About the Author

Bryan Prince

Bryan Prince is a respected historical researcher on the Underground Railroad, slavery, and abolition. His previous books include One More River to Cross, A Shadow on the Household, and I Came As a Stranger. Bryan is in demand as a presenter throughout North America, and he and his wife were awarded the 2011 prize for the Advancement of Knowledge by the Underground Railroad Free Press. He lives in North Buxton, Ontario.

Books by this Author
A Shadow on the Household

A Shadow on the Household

One Enslaved Family's Incredible Struggle for Freedom
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The Weems family felt the first troubling rumbles of a distant thunder in 1847, when their by now long-widowed master, Adam Robb, died. Up until then Arabella, her children, her mother, sister, and other family members had been held together and hired out or had laboured on Robb’s farms, which had such exotic and curious names as “Oatry’s,” “The Resurvey on St. Mary’s,” “Coup de Main,” “Wickham’s Chance,” “Spittlefields,” “Smoch Ally,” “The Resurvey of the Wheel of Fortune,” and “The Resurvey on Valentines Garden Enlarged.” Now, the very real possibility existed that they might be forcibly removed from the fields and meadows to which they had become attached.

On May 15 of that year, Adam Robb’s estate was listed and evaluated. Despite his advanced age, Robb had avoided facing the inevitable and had died without having prepared a last will and testament. It therefore fell to his then widowed daughter, Jane Beall, and to his son-in-law, Henry Harding, to put a price on all of his belongings. At that time, Robb’s daughters, Jane and Catharine, were the only two legal heirs acknowledged; John had died several years before, and curiously Alexander was not named. Robb’s assets included a herd of cattle, a flock of ewes and lambs, numerous pigs and horses, a team of oxen, and a large quantity of farm and blacksmith equipment that had been needed on Robb’s huge plantations. Household goods were included — a weaving loom worth five dollars, an old butter churn worth a quarter of a dollar, a bowl and pitcher worth twelve cents, and even a “lot of broken spoons” inexplicably rated at $1.50. Two old muskets worth fifty cents and three leg chains valued at $1.25 each conjure up more ominous images.

Then appeared the long list of “negroes,” male and female, adult and child. Fifty-year-old Mary Jones was worth $75. Fifty-five-year-old John Henson was evaluated at $150. Arabella’s sister, twenty-seven-year-old Annie Maria (hereafter called Annie), $450. Their aging mother, Cecilia, at $15, was worth exactly the same value as a roan cow and only three dollars more than six silver tablespoons. Arabella’s children were also listed: Mary Jane, 16, $500; Catharine, 13, $400; William (Augustus) 12, $375; Adam, 7, $175; Ann Maria, 5, $125; eighteen-month-old Joe was listed along with his thirty-five-year-old mother, Airy, at $325. The age of Richard, who was considered “infirm” and therefore worthless, was not deemed significant enough to list. By comparison, a grey horse named Charley was worth $50, a water bucket 16 1/4 cents, and the Muscovy ducks in the barnyard 37 cents each.

In the following winter, on February 10, 1848, the estate sale was held and the financial ledgers balanced. A few deductions were made to the earlier property evaluation, such as $57.27 for Adam Robb’s funeral as well as $7.50 for taxes paid for his “negroes in George Town.” Another $450 was removed because of the untimely death of the slave Ninian while still in his mid-thirties. His passing denied him the opportunity to be united with his wife, Sarah Ann, and his two daughters, who were already the property of Henry Harding. Although neighbours bought many of the items, most were bought by Adam Robb’s daughter, Jane Beall, and by his grandson, Charles Adam Harding. Thankfully none of the slaves were sold at that day’s auction.

