How we misremember Free Black history at the Wilberforce Colony

By Miranda Sagle

Driving through the small town of Lucan, Ontario, one would have no idea that it was once the site of the free-Black settlement known as the Wilberforce Colony.

Free Black people from Ohio established the small settlement in 1829 and by the mid-30’s it boasted a population of between 150-200 families. By the 1850s only a handful of these free Black settlers remained.

One of the only ways the site is commemorated is by a mural downtown that was painted in 2020. It depicts Black refugees coming to Canada through the Underground Railroad. It also features a quote from John Colborne, the governor who sold land to the original settlers of Wilberforce, stating

“We do not know people by their colour… come to us you will be entitled to all the privileges of the rest…”

While it is good that the Wilberforce colony is being recognized, the mural misrepresents the key reasons Wilberforce is worthy of being commemorated. Namely, it takes away from the original goals of those who first started Wilberforce and perpetuates a misleading narrative that Canada was a free and equal society that welcomed them.

Photo by Erin Isaac

These myths, along with the misconception that Wilberforce was a “failure,” come from early histories of the settlement and a lack of documentation. While circumventing these deep-seeded ideas is a slow and difficult process, scholarship and research has begun to reshape both academic and popular interpretations of this long-misunderstood community.

The free-Black people who purchased this land in Upper Canada hoped to create a home for themselves where they could thrive. The settlement grew very quickly and had achieved/partially achieved this by 1832, by which time it was home to many Black families, had high quality schools, a tailor, a blacksmith, and comfortable housing.[1] While the settlement only lasted about 10 years, it created a good home for many settlers both from Cincinnati and elsewhere, a success in what it set out to do. It provided a safe space that most families only left after the Black community outgrew Wilberforce and once more Irish-Catholic settlers entered the area.

Because Wilberforce’s history refutes several stories we like to tell ourselves about Canadian history, the way the colony was formed has been largely misunderstood or misrepresented in our public imagination.

For instance, it may surprise some to learn that the settlement was built by free Black people, not Freedom Seekers escaping enslavement. Although there were race riots in Cincinnati in 1829 that hastened movements to leave, plans for the Wilberforce colony preceded this direct violence by several years.[2] The Wilberforce colonists considered themselves emigrants leaving the USA on their own terms, not refugees escaping American violence for Canadian peace.[3] Their choice to come to Canada had far more to do with where they were able to legally obtain land than the side of the border said land fell. Similar motives encouraged the colony’s settlers to move away, many back to Ohio, in the 1840s.

A great deal of the misrepresentation in early scholarship comes from the focus on the external expectations placed on the settlement.

In 1832, Benjamin Lundy, an American abolitionist who journaled about his travels, visited Wilberforce. After his time there he anticipated it would be the most successful of all of the Black settlements in Upper Canada, and that it would become an important hub for future Black settlers.[4] This expectation would be met by Underground Railroad communities including those around Chatham, St. Catharines, and Windsor, but was not fulfilled in Wilberforce.

Rather than judging Wilberforce on its own terms, scholars expected it to accomplish the same things later or longer-lasting communities did. The settlement has also been judged in comparison to the Elgin settlement in present-day Buxton, ON. Elgin ended up becoming much larger and more “successful” according to white Canadian terms for success (as will be explored in this series’ next post by Raghd Jarboua).  This is not, however, comparing apples to apples and earlier scholars neglected to acknowledge the differences in how these settlements were created or governed.

Another reason the settlement is misrepresented is due to its fast decline. As we learned, many settlers decided to leave Wilberforce after about 10 years. It was no longer sustainable to stay there, mainly because of external forces. A primary reason many chose to leave was that the Canada Company refused to continue to sell land to people of colour in the Wilberforce area in favour of Irish settlers arriving in the late-1830s.[5] Viewed one way, this need to leave could allow the settlement to be constructed as a ‘failure.’

Myself and historians including Nikki Taylor, however, prefer to view the colony as successful because it accomplished what it set out to do, even if only briefly. As Nikki Taylor explains, Wilberforce was meant to be a society focused on self-determination and freedom. It focused on education and creating equality and opportunities for its citizens in terms of career, lifestyle, and even political power.[6] The intention was not to create a large and long-lasting society, and it was more about creating a place where Black people could thrive in life. During its time, it achieved this goal. Many of Wilberforce’s first settlers returned to Cincinnati once anti-Black laws were abolished and the landscape there improved.

A lot of the misinformation about the Wilberforce Colony comes from a lack of primary source material. Physically, there are no remains of the Wilberforce settlement and there is limited information from the archives.

This erasure comes from its reputation as a failure, often perpetuated by racism and a lack of interest in preserving materials about this short-lived Black community. As I mentioned before, the Elgin settlement of the time was seen as much more successful, and in turn is better documented – but something else important to note is that the Elgin settlement was founded and run by a white man, William King. Over time, his work and personal documents about the settlement were seen as worthy of being preserved whereas we have only fragmentary sources about Wilberforce. This fact perpetuates uneven scholarly inquiry into these communities because it takes far less labour to write on subjects when archival materials are readily available.

The most recent effort to commemorate Wilberforce stands in direct contrast to the storyline developed by the 2020 mural. A 1966 plaque from the Ontario Heritage Trust commemorating Wilberforce was updated in April of 2022 to reflect a more accurate history of the settlement.

The original Wilberforce Settlement plaque. Photo by Anonymous,

Most notably, it changed the statement that Wilberforce was founded by fugitive slaves, to stating that it was founded by free Blacks. Additionally, it acknowledges that the colony’s decline stemmed from the Canada Company refusing to sell more land to the Black community. This is a part of a larger project to change previous plaques to reflect a less biased history that centres Black and marginalized experiences that were once excluded.

Photo by Erin Isaac

Overall, the new mural demonstrates that there is a lot of misunderstanding about the original purpose of Wilberforce, particularly in public history.

The choice to use the quote and image is reflective of a general Canadian wish to push the narrative that Canada has historically been more welcoming or anti-racist than America, and also takes away from the efforts of Wilberforce’s first settlers. It implies that Wilberforce was an achievement of Canada or Lucan for being inclusive of people of colour and for rescuing refugees, when in reality it was an achievement of Black people who did everything they could to get to Canada and lead a good life. However, more recent efforts, mainly the 2022 Heritage Ontario plaque, indicate that the scholarly shift towards debunking myths about Wilberforce have begun to seep into public acknowledgement. This is a great step forward, but by no means the end of the road.

Miranda Sagle is an undergraduate student specializing in history at Western University.

1 Benjamin Lundy, “The Diary of Benjamin Lundy, Written During his Journey Through Upper Canada, 1832.” Edited with notes and an introduction by Fred Landon, 7.

[2] Nikki Taylor, “Reconsidering the “Forced” Exodus of 1829: Free Black Emigration from Cincinnati, Ohio to Wilberforce, Canada,” Journal of African American History 87 no. 3 (2002): 291

[3] Taylor, “Reconsidering the “Forced” Exodus of 1829,” 291-292.

[4] Lundy, “The Diary of Benjamin Lundy,” 6-7.

[5] Fred Landon, “Wilberforce, an Experiment in the Colonization of Freed Negroes in Upper Canada.” Transactions of the London and Middlesex Historical Society 2 (1937): 75.

[6] Taylor, “Reconsidering the “Forced” Exodus of 1829,” 294.

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One thought on “How we misremember Free Black history at the Wilberforce Colony

  1. Sylvia Smith

    I appreciated this article very much. What a difference, reading historical accounts from the point of view of the people whose history it is, coming from a place of authenticity from those who are the experts at telling their own stories.

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