This Week in History


Shadrach Minkins

For the week of Monday February 12, 2001

On February 15, 1851, the morning routine of Shadrach Minkins was changed forever when the Boston waiter was arrested at his job by United States federal officers. His crime? Minkins had escaped slavery in Virginia a year earlier.

Within hours, Minkins was brought before a federal commissioner. His case was to be an early test of the newly enacted Fugitive Slave Law, which allowed slaveholders to enlist the aid of the federal government in recapturing runaways. However, as Minkins was being led from the courtroom, a group of Blacks stormed the building, overpowered the guards and freed him from his captors. He was quickly whisked away and never seen in Boston again.

Shadrach Minkins' route to Montréal

Shadrach Minkins' route to Montréal
© Parks Canada / Jarred Picher

Like many people of colour who had escaped enslavement in the South prior to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and who had lived relatively safely in northern states, Minkins was forced to head north once again, this time to Canada. He was first taken to Concord, Massachusetts, to connect with the Underground Railroad, an informally linked group of people who, working in secret against the law, assisted fugitive Blacks in gaining freedom. With their help, Minkins travelled through New Hampshire and Vermont, finally reaching the province of Quebec six days after his rescue.

Crossing into Canada was an important step for Minkins and thousands of other freedom-seekers. Slavery no longer existed in Canada and only one runaway had ever been officially returned to the United States. Minkins also would have been aware that even though racism existed in Canada, all men were equal before the law, regardless of colour. This meant that he would have the right to vote, own property and serve on a jury - all things that were impossibilities for most American Blacks. Minkins settled in Montréal, married an Irish woman named Mary, and together they raised two children before his death in 1875.

Minkins' choice of Montréal was not typical for Underground Railroad refugees. Most freedom-seekers chose to live in southwestern Ontario. Several sites in this area associated with the Underground Railroad have received national commemoration, including the Buxton Settlement near Chatham and the Nazrey AME Church in Amherstburg. Other National Historic Sites including Fort Malden in Amherstburg, George Brown House, St. Lawrence Hall, and Osgoode Hall in Toronto, and Fort George in Niagara-on-the-Lake were also involved in the Underground Railroad.

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