“King’s settlement at Elgin proved to be one of the most successful of such black communities in Canada West. It was noted particularly for its internal harmony, a fact probably explained by King’s patience and devotion…” [John S. Moir, “Enduring Witness” p.126]
At the height of its work, during the 1850s and early 1860s, a number of prominent individuals and newspaper reporters from Canada, the United States and Europe visited the settlement, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, who apparently patterned the hero of another of her novels after William King.
Even Lord Althorp, eldest son of the 4th Earl Spencer (Princess Diana’s great-grand-uncle) visited the settlement in 1857.
It was certainly well-known and well regarded, and although there were doubtless difficult times for many of the settlers, many also found a measure of happiness and success.
An Editor for the New York Tribune who visited the settlement in 1856 reported the following after meeting one of the settlers:
“Another cabin we entered belonged to a man…who fourteen years before had escaped from Missouri. He had been six years in the settlement and had 25 acres cleared and under fence and six more chopped and ready for burning; he had paid up four of his installments, he owned a wagon, a yoke of oxen, a mare and two colts. He had four children, his oldest boy, fifteen years of age, was reading Virgil”
[In his memoirs, William notes that this boy, who was studying the Classics with a view to entering the ministry, did in fact become a minister and was at that time (1892) preaching in Philadelphia].
As noted by William R. Gregg in his book about William King and the Buxton Mission, seven hundred children had received an education by 1866, some of whom went on to become teachers themselves; while “two were engaged as surgeons in the hospital in Washington.”
Although the number of settlers that arrived in the Elgin Settlement between 1849 and the end of the American Civil War was only a small portion of the total numbers of freed and fugitive slaves that followed the Underground Railroad to Canada, the success of the settlement and its relative harmony do make it stand out. As William King reflected in his own memoirs, the Elgin Settlement demonstrated “by actual experiment” that a community of former slaves, if given the opportunity, was capable of being “as industrious and self-supporting as any white settlement”: a revelation not universally recognized at the time, but with the assistance of William King and others, very much proven.
“Buxton is certainly a very interesting place. Sixteen years ago it was a wilderness. Now, good highways are laid out in all directions through the forest, and by their side are about two hundred cottages, all looking neat and comfortable. Around each one is a cleared space, which is well cultivated. There are signs of industry, and thrift, and comfort, everywhere: signs of intemperance, of idleness, of what, nowhere. Most interesting of all are the inhabitants. Twenty years ago, most of them were slaves, who owned nothing, not even their children. Now they own themselves; they own their houses and farms; and they have their wives and their children about them. They have the great essentials for human happiness; something to love, something to do, and something to hope for.”
Samuel Gridley Howe, Boston, 1864
“The Refugees from Slavery in Canada West: Report to the Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission.”
(Courtesy of the “Telling Stories” website of Millersville University, Pennsylvania)
Copyright held by The Presbyterian Church in Canada Archives, 2009
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