In fact, rather than being sold, some of them actually purchased items from their late master’s estate with pennies saved over the years. Hester Diggs bought a flax wheel and Mary Jones bought several items, including a tea canister, two ovens, bottles, a pitcher, and a set of brass candlesticks. Among Arabella Weems’s purchases were a coffee mill, an iron pot, a walnut table, and chairs. Her bill came to $1.91. The recorder of the transactions was careful to note all of the purchases the slaves made on a separate page. As they gathered these reminders of their former lives, the slaves nervously tried to comfort themselves that perhaps life would not change too much.

Adam Robb’s daughter Jane died on August 2, 1848, at age fifty-six, and her death before Robb’s estate could be settled between her and her sister, Catharine, made the entire process more complicated and more painful. Jane’s share would go to her daughters — Jane, Matilda and Margaret, all destined to be lifelong spinsters. The legal disposition of the estate was initiated on December 11, 1849, at the Orphans’ Court of Montgomery County, and although the slaves had been appraised in 1847, Catharine’s husband, Henry Harding, made a request to reassess Them. Ironically, Henry was by this time registrar of the county court and recorded the proceedings. William Viers Bouic, a lawyer, and Michael H. Letton, a Rockville butcher, were called upon to give their learned opinion on the value of the human flesh.

A gentle snow fell during the week that Bouic and Letton went about their work. The Baltimore Sun painted a romantic picture of Rockville covered in white. “The sleigh bells are sounding and the beaus, wrapped in their furs, are enjoying themselves to their heart’s content. When the sleighing time passes the priest and the parson will be called upon to finish the frolic.” Adam Robb’s slaves, who were being examined like livestock, did not share in the frivolity.

Two weeks later, on Christmas Eve, Bouic and Letton’s official status as appraisers was reconfirmed by George R. Braddock, Montgomery County’s justice of the peace. They made an “oath on the Holy Evangely of Almighty God that they will well and truly appraise the negroes belong to the estate of Adam Robb late of the said county deceased and to the best of their skill & Judgement perform the duty imposed upon them.” They had accomplished their ghoulish task, not only appraising the slaves but also dividing them. Thirteen went to Jane’s estate, including an aging John Henson, Josiah’s brother, as well as Arabella’s elderly mother, Cecilia, often called Cicely, then estimated to be in her seventies and valued at ten dollars. Along with them went Arabella’s sister, Annie, and Annie’s two infant daughters, who were valued as a unit at $525. The remaining fifteen slaves went to Catharine Harding, including:

• Mary Jones (the godmother of some of the Weems children), fifty, $80
• Hester Diggs, fifty-five, $20
• Gus (Augustus) Weems, fourteen, $425
• Catharine Weems, fifteen, $550
• Ann Maria Weems, six, $200
• Adam Weems, nine, $250
• (Mary) Jane Weems, sixteen, $550
• Airy (Arabella) Weems and her youngest children Joseph, four, and John, two, $500
• Dick Weems, eleven and “infirm,” was valued at only $25.

To ensure that the division was equitable, Jane Beall’s orphaned daughters were ordered to pay $32.50 to their aunt, Catharine Harding.

Attributing worth to humans was always an inexact science. Much depended upon sex, age, and physical attributes. At thirteen, Catharine Weems had been evaluated at four hundred dollars. Two years later, as her body developed and her beauty blossomed, another $150 was added to her value. Six-year-old Ann Maria and her fourteen-year-old brother Augustus had increased by $75 each. Nine-year-old Dick’s physical disabilities had rendered him worthless in 1847, and in 1849 his value had increased only slightly to a still insignificant amount. Thirty-seven-year-old Arabella, who always seemed to have an infant at her breast and another in her womb, had declined in value in contrast to that of her younger sister, Annie, and even to her eldest daughters. At this time, Arabella was five months pregnant, expecting her ninth child, another son, whom she would name Sylvester when he was born the following April. But by enriching her own life with the joy of motherhood, she inadvertently enriched her owner’s net worth.

