In 1849, William King founded the Elgin Settlement for freed and fugitive slaves. When the United States passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, even slaves that had escaped the south to freedom in northern “free” states were now in danger. As a result, the years between 1850 and the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 saw a vast increase in the numbers of slaves seeking freedom in Canada.
The Elgin Settlement, which at its peak had about 1,000 settlers, was a well-known end-point of the Underground Railroad. However, these were but a small fraction of the estimated 40,000 freed and fugitive slaves that traveled the “Underground Railroad” to freedom in Canada in the mid-1800s.
1619-Slaves in Virginia
Africans brought to Jamestown are the first slaves imported into Britain’s North American colonies. Like indentured servants, they were probably freed after a fixed period of service.
1705-Slaves as Property
Describing slaves as real estate, Virginia lawmakers allow owners to bequeath their slaves. The same law allows masters to “kill and destroy” runaways.
1793-Fugitive Slave Act
The United States outlaws any efforts to impede the capture of runaway slaves.
1793-Legislation in Upper Canada
Upper Canada’s first Legislature passed a law prohibiting the introduction of more slaves and for the gradual emancipation of slaves born after that date.
1807 British parliament abolishes slave trade.
1808-United States Bans the Slave Trade
Importing African slaves is outlawed, but smuggling continues.
Missouri is admitted to the Union as a slave state, Maine as a free state. Slavery is forbidden in any subsequent territories north of latitude 36°30′.
1834-Emancipation Act (British Empire)
Emancipation Act, passed in 1833 (effective August 1, 1834), abolished slavery throughout the British Empire, including Canada.
1850-Compromise of 1850/Fugitive Slave Act
In exchange for California’s entering the Union as a free state, northern congressmen accept a harsher Fugitive Slave Act different from the previous one of 1793. This results in a flood of freed and fugitive slaves into Canada.
1852-Publication of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”
Novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe captures international attention to the horrors of slavery.
1857-Dred Scott Decision
The United States Supreme Court decides, seven to two, that Blacks can never be citizens and that Congress has no authority to outlaw slavery in any territory.
1861-65-United States Civil War
Four years of brutal conflict claim 623,000 lives.
The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution outlaws slavery.
The above timeline was an amalgamation of charts on the following websites: the National Underground Railroad Freedom Centre, www.freedomcenter.org and Ontario’s Underground Railroad, www.africanhertour.org (no longer active).
Please visit the the National Underground Railroad Freedome Centre website for a more detailed timeline and all sorts of additional information.
For more links to websites on the history of slavery, click on “Bibliography and Credits” in the Table of Contents menu.
Copyright held by The Presbyterian Church in Canada Archives, 2009
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