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A place of their own

For the week of Monday February 11, 2002

On February 12, 1999, the Buxton Settlement was designated a National Historic Site of Canada by the Government of Canada. This community, a terminus on the Underground Railroad route, survives to this day as a reminder of the era before the United States abolished slavery and African-Americans sought freedom in Upper Canada.

Plan of the Elgin (Buxton) Settlement in the Township of Raleigh, County of Kent, Canada West, by J.S. Wilson, Lith., 1866

Plan of the Elgin (Buxton) Settlement
in the Township of Raleigh,
County of Kent, Canada West,
by J.S. Wilson, Lith., 1866

© Archives of Ontario / C 279-0-0-0-3

Rev. William King, a Presbyterian minister and missionary, founded the settlement in 1849 along with 15 former slaves. First called the Elgin Settlement in honour of King's friend and then-Governor General, it was located in what is now southwestern Ontario. It was by far the most successful of several attempts at creating separate rural settlements where refugees from slavery could purchase land.

The settlement consisted of 9000 acres of land sold to families in 50-acre lots at $125 each. Strict rules governed the community. Each family had to earn the money needed to pay for its own land and materials—no welfare was allowed. Drunkenness and crime were not tolerated. Within one year, settlers were expected to clear six acres, dig a drainage ditch, and build a house at least 24x18x12 feet and 33 feet from the road. Each home required a front porch and garden enclosed by a white picket fence. In addition, settlers were forbidden to sell or rent their properties to whites for a 10-year period. This promoted a stable and model community.

Former #13 Raleigh Schoolhouse, built in 1861

Former #13 Raleigh Schoolhouse, built in 1861
© Parks Canada / W. Wylie / 1993

Refugees streamed into Buxton. By 1859, the population had grown to more than 1000. The settlement prospered, boasting three churches, three integrated schools, two temperance hotels, a general store, post office, blacksmith shop, sawmill, brickyard, grist mill and a potash and pearlash factory, in addition to family farms. Reverend King's original school offered such a superior education that neighbouring white children clamored to attend. Many graduates went on to post-secondary education and successful careers at a time when African-Canadians were forbidden to attend public schools in many other communities.

At the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1860, many residents returned to fight in the Union Army, to help defeat slavery. Some returned to Buxton at the war's end while others went to their home states to help in Reconstruction. Like many rural communities, Buxton's population declined over the years. However, Buxton Settlement National Historic Site of Canada stands as a testament to the faith and commitment of these refugees who made Canada their home.

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