In December 1849, Rev. King settled on his property and began his ministry, which would soon become nationally and internationally known.
The settlement grew rapidly. With the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act in the United States in 1850, large numbers of slaves that had sought freedom in the northern United States, were now in danger of re-capture, and therefore sought freedom in Canada.
By the end of the 1850s, there were upwards of 300 families living in the settlement, which also included a blacksmith shop, carpenters shop, saw mill, a potash and pearl-ash factory, brick-yard, store, hotel and post-office.
That first winter, William constructed a log building on his property for use as a church and school. As missionary appointed by the Synod of the Presbyterian Church of Canada, he focused his efforts on the spiritual and educational welfare of the settlers, holding services in his own house until the new building was completed.
“During the winter I continued to preach in my own house to the few settlers who came in and to the whites, who formed the larger part of the congregation, and who seemed to have no antipathy against the blacks, but sat beside them in public worship and thus they were gradually becoming acquainted with each other.”
In April 1850, he opened both a day school for the children of the new settlers and any white children that chose to attend, and also a Sabbath School for Bible study. He held prayer meetings on Thursdays and opened a night school in order to teach adults to read and write. He also helped the early settlers plan and build their log homes, and these in turn helped those arriving after.
Gradually through this education, the opposition to the settlement lessened. William recounts in his memoirs how some that had originally signed the memorial against the settlement, later came to him asking for forgiveness, and with each passing year, more white settlers began sending their children to William’s school over the district school. Eventually, the district school was closed, and all the children in the area were sent to Rev. King’s school, where black and white children played and learned together.
“The Trustees of the Common School asked if they might not send all the children to my school, I told them they were all welcome, so the common school was closed [and] mine became the school of that section and the whites and blacks mingled freely in the playground and sat together in the school room…The prejudice which had existed at first against both me and the coloured people was now dying away..”
By the mid-1860s, the majority of the land was purchased and about 1,000 people were living in the settlement. The village of Buxton had grown to include a number of shops, factories and stores, and William’s mission flourished. In 1861, William reported to the Synod that attendance at worship varied between 150 and 250, while the average number of children in the Sabbath School was 118.
After the American Civil War, and the abolition of slavery by President Lincoln in 1865, the need for former slaves to flee to Canada ceased, and many of the younger members of the Elgin Settlement returned to the United States.
The Elgin Association continued for a few years and eventually wound up its affairs in 1873. William continued to serve as missionary to the settlement and retired in 1880, living in nearby Chatham until he passed away in 1895.
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