Friday, February 20, 2015

Underground Railroad in Niagara Region

Below are some excerpts from "Old Trails on the Niagara Frontier" ©1899 There is an entire chapter relating to the underground railroad connections with the Niagara region as well as other history of the trails during the 19th century such as the war of 1812. It's an interesting resource and fires up all kinds of historical scenarios for our characters to be a part of.

It is impossible to state even approximately the number of refugee negroes who crossed by these routes to Upper Canada, now Ontario. In 1844 the number was estimated at 40,000 ;l in 1852 the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada stated in its annual report that there were about 30,000 blacks in Canada West; in 1858 the number was estimated as high as 75,000.' This figure is probably excessive ; but since the negroes continued to come, up to the hour of the Emancipation Proclamation, it is probably within the fact to say that more than 50,000 crossed to Upper Canada, nearly all from points on Lake Erie, the Detroit and Niagara rivers.

Runaway slaves appeared in Buffalo at least as early as the '30's. "Professor Edward Orton recalls that in 1838, soon after his father moved to Buffalo, two sleigh-loads of negroes from the Western Reserve were brought to the house in the night-time; and Mr. Frederick Nicholson of Warsaw, N. Y., states that the Underground work in his vicinity began in 1840. From this time on there was apparently no cessation of migra tions of fugitives into Canada at Black Rock, Buffalo and other points."3 Those too were the days of much passenger travel on Lake Erie, and certain boats came to be known as friendly to the Underground cause. One boat which ran between Cleveland and Buffalo gave employment to the fugitive William Wells Brown. It became known at Cleveland that Brown would take escaped slaves under his protection without charge, hence he rarely failed to find a little company ready to sail when he started out from Cleveland. "In the year 1842," he says, "I conveyed from the 1st of May to the 1st of December, sixty-nine fugitives over Lake Erie to Canada.''' Many anecdotes are told of the search for runaways on the lake steamers. Lake travel in the ante-bellum days was ever liable to be enlivened by an exciting episode in a "nigger-chase"; but usually, it would seem, the negroes could rely upon the friendliness of the captains for concealment or other assistance.

There are chronicled, too, many little histories of flights which brought the fugitive to Buffalo. I pass over those which are readily accessible elsewhere to the student of this phase of our home history.' It is well, however, to devote a paragraph or two to one famous affair which most if not all American writers on the Underground Railroad appear to have overlooked.

One day in 1836 an intelligent negro, riding a thoroughbred but jaded horse, appeared on the streets of Buffalo. His appearance must have advertised him to all as a runaway slave. I do not know that he made any attempt to conceal the fact. His chief concern was to sell the horse as quickly as possible, and get across to Canada. And there, presently, we find him, settled at historic old Niagara, near the mouth of the river. Here, even at that date, so many negroes had made their way from the South, that more than 400 occupied a quarter known as Negro Town. The newcomer, whose name was Moseby, admitted that he had run away from a plantation in Kentucky, and had used a horse that formerly belonged to his master to make his way North. A Kentucky grand jury soon found a true bill against him for horse-stealing, and civil officers traced him to Niagara, and made requisition for his arrest and extradition. The year before, Sir Francis Bond Head had succeeded Sir John Colborne as Governor of Canada West, and before him the case was laid. Sir Francis regarded the charge as lawful, notwithstanding the avowal of Moseby's owners that if they could get him back to Kentucky they would "make an example of him "; in plainer words, would whip him to death as a warning to all slaves who dared to dream of seeking freedom in Canada.

Moseby was arrested and locked up in the Niagara jail; whereupon great excitement arose, the blacks and many sympathizing whites declaring that he should never be carried back South. The Governor, Sir Francis, was petitioned not to surrender Moseby; he replied that his duty was to give him up as a felon, "although he would have armed the province to protect a slave.'' For more than a week crowds of negroes, men and women, camped before the jail, day and night. Under the leadership of a mulatto schoolmaster named Holmes, and of Mrs. Carter, a negress with a gift for making fiery speeches, the mob were kept worked up to a high pitch of excitement, although, as a contemporary writer avers, they were unarmed, showed "good sense, forbearance and resolution,'' and declared their intention not to commit any violence against the English law. They even agreed that Moseby should remain in jail until they could raise the price of the horse, but threatened, "if any attempt were made to take him from the prison, and send him across to Lewiston, they would resist it at the hazard of their lives." The order, however, came for Moseby's delivery to the slave-hunters, and the sheriff and a party of constables attempted to execute it. Moseby was brought out from the jail, handcuffed and placed in a cart; whereupon the mob attacked the officers. The military was called out to help the civil force and ordered to fire on the assailants. Two negroes were killed, two or three wounded, and Moseby ran off and was not pursued. The negro women played a curiously-prominent part in the affair. "They had been most active in the fray, throwing themselves fearlessly between the black men and the whites, who, of course, shrank from injuring them. One woman had seized the sheriff, and held him pinioned in her arms; another, on one of the artillery-men presenting his piece, and swearing that he would shoot her if she did not get out of his way, gave him only one glance of unutterable contempt, and with one hand knocking up his piece, and colkring him with the other, held him in such a manner as to prevent his firing.

Soon after, in the same year, the Governor of Kentucky made requisition on the Governor of the province of Canada West for the surrender of Jesse Happy, another runaway slave, also on a charge of horse-stealing. Sir Francis held him in confinement in Hamilton jail, but refused to deliver him up until he had laid the case before the Home Government. In a most interesting report to the Colonial Secretary, under date of Toronto, Oct. 8, 1837, he asked for instructions "as a matter of general policy," and reviewed the Moseby case in a fair and broad spirit, highly creditable to him alike as an administrator and a friend of the oppressed. "I am by no means desirous," he wrote, '' that this province should become an asylum for the guilty of any color; at the same time the documents submitted with this dispatch will I conceive show that the subject of giving up fugitive slaves to the authorities of the adjoining republican States is one respecting which it is highly desirable I should receive from Her Majesty's Government specific instructions. . It may be argued that the slave escaping from bondage on his master's horse is a vicious struggle between two guilty parties, of which the slave-owner is not only the aggressor, but the blackest criminal of the two. It is a case of the dealer in human flesh versus the stealer of horse-flesh; and it may be argued that, if the British Government does not feel itself authorized to pass judgment on the plaintiff, neither should it on the defendant.'' Sir Francis continues in this ingenious strain, observing that "it is as much a theft in the slave walking from slavery to liberty in his master's shoes as riding on his master's horse." To give up a slave for trial to the American laws, he argued, was in fact giving him back to his former master; and he held that, until the State authorities could separate trial from unjust punishment, however willing the Government of Canada might be to deliver up a man for trial, it was justified in refusing to deliver him up for punishment, "unless sufficient security be entered into in this province, that the person delivered up for trial shall be brought back to Upper Canada as soon as his trial or the punishment awarded by it shall be concluded." And he added this final argument, begging that instructions should be sent to him at once:
It is argued, that the republican states have no right, under the pretext of any human treaty, to claim from the British Government, which does not recognize slavery, beings who by slave-law are not recognized as men and who actually existed as brute beasts in moral darkness, until on reaching British soil they suddenly heard, for the first time in their lives, the sacred words, "Let there be light; and there was light!" From that moment it is argued they were created nun, and if this be true, it is said they cannot be held responsible for conduct prior to their existence.
Sir Francis left the Home Government in no doubt as to his own feelings in the matter; and although I have seen no further report regarding Jesse Happy, neither do I know of any case in which a refugee in Canada for whom requisition was thus made was permitted to go back to slavery. It did sometimes happen, however, that refugees were enticed across the river on one pretext or another, or grew careless and took their chances on the American side, only to fall into the clutches of the ever-watchful slave-hunters.

No comments:

Post a Comment