One of the most dramatic protests in the history of the United States resulted from the enslavement of millions of Africans by Southern slaveholders from 1440 to the late 1800s, millions of black Africans were shipped under primitive conditions to the Americas to service the sugar plantation industry. Less than 15 million survived the Middle Passage and because of harsh living conditions and extreme cruelty in their new homeland, many more died from disease and exhaustion. Thus began their quest for freedom – the international clandestine uprising which has come to be known as the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad movement originated in the southern US and wound its way to the less-restricted North and eventually stretched to Canada. Here, as in Mexico and the Caribbean, blacks could live as free citizens.

The most intriguing feature of the Underground Railroad was its seeming lack of formal organization. First established by sympathetic abolitionists – black and white – who hid and guided freedom-seekers as early as the 1500s, it reached its peak between 1780 and 1865. The system succeeded because of the ultimate cooperation and trust among various religious and ethnic groups who moved bondsmen towards the North Star – as Canada came to be known – through a highly secretive network. And though most slaves were denied an education, they successfully developed an elaborate code which guided thousands to freedom in the North.

So cloaked in secrecy was this conduit that very few facts were ever recorded. However, historians believe that over time some 40,000 freedom-seekers made it to Canada via the Underground Railroad. They came here because, in 1793, Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe introduced a precedent-setting bill to prevent the further importation of slaves into Upper Canada (Ontario) as more and more Empire Loyalists – black and white – came north out of loyalty to Britain.

Windsor Essex was a major entry point into Canada. Slaves from the southern U.S. fled to Essex County during the 1840s and the majority settled in Colchester. Large concentrations of black residents also settled in Malden, Anderdon, Maidstone, Amherstburg, and Sandwich. Agents of anti-slavery societies assisted slaves in their escape for freedom. Upon arrival in Amherstburg or Sandwich, they would be outfitted with fresh clothing and provided with rations until they could provide for themselves.

Ultimately a substantial population of free citizens (black and white) established themselves in Upper Canada and were absorbed into the fabric of our nation. Follow our region’s Underground Railroad as it traces the perilous path of 19th Century blacks as they fled to the sanctuary of the north along the silent and secret tracks of the famous Underground Railroad. It is a journey you won’t soon forget.

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