Wilberforce Settlement, The - Ontario Heritage Trust

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The Wilberforce Settlement

On April 28, 2022, the Ontario Heritage Trust unveiled an updated provincial plaque in Toronto to commemorate The Wilberforce 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 WILBERFORCE SETTLEMENT 

In 1829, a group of free Blacks from Cincinnati, Ohio set out for Biddulph Township in Upper Canada with a bold vision: to establish an organized colony where they could enjoy freedom, self-determination and equality. They were joined by African Americans from New York, Massachusetts, Maryland and other places. Settlers purchased 323 hectares (800 acres) of land from the Canada Company, aided by a group of Ohio Quakers, and named it after British abolitionist William Wilberforce. By 1832, there were 32 families, a sawmill and two schools, Baptist and Methodist congregations, a temperance society, a blacksmith, shoemaker and tailor. Because the number of settlers was much smaller than originally planned, and due to the unwillingness of Canada Company agents to sell them more land, the colony did not expand. Many of its leaders left by the 1840s. A core group remained, however, and their descendants continued to live in the area into the 21st century. Through land ownership, hard work, education and legal equality, these freedom pioneers struck a blow at American oppression and carved a path for others to follow.

L'ÉTABLISSEMENT WILBERFORCE 

En 1829, un groupe de Noirs libres, en provenance de Cincinnati (Ohio), se rend dans le canton de Biddulph, dans le Haut-Canada, avec une ambition audacieuse : établir une colonie organisée où ils pourraient connaître la liberté, l'autodétermination et l'égalité. Ils sont rejoints par des Afro-Américains de New York, du Massachusetts, du Maryland et d'ailleurs. Ils achètent 323 hectares (800 acres) de terre à la Canada Company, avec l'aide d'un groupe de Quakers de l'Ohio, qu’ils nomment en l'honneur de l'abolitionniste britannique William Wilberforce. En 1832, la colonie compte 32 familles, une scierie et deux écoles, des congrégations baptiste et méthodiste, une société pour la sobriété, un forgeron, un cordonnier et un tailleur. Comme le nombre de pionniers est bien inférieur à celui prévu à l'origine et que les agents de la Canada Company ne sont pas disposés à leur vendre davantage de terres, la colonie ne s'agrandit pas. Bon nombre de ses dirigeants partent dans les années 1840. Un petit groupe reste cependant, et ses descendants continuent à vivre dans la région jusqu'au XXIe siècle. Grâce à la propriété foncière, au travail acharné, à l'éducation et à l'égalité juridique, ces pionniers de la liberté portent un coup à l'oppression américaine et ouvrent la voie à d’autres personnes en quête de liberté.

The settlers in Wilberforce, were in general, industrious and thrifty farmers: they cleared their land, sowed grain, planted orchards, raised cattle, and in short, showed to the world that they were in no way inferior to the white population, when given an equal chance with them. Austin Steward, Twenty-Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman1
The settlers generally are sober, industrious and thrifty. In their houses things mostly appear clean, neat and comfortable. Benjamin Lundy, January 18322

Historical background

In the history of North American slavery, the role played by what is now the province of Ontario, has been the subject of many books, articles and television and film dramas over the years. Certainly, the majority of the 25,000-30,000 freedom seekers from American slavery found their way to Ontario, and several organized all-Black agricultural settlements were also established here. One of these was the Wilberforce Settlement, named after William Wilberforce, the well-known British parliamentarian and champion of anti-slavery.

The impetus for the establishment of Wilberforce began in 1829 among a group of free African Americans from Cincinnati, Ohio. This group was seeking freedom from the Black Codes that were being reinvigorated there after a long lapse. An 1804 law, An Act to Regulate Black and Mulatto Persons, required that Blacks obtain a Certificate of Freedom from a federal court to live and work in Ohio. Three years later, they were required to post a $500 bond, signed by two white men, guaranteeing their good behaviour and support. A Black person could not testify in court against a white person, nor serve on juries. These laws were not generally enforced until 1829, when the rapid increase of free and enslaved Blacks fleeing into Ohio alarmed the white citizens. City officials ordered African Americans to comply with these oppressive codes or leave within 30 days. Many decided to leave.

