Queen's Bush Settlement headstones: African British Methodist-Episcopal Cemetery (2017)

About 25 years after Pennsylvania Mennonites arrived, another group of US emigrants started a new life in what would be Waterloo Region. They—freemen and runaway slaves—founded settlements on undeveloped lands in Colbornesburg and later in Queen’s Bush. By the 1840s, the Queen’s Bush Settlement’s population was approximately 2000, of whom approximately 1500 were black. This made it  the largest and the most widely scattered of all Upper Canada’s black settlements. While many saw it as a fugitive slave community, it was a diverse group of people that included runaway slaves and freemen from the US, Canadian-born blacks, and white settlers.

Wanting a better life and the Colbournesburg Settlement

The origins of the Queen’s Bush Settlement can likely be traced to a group of black immigrants, who moved to Upper Canada in 1828. While Ohio was a free northern state, many whites opposed granting rights to blacks and some worried about the threat of economic competition from recently arrived freemen. In 1804, the state enacted oppressive Black Laws (1804).

After two unsuccessful petitions for land to the Executive Council of Upper Canada, the Ohio group, led by Paola Brown and Charles Jackson, arrived at Crook’s Tract, near Winterbourne. Prior to their arrival, the parcel changed hands a few times but remained undeveloped. Its current owner had trouble selling his plots, but was willing to sell to the new settlers.

1832’s assessment rolls reveal a 34-person community in nine households. It included five families with a total of 18 children younger than 16 years (one had a child older than 16). Except for John Brown and his wife, all lived in Broken Front Concession 2, north of Cox’s Creek. Holdings ranged from 70-150 acres (usually, 3 or 4 were cleared and planted) and were assessed between £11 and £33 (US$2312 and US$6936—see notes on conversion). The Browns’ holdings were the highest-assessed at £63 (US$13,242). They had 100 acres in Broken Front Concession 1, two milch cows, a team of oxen, and 26 acres planted in crops.

Within two years, most of the settlement, including Paola Brown, left for other areas in the province. Several families moved to the Queen’s Bush, the southern periphery of unclaimed government land that lay 29 km (18 mi) north of the village of Waterloo and south of Lake Huron. Over time, settlers spread along a 13 by 21 km (8 by 12 mi) area on the boundary of modern-day Wellesley and Peel Townships (now in Waterloo and Wellington Regions), and established centres in Hawksville and Wallenstein.

The Queen’s Bush Settlement

The arduous trek to Queen’s Bush went through the villages of Brantford, Preston, Berlin (Kitchener), and Waterloo. It was a vast unsurveyed tract of land, heavily wooded and thick with underbrush. The narrow trail—wide enough for waggons and pack animals—was cut by early travellers (including Mennonites) zigged and zagged through a dense forest of maple, beech, elm, birch and ash. One visitor remarked he had “never before travelled such a miserable road as that of the Queen’s Bush; what, between stumps, stones, rail bridges, made of trees laid crossways, swamps, and gullies, we were shaken almost to death.”

John Little, an early black settler, described his 1842 arrival:

Then we marched right into the wilderness, where there were thousands of acres of woods, which the chain had never run around since Adam. At night we made a fire, and cut down a tree, and put up slats like a wigwam. This was in February, when the snow was two feet deep.

An isolated, untamed land

Canadian weather proved a burden for those who arrived directly from the southern US. Settlers who didn’t first acclimate in a northern free state had to adjust to long, cold winters with bitter winds and snow. Many also arrived penniless and hungry. Whether or not they had funds or food, everyone dealt with dangers to their crops: frost, drought, and disease as well as wild animals that killed livestock.

Wildlife was all around: deer, rabbits, muskrats, squirrels, fox, bears and wolves. Streams and rivers teemed with fish, while wild ducks and geese lived along the Grand River and its tributaries. The land, though, had fertile clay loam capable of supporting them with vegetables and grains.

In the early 19th Century, this part of the world was extremely harsh and lonely—especially for settlers with little economic or social infrastructure support. Their survival in the isolated bush relied on being both independent and co-operative. While many had some agricultural experience, few had lived in the wilderness or knew how to hunt, fish, and gather.

