Chloe Cooley and the 1793 Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada

On Thursday, August 23, 2007, at 1:30 p.m., the Ontario Heritage Trust and the Niagara Parks Commission unveiled a provincial plaque to commemorate Chloe Cooley and the 1793 Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada, in Queenston Heights, Ontario.

The bilingual plaque reads as follows:


    On March 14, 1793 Chloe Cooley, an enslaved Black woman in Queenston, was bound, thrown in a boat and sold across the river to a new owner in the United States. Her screams and violent resistance were witnessed by a neighbour, William Grisley, who informed Peter Martin, a free Black and former soldier in Butler’s Rangers. They brought the incident to the attention of Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe who immediately moved to abolish slavery in the new province. He was met with opposition in the House of Assembly, some of whose members owned slaves. A compromise was reached and on July 9, 1793 an Act was passed that prevented the further introduction of slaves into Upper Canada and allowed for the gradual abolition of slavery although no slaves already residing in the province were freed outright. It was the first piece of legislation in the British Empire to limit slavery and set the stage for the great freedom movement of enslaved African Americans known as the Underground Railroad.


    Le 14 mars 1793, Chloe Cooley, une esclave noire de Queenston, fut enchaînée, jetée dans un bateau et vendue à son nouveau propriétaire de l’autre côté du fleuve, aux États-Unis. Un voisin, William Grisley, fut témoin de ses cris et de sa résistance acharnée; il en informa Peter Martin, un Noir libre, ancien soldat des Butler’s Rangers. Ils portèrent cet incident à la connaissance du lieutenant-gouverneur John Graves Simcoe qui entreprit immédiatement d’abolir l’esclavage dans la nouvelle province. Il fut confronté à une vive opposition à la Chambre d’assemblée, dont certains membres possédaient des esclaves. Un compromis fut trouvé et, le 9 juillet 1793, une loi fut votée, qui interdisait l’introduction de nouveaux esclaves dans le Haut-Canada et autorisait l’abolition progressive de l’esclavage. Cependant, aucun esclave habitant déjà la province ne fut immédiatement affranchi. Cette loi était la première de l’Empire britannique à limiter l’esclavage et elle a planté le décor du grand mouvement de libération des esclaves afro-américains, connu sous le nom de chemin de fer clandestin.

Historical background

In 1790, the Upper Canada Legislature passed an act that permitted Loyalists from the United States to enter Canada with their slaves without paying duty on them, if they obtained a license from the governor. This was done mainly as a way to attract Loyalists northward, but it also enabled a large number of slaves to be brought into the province.

Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe championed an act to reverse this allowance after learning about Chloe Cooley.

On March 14, 1793, Chloe Cooley – an enslaved Black woman in Queenston – was bound, thrown in a boat and transported across the river to be sold by her owner, William Vrooman, a resident of Upper Canada. She resisted, but Vrooman and two other men restrained Cooley. When they reached the American side, Cooley continued to scream violently and struggled as she was handed over to a new owner.1

Peter Martin, a free Black and former soldier in Butler’s Rangers, appeared before the Executive Council of the Upper Canada Assembly meeting on March 21, 1793, to inform Simcoe of the “violent outrage” against Cooley. With Martin was William Grisley, an eyewitness to the event who described the incident. The Executive Council resolved to take “immediate steps to prevent the continuance of such violent breaches of the public peace,” and Attorney General John White was asked to prosecute Vrooman for disturbing the peace.2

While initially calling for the arrest of the man who had sold Cooley, charges were soon dropped because a case could not be made against Vrooman as slavery was not recognized under English civil law. In other words, Chloe Cooley had no rights that Vrooman was bound to respect, and she could be sold and treated as any other piece of property. Simcoe’s 1793 Act would make it clear that slavery did exist in Upper Canada and that slaves had a legal status separate from other property.

Simcoe was known as an abolitionist before his arrival in Upper Canada. In 1790, he had delivered speeches in the British Parliament as the member for St. Mawe’s, Cornwall, calling for an end to slavery. His attacks focused on the fact that slavery was something that went against both the teachings of Christianity and the spirit of the English Constitution. He called for sweeping, absolute legislation that would end slavery in the colony. Simcoe used the Chloe Cooley incident as a catalyst to call for the abolition of slavery in Upper Canada.

