An analysis of the impact on refugees fleeing from slavery to Canada after the passing of the U.S. Fugitive Slave Act in 1850.
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When President Fillmore signed the Fugitive Slave Bill on September 18, 1850, he started a Negro migration that continued up to the opening of the Civil War, resulting in thousands of people of color crossing over into Canada and causing many thousands more to move from one State into another seeking safety from their pursuers. While the free Negro population of the North increased by nearly 30,000 in the decade after 1850, the gain was chiefly in three States, Ohio, Michigan and Illinois. Connecticut had fewer free people of color in 1860 than in 1850 and there were half a dozen other States that barely held their own during the period. The three States showing gains were those bordering on Canada where the runaway slave or the free man of color in danger could flee when threatened. It is estimated that from fifteen to twenty thousand Negroes entered Canada between 1850 and 1860, increasing the Negro population of the British provinces from about 40,000 to nearly 60,000. The greater part of the refugee population settled in the southwestern part of the present province of Ontario, chiefly in what now comprises the counties of Essex and Kent, bordering on the Detroit River and Lake St. Clair. This large migration of an alien race into a country more sparsely settled than any of the Northern States might have been expected to cause trouble, but records show that the Canadians received the refugees with kindness and gave them what help they could. At the close of the Civil War many of the Negroes in exile returned, thus relieving the situation in Canada.
The Fugitive Slave Bill had been signed but a month when Garrison pointed out in The Liberator that a northward trek of free people of color was already under way. “Alarmed at the operation of the new Fugitive Slave Law, the fugitives from slavery are pressing northward. Many have been obliged to flee precipitately leaving behind them all the little they have acquired since they escaped from slavery.” The American Anti-Slavery Society’s report also notes the consternation into which the Negro population was thrown by the new legislation and from many other contemporary sources there may be obtained information showing the distressing results that followed immediately upon the signing of the bill. Reports of the large number of new arrivals were soon coming from Canada. Hiram Wilson, a missionary at St. Catharines, writing in The Liberator of December 13, 1850, says: “Probably not less than 3,000 have taken refuge in this country since the first of September. Only for the attitude of the north there would have been thousands more.” He says that his church is thronged with fugitives and that what is true of his own district is true also of other parts of southern Ontario. Henry Bibb, in his paper The Voice of the Fugitive
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