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I Came As a Stranger

I Came As a Stranger

The Underground Railroad
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There is a growing fascination across North America with the story of the “Underground Railroad” – the informal network of daring people and safe refuges, in both the United States and Canada, that helped thousands of fugitives escape the evils of slavery. In the United States, academic institutions, historians, genealogists, and media outlets have for years been sharing the American side of the story with an increasingly enthusiastic audience. Less well known, but an essential part of the story, is the role that Ontario – once known as Upper Canada, then as Canada West – played in this drama. Scattered across the province are individuals, museums, churches, and historical societies striving to conserve and present this enthralling tale. Numerous National Historic designations assigned within the past decade testify to the value Canada places on the struggles and triumphs of the people who followed the North Star to freedom. Thousands visit these historic sites annually, vastly more thousands make contact by phone or by mail, or visit the websites, and many groups invite Underground Railroad historians to address their members. Perhaps most important, the story of the Underground Railroad is now taught in many classrooms across the continent, ensuring that future generations will not forget the importance of those tumultuous years.

Some of the photographs that appear on the following pages can be found in the museums and heritage sites listed at the end of the book, where there is also a map of their locations.

The stories celebrated in these historic sites are many; our pages here are few. We hope you will come and visit the sites themselves, for a closer experience of these remarkable people, and the desperate times in which they lived. For more information, see the last chapter, “Tracing Their Steps Today.”


Human Cargo, Human Wares

“wanted, to purchase a negro girl, from seven to twelve years of age
The story of the Underground Railroad is a chapter in a much larger story. That story began in Africa, where people were captured, traded, and sold. It continued on board ships that carried them across the Atlantic Ocean, in a nightmare trip known as the Middle Passage. Next, the victims – those fortunate enough to survive the voyage – found themselves driven onto auction blocks, and sold to the highest bidder. In the fields and businesses and homes of their new masters, they would labor and suffer and die as slaves. Their children would inherit their slavery and their pain, which would be passed down through the generations.

The Atlantic slave trade began around the early 1500s, not long after Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World. Many European countries, including Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, England, and France, participated. Millions of Africans were captured, usually by other Africans, and forced to march to holding pens on the coast until they could be loaded onto sailing ships. Some of these unlucky people had been captured by their enemies, as prisoners of war. Others had been sentenced to slavery as punishment for crimes – even crimes as minor as stealing a tobacco pipe. Yet others were tricked into boarding the ship, believing that they were going on business; or were fooled into sending their children to Europe “to be educated.” Sometimes children were sold by their own parents, as payment for debt.

Historians estimate that, one way or another, between thirteen and fifteen million Africans were boarded onto slave ships for the trip across the ocean. Of that number, perhaps only ten million survived.

The largest number of slaves were shipped to the Caribbean islands of the West Indies. Many were put to work in the sugarcane fields, helping produce sugar for the European market. While they were making their owners rich, the slaves were also becoming conditioned to the work and the climate. Those who survived could then be resold to more lucrative markets, particularly in the American south. Almost three and a half million slaves were sent to Brazil, in South America. Nearly two million were delivered directly to the North American continent, and others arrived there via the Caribbean.


Slavery Elsewhere
Although this book talks about slavery as part of the history of the Western hemisphere, slavery has played a role in history around the world. Wherever people have been enslaved, they have longed to escape, and other people – people of conscience – have lent their assistance, or at least their sympathies, to aid in that escape. “Underground Railroads” would develop, in different forms, in many of those places – in the ancient biblical time of Moses and the Egyptian pharaohs, for example.