A place to call home

Many built crude temporary shelters upon arrival, while others slept rough. One person spent his first winter in a hollowed-out log. Most lived in windowless 2 by 3 m (6’ by 9’) log shanties with a small hole in the roof that served as a chimney. Inside, their tables and chairs were old trunks and barrels; they slept on tanned animal hides on the dirt floor. As they prospered, some erected one-story log cabins with finished doors and windows, roughly hewn plank floors, handmade furniture, and fieldstone fireplaces.

As the Queen’s Bush Settlement grew, neighbours gave newcomers gifts of field beans and potatoes. Regardless of who arrived—white or black—residents shared what they could and assisted newcomers in building shelters. Local Mennonites lent tools to help clear and plant a few acres. Compassionate shopkeepers from nearby villages, such as Bridgeport’s Henry Staffer Huber, an abolitionist Mennonite merchant, also did what they could.

Since currency was scarce, the community developed a barter system. John Little obtained seed on credit from local merchants and, as trade, helped them during harvest. Loggers exchanged labour for food and lodgings or a small amount of flour and meat. As more prosperous farmers arrived, blacks worked as labourers and earned a small daily wage (one source listed $1/day (I assume that was converted to modern currency)), plus meals. They bought livestock and other supplies for their own farms, from their earnings.

While they were isolated, the community developed a network with other black communities in Upper Canada and the US. These connections helped support them as they adapted to their new homeland and, in many cases, to freedom.

Life on the farm

At first, settlers had no choice but to till and sow cash crops and gardens by hand, as it took about five years for stumps and roots to decay enough to be removed. Afterwards, oxen or horse teams could be used to farm the land. With hard work and perseverance, settlers could harvest in their first year. The Littles, with only hoes and hand rakes, harvested 110 bushels of spring wheat and 300 bushels of potatoes.

While enslaved, both sexes often shared the same tasks, so it was normal for the women of Queen’s Bush to work alongside the men to clear land, as well as cultivate and harvest crops. Women were also responsible for household management, childcare, preserving fruits and vegetables, spinning and weaving, soapmaking, raising poultry, and curing meat. Children’s duties were lighter than adults’: gardening, feeding livestock, gathering eggs, and milking. Older children took on more difficult farm work.

Crops included barley, oats, and wheat, and pioneers planted orchards and garden crops of turnips, potatoes, and beans. Their livestock included cattle, horses, sheep, and hogs. When the sap ran in the Spring, they also made maple sugar. In time, settlers developed potash and timber industries.

While farmers could grow crops and rear livestock, transporting goods to market was difficult. The 29 km (18 mi) journey to Waterloo took two days by same narrow trail by which they arrived. During the rainy seasons, when the trail was washed out, farmers carried goods on their backs to market.

Missionaries and a turning tide

American abolitionists took notice of the community and travelled to the Queen’s Bush Settlement. In the 1840s, blacks and whites provided education and vocational training so settlers could live independent and self-reliant lives. Rev. Denslow noted:

They come in, settle in the woods, and commence an opening, and if they manage to get through the winter, spring finds them subsisting on leeks, cow-cabbage, and wild vegetation gathered in the woods. There is a great destitution of clothing among these new settlers. Some for the children are naked—others with a shirt or pair of pantaloons may be frequently seen. Bedding is very scarce, but the free use of wood serves in a measure as a substitute.

While missionaries meant well, their desire to mould blacks into the model of the “ideal middle-class Christian” alienated many. Settlers saw abolitionists as paternalistic, controlling, morally rigid, and somewhat racist. As example, missionaries disapproved of blacks’ jubilant religious traditions, which were in contrast to and incompatible with the missionaries’ more dour traditions.

Meanwhile, African Methodist Episcopal and Baptist churches refused fellowship with slave-owners and churches that condoned slavery. The fact few whites could preach before black congregations buoyed accusations of promoting anti-white sentiment.

After the 1833 Act passed, there was a dramatic rise in border crossings. Once here, blacks were seen as “temporary residents”: although they pledged devotion to the Queen, served in the militia, and purchased land, many returned to the US when opportunity arose. Many whites also became concerned about the legal implication of their offer to help fugitive slaves.

