The Underground Railroad and the Chatham-Kent TCT
It’s an unassuming site on the TCT – a two-storey cabin nestled among a grove of tall trees – yet its history is known around the world. The home was owned by Reverend Josiah Henson, the famous Canadian abolitionist whose life story inspired the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
The house now bears the name of the fictional character – it’s called ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site.’ But it is Rev. Henson who started his life in slavery, before following the Underground Railroad to freedom and settling in Dresden, Ontario. The final stretch of Henson’s journey, and that of the hundreds of former slaves he then guided to freedom, is part of the Chatham to Kent Trans Canada Trail, a paved, 222-kilometre track passing through picture-perfect rural scenery.
“It’s an honour to walk along that path,” says Melissa Pomeroy, general manager of TCT Ontario. “As a Canadian, I am proud that our national Trail incorporates some of the routes used by the Underground Railroad,” she explains. “These incredibly courageous individuals were seeking liberty for themselves and their children. They arrived here after what must have been an arduous journey and built a better life.”
For Steven Cook, site manager of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Rev. Henson’s story is an inspiration. “Walking through the door, visitors are confronted with the fact that this man was born into slavery. He had nothing; he was considered property. When they realize what he accomplished – becoming a father, an author, an abolitionist and one of the co-founders of the first schools in Canada – with so little, they are moved.”
Another part of the museum holds the Underground Railroad Freedom Gallery. “Visitors can see control devices that were used on enslaved people, such as the speculum oris, used to force-feed them, or thumbscrews for getting them to reveal secrets,” Mr. Cook says. “Seeing those devices, what hits home are the horrors of slavery and the courage of those freedom seekers who left the plantations not knowing whether they were going to make it or be returned and again subjected to torture.”
Rev. Henson personified this courage – he sought freedom and helped so many others attain the same through the Underground Railroad, a secret network of routes and safe houses leading escaped slaves to Canada, which operated mainly between 1840 and the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
Of the estimated 30,000 former slaves who fled to Canada, most landed in southwestern Ontario, settling in what is now Windsor, Fort Erie, Chatham and other local communities, where “they contributed significantly to the building of our nation,” says Mr. Cook.
Ms. Pomeroy adds that they founded many important communities that are still thriving today. “It’s quite a legacy, and I find it humbling to trace their footprints on the Trail.”
Here are just a few special places and ways that the Trail connects with Canada’s history and heritage.