Uncle Tom's Cabin Historic Site
Creating a New Life
Though we cannot be sure exactly where Eliza Harris and her child ended up in Canada, we may have one clue. Levi Coffin wrote in his book that he and his wife, Catharine, visited Canada West in the Windsor and Chatham area east of Detroit, Michigan during the summer of 1854. This region was heavily settled by many who were formerly enslaved in the United States. While attending a gathering at a local church, Levi and Catharine were approached by a woman who they did not remember. When Eliza introduced herself, she reminded the couple that her first name was one that Catharine had given her. The Coffins were happy to visit with Eliza and her family who were living a “contented” life near Chatham.
Chatham would eventually become known as Canada’s “Black Mecca” as Black communities grew and thrived there. Canada West was attractive for settlement as Black men who met property requirements could vote. Building a life that included a profession to support a family seemed more attainable. Abolitionists like the Coffins were known to travel to the area hoping that those who had escaped slavery would aid others still enslaved.
Settlement patterns in Canada West by Blacks show deep divisions in where people settled in the area. Blacks felt safer by not integrating into larger white communities. Some Black communities thrived, like the Elgin Settlement. Known today as North Buxton, the community had its own school, post office, hotel, and other businesses. Another community that aimed to be self-sustaining was the Dawn Settlement, established by freedom seeker Josiah Henson. Henson and his family arrived at Canada West in 1830. Though the community worked to provide opportunity for freed slaves, it did not have the success as its neighbor to the south.
With the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865, two-thirds of Blacks returned to the United States. Some descendants of those who escaped to Canada West are able to trace their roots to the time when their ancestors called Canada home.