The end of an era

Lieutenant Governor Simcoe set aside the Queen’s Bush land for the Anglican Church in 1792-93. Funds earned from these Clergy Reserve Lands—through cultivation, rental or sale—were to support the Church. Fifty years later, policy changes saw the parcel surveyed and available for purchase.

Crown land agents harassed and misled the black residents—especially the illiterate or those with little business—experienceabout payment terms and threatened with eviction.

According to a 20 July 1979 Kitchener-Waterloo Record article, Norman Hisson (who lived in Glen Allen in the 1970s, an area of the Queen’s Bush Settlement) said, “From what I was told, [William Lawson and William Douglas] were about the only two of the original settlers who didn’t get beaten one way or another on land deals.” He also said some European settlers cheated the blacks, “I can remember my mother telling me stories . . . about how agents and other white people moved the [surveyors’] stakes at night.”

Cash remained scarce in the community. Since many relied on harvest income, purchasing their farms or even paying the annual instalment proved difficult for many. Although 1847 boasted good potato and turnip yields, the predominant cash crop (wheat) fetched below average prices for the next few years. It took four petitions to the government to ease schedules. Faced with harassment and low prices for their crops, many families abandoned or sold their farms for less than market value.

A large exodus out of Queen’s Bush began by 1850. Those who stayed suffered another series of bad harvests. This left residents “alarmingly destitute.” Some families continued to live there well into the 20th Century, but most scattered and settled in other communities, primarily Guelph, Berlin (Kitchener), Owen Sound, Collingwood, Niagara, St. Catharines, Buxton and Chatham.


Background: An overview of slavery, abolition, and the black population in Upper Canada, (pre-1830s)

Canada was never immune to slavery. Some Indigenous communities enslaved prisoners of war; the Code Noir (1685) covered French-owned slaves, and after the Treaty of Paris (1763)Britain’s criminal law governed slavery in Upper and Lower Canada.

Upper Canada’s enslaved population wasn’t numerous but grew in the aftermath of the American Revolutionary War. Colonial Loyalists immigrated and brought enslaved Africans with them, and the British promised freedom to black Loyalist soldiers (of whom approximately 3500 settled in Nova Scotia). Not all of these freemen remained so—corrupt military officials seized some and sold them to the Americans.

Five years after Britain’s Parliament passed the Dolben Act (Slave Trade Act) (1788), Upper Canada’s Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe—a supporter of abolition—attempted to stop slavery in the colony. However, as almost half of the 25-member Legislature owned slaves, the Act was amended. Under An Act to Prevent the further Introduction of Slaves and to limit the Term of Contracts for Servitude (Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada) (1793), all current slaves in Upper Canada remained enslaved until death; children born to female slaves after the Act’s passage would be freed at age 25, and no new slaves could be brought to the province. Note: The Act still allowed for indentured servants, and did not halt slave auctions or sales.

After the War of 1812, more than 2000 black veterans who fought for the British received freedom, land grants, and other provisions. Some of these Loyalists, including Richard Pierpoint, settled near Waterloo, in what is now East Garafraxa, in Wellington Region.

In 1819, Attorney General John Beverley Robinson declared blacks living in Canada emancipated and Canadian courts would protect their freedom. Within a few years, enslaved became free and had full equality under the law—they could vote, serve jury duty, own property, and enlist in the military.

Before the 1830s, blacks could immigrate here, and Upper Canadians were sympathetic to their plight.  In the early 19th Century, Upper Canada border cities such as such as Amherstburg, Hamilton, St. Catharines, and Windsor established black communities. Some residents were freemen, but others escaped enslavement from US owners. This group of runaways often faced harrowing journeys that forced them to travel by night and eluding slave catchers.  When they crossed the border,escaped slaves arrived “in deplorable condition, starved, exhausted and without proper clothing.”

Britain’s Slavery Abolition Act (1833) prohibited the practice in most of its territories in (it was still in effect in India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka)). Importantly, the Act made Upper and Lower Canada a free land, which made the provinces a safe haven for America’s fugitive slaves and free blacks.


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