontario), New York state, and New England.
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After escaping from Dorchester County, Maryland, in late 1849, Tubman initially settled in Philadelphia. But the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in September 1850 put her and other escapees in greater danger. Part of a legislative package that admitted California as a free state, the act required law-enforcement officials to arrest anyone suspected of being a runaway slave. Northern abolitionists encouraged resistance to the act, and Black people, whether escapees or legally free, began looking to the British North American colonies for refuge from what Frederick Douglass at the time referred to as “the terribly distressing effects of this cruel enactment.”
The Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada had been passed in 1793. While it didn’t free anyone, it outlawed the importation of slaves and set up a timeline for the phasing out of slaveholding. The Slavery Abolition Act, passed in August 1834, ended slavery in the British Empire and freed the few remaining slaves in Upper Canada.
Around this time, a Black community sprang up around Henry Street in St. Catharines. Land grants from Welland Canal promoter William Hamilton Merritt allowed the construction of homes and a church. The town offered many advantages to those using the Underground Railroad: it was close (but not too close) to the border and to abolitionists in Canada West and the United States.
Tubman arrived in St. Catharines in December 1851 as part of a group of 11 escapees. The following spring, she began spending a portion of each year working in the United States, raising funds for escape missions. The trips out of Maryland were generally undertaken on winter nights, when slaveholders tended to stay indoors. Once in the north, escapees could take advantage of reduced rates or free passes from major railway companies, such as the Grand Trunk, and of hiding places in baggage or freight cars. According to a 1913 report in the Globe, Tubman, having brought a group safely across the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge, told them: “Shout, shout — you are free.” Some then kissed the ground and exclaimed, “This is British soil.”
While some moved on to other parts of Canada West, many of those Tubman aided, including members of her family, remained in St. Catharines. They found employment as labourers, servants, coachmen, farmers, and cooks. By the mid-1850s, the community is estimated to have had between 500 and 800 residents. Mary Ann Shadd, the pioneering Black female publisher of the Provincial Freeman newspaper, observed during a visit that the residents lived in “snug homesteads” and that “their success is a standing refutation to the falsehood that begging is needed for the fugitives of St. Catharines.”
While Canada offered more legal and political freedoms than the U.S., racism was still a problem north of the border. For example, in 1852, a parading white militia unit attacked residents and set fire to houses. Two years later, Black waiters walked off the job at the Welland House Hotel after Black passengers were banned from using the hotel’s coach service. (The ban was soon reversed.)
Tubman lived in a home on North Street across from Salem Chapel, built in 1855, where she attended services. She worked with local organizations, such as the St. Catharines Refugee Slaves’ Friend Society, and, in 1861, established the Fugitive Aid Society of St. Catharines. She hosted visitors such as John Brown, the radical abolitionist who, in April 1858, unsuccessfully attempted to recruit members of the St. Catharines community to participate in a raid he was planning on Harpers Ferry, Virginia, with the aim of sparking an armed slave revolt.
But her parents had difficulty adjusting to the winters, and she wanted to be closer to the struggle, so, when, in 1859, abolitionist U.S. senator William H. Seward offered to sell her a small property in Auburn, New York, she accepted. After serving as a nurse during the Civil War, she returned to Auburn, where she died in 1913 in a seniors' home she had established.
Today, there are many reminders of Tubman’s presence in St. Catharines, ranging from plaques to federal recognition of the historical significance of Salem Chapel. An elementary school named after Tubman and featuring a bronze likeness of her opened on Henry Street in 2015. As the school’s principal, Ronna Lockyer, told Niagara This Week in 2016, "Our school couldn't be more thrilled and thankful that the lifelike bronze will adorn our courtyard forever and remind generations to come of the wonderful impact that this woman has had on history.”
Sources: Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, by Catherine Clinton (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2004); The Refugee, by Benjamin Drew (Boston: John P. Jewett and Company, 1856); The Freedom-Seekers: Blacks in Early Canada, by Daniel G. Hill (Agincourt: Book Society of Canada, 1981); Bound for the Promised Land, by Kate Clifford Larson (New York: Ballantine Books, 2004); Harriet Tubman Freedom Seeker, Freedom Leader, by Rosemary Sadlier (Toronto: Dundurn, 2012); the April 2, 1913, edition of the Globe; the fall 1999 edition of the Michigan Historical Review; the February 9, 2016, edition of Niagara This Week; and the February 26, 2017, entry on the St. Catharines Museum Blog (https://stcatharinesmuseumblog.com/2017/02/26/narratives-of-fugitive-slaves-part-4/).
Jamie Bradburn is a Toronto-based writer/researcher specializing in historical and contemporary civic matters.