On July 9, 1793, the Upper Canada Legislature, under the leadership of Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe, passed “an Act to prevent the further introduction of slaves, and to limit the term of contract for servitude within this province.” This act prohibited the importation of any Black person into Upper Canada who would be subjected to the conditions of slavery or indentured servitude. The 1793 Act represented a compromise that Simcoe had to strike with the influential slaveholders of the province. Interestingly, at least six of the 16 members of the Upper Canada assembly owned slaves.3 Simcoe’s personal power, and the fact that a great number of others in Upper Canada despised slavery, helped the act to move past this opposition.

While it did call for an end to the importation of slaves, the act did not actually abolish slavery in Upper Canada. Rather, any slaves that were in the province at the time of its enactment were allowed to remain the property of their owners. In addition, any children who were born to slave mothers were to remain the property of their owners

until they turned 25 years of age. When the children of slaves turned 25, their owners were expected to provide for their continued security so that they would not be counted among the poor of a community. This encouraged many owners to employ these people through long-term contracts to be renewed every nine years, as the law allowed.

Simcoe’s 1793 Act did not find universal support in Upper Canada. After he returned to England in 1798, the legislature tried to reverse the act in order to allow any people entering the colony to bring their slaves with them. This bill was introduced under the pretence of a scarcity of labour in the colony. Although the bill did not pass, this discussion reflected the fact that many of the colony’s richest citizens still owned slaves.

The larger public also played a major role in influencing opinion and preventing the return of slave importation. Abolitionist movements, often organized through religious groups like the Methodist Church, actively campaigned for the end of slavery on moral grounds. They felt it was unchristian to treat Blacks as pieces of property, and their strong opposition helped inspire the legislators to act against slavery. There was also a general belief that slaves were a luxury of the wealthy, one that the average person could not afford, and this was yet another example of class differences.

The 1793 Act had its limitations, as it did not prevent the sale of slaves across international borders. Many slave owners in Upper Canada, hoping to make back at least some of their losses, sold their slaves in New York, until 1799, when this became illegal there. It was impossible to police some of the more remote areas of the province, and small numbers of slaves were brought to Upper Canada. Yet, these practices diminished over time, as slavery became a less tenable institution because of changes in public opinion and the inability to refresh the slave population.

Ironically, when Michigan was incorporated as a territory in 1805, many Blacks sought to return there, since slavery was outlawed completely, whereas it still existed as an institution in Upper Canada. Slave owners in Upper Canada petitioned the governor of Michigan to help stop these losses, but found little sympathy when they did so.

An important legacy of the 1793 Act was that it created a haven for escaping slaves from the United States. As any Black individual who crossed into Upper Canada became free upon crossing, many slaves sought the international boundary by clandestine or forceful means. During the period between the passage of the act in 1793 and the abolition of slavery during the Civil War in 1863, an estimated 30,000 slaves took advantage of what came to be known as the “Underground Railroad” to make their way to freedom in Canada. Another step that contributed to the end of slavery occurred in 1807 with the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. This prohibited the transportation of slaves but did not abolish slavery. The complete elimination of the slave trade occurred on August 1, 1834, when Britain passed the Abolition of Slavery Act, which eradicated the practice throughout the Empire, including Canada.

However, thanks in part to the 1793 Act, the number of slaves in Canada at that time was negligible. This did not prevent Black men, women and children from facing many other challenges in Upper Canada. Social and economic barriers existed at various times to segregate Blacks from white communities and prevented them from having rights equal to those of their white neighbours. And yet, Chloe Cooley’s brave act of defiance and the resulting 1793 Act represented a major step toward the recognition that Blacks were deserving of legal protection, freedom and equality.

This plaque was developed with funding support from the Ontario Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration.

The Ontario Heritage Trust gratefully acknowledges the research of Colin McCullough, graduate student at the Department of History, York University, in preparing this paper. The Trust further acknowledges the research and assistance of Adrienne Shadd.

© Ontario Heritage Trust, 2007

1 Most slaves, especially women, found themselves working as domestics in Upper Canada. This was due in part to the absence of a labour-intensive cash crop economy similar to the types that existed in the American South, or in other British colonies, such as Jamaica. In addition, it was believed that Blacks were not suited to the cold northern climate, and would not be able to effectively work the fields. Black domestic servants worked in the homes of some of the richest men and women in Upper Canada and were considered quite valuable as pieces of property. Newspaper reports of their sales suggest that slaves brought large sums on the open market, with men generally fetching a higher price than women.

2 Ernest A. Cruikshank, ed., The Correspondence of Lieut. Governor John Graves Simcoe, with allied Documents relating to His Administration of the Government of Upper Canada, Vol. 1, Toronto: Ontario Historical Society, 1923, p. 304.

3 Robin W. Winks, The Blacks in Canada: A History. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997, p. 97.