Commemoration, Celebration and Criticism concerning the Public History of the Elgin Settlement

By Raghd Abou Jarboua

In 1849, Reverend William King with the support of the Presbyterian Church established a Black refugee community by the name of the Elgin Settlement, also dubbed the Buxton Settlement, just south of Chatham-Kent, Ontario. The settlement’s objective was to promote “social and moral improvement of the coloured people in Canada”[1].

Rev. William King

In commemorations of the Elgin Settlement’s history, King is often revered for his benevolence. This is partly because research on the Buxton Settlement relies heavily on King’s autobiography (and thereby his bias). However, scholars such as Howard Law and Sharon A. Roger have taken a more critical position when considering King’s contributions. This most recent scholarship challenges our public memory of King—highlighting instead his paternalistic attitude towards Elgin families as well as the measures he imposed to ensure the settlement would meet his standards for “success.”

Throughout the prevailing accounts of the Elgin Settlement’s history, ‘success’ is treated as the Settlement’s ultimate significance. Celebrated as the “most successful planned community for African American refugees in Canada”[2], King’s superlative leadership and determination is credited for the Settlement’s accomplishment.

Success is a primarily relative or subjective metric, therefore determining the success of the Elgin Settlement demands consideration of the preceding Black refugee Settlements in Ontario. King himself cited the Wilberforce Settlement of Lucan, Ontario and the Dawn Settlement of Dresden, Ontario in his research when developing the Elgin Settlement.[3] Ultimately, King concluded the fluctuation of population as the culprit for the demise of Wilberforce and Dawn, blaming the decline of past Black-Canadian Settlements on “migratory nature of this class of people.”[4]

To combat this concern King imposed strict rules for the residents of the Elgin Settlement, and admittedly saw success in maintaining economic and population stability[5]. King’s proposal outlined the necessity for education, church opportunities, and a mission dwelling as the foundation of the Settlement[6]. King founded the Settlement on principles of self-sufficiency and self-reliance—considering self-reliance as a mode of liberation—and thought a Christian education was critical of a self-reliant individual.

Early in Elgin’s development, the Settlement underwent significant progress with the establishment of the Buxton Mission School in 1851. The school offered great opportunities of classical and religious education for its youth and adult residents[7]. In effort to achieve a self-reliant community, King obliged residents’ participation in the religious organizations he instituted as well as imposing rigid rulings for the Settlers[8].

The Buxton Museum briefly addresses these regulations by acknowledging that residents were required to practice sobriety, that the land could not be leased (only purchased), that land was to only be sold to Black individuals, and that King imposed a collection of regulations regarding the construction of each house on Settlement land[9]. To exhort principles of self-reliance and independence King discouraged and barred any charity. Residents were denied any grants of land, financial assistance, and free farming equipment [10].

The Buxton Museum explains that King imposed these rules to maintain the Settlement’s stability and celebrates that “the rules paid off, as Buxton has been hailed the only successful Black settlement in Canada.”[11] While the museum’s hesitance to comment more critically on King’s motives and means of achieving this success is understandable, it is well within Buxton Museum’s mandate to correct misunderstandings about the community’s origins.

The Museum’s primary aim is to (according to their mission statement): “to collect, preserve, exhibit, and interpret historical artifacts related to the Elgin (Buxton) Settlement from its founding in 1849 to the late 19th century.” They also seek to highlight “the personal histories and genealogies of the original settlers and their descendants through on-going historical research.” (Buxton Museum, “Statement of Purpose,” retrieved 10-02-2023,

In my opinion, the museum could acknowledge the original families’ complex relationship with King by including more on the motives that encouraged some settlers to build homes outside but near to Elgin settlement. As Claudine Bonner explores, several families settled on the outskirts of the Settlement to avoid King’s governance while biding near to the community[12]. Drawing greater attention to these stories would allow the museum to emphasize the original families, while also discouraging myths of white saviourism that often accompany retellings of the Elgin Settlement’s founding.

The need for these inclusions is made apparent in recent scholarship. Howard Law proposes a critical argument addressing King’s contradictory efforts to achieve self-reliance and independence of the community[13]. There was an evident demand for economic independence throughout King’s leadership[14]. Reinforced by the no charity regulations and obligation to purchase and reside on plot of land for a minimum of ten years, King prompted all residents to achieve economic independence. But measures of this degree were never exercised in the disciplines of religious nor educational