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Black History Month In Canada… Josiah Henson

Josiah Henson was born into slavery in Maryland and escaped to Upper Canada in 1830.

Josiah Henson – Spiritual Leader, Author, Founder

Josiah Henson, spiritual leader, author, founder of the Black community settlement at Dawn, Upper Canada/Canada West (born 15 June 1789 in Charles County, Maryland; died 5 May 1883 in Dresden, ON). Born enslaved, Henson escaped to Canada in 1830. He founded the Dawn Settlement near Dresden, Upper Canada, for American fugitives from enslavement. He and a group of associates organized a trade-labor school, the British-American Institute. He was active on the executive committee until the Institute closed in 1868. Henson served as Dawn’s spiritual leader and patriarch and made numerous fundraising trips to the United States and England. He published his autobiography in 1849, and he was allegedly Harriet Beecher Stowe’s model for the lead character in her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852).

Henson first tried to buy his freedom in 1825. His owner, Isaac Riley, needed money and sent Henson to escort a group of 18 enslaved persons to Kentucky. While in transit, the group could easily have escaped to Ohio and made themselves free, but Henson believed his owner’s offer of manumission (ownership of himself). Consequently, he would not allow the escape and was later disappointed when he realized that his owner had no intention of giving him his freedom. He was taken, along with his wife and four children, to New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1829 to be sold. Henson and his family fled to Upper Canada, reaching the Niagara Peninsula on 28 October 1830.

Henson and his family settled near Dresden, Upper Canada. With his leadership skills, he was able to command the support of abolitionists who helped him create the Dawn Settlement, a place for refugees from enslavement to gain the education and skills necessary for self-sufficiency and self-determination. It was Henson’s belief that Black persons needed to learn skills within their own community. In 1841, Henson and his partners purchased 200 acres of land, and in 1842, they established the British-American Institute. A central focus of the settlement, the school was created for students of all ages and was sustainably designed to train teachers while providing general education and trade-labor instruction to members of the community. The community of Dawn developed around the Institute, with many residents farming, attending the Institute, and working in sawmills, gristmills and in other local industries.

After the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, some members of the community returned or moved to the United States, though many remained at Dawn.

Henson’s autobiography The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada (1849) was published in order to raise funds for the continuation of the Dawn Settlement. Many consider Henson’s autobiography to be the inspiration for the lead character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Some have expressed concern over Josiah Henson as the model for the Uncle Tom character in Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Though written and published as an anti-slavery text, the book portrayed Black persons in a stereotypical manner.

Uncle Tom's Cabin-located in Dresden Ontario. The cabin was owned by Josiah Henson (former slave, author, abolitionist, minister) and the inspiration for Harnet Beecher Stowe's title character
Uncle Tom’s Cabin-located in Dresden Ontario. The cabin was owned by Josiah Henson (former slave, author, abolitionist, minister) and the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s title character (

Today’s Sources:

* CBC News Canada                                                  

* The Canadian Encyclopedia                                  

Black History Month In Canada… John Ware

John Ware, born into slavery in South Carolina, was raised in Texas became a skilled cowboy before settling in the Alberta area in Canada.

John Ware – Cowboy and Rancher

John Ware, cowboy, rancher (born 1845 near Georgetown, SC; died 13 September 1905 near Brooks, AB). John Ware was born a slave on a cotton plantation and apparently grew up on a small ranch in northern Texas, although the historical record of his life is far from clear. He gained his freedom at the close of the American Civil War (1865) and drifted west, eventually finding work on a ranch near Fort Worth, Texas.

Ware lived in what we may consider the golden age of the ranching frontier and achieved heroic status for his impressive physical strength, remarkable horsemanship, good nature, and courage. The true story of the man is difficult to discern from the legends built around him. Documentation about his life is rare and most of what is known about him comes from commentaries written by fellow cowboys, but those accounts did not begin to appear until the late 1930s. Ware was predeceased by his wife and died while his children were very young.

In the many stories told about John Ware, his strength and skill with livestock are central features. He was said to have walked over the backs of penned steers without fear and that he could stop a steer head-on and wrestle it to the ground. It was also said that he could break the wildest broncos, trip a horse by hand and hold it on its back to be shod, and easily lift an 18-month-old steer and throw it on his back for branding.

Regardless of the level of hyperbole extant in the stories of John Ware, his status as regional folk hero gives testament to how well-respected he was. The characteristics attributed to him are those shared by the frontier heroes of cowboy subculture. What distinguishes him the most, however, is how successfully he, as a Black man, established himself in the Eurocentric society of 19th-century Canada.

Ware’s freedom came at the same time that ranching spread across the Midwestern United States. He traveled west and honed his skill as a cowboy. An experienced cowhand by the late 1870s, he was employed driving herds of Texas cattle northward along the Western Cattle Trail to the distant ranges in Wyoming and Montana territories. In 1882, he was hired to help bring 3000 head of cattle from the US to Sir Hugh Allan’s North West Cattle Company ranch, commonly known as the Bar U Ranch, in the foothills southwest of Calgary. Ware found that experienced cowboys were much in demand in this northernmost edge of the ranching frontier. He remained in the area and worked for several large cattle companies. In 1884 he started working for the Quorn Ranch on the Sheep River; it had a large herd of cattle but it also raised horses for the English market. Ware was put in charge of the horse herd.

In the spring of 1885, a large round-up was undertaken from Fort Macleod to search the foothills from Calgary to the Montana border. It involved 100 cowboys, 15 chuckwagons, and 500 horses. Ware represented the Quorn Ranch and was described in the Macleod Gazette as “not only one of the best natured and most obliging fellows in the country, but he is one of the shrewdest cowmen, and the man is considered pretty lucky who has him to look after his interest. The horse is not running on the prairie which John cannot ride.”

