Buxton Settlement, The - Ontario Heritage Trust

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The Buxton Settlement

On April 28, 2022, the Ontario Heritage Trust unveiled an updated provincial plaque in Toronto to commemorate The Buxton Settlement. Updating this plaque is part of the ongoing work of the Trust to tell Ontario’s stories in an honest, authentic and inclusive way.

The bilingual plaque reads as follows:

THE BUXTON SETTLEMENT

    The Elgin Settlement, also known as Buxton, was one of several organized Black settlements in Ontario in the 1800s. Named after British abolitionist Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, it was founded in 1849 by Reverend William King (1812-95), a Presbyterian minister who arrived with 15 formerly enslaved people to create a settlement on 2,832 hectares (7,000 acres) in Raleigh Township. In addition to farming, freedom seekers and free Blacks established roads, a sawmill, grist mill, brickyard, potash and pearl-ash factories, as well as a hotel, general store and post office. Most notable was the Mission School, which was integrated and provided a classical education. Graduates went on to become teachers, doctors, lawyers and politicians. At its peak, Buxton numbered over 1,000 inhabitants, and descendants of some of the original settlers continue to live in North Buxton today. As a testament to the settlement’s legacy, thousands of people return to the village every Labour Day weekend for a homecoming celebration to rekindle the bonds of family and friendship. In 1999, the settlement, which includes the Buxton Museum and other related historical buildings, was designated a National Historic Site.

L’ÉTABLISSEMENT BUXTON

    L'Établissement Elgin, également connu sous le nom de Buxton, est l'un des nombreux établissements noirs qui existaient en Ontario dans les années 1800. Nommé en l'honneur de l'abolitionniste britannique Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, il est fondé en 1849 par le révérend William King (1812-1895), un ministre du culte presbytérien qui crée cet établissement sur 2 832 hectares (7 000 acres) dans le canton de Raleigh, avec l'aide de 15 anciens esclaves. Ces Noirs en quête de liberté ou libérés de l'esclavage s'adonnent à l'agriculture et construisent également des routes, une scierie, un moulin à grains, une briqueterie, des usines de potasse et de carbonate de potasse résiduaire, ainsi qu'un hôtel, un magasin général et un bureau de poste. Toutefois, leur bâtiment le plus remarquable reste l'école missionnaire, un établissement intégré qui dispense une éducation classique. Les diplômés de cette école deviennent par la suite enseignants, médecins, avocats ou politiciens. À son apogée, Buxton compte plus de 1 000 habitants, et les descendants de certains des premiers colons vivent encore aujourd'hui à North Buxton. Pour commémorer le legs de cet établissement, des milliers de personnes reviennent au village chaque fin de semaine de la fête du Travail pour célébrer leurs retrouvailles et renouer les liens familiaux et amicaux. En 1999, l'établissement, qui comprend le musée Buxton et d'autres bâtiments historiques connexes, est déclaré lieu historique national.
This is the place to live in peace and to enjoy the comforts of life … Do come to Buxton, Canada West.1 (Mary Jane Robinson to her friend Sarah Ann Harris of New York City, 23 March 1854)
I left the States for Canada, for rights, freedom, liberty. I came to Buxton to educate my children. (Henry Johnson as told to Benjamin Drew in A North-side View of Slavery: The Refugee, Or, Narratives of the Fugitive Slaves in Canada)2

Historical background

In the years prior to the American Civil War, thousands of freedom seekers and free Blacks made Canada their home, most in the province of Upper Canada (now Ontario). Some settled in various towns and cities, while others preferred the rural farming life. For a select few, several organized communal settlements or colonies were established. Perhaps the best known and the one touted as the most successful of these settlements was Buxton or the Elgin Settlement.3 

The Elgin Settlement was established by William King, a Presbyterian minister from Ireland. King was born in 1812 in Londonderry, Ireland. He graduated with honours from the University of Glasgow in Scotland in 1833, having already concluded that the enslavement of other human beings was morally inconsistent with Christianity.4 King moved to Ohio with his family in 1835, and spent several years as a tutor in Natchez, Mississippi, and then as rector of Mathews Academy in Jackson, Louisiana. There, in 1842, he married Mary Mourning Phares, the daughter of a local planter. As the owner of his wife’s property upon marriage, he automatically became the owner of two enslaved females, Amelia and Eliza. He subsequently purchased three more.

