For runaway slaves fleeing America in hopes of freedom and peace in Canada, beginning a new life could be difficult. Canada may have been free, but it did not mean blacks were always welcomed with open arms. Many fugitive slaves were coming to find work so they could free their loved ones still enslaved in America. Families came to begin new lives and give their children the educational and other opportunities they themselves had only ever dreamed of. All of this was hard enough to accomplish, let alone having to worry about finding a neighborhood where you would be welcomed.
Buxton Settlement, also known as Elgin Settlement, was one of only four settlements created solely for fugitive slaves finding refuge in Canada (“Buxton”). Buxton is the setting for the young adult, historical fiction novel Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis, and the Buxton Settlement is the first historical topic I have researched for this blog assignment.
Buxton was founded in 1849 by Reverend William King, an abolitionist who wanted to do everything in his power to make a positive impact for blacks in America. Rev. King was born in Ireland in 1812 and immigrated to America in 1834. He married and raised a family in America, but after they died he moved to Scotland. In 1846 he moved back to North America to do missionary work in Canada, which turned into the creation of the Buxton Settlement (“Buxton”).
Education and religious faith were important to him and became the cornerstones of the Buxton Settlement. Rev. King believed “Blacks are intellectually capable of absorbing classical and abstract matters” (qtd. in “Buxton”). He brought educators from the Knox Presbyterian College in Toronto to teach the classes, which included Greek and Latin. By the end of 1850, the Buxton school claimed eighty four students and Rev. King started a secondary program beyond the original elementary program. Illiterate adults could take night classes at the school to learn to read as well (Simmons and Rice). The school was so successful that the local white settlers asked for their children to attend, making the Buxton Settlement school one of the first integrated schools in North America. Rev. King knew that a solid education would unlock many doors for these children in the future (“Buxton”).
Purchasing land in Buxton cost $2.50 per acre. Located between Lake Erie and the Great Western Railway, the settlement itself consisted of nine thousand acres of land. The settlement’s logging industry provided many jobs for Buxton residents, and the fellowship of fellow runaway slaves was a great source of comfort and friendship for them. However, there were strict guidelines that had to be followed in order to be a resident. Alcohol was outlawed. Land could not be leased, only purchased, and it could only be purchased by blacks. Once purchased, the land had to remain in the original buyer’s hands for ten years. There were regulations for house construction, too: “Each house had to be built at least 24x18x12 feet with a porch across the front. Each house had to be built 33 feet from the road, with a picket fence and a flower garden in front; prizes were given for the most attractive home (made from the logs cut down from the thick brush surrounding the area)”(“Buxton”).
In the 1860’s the settlement met its population peak with two thousand residents. In 1857, the total student population of the school was 140 students. With strict rules meant to foster pride and unity, with a strong church and school, and with hardworking fugitive slaves claiming a new outlook on life, the Buxton Settlement became what historians today consider the only successful all-black settlement in Canada West (“Buxton”). As Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe’s report “Commission on the Canadian Negroes” states:
“There are signs of industry and thrift and comfort, everywhere; signs of intemperance, of idleness, of want, nowhere…. Now [the runaway slaves] own themselves…. They are enfranchised citizens of a government which protects their rights. They have the great essentials of human happiness, ‘something to love, something to do, and something to hope for” and if they are not happy it is their own fault” (qtd. in “Buxton”).
Buxton National Historic Site and Museum. 2009. 16 January 2009 <http://www.buxton
Simmons, Dale and Brian Rice. “Africans.” Library and Archives Canada. 2005. 16 January