A colonization society, headed by J.C. (James Charles) Brown was hurriedly pulled together to organize an exit from the state and forge a planned settlement in Upper Canada. The group sent a two-man delegation of Israel Lewis and Thomas Cresap to Upper Canada in 1829 to meet with Lieutenant Governor Sir John Colborne. Colborne welcomed them with open arms, reportedly saying: “Tell the Republicans on your side of the line that we Royalists do not know men by their colour. Should you come to us, you will be entitled to all the privileges of the rest of His Majesty’s subjects.”3 By August, however, many were still in preparation, and few had actually left Cincinnati. A mob of 200-300 skilled and unskilled white labourers stormed through Black neighbourhoods, beat the residents and burned down their homes. This rampage lasted for three days.

Meanwhile, with a mass exodus looming, city officials were preparing to repeal the odious Black laws. As a result, according to J.C. Brown, of roughly 2,700 Black Cincinnatians, only 460 ultimately left the city, and most of those settled in different parts of Upper Canada, purchasing land or settling in various towns in the province. Only five or six families from Cincinnati settled on a tract of land in Biddulph Township, Middlesex County. This group was augmented by 15 families from Massachusetts, New York State, Baltimore, Maryland and other places. Settlers purchased 494 hectares (1,220 acres) at $1.50 per acre and land was divided into 10- and 20-hectare (25- and 50-acre) plots.4

Successful Rochester, New York grocer and community leader Austin Steward arrived in Wilberforce in May 1831 and found 14 or 15 families – about 50 people – settled there. According to Steward, Israel Lewis, one of the agents representing the colony, had been contracted to enter into an agreement to purchase 1,619 hectares (4,000 acres) of land in Biddulph Township for $6,000, but did not follow through with the contractual agreement with the Canada Company. As a result, the Canada Company refused to sell any more land to Black settlers, thwarting the desire of Steward to purchase a lot of land for himself. In the meantime, a group of Quakers from Oberlin, Ohio stepped in and purchased 324 hectares (800 acres) of land.5

The colonists set about clearing the land and planting crops. On November 5, 1831, The Liberator newspaper reported impressive progress thus far on the part of the Wilberforce settlers, noting that a “prosperous day school” of 20-30 children was run by Miss Paul, the daughter of Reverend Benjamin Paul, and, on Sundays, two sermons were preached, one by Reverend Paul and the other by Reverend Enos Adams. Lastly, a Sabbath School was conducted by Austin Steward. When abolitionist and philanthropist Benjamin Lundy visited Wilberforce in January 1832, he reported that there were 32 families totalling approximately 160 individuals residing in the settlement. He noted that they had purchased nearly 809 hectares (2,000 acres) of land, of which 81 hectares (200 acres) had been cleared and, of this, about 24 hectares (60 acres) sown with wheat. Several lots were obtained because the settlers had cleared over 11 km (seven miles) of a wide road through the settlement and were rewarded with these lots. Most had erected “tolerably comfortable” log houses, some having well-shingled roofs, and they possessed about 100 head of cattle and pigs and a few horses. In Lundy’s account, there was a sawmill and two good schools, one taught by Thomas J. Paul, the son of Reverend Benjamin Paul. Its quality was such that some of the white settlers sent their children to this school. There was also a summer school for girls taught by Reverend Paul’s daughter. The settlement supported Methodist and Baptist congregations, a Sunday school in the “warm season,” taught by Austin Steward, a temperance society, and a blacksmith, shoemaker and tailor.6 In the absence of a lot of land for farming, Steward himself opened a popular tavern in his home for the accommodation of travellers, and he also began a delivery service for merchants in the neighbouring villages.7

Scottish traveller, Patrick Shirreff, passed by the settlement in 1833 and noticed the interesting construction of the residents’ log houses, with the chimneystack built on the outside of the house. He noted that the chief crop was “Indian corn well-cultivated” and that “[t]he houses, barns, fences and general appearances of this settlement are certainly mean enough, but I considered it in most respects equal, and in some superior, to settlements of whites in the Huron tract of the same standing of three years.”8

