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  • Written by Bryan Prince
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I Came As a Stranger

The Underground Railroad

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Honor Book for the Society of School Librarians International’s Best Book Award – Social Studies, Grades 7-12

Winner of 2005 Children’s Nautilus Book Awards (Non-fiction)

Prior to abolition in 1865, as many as 40,000 men, women, and children made the perilous trip north to freedom in Canada with the help of the Underground Railroad. It was neither underground nor was it a railroad, and was most remarkable for its lack of formal organization, so cloaked in secrecy that few facts were recorded while it “ran.”

The story of the Underground Railroad is one of suffering and of bravery, and is not only one of escape from slavery but of beginnings: of people who carved out a new life for themselves in perilous, difficult circumstances. In I Came as a Stranger, Bryan Prince, a descendent of slaves, describes the people who made their way to Canada and the life that awaited them.

From Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Dresden, Ontario to Harriet Tubman’s Canadian base of operations in St. Catharines, the communities founded by former slaves soon produced businessmen, educators, and writers. Yet danger was present in the form of bounty hunters and prejudice.

Complemented by archival photos, I Came as a Stranger is an important addition to North American history.



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…”

Table of Contents

Human Cargo, Human Wares
Oppression and Injustice
Cruelty and Kindness
Turbulent Times
Emancipation throughout the
Setting Out for the Unknown
The Kindness of Strangers
Some Names Not Forgotten
Desperate Measures
Hard Times in a Hard Land
Learning to Live in Liberty
Tracing Their Steps Today
Suggested Reading
Source Notes
Picture Sources
Bryan Prince

About Bryan Prince

Bryan Prince - I Came As a Stranger
Bryan Prince is a descendent of slaves who came to Canada prior to the American Civil War. He is a farmer with a profound interest in the history of the Underground Railroad – particularly in the Canadian involvement. He is actively involved with the Buxton National Historic Site & Museum, as well as with several other organizations in Ontario and the United States that focus on that period of history. He has spent thousands of hours researching, writing, and lecturing on this topic over a period of nearly 25 years. In 2002, he was awarded the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal for contributions to history. He lives with his wife and four children in Buxton, Ontario – a former fugitive slave settlement – and is the sixth generation of his family to do so.


“This book…is good history…digging deeply into the roots of slavery as well as discussing the important figures in the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad system. Numerous photographs, a timeline of critical events, source notes and a bibliography augment the always interesting text.”
The Globe and Mail

“The story of the underground railroad is as action-packed and full of intrigue, heroes and villains as any modern-day work of fiction.”
Today’s Parent
Teachers Guide

Teacher's Guide


Some crossed the international border hidden in ships. Others slipped across in disguise or in the dead of night. Behind them were hard journeys fraught with peril and dread. These fugitives were escaped slaves who had fled bondage in the American South. They had followed the North Star with one goal in mind: freedom in Canada!

Some of the freedom-seekers traveled alone and unaided. Men and women of a secret organization called the Underground Railroad assisted many more. These courageous people, both black and white, some of whom were escaped slaves themselves, risked their freedom and their very lives to help some 40,000 men, women, and children reach safety. In defiance of laws that forbade aiding and abetting runaways, they provided food, clothing, shelter, and money, and served as guides.

Today Canadians take pride in the role Canada played in offering sanctuary to people fleeing slavery. But Canada’s record is not untarnished. Slavery existed in Canada’s early colonial period. Even after the institution was abolished in British North America, deeply rooted prejudices remained. The former slaves encountered major social obstacles in addition to the hardships of making a living in a frontier community. Until slavery was abolished in the United States, they lived with the fear that vengeful masters or professional slave catchers would snatch them from their new homes.


Bryan Prince has had a lifelong interest in the story of the Underground Railroad, especially the Canadian involvement, and for good reason. He is a direct descendant of escaped slaves who traveled the secret route to freedom in Canada. Over a period of 25 years he has spent thousands of hours researching, writing, and lecturing on the subject. He was awarded the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal for his contributions to black history. Mr. Prince lives with his wife and four children in North Buxton, Ontario, a former settlement for fugitive slaves. In addition to being a historian and writer, he is a full-time farmer.


Curriculum Connections

Modern literary critics consider Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to be flawed as a work of art. Why then, is the book regarded as one of the most important works of fiction in American history?

On a map of the United States, locate the Slave States: Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, Missouri, Tennessee, and Kentucky. From which of these states would a fugitive slave have a better chance of reaching Canada?