King was not comfortable in the role of southern slaveholder. In the meantime, however, he enrolled at New College, the Free Church of Scotland’s divinity school in Edinburgh (now known as the Edinburgh Theological Seminary). During this time, calamity struck the man’s young family. His wife and two children all tragically died in the space of a year and a half. With the death of his wife and the death of her father just four weeks prior to that, King was now the owner of a plantation and 14 enslaved African Americans.

King graduated from New College and was assigned to a missionary post with the Toronto Synod of the Free Presbyterian Church of Canada. He took a leave of absence in order to settle his estate in Louisiana, with the intention of freeing his enslaved property. During this time, he devised a plan to bring them to Canada to live in an organized settlement that would have moral and educational support and guidance. When the mother of a young boy named Solomon begged King to purchase him before their journey north, he relented, and these 15 enslaved people would become the nucleus of this settlement. King now went about this work, which became his life’s mission.

Reverend King, with the assistance of the Presbyterian Church of Canada, set up the Elgin Association – named after, and with the blessing of, Canada West’s Governor General James Bruce, Earl of Elgin. This organization had a board of 24 directors and sold shares at £10 per share to 335 stockholders, many of them the leading men in business, the trades and professions. Over one-quarter of the stockholders were Black.5 With these funds, the settlement intended to purchase a block of 3,642 hectares (9,000 acres) of fertile land in Raleigh Township in the Western District (now Chatham-Kent). A separate entity, the Buxton Mission, was set up to oversee the settlement’s religious and educational needs. King then purchased several tracts of land: 1,740 hectares (4,300 acres) in 1849, 930 hectares (2,300 acres) in 1851 and another 40 hectares (100 acres) in 1852 for a total of 2,711 hectares (6,700 acres).

The news of a colony of Black farmers did not sit well with all residents of the Western District. Among the voices of dissent were the Western District Council, which petitioned the Legislative Assembly against the proposed settlement, and the Raleigh Township Council, which urged the legislature to deny the incorporation of the Elgin Association because such a right should be denied to “foreigners by birth and [people] of a different race.” Reverend King received death threats. A petition with 300 signatures was sent to the Presbyterian Synod in Toronto, making various racist arguments against the influx of such a colony of “Ebony men,” including, for example, that land values would plummet and more deserving white residents in the area would flee. A raucous meeting was held at the Royal Exchange Hotel in August 1849, at which King rebutted many of the wild claims being made. When his efforts had failed thus far, Edwin Larwill, a Chatham resident and the unofficial spokesman for the Raleigh Township opposition, attempted to physically prevent King from surveying the land. He and “a number of Roughs,” in the words of King, went to the site on the scheduled day to disrupt the proceedings. Providence stepped in, however, when the land agent took sick, and the survey was postponed. Reverend King was able to divide up the land unimpeded on a later date.

A heavily forested tract of land 9.7 km (six miles) long and 4.8 km (three miles) wide was divided into 20-hectare (50-acre) plots. These were to be sold to each settler at $2.50 an acre on an annual installment plan of 10 per cent down, with the balance plus six per cent interest due within 10 years. Settlers could not resell to people who were not Black for at least 10 years. A number of families purchased 40-hectare (100-acre) plots, including Isaac Riley and his family, who had heard of the settlement after escaping to St. Catharines from Missouri and who camped out in King’s barn with his wife and two children until King arrived with his 15 freed slaves. Houses had to be at least 4.5 metres (15 feet) wide by 5.5 metres (18 feet) deep, with a roof no less than 3.7 metres (12 feet) high and set back from the road at least 10 metres (33 feet). A picket fence was required out front with a garden and flowers. Each house had to have at least four rooms.

As news of the settlement grew, hundreds of formerly enslaved and free Blacks flocked to Buxton. As soon as an individual or family purchased a lot, a crew came together to help them make a clearing and build a house and barn. Soon, crops of wheat, oats, barley, corn and potatoes began to spring up and industry flourished. A sawmill, grist mill, brickyard, potash and pearl-ash factories, and a blacksmith and shoemaker’s shop were established. There was also a two-storey hotel, general store and post office. A colony that began with a nucleus of 15 formerly enslaved plus Isaac Riley and his family blossomed to approximately 1,000 by 1861.6

