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By Shannon Prince
The Elgin Settlement was for many the last stop on the Underground Railroad. Reverend William King, an Irish-born Presbyterian minister, established the Elgin Settlement as a safe haven to extend freedom to 15 slaves he had acquired through a variety of circumstances, and later to countless others who sought refuge in Canada. Under Reverend King's guidance, and with the assistance of the Presbyterian Church and Canadian abolitionists, a 9,000-acre tract of land was purchased. The goal of the founders was to build a self-sustaining community for both fugitives and free Blacks.
William King was born in Ireland in 1812 and graduated from the University of Glasgow in Scotland. Upon completion of his education in 1833, King went to the United States with his family. There he found work in Louisiana teaching the children of slave owners. King eventually married Mary Phares, the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner, and a slave owner. Phares brought two slaves with her into the King household. Thus King gained first-hand knowledge of the evils of slavery, both to the slave and the slave master.
King's growing intolerance of slavery would not allow him to remain in the United States as a slave owner. He decided to return to Scotland to study the ministry. During this time King lost almost every member of his family, including his wife and their two children, as well as his father-in-law, from whom he inherited additional slaves from the plantation.
By 1846, King was a practising Presbyterian minister and had accepted an appointment as a missionary in Canada. He had also become an active abolitionist, and the inheritance of slaves posed immeasurable moral problems for him.
His assignment to Canada provided an opportunity for him to offer the slaves a chance at a better life. King wanted to bring his slaves with him to a land where they could live free and would have the chance to prosper.
Reverend King wanted to establish a colony for his and other fugitive slaves in Canada West (formerly Upper Canada) who would be under the protection of the British government. He sought help from the Presbyterian Church, which agreed to assist with his proposal. To raise money for the settlement, the Elgin Association was formed. The Association, which consisted of a number of shareholders—both Black and White—provided money to purchase land. The Elgin Association was incorporated by an act of the British Parliament in 1850. It had the support of Lord Elgin, the Governor General, after whom both the Association and the settlement were named. In addition, Thomas Fowell Buxton, an abolitionist and member of the British House of Commons, also greatly supported the settlement, and its mission school was named after him.
The Association purchased a tract of land in Raleigh Township in the Western District of Canada West, between Lake Erie and the Thames River (southwest of Chatham, Ontario). It was six miles long and three miles wide. King chose this land because he felt that the lake and the river would allow for the easy transportation and sale of goods produced by the settlement. The land purchased was almost entirely forest. But it was here where King brought his own 15 slaves and founded a colony where other fugitive slaves and free Blacks could establish a new home.
In the beginning, there was considerable opposition to the settlement plan among the nearby population. Mass meetings of protest were held. Newspapers railed against it. Petitions were signed. "The Negro is a distinct species of the Human Family and, is far inferior to that of the European. Let each link in the great scale of existence have its place. Amalgamation is as disgusting to the eye, as it is immoral in its tendencies and all good men will discountenance it." The settlement went forward nonetheless.
Right from the start, the community established rules and regulations, which may account for its long success. Residents had a maximum of 10 years to pay for their properties, and houses had to be built to minimum standards. There were regulations about temperance (moderate use of alcohol), and the amount of land that homeowners had to clear annually. The settlement became a thriving community that was built around an agricultural base. It had a flourishing commerce that included a sawmill, grist mill, potash and pearl-ash factories, brickyard, blacksmith shop, hotel and dry goods store. At its peak, the Elgin Settlement became home to 1,200 fugitives who had escaped slavery in the United States and found freedom in Canada.
Education was the cornerstone of the community. All the fugitives and their children had the opportunity to receive a high-quality education at the Buxton Mission School, which offered a classical education with instruction in Latin and Greek. In fact, it was not long before the other settlers sought out the superior education offered to their Black neighbours, and the district school that had offered schooling to the European settlers in the area was closed. Buxton Mission School became an integrated school, as well as the only school in the district.
Many graduates of the Buxton Mission School went on to higher learning and became teachers, doctors, lawyers, legislators and other professionals. The work of the people of Buxton ensured that it would become one of the most successful of the Black refugee colonies.
During the American Civil War (1861–1865), 70 men from the settlement returned to the United States to fight as part of the Union Army. And during reconstruction, many settlers returned to their homes in the American South to help educate their recently emancipated friends, families and neighbours. Although the majority of the residents returned to the United States following the Civil War, the community continues to exist as a small rural, essentially Black community made up of descendants of those early fugitives. For more than 80 years, a homecoming has been held in Buxton on Labour Day weekend. During this four-day celebration, thousands of people return "home" to renew ties with their roots and with their families and friends. The Buxton area was recognized by the Canadian government in 1999 as a place of National Historic Significance.