Sophia Pooley was a slave in the household of the famous Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant. She stated, “I used to talk Indian better than I could English. I have forgotten some of it — there are none to talk it with now.” In what way does this suggest that both Blacks and Natives were victims of white oppression?

On a map you can see that Southern Ontario is a peninsula with few crossing places from the United States. Why was this an advantage for the slave catchers?

Americans who assisted fugitive slaves violated the law. Do citizens have a moral right to disobey an unjust law? How can they have that law changed?

Black leaders in Canada were divided on the subject of integration. Some believed that the former slaves should live in their own separate communities. Others felt that the people should be integrated into white society. What might be some advantages and disadvantages of each option? Consider both short-term and long-term possibilities.


1. The most common image that we have of the Underground Railroad is that of sympathetic white people assisting fugitive slaves. However, Bryan Prince reveals that more often it was a case of black people helping each other. Why would the author consider this an important point?

2. Slavery in Canada was abolished step-by-step. Slavery in the United States was abolished only after a long and bloody war. What effects might these different circumstances have had on racial attitudes in the two countries?

3. Thomas Johnson thought that Queen Victoria was black. Robert Nelson did not trust white abolitionists. Why did these men think the way they did?

4. Bryan Prince states that even some abolitionists did not believe in equality of the races. How did the experiences of some black people in Canada reflect this?

5. After the Civil War, with slavery abolished in the United States, many of the black people who had fled to Canada returned home. Would you have stayed in Canada or returned to the South. What would have been the advantages and disadvantages for each?

6. At the end of the book, Bryan Prince lists several historic sites in Ontario that have connections with the Underground Railroad. Why is it important that these sites are maintained and that people visit them?


1. Ask students if they were to make the journey from a slave state to Canada, would they try to do it alone, or would they join a group escorted by a “conductor” like Harriet Tubman. Have them give reasons for their choices.

2. Sometimes it is difficult to be non-objective when discussing people of another time and place. Ask students what their attitudes toward slavery might be if they had been born and raised on a southern plantation (a) as a white child, (b) as a black child. Ask them to explain their answers, keeping in mind what they would learn from the people around them.

3. Most of the former slaves quoted in Bryan Prince’s book spoke of masters who treated them with great cruelty, but a few said they’d had masters who were kind to them. The Irish writer Oscar Wilde once commented that in his opinion, “kind” slave owners were the worst of the lot. Ask students what they think Wilde meant by that. (Wilde quite likely believed that the “kindness” of some slave owners masked the true brutality of slavery.)

4. Escaping slavery was no game, but the fugitives and their Underground Railroad conductors had to be very clever to avoid capture. Alfred Jones used a forged pass to get past patrols. We know that Harriet Tubman usually picked up her “passengers” on a Saturday night because Sunday was the slaves’ only day off. That meant the absence of a runaway might not be noticed until Monday. Ask students what they would do to prepare for a flight to Canada. What would they need to know before leaving? What would they take with them?

5. When fugitive slaves reached Canada, they found themselves in a world that was very different from the one they had left. Ask students how runaways would have had to adjust to climate, law, and social attitudes.

6. John Brown believed that slavery could be abolished through armed insurrection. Throughout history there were others who led slave revolts. Have students research and write a brief report on one of the following: Spartacus (ancient Rome), Toussant L’Ouverture (Haiti), Nat Turner (United States).


Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman became known as “Moses,” like the biblical hero who led the Jews out of slavery and into the Promised Land. Try to imagine this prim-looking woman shepherding her charges through the dark, hiding them in chimneys and haystacks, driving them forward at gunpoint if need be. “I think slavery is the next thing to hell,” she declared.

North Star to Freedom

Many fugitives had no map or compass to guide them. They traveled mostly at night, under cover of darkness. On clear nights they relied on the stars to lead them to Canada; the constellations of the Big Dipper and Little Dipper are easy to spot, and point to the beacon of the North Star. On cloudy nights it was all too easy to get turned around and to travel the wrong way.


Suggested Reading
Black Fugitive Slaves in Early Canada
by Linda Bramble
ISBN 0920277160

The Blacks in Canada: A History
by Robin W. Winks
ISBN 077351631X

Bound For the North Star
by Dennis Brindell Fradin
ISBN 0395370172

North Star to Freedom
by Gena K. Gorrell
ISBN 1550050680
The Underground Railroad
by Shaaron Cosner
ASIN 053112505X

The Underground Railroad: First Person
Narratives of Escapes to Freedom in the North
by Charles L. Blockson
ISBN 0425115887



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