Updated: Apr 6, 2022
Why did Robert Jefferson travel north to Canada after receiving his freedom papers, signed by then-Mississippi State Senator Otho R. Singleton on July 29, 1852, before bringing his family to live in Indiana? This may be a question I’ll never answer, but I have only begun to tug on this new thread in the fabric of Robert’s story.
One of the main things we’ve all been taught about the Underground Railroad is that runaway slaves fled to Northern states and Canada to create a better life for themselves and their families. A lesser-known fact: African Americans escaping slavery also fled to Florida, which was Spanish-owned until 1845, when it became a slave state, and to Mexico.
A book I read this past month, “A Fluid Frontier: Slavery, Resistance, and the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River Borderland,” a curated collection of 13 essays written by scholars of both American and Canadian history, uses the term “self-emancipated” African Americans, rather than “fugitive slaves.” I took the term lightly at first, but after giving it a lot more thought, it should be the standard description.
Let’s face it: “Fugitive” is a word used to describe someone running away when they have broken – or have been accused of breaking – the law. Labeling blacks who ran away from the often-deadly oppression of being enslaved in the American South was just another method used by wealthy, powerful white men (and women) to train the minds of other whites into seeing black and brown people as criminals. Because the financial stability and accumulated wealth of slave-holders depended entirely on enslaved labor, any black man or woman not living “contentedly” on the plantation where they belonged must be up to no good. Particularly if they were attempting to live as free people.
How dare they have the audacity to RUN AWAY from the people holding them as slave laborers and presume that they might be equal to whites and deserving of the same liberties provided for Americans in the U.S. Constitution?
How dare they, indeed.
So, in reading “A Fluid Frontier,” I’ve learned that there is so much more to the role Canada played in the story of the Underground Railroad. It wasn’t merely a stop along the way; in thousands of cases, it became home. At least temporarily. Many blacks who had settled in Michigan and northern Indiana and Ohio fled to Canada when slave catchers – mostly from Kentucky – were known to be hunting for them in hopes of kidnapping them and taking them back to the planters who held legal ownership over them.
The Crosswhite family, for example, escaped from a plantation in Hunters Bottom in Carroll County, Kentucky, owned by Francis Giltner. and settled in Marshall, Michigan. They lived there in freedom, added a fifth child, and were protected by others – black and white – who were their neighbors. However, in 1847, Giltner’s son David and grandson, Francis Troutman, formed a posse that eventually found the family in Marshall, and attempted to kidnap the family and bring them back to slavery. With help, the family fled to Canada, where they lived until after the U.S. Civil War ended and it was safe to return.
Owning slaves also was allowed in Canada, which was a British Territory until the 1870s. Until August 1, 1834, when Britain abolished slavery in all of her territories and colonies, people of African descent would flee bondage. American slaves came to Canada via Detroit or Niagara Falls; conversely, Canadian slaves fled to Detroit or Niagara Falls. Seeking freedom, therefore, evolved into a transnational situation. It was a problem faced by slaveholders on both sides – in Canada and the American South.
Karolyn Smardz Frost, a co-editor of “A Fluid Frontier,” writes in her essay, “Forging Transnational Networks to Freedom,” that most Blacks in Canada were enslaved. Some Black Loyalists who fought for the British during the American Revolutionary War were given their freedom for their service; some also were awarded land grants.
Comparatively, though, the numbers in Canada were much smaller. In 1800, of the estimated 480,000 people living in Upper Canada (later known as Canada West and, today, Ontario), only about 700 were of African descent, or about 0.0015 percent. Conversely, the 1800 U.S. census counted 5.3 million residents, of whom nearly 900,000 were enslaved – representing nearly one-fifth of the total population.
As Detroit grew into a bustling U.S. port city – just across the Detroit River from Windsor, Ontario – so did the population of free and self-emancipated blacks, both American and Canadian, Frost says. Black and White abolitionists developed sophisticated transnational networks that funneled as many as 30,000 blacks fleeing the South into Canada by the end of the U.S. Civil War, according to the Library and Archives of Canada. Transnational routes north also were forged in cities on Lake Erie in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, particularly Niagara Falls.
Self-emancipated blacks settled in the cities of Toronto and Windsor, as well as smaller towns such as Sandwich (now part of Windsor), Amherstburg, Malden, Anderdon, and Colchester. By 1861, official estimates put the black population of Essex County, across from Detroit, at nearly 2,400, up from nearly 1,900 just ten years earlier. They built schools, churches, businesses and farms, and were as successful as their free or self-emancipated counterparts in the northern U.S.
In 1843, George DeBaptiste, one of the top officials in the entire Underground Railroad organization, helped Adam and Sarah Crosswhite, and their four young children, cross the Ohio River into Jefferson County, Indiana. The family was transported north to Marshall, Michigan, where they lived in a settlement that included dozens of other black families.
In 1846, when threats on his life made by Kentucky slaveowners made living in Madison, Indiana, too dangerous, DeBaptiste fled north to Detroit, where he continued his UGRR work. While there, DeBaptiste played a crucial role in spiriting the Crosswhites into Canada when the Giltner posse arrived in Marshall in December 1847, attempting to force the family back to slavery.
Fast-forward to 1852. Robert told the Indianapolis Journal reporter that he had travelled to Canada that year from the Canton, Mississippi, plantation, where he lived with his wife, Celia, and their daughters, Lucy and Georgianna. One obituary for Robert, who died in 1882, states he had lived there briefly.
So, why? Why would he go to Canada at all, and why would he have lived there for any period of time?
My gut tells me that he went there to see his mother and brothers, and possibly other relatives, who very likely were living there. It’s also possible that he had earned (or been given) enough money during his year of working on his own account to purchase freedom for his mother, his brothers, or other relatives and transported them to Ontario. He may have stayed there to get them settled and, perhaps, earn more money for the trip back to Mississippi, when he would then bring his wife and daughters north to Madison, Indiana.
As a highly skilled carpenter, Robert Jefferson was allowed to work on his own account for a year by his last master, most likely Thomas C. Catchings. Carpentry work could have taken him anywhere throughout the South, meaning he would have been able to keep track of the whereabouts of his mother, Milley, and the three brothers we know of – Albert, Henry, and Richard, as well as any other children Milley may have borne after she and Robert were sold to Asa Dearing in Georgia.
Also, being well-known as a mulatto son of Thomas Jefferson among whites and blacks, it’s entirely possible he had made contact – and may have even worked with – DeBaptiste and others involved with the UGRR after leaving Mississippi. As I stated before, I believe Robert’s paternity gave him tremendous standing – especially in the black community. It’s very possible he remained involved with the Underground Railroad while living in Indianapolis until the end of the Civil War.
Somehow, Robert was told of Eleutherian College in Jefferson County, Indiana, where his daughters would receive an education. The existing building, now owned and being renovated by Historic Eleutherian College Inc., was built between 1852 and 1856. Is it possible DeBaptiste suggested Robert go there with his family, where he could use his carpentry skills in return for an education for the two daughters? Could he have also worked for and followed well-known Francis Costigan – the architect of numerous landmarks in Madison – to Indianapolis in the mid-1850s?
I’m hoping, sometime late summer or fall, to go to Canada and Detroit to do some serious research that might give me some information that could possibly provide answer at least one of these questions.