Although many people think of slavery as part of American history, it was also very much a part of early Canadian history, from the Maritimes to the coast of the Pacific. Records show that, as early as 1501, a Portuguese explorer enslaved fifty native Canadian men and women. In 1632, a “Negro” boy, Oliver Le Jeune, is mentioned in Jesuit documents; he may have been the first African to be transported and sold into Canada. A brief but touching account of his life appears in The Blacks in Canada: A History, by the late Robin Winks. At about six years of age he was taken from Madagascar by the English. After traveling to England, he came with his new masters to New France (now Quebec) and was sold to a French clerk. Shortly thereafter, he was given to a person who seems to have been kindhearted. Oliver helped tend to his owner’s family of ten children, and – unlike most slaves, who were kept illiterate – was allowed to be educated by a Jesuit (Catholic priest) teacher. He was also allowed to be baptized, and to take a family name; he chose “Le Jeune,” his teacher’s surname. Oliver died at about age thirty, apparently as a free person. We don’t know how he was able to regain his freedom.

Slavery was very common in New France. Following the French surrender to the British in 1760, when French territories in Canada became British possessions, the French governor of Canada, the Marquis de Vaudreuil, described the liberal terms of surrender he had accepted: the French inhabitants would be allowed to keep their household goods and furs, and to continue to practice their religion. He added: “They keep their Negro or Panis [native] slaves but are obliged to give back those taken from the English.” It seems that neither the English nor the French commanders minded the custom of slavery, as long as neither side could take away the other side’s slaves.

For almost two centuries, both blacks and natives continued to work as slaves in Canada. They served as domestics and field hands, worked in the fur trade, and performed many other duties. Matthew Dolsen, who was of European descent, owned a tavern near present-day Chatham, Ontario, and had among his slaves a Panis woman who had been stolen as a child by members of the Chippewa tribe. His native neighbor, Sally Ainse, owned “Negro” slaves.

Even whites occasionally became slaves. Margaret Kleine was “adopted” as a slave by native chief Joseph Brant after her family was killed in the Mohawk Valley of New York. Brant later moved to what is now Brantford, Ontario, and brought his slaves with him. Margaret Kleine had better luck than most slaves – she married Jean Baptiste Rousseau, who helped to found the town of Ancaster – but her early experiences left a lasting mark, and so soured her disposition that she became known for being incapable of any acts of kindness.

Another young white girl, from a prominent family in Pennsylvania, was captured prior to August of 1782 – while the British and the Americans were still at war – and made a slave by a band of native raiders. Her name was Sarah Cole and she was ten years old. Sarah was sold to a prominent man near Kingston, Ontario, but when this came to the attention of the Canadian authorities they were outraged, stating that “national honor” was at stake. They threatened to make the owner forfeit the money he had paid for the girl and “if possible to punish and make him an example to prevent such inhuman conduct for the Future.” In the end, they purchased Sarah for the equivalent of $42.50 and a string of wampum (beads) and returned her to the American colonies, with other prisoners of war.

Stories such as Sarah’s and Margaret’s are poignant but rare. Overwhelming in their number are the stories of the darker-hued children whose bondage did not arouse public indignation – children such as the boy and girl slaves of William Jarvis, of York (now Toronto), who got little sympathy from the Canadian court in 1811. Accused of running away and stealing, the boy was packed off to jail and the girl was returned to the mercy of their master. National honor, it seems, was not involved.

The common image of slaves is of adults, strong-bodied men and women who were able to toil in the houses and the fields. For example, a Niagara Herald newspaper advertisement placed by the Widow Clement offered to sell a man and a woman who “have been bred to the business of the farm.” The York Gazette and Oracle of February 19, 1806, advertised “Peggy, age forty, who two years before had absented herself without leave” and said Peggy’s skills had been learned as a house-slave; she was touted as being a “tolerable washerwoman” who could also make soap and candles. Many other advertisements reinforced this image of experienced, capable grownups.

However, the reality is that slaves came in all ages. We are left to wonder what young life may have been sold to W. and J. Crooks, of West Niagara, who advertised in the October 11, 1791 Gazette, in chilling commercial jargon, “wanted, to purchase a negro girl, from seven to twelve years of age, of good disposition. For fuller particulars apply to the subscribers…”

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My Brother's Keeper

My Brother's Keeper

African Canadians and the American Civil War
also available: Paperback
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