Shirreff was candid in admitting that, before leaving Britain, he had heard that Wilberforce was a failure, and that this was used as an argument against the emancipation of enslaved Africans. Interestingly, this theme of Wilberforce being a failed settlement has been repeated by modern-day scholars.9 Well-respected historians, such as William and Jane Pease, Jason Silverman, Robin Winks, Daniel Hill and Donald Simpson have all declared Wilberforce colony a failed experiment in the Canadian wilderness. All cite the initial problem of contracting to buy thousands more acres than were ultimately needed, and all detail the schism in leadership brought about by the fact that almost none of the monies collected for churches and schools by the colony’s agents – Israel Lewis and Nathaniel Paul – were ever received by the settlement.10 Silverman’s account, however, is particularly egregious:

Unfamiliarity with farming methods surely contributed to their struggle … Indeed, the Cincinnati blacks had gone from unemployment in Ohio to destitution in Upper Canada. Only a few of their leaders were educated, and … [they] simply did not teach their constituents the requisite skills for their new way of life.11

Silverman takes the word of the Canada Company agent, who, we will note, had decided not to sell any more land to Black people, and who wrote in 1835:

The greater number [of Blacks] were people of bad character, idle and dissolute … They depended on their agents to raise money from outside sources, rather than learning to use the resources at hand.12

This despite Austin Steward’s account that the money raised by the agents was to go toward the establishment of schools and churches – not to the colonists themselves for their own purposes.

After weighing all of the evidence, Fred Landon concluded that the colony “failed” not because of the lack of education, skill or because of the indolence of the colonists, but because (1) the laws causing the Black population to leave in the first place were rescinded, obviating the need for a mass exodus, and (2) the Canada Company refused to sell any more land to the African community, thus preventing its expansion.13

These were not ignorant “fugitive slaves” embarking on a journey of which they had absolutely no understanding. They were free Blacks and bold colonists who acted with agency and vision. Historian Nikki Taylor argues that “Those who reduce Wilberforce’s existence to a label of ‘failure’ would do well to revisit the goals of the original settlers – those from Cincinnati” – and that Wilberforce needs to be placed within a larger history of Black emigration.14 Responding to the crisis in Cincinnati and other Black communities in the North, a national Black consciousness of the condition and future of the race was awakened. The first of several meetings, known as the Black Convention Movement, was organized in September 1830 in Philadelphia, at which delegates pledged to raise money and encourage settlement in Canada. Canada was preferred because it was believed that African Americans would be equal under the law and entitled to all the rights and privileges of other citizens. The climate, soil, language and culture were similar to that in the United States, land could be had at $1.50 an acre, and there would be a ready market for their produce.15 As Taylor insists, Wilberforce was an impressive vision of freedom constructed in Cincinnati, mobilized and made transnational.16

Rather than comparing the settlement to a utopian standard, we should look at it from the perspective of the settlers themselves. Wilberforce and Upper Canada were publicized increasingly in the press as a viable alternative to removal to Liberia or some other far-off location for African Americans.17 Upper Canada thus became the location of several other organized settlements, enabling persecuted African Americans to acquire land, property and a life of freedom and self-determination. These settlements helped to strike a blow at the system of American slavery.

Moreover, while some of the better-known inhabitants left, Wilberforce remained that place of refuge and freedom for a number of the settlers and their descendants. Thirty years after the establishment of the settlement, a Philadelphia couple reported:

We visited nearly all the families in their own homes … [We] were informed that at first they had to endure deprivations and hardships but perseverance, industry, and economy had enabled them to overcome all opposition … Their log-cabins are giving place to brick and frame houses, their farming operations are prosperous, and their condition in life is assuming quite a comfortable aspect …18

There was at least one attempt to intimidate them when, on October 19, 1848, the barns and grain of William and Rosanna Bell, Ephraim Taylor and Reverend Daniel Turner were set on fire.19 But these brave colonists were undeterred. Other Wilberforce settlers who remained were Peter and Salome Butler, Philip and Vilana Harris, J. (or Simon) Wyatt, W. Whitehead, and Pinkham and their families. Peter Butler, William Bell and Philip Harris were among the managers of the Wilberforce Colony in the 1830s, but they were married to three sisters – Vilana, Rosanna and Salome Quacum – of African, Mattakeeset and Herring Pond Native-American heritage from Marshfield, Plymouth County, Massachusetts. These sisters must also be considered as founding members of the settlement, as were the wives of the other farmers and managers of the colony.20 Daniel Hill interviewed descendants of the Butler family and wrote more extensively about them in his book The Freedom-Seekers. They are remembered for their involvement in numerous business enterprises and as being kind and generous members of the larger community. Peter Butler III was a respected constable for Lucan and became a member of the Ontario Provincial Police from 1913 to 1936. He was recognized in 2020 for his achievements. His grandson, Ed Butler, a resident of Lucan, received a Challenge Coin on his behalf.21 Other descendants have continued to reside in the area into the 21st century.