Before the round-up began, Ware registered his own brand, which was known as the four nines (9999) or walking-stick brand. In 1898 he re-registered it as three nines. He started his own ranch in the foothills in 1890 and in 1892 married Mildred Lewis, who had come to Calgary with her family from Ontario. In the face of increasing settlement in 1900, Ware moved to a new ranch site along the Red Deer River east of Brooks. His home was destroyed by the spring flood of 1902. Ware re-constructed the cabin for his wife and five children (a sixth child had died in infancy) on higher ground overlooking a stream, which is now called Ware Creek.

The family did not occupy the new home for long. In April 1905, Mildred died of pneumonia and typhoid. The following September, Ware was killed when his horse tripped in a badger hole and fell on him. His funeral in Calgary was attended by ranchers from around the region; John Ware was mourned by the ranching community as one of its most respected members.

John Ware was known to his friends and neighbors as “N—er John.” The racism of Ware’s time was enacted with thoughtless disregard for the individual; even though people liked and respected Ware, they referred to him in a way that we today would immediately label as pejorative. N—er is a potent word; it conveys the sense of inferiority and ignorance even as its historical context reveals the tragedies and triumphs of American history.

There are several places in southern Alberta named for John Ware, including Mount Ware, Ware Creek, and John Ware Ridge (formerly N—er John Ridge). Calgary is home to John Ware Junior High and at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, the John Ware Building houses the Four Nines Cafeteria.

John Ware Postage Stamp (Canadian Postage Stamp Catalogue)
(Canadian Postage Stamp Catalogue)

Today’s Sources:

* CBC News Canada                                                      

* The Canadian Encyclopedia                                              

Black History Month In Canada… James Mink

James Mink was the son of a slave who was brought to Canada by a United Empire Loyalist after the American Revolution. He went on to be a millionaire businessman in Toronto, Ontario.

James Mink – Millionaire Businessman

James Mink was a black man who became a respected millionaire businessman in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in the 1840s when slavery was rampant in the United States.

Mink was the eldest of 11 children of a slave known only as “Mink.” His father and mother were owned by United Empire Loyalist, Johan Herkimer. Not much is known about his earlier years. Continue reading “Black History Month In Canada… James Mink”

Black History Month In Canada… Thornton and Lucy Blackburn

Thornton and Lucy Blackburn – Former Slaves & Toronto Entrepreneurs

The Blackburns escaped from slavery in Kentucky and fled to Detroit where they lived until they were discovered and arrested in 1833. Lucy was spirited out of jail the night before she was to be sent back to Kentucky. The next morning, her husband was rescued at the jailhouse door by a huge crowd of both blacks and whites, and together the Blackburns fled across the river to Windsor, Ontario. Again they were put in jail, this time to await extradition. However, Lt. Governor John Colbourne refused to send them back, and they moved to Toronto.

While working as a waiter at Osgoode Hall [law school], Blackburn noted that Toronto lacked public transportation. Using the design of vehicles in use in Montreal and London, England, he ordered the construction of a horse-drawn cab with space to carry four passengers. It was built in Paul Bishop’s workshop located in the building on the northeast corner of Sherbourne and Adelaide streets. Mr. Bishop lived in the house immediately to the south where the building still stands today. The taxi, named The City, and the first of its kind in Toronto, arrived in 1837 heralding the start of a successful business venture that lasted into the 1860s. The red and yellow color treatment that Thornton Blackburn used on his cabs has been retained to this day by the TTC [Toronto Transit Commission].

The Blackburns built a small house at the corner of Eastern Avenue and Sackville Street where they lived for almost 50 years. Thornton died in 1890 leaving his wife with a considerable fortune derived from Toronto’s first taxi business. The foundations of the house that Thornton and his wife lived in, which served as a stop on the Underground Railroad, have been recently found and preserved.

In 1985 archaeologists digging on this site uncovered fascinating clues to Toronto’s history as a terminus of the famous Underground Railroad. From 1834 to 1890 this site had been the home of Thornton and Lucie Blackburn, refugee slaves from Kentucky who started Toronto’s first taxicab company.

Thornton and Lucie Blackburn escaped on July 3, 1831, by taking a steamboat up the Ohio River from Louisville to Cincinnati and then a stagecoach to Michigan. Their recapture in Detroit two years later resulted in the “Blackburn riots of 1833”. Detroit’s Black community staged a dramatic rescue and aided the Blackburns across the border to safety in Canada. Despite two extradition requests by Michigan’s governor, they were allowed to remain free and begin their new lives in Canada.

The Blackburns became well-known members of Toronto’s African Canadian community. They helped to build Little Trinity Anglican Church and contributed to efforts organized to assist other freedom-seekers, both in Toronto and at Buxton in southwestern Ontario. Thornton participated in the “North American Convention of Coloured Freemen” at St. Lawrence Hall in September of 1851 and was an associate of George Brown in anti-slavery activities (note that the Blackburns and Brown are close neighbors in the Necropolis cemetery).

The excavation of the Blackburn’s former home remains the only archaeological dig on an Underground Railroad site ever conducted in Toronto.

In 1999, the Department of Canadian Heritage designated Thornton and Lucie Blackburn “Persons of National Historic Significance” in recognition of their generosity to the less fortunate and their lifelong resistance to slavery and racial oppression.

10 Sackville Street - home of the Blackburns for 50 years.
10 Sackville Street – home of the Blackburns for 50 years.

Today’s Sources:

* Cabbagetown People                                                                  

(Note: Cabbagetown is a neighborhood in central Toronto.)

* CBC News Canada