John Hedgeman was an enslaved African American man who escaped all the way from Alabama to Upper Canada (Ontario) in the late 1830s. He was born in Fauquier County, Virginia, in August 1776. While enslaved in Virginia, he helped in quarrying the stone for the building of the White House, where each president of the United States still lives, in succession, to this day. In 1797, John married Charlotte Boyles, who was also enslaved to his master. Twenty-two years later, John and his wife were taken to Kentucky where they continued to remain enslaved.
In 1836, John was separated from his wife when he was sold to a man in Alabama. Hedgeman begged that his wife be allowed to join him. His master refused and replied that he had sold him as a punishment by separating him from his wife. The separation of families, often for life, was a terrible factor in the slave system, and many people never saw their husbands or wives, children or parents again.
While in Alabama, John worked very hard, but he thought about his dear wife all the time. One day, John’s master sent him on horseback far away from home. John saw this as a chance to break his own chains and escape. He travelled on his master’s horse during the night so that nobody would see him. Along the way, he was helped by some people of the Quaker faith.
First, John went to Missouri where he stayed for a short time. Then, with the help of African Americans he met along the way, he continued to Michigan, which was a free state, where people were not allowed to have slaves. Finally, he crossed over to Canada and settled in at Amherstburg. He joined the Baptist Church and became a deacon.
All this time, John and his wife had not heard from each other. Twelve years after John’s escape, Charlotte also ran away from her master and after traveling north to Michigan, crossed over the Detroit River and came to Amherstburg. John Hedgeman did not know that his wife had escaped to Canada.
Lonely and without any friends, John’s wife walked around the streets of Amherstburg looking for a place to stay. She was attracted by the sound of singing that came from a church. She entered the church, and the first person she saw was John, her husband, who was attending the annual meeting of the Amherstburg Baptist Association. They ran into each other’s arms with joy.
John and his wife had fourteen children and many of them lived in Amherstburg and Detroit. Charlotte died in August 1868, and eventually John married again, this time to a woman called Mary. John became a very successful farmer in Amherstburg, and lived to be more than 100 years old. He helped to build a church and a school for African Canadian children at Mount Pleasant in Amherstburg.