In the 1840s, Irish immigrants moved into the area, supplanting the Black settlement and gradually taking over its land and buildings. The town of Lucan was named after an Irishman. As Nikki Taylor argues, however, we should be reminded of the original goals of the colonists: “In the face of the violent denial of social, political and economic freedom in Cincinnati, this community had a vista of hope that freedom was obtainable elsewhere. Through land ownership, education, moral development, social and legal equality, and suffrage, these colonists … tasted freedom.”22


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

© Ontario Heritage Trust, 2022


1 Austin Steward, Twenty-Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman; Embracing a Correspondence of Several Years, While President of Wilberforce Colony, London, Canada West (Rochester, NY: William Alling, 1857) on the Documenting the American South website (accessed June 2021), Austin Steward, 1794-1860 (unc.edu), p. 202.

2 “The Diary of Benjamin Lundy written during his Journey through Upper Canada, January, 1832,” Ontario Historical Society, Papers and Records, XIX (1922), p. 115.

3 Fred Landon, “The History of the Wilberforce Refugee Colony in Middlesex County,” in Ontario’s African-Canadian Heritage: Collected Writings by Fred Landon, 1918-1967, Karolyn Smardz Frost, Bryan Walls, Hilary Bates Neary and Frederick H. Armstrong, eds. (Toronto: Natural Heritage Books and Dundurn Press, 2009), 76; “J.C. Brown,” in Benjamin Drew, A North-Side View of Slavery. The Refugee: or the Narratives of the Fugitive Slaves in Canada. Related by Themselves, with an Account of the History and Condition of the Colored Population of Upper Canada (Boston: J. P. Jewett, 1856) on the Documenting the American South website, Benjamin Drew, 1812-1903. A North-Side View of Slavery. The Refugee: or the Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada. Related by Themselves, with an Account of the History and Condition of the Colored Population of Upper Canada. (unc.edu), pp. 244-45.

4 “J.C. Brown,” in Drew, 244-46. Landon, 75-77; Drew, 171-2; Marilyn Bailey, “From Cincinnati, Ohio to Wilberforce, Canada: A Note on Antebellum Colonization, Journal of Negro History (hereafter JNH), 58, 4 (October, 1973), 427-32; Linda Brown-Kubisch, The Queen’s Bush Settlement: Black Pioneers 1830-1865, (Toronto: Natural Heritage Books, 2004), pp. 25-27]; See also William and Jane Pease, Black Utopia: Negro Communal Experiments in America (Madison, WI: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1963), Chapter 3; Nikki M. Taylor, Frontiers of Freedom: Cincinnati’s Black Community, 1802-1868 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2005), Chapter 3.

5 Steward, pp. 190-91.

6 “The Diary of Benjamin Lundy,” pp. 114-115.

7 Steward, pp. 196-97, 219.

8 Patrick Shirreff, A Tour Through North America; together with a Comprehensive View of the Canadas and United States, as Adapted for Agricultural Emigration (Edinburgh, Scotland: Oliver and Boyd, 1835), p. 178 as viewed on the Library of Congress website, Image 190 of A tour through North America; together with a comprehensive view of the Canadas and United States, as adapted for agricultural emigration. | Library of Congress (loc.gov) (accessed June 18, 2021).