The Buxton Mission oversaw the establishment of a church and school in the community and was named after Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, a British politician and abolitionist. The Mission school had superior teachers and, at first, did not charge a fee. The Synod provided a steady supply of student teachers from Knox College in Toronto. When the common school in the district could not secure a teacher, it closed, and the white students all went to the Buxton school. King noted that white and Black children played together on the playground and sat together in class. Moreover, “they found that the young coloured children were equal to the whites in learning and some of the coloured children often stood at the head of the class and came in for a full share of the prizes on the day of examinations.”7 What set the Buxton school apart, in addition to the fact that it was completely integrated, was that, at least for boys, it provided a classical education, including Greek, Latin and mathematics. Girls received the basic subjects of reading, writing and arithmetic like the boys, but also instruction in the domestic sciences such as cooking, sewing and cleaning. Buxton graduates went on to become teachers, doctors, ministers and lawyers, enhancing the community’s reputation far and wide. Regarding the religious needs of the community, Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal, and later British Methodist Episcopal churches were founded at Buxton.

During the American Civil War, 70 men from Buxton enlisted in various regiments of the Union Army. After the war, some families moved back to America or to other parts of Canada. In 1873, the Board of Directors of the Elgin Settlement disbanded, having fulfilled its goals. Some families remained, however, and their descendants continue to keep the spirit alive in the village of North Buxton. In 1999, the Canadian government designated Buxton as a National Historic Site. Today, people from all over the world come to visit the museum and schoolhouse and learn about the fascinating past of this historical community. Every Labour Day weekend, thousands from across Canada and the United States return to the village for a four-day homecoming celebration, and to rekindle the bonds of family and friendship. As one descendant has written: “[Buxton] is the place that nurtured me in my earliest years and instilled many of the morals and values that I hold dear … I want to pay tribute to the farmers, labourers, teachers, nurses, doctors, lawyers, ministers, artists, musicians, authors, curators, community volunteers and elders who have made Buxton such a special place and who have contributed in so many areas of life beyond.”8


The Ontario Heritage Trust gratefully acknowledges the research of Adrienne Shadd in preparing this paper.

© Ontario Heritage Trust, 2022


1 Mary Jane Robinson to Sarah Ann Harris, 23 March 1854, Provincial Freeman, January 13, 1855, in The Black Abolitionist Papers, vol. II: Canada, 1830-1865, C. Peter Ripley et al., eds. (Chapel Hill and London, UK: University of North Carolina Press, 1986), pp. 280-281.

2 Benjamin Drew, ed., Refugees from Slavery: Autobiographies of Fugitive Slaves in Canada (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1856/2004), p. 215.

3 The main sources of information on the Buxton Settlement come from Reverend William King, “Autobiography,” Reverend William King and the Elgin Settlement - Library and Archives Canada (bac-lac.gc.ca); Sharon A. Roger Hepburn, Crossing the Border: A Free Black Community in Canada (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007); Jonathan W. Walton, “Blacks in Buxton and Chatham, Ontario, 1830-1890: Did the 49th Parallel Make a Difference” (PhD thesis, Princeton University, 1979); Arlie C. Robbins, Legacy to Buxton (Chatham, n.a., 1983); Victor Ullman, Look to the North Star: A Life of William King (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969) and Claudine Y. Bonner, “This Tract of Land: North Buxton, Ontario, 1873-1914,” (PhD thesis, University of Western Ontario, 2010).

4 Sharon Roger Hepburn states that King was a “theoretical abolitionist” before emigrating to the United States. Sharon A. Roger Hepburn, Crossing the Border: A Free Black Community in Canada (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007), p. 29.

5 90 stockholders of African descent were listed in the List of Stockholders booklet, Reverend William King: Documents - Library and Archives Canada (bac-lac.gc.ca); Roger Hepburn, pp. 47-48.

6 The 1861 Ontario census gives the figure of 691 living strictly on the Elgin Settlement lands, whereas other estimates round the figure up to approximately 1,000, which may have included Black settlers who had settled on land near, but not strictly included as, part of the Elgin Settlement. See Roger Hepburn, 83, 214 fn 18 and King, "Autobiography," 451. Shannon Prince, the curator of the Buxton Museum, put the figure at roughly 1,200. Shannon Prince, “Reverend William King: History,” Library and Archives Canada website (accessed June 8, 2021).

7 King, “Autobiography,” p. 321.

8 Adrienne Shadd, “Reflections on my hometown,” Heritage Matters (February 2017).