The Niagara Peninsula is surrounded on three sides by water: Lake Erie, the Niagara River and Lake Ontario. The Niagara Escarpment, a steep ridge of hard rock, separates the two lakes making Lake Erie almost 100 meters higher than Lake Ontario. The Niagara River and Niagara Falls break through the escarpment. First Nations peoples and European fur traders travelling by water had to carry (“portage”) their canoes and goods from one lake to the other. Later, canals with locks were constructed to bypass the Falls and carry boats up and down the escarpment.
In 1783, after the American Revolution, the Niagara River formed the border between the United States and Canada. Loyalists – people who had supported the British in the war – moved to the Canadian side of the border, and received grants of land from the British government. Some of these early settlers brought enslaved Africans as part of their households. This post-war migration also included free Black Loyalists.
Upper Canada’s first parliament met in Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake), and in 1793 passed legislation (An Act to prevent the further introduction of slaves, and to limit the term of contracts for servitude within this Province) that would bring about the gradual abolition of slavery in Upper Canada. Newark lost its status as capital of the province when Lieutenant Governor Simcoe decided that it was too close to the United States to be secure, and moved the government to York (Toronto).
The Niagara Peninsula was one of the major areas of fighting during the War of 1812. When American officers returned to the United States after the War, their slaves and servants told of Black men in uniforms who fought to protect the freedom they had under British rule. Canada became a destination for those fleeing slavery in the United States. Border communities, like those in the Niagara area, provided the first experience of freedom to people escaping from American slavery.
The journey north from slavery was a dangerous one, and it became no easier with Canada in sight across the Niagara River. Crossings had to be made by water, as there was no bridge across the river until 1848. Construction of the bridge, which conveyed trains, horse-drawn vehicles and pedestrian traffic, did not remove all dangers. Often, slave catchers lurked nearby, ready to capture runaways as they started on their last dash for freedom across the bridge.
Those who successfully reached Canada needed to find work. In the Niagara area, newly-arrived freedom seekers earned a little money chopping wood, which was sold as fuel for steam powered ships and trains. Others worked on farms, in lumber mills and gristmills (flour mills), and on the canals and railways. Towns like Fort Erie, Niagara Falls, Niagara-on-the-Lake, and St. Catharines offered jobs in hotels, or provided opportunities for skilled newcomers to work at their craft. These new African Canadians in turn extended support to the next arrivals. Although some freedom seekers felt that the Niagara area was dangerously close to the American border, and moved on to places like the Queen’s Bush, Hamilton or Toronto, many made a home here. Descendants of these brave and determined early African Canadians still live in the Niagara region.