9 William H. and Jane H. Pease, Black Utopia: Negro Communal Experiments in America (Madison, WI: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1963), Chapter 3; Robin Winks, The Blacks in Canada: A History (Montreal and New Haven, CT: McGill-Queen’s Press and Yale University Press, 1971), p. 156; Jason Silverman, Unwelcome Guests: Canada West’s Response to American Fugitive Slaves, 1800-1865 (Millwood, NY, New York City, London, UK: Associated Faculty Press, 1885), pp. 27-34; Daniel G. Hill, The Freedom-Seekers: Blacks in Early Canada (Agincourt, ON: Book Society of Canada, 1981), pp. 67-71; Donald G. Simpson, Under the North Star: Black Communities in Upper Canada Before Confederation (1867) (Trenton, NJ and Asmara, Eritrea: Africa World Press, 2005), pp. 172-180.

10 Steward outlined his dealings with Israel Lewis, in particular, who, he says, sold him land under false premises, had him hauled into court for fraudulent reasons, then tried to have him killed, and otherwise caused him a great deal of unnecessary misery over the six years that Steward lived in Wilberforce. Moreover, Lewis never paid the settlement more than $100 for all his funds raised across the United States for years, and never gave an accounting of his earnings in that regard. Reverend Nathaniel Paul gave a proper accounting of monies raised, but after $50 per month payment for his services plus expenses, for over four years, the colonists, he claimed, owed him money, not the other way around. See Steward, Chapter XXVII, pp. 261-266.

11 Silverman, pp. 30-31.

12 Report of Mr. Prior, agent of the Canada Company, 28 April 1835, in Colonial Office Records, series Q vol. 386, part 1, no. 37, Library and Archives Canada, as quoted in Silverman, p. 31.

13 Landon, “The History of the Wilberforce Refugee Colony in Middlesex County,” p. 77.

14 Nikki Taylor, “Reconsidering the ‘Forced’ Exodus of 1829: Free Black Emigration from Cincinnati, Ohio to Wilberforce, Canada,” Journal of African American History, 87 (Summer 2002), pp. 284, 297.

15 American Society of Free Persons of Colour, Constitution of the American Society of Free Persons of Colour in Howard Holman Bell, Minutes of the Proceedings of the National Negro Conventions, 1830-1864, v, quoted in Nikki M. Taylor, Frontiers of Freedom: Cincinnati’s Black Community, 1802-1868 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2005), pp. 71-72.

16 Taylor, “Reconsidering,” p. 284.

17 Charles Stuart, Remarks on the Colony of Liberia and the American Colonization Society, with some Account of the Settlement of Coloured People, at Wilberforce, Upper Canada (London: Messeder, 1832), pp. 9-11.

18 The words of the couple, Dr. J. Wilson Moore and Rachel Barker Moore, are cited in William Still, Underground Rail Road Records, Rev. Ed., with a life of the author narrating the Hardships, Hairbreadth Escapes and Death Struggles of the Slaves in their Efforts for Freedom (Philadelphia: William Still, 1886), xxvii.

19 Fred Landon, “Evidence is found in Biddulph of Race Prejudice,” in Ontario’s African-Canadian Heritage: Collected Writings by Fred Landon, 1918-1967, Karolyn Smardz Frost, Bryan Walls, Hilary Bates Neary and Frederick H. Armstrong, eds. (Toronto: Natural Heritage Books and Dundurn Press, 2009), pp. 95-98.

20 “Origins of the Quacum Sisters: Founding Mothers of Wilberforce Colony, Ontario,” Of Graveyards and Things, August 21, 2017 at Origins of the Quacum Sisters: Founding Mothers of Wilberforce Colony, Ontario | Of Graveyards and Things (accessed June 26, 2021).

21 A Challenge Coin is a specially designed coin given to someone to confirm membership in an organization or group, or to honour a person for a special achievement. Hill, pp. 197-201; Max Martin, “Black Lives Matter Renews Interest in SW Ontario’s Black History,” Strathroy Age Dispatch, July 14, 2020 at Black Lives Matter renews interest in SW Ontario's Black history | Strathroy Age Dispatch (accessed June 28, 2021); Scott Nixon, First Black OPP Officer, Peter Butler III, honoured,” Exeter Lakeshore Times Advance, May 19, 2021 at First Black OPP officer, Lucan’s Peter Butler III, honoured | Exeter Lakeshore Times Advance (lakeshoreadvance.com) (accessed June 28, 2021).

22 Taylor, Frontiers of Freedom, p. 79.