As a Floridian, Canada offers freedom from the heat of summer during this time of year, and was the ideal location to celebrate my wife’s 50th birthday. While vacationing in a vast change of scenery and climate, we were compelled to visit historic sites of freedom as well, including the actual site of the suspension bridge used by southern slaves to reach freedom while crossing over into Canada.
The Underground Railroad was the road to freedom for many, but was neither underground nor a railroad, but a clandestine network of sympathetic abolitionists, both Caucasian and African-American, who hid and guided slaves or freedom seekers as they escaped enslavement by slipping from the United States into Canada. It was a collection of people and places throughout the United States with the final destination being Canada.
Fortunately, for us we like to venture off the beaten path and take the “Roads Less Traveled.” During this venture we visited the Lundy Museum, which houses historical information and artifacts from various periods of Canada / Quebec’s history, including the War of 1812. Most surprisingly, the day we chose for this excursion was also Upper Canada’s Civic Holiday: Simcoe Day, which is observed the first Monday of August.
Simcoe Day was named in honor of John Graves Simcoe who served Upper Canada from 1791 to 1797 as the first Lieutenant Governor, and he was the first political leader in Canada to challenge slavery effectively. Historically speaking, slavery was an institution as old as Western Civilization, and one that had already invaded the brand new colony of Canada. When the British lost the War of Independence to the newly formed United States, many of the loyalists came north and brought their slaves with them.
Nevertheless, when the legislature of Upper Canada first met under an oak tree in Newark (now Niagara-On-The-Lake), Simcoe proposed that slavery be outlawed. The proposal was met with resistance and a chilly reception, especially since many of the legislators owned slaves. Hence Simcoe proposed a more moderate action that would allow those colonists to keep their slaves, but also spelled the end of slavery for this new colony. The legislation was passed in 1793, decades before slavery would be abolished throughout the British Empire and generations before the United States would fight a savage Civil War. Thus the first step toward freedom from servitude was taken in Canada.
On other days of our trip, we visited various sites from the War of 1812 at Fort Erie and Niagara-On-The-Lake. We saw the grave of Sir Isaac Brock, who was a true patriot and a General for the British during the War of 1812.
We also visited additional sites along the Underground Railroad; including the pictured suspension bridge — as it originally appeared. The bridge has been refurbished but was the actual route that slaves took to freedom. Many Blacks ventured from this point into Nova Scotia and other parts deeper into the country.
Derek Boyd Hankerson
St. Augustine, FL
Photo credits: Derek Boyd Hankerson
Derek Boyd Hankerson is the Managing Partner of Freedom Road, LLC. Historic City News is pleased to be able to publish Derek’s periodic guest columns which are both informative and entertaining. Derek has been a leader in numerous community projects in support of Fort Mose, multicultural education and heritage tourism. Derek and his wife live in St. Augustine.