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Towards Confederation

Influence of the American Civil War

The Blacks, Anti-Slavery and the Underground Railway

Black slaves were bought to Canada as early as 1608. By 1759 there were more than 1000 Black slaves in the then New France. After the fall of New France to Britain in 1763 many Loyalists immigrating from the United States brought their slaves with them. However, most of the Blacks who settled in Nova Scotia after the American Revolution were free. In August 1834 slavery was abolished for all the British Empire including the North American colonies. At the outbreak of the Civil War, sentiment in British North America-- while not necessarily pro-North -- was definitely anti-slavery.

I'm on my way to Canada
That cold and distant land
The dire effects of slavery
I can no longer stand -
Farewell old master,
Don't come after me.
I'm on my way to Canada
Where coloured men are free.

A version of the song "The Free Slave," by the American abolitionist George W. Clark

Here the slave found freedom. Before the United States Civil War 1861-65 Windsor was an important terminal of the Underground Railway. Escaping from bondage, thousands of fugitive slaves from the South, men women and children landing near this spot found in Canada friends, freedom, protection under the British flag.

Historical plaque, Windsor, Ontario

Canada is not merely a neighbor of negroes. Deep in our history of struggle for freedom Canada was the North Star.

Martin Luther King, Jr., CBC Massey Lectures, 1967

The Underground Railway was a network of safe houses and individuals who helped runaway slaves reach free states in the American North or Canada. It operated from about 1840 to 1860. It was most effective after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 which enabled slave hunters to pursue runaways onto free soil. It is estimated that about 30,000 Blacks reached Canada by the "railway." The best-known "conductor" was Harriet Tubman.


Two Black newspapers, Voice of the Fugitive and Provincial Freeman, were published in Canada. They attacked racism, created a more sympathetic climate for Blacks and provided helpful advice.

In 1858 the famous American abolitionist John Brown visited Canada. He chose Chatham, in Canada West, as a safe base from which to develop his strategy, draw up a constitution for his planned provisional government and drum up support for the abolitionist cause.