In 1854, Adam Nicholson decided to free himself from bondage. He was held in slavery by Aaron Myers near Hedgesville, Berkeley County, Virginia (now West Virginia). Along with two other freedom-seekers, Daniel Davis and Reuben Bowles, Adam headed north, crossing the border into the free state of Pennsylvania. Anxious to get as far as possible from Hedgesville, the three men continued on foot to Greenville, Mercer County, Pennsylvania, a journey of 300 miles (483 kilometres). This was a town that was known to help those fleeing slavery.
From Greenville, Adam, Daniel and Reuben made their way to Philadelphia by train, a distance of 373 miles (600 km). They arrived at the Philadelphia “station” of the Underground Railroad operated by Black abolitionist William Still. In his journal, in which he recorded the details of every escaped slave that he met, William Still wrote that the three men arrived in Philadelphia on April 12, 1854, “travel-worn, garments dirty, and forlorn”. Afraid of being recognized, the runaways changed their names: Adam Nicholson used the alias of John Wynkoop, Daniel Davis became David Smith, and Reuben Bowles called himself Cunnigan. William Still described Adam as “dark, rugged and sensible”. Adam told Still that Myers, his owner, was “a hard man”. Years later, a Canadian neighbour noted that Adam’s back was scarred from the whippings he had received as a slave, and he had only one eye. He must have suffered cruel treatment.
In Philadelphia, the three men stayed at the home of Mrs. Rebecca Julius. William Still’s organization provided them each with a change of clothes and $1.50 to help them on their 400 mile (644 km) journey to Canada.
Adam Nicholson settled in Grantham Township, near the town of St. Catharines. Several other Black families lived near the small hamlet of McNab on Eight Mile Creek. Many had fled slavery in Maryland and Virginia. Adam and the other men earned a living by hiring themselves out to work on local farms. In 1868, Adam purchased two acres of land on Church Road from Alonzo and Sarah Bissell for $100. He built a two-storey home on the property.
A neighbour of Adam was John Amos, who had escaped from slavery in Maryland. He was a very pious man, and held prayer meetings in his home every Sunday evening. John Amos had four sons and one daughter, Mary. She was born in New York State about 1846.
Adam Nicholson and Mary Amos were married in St Catharines on March 26, 1874. They raised four children, John, Nellie, Alexander, and Tempie, on the farm on Church Road. Many of Adam and Mary’s 23 grandchildren were also born and raised in the house that Adam built. Adam Nicholson died on January 13, 1911, and was buried at McNab Church Cemetery. His wife, Mary, died on May 9, 1918.
Escaping from slavery took tremendous courage. Runaways who were caught were brutally punished. By daring to leave slavery and come to Canada, Adam showed how the human spirit can overcome obstacles. He prepared the way for his children and their descendants to lead full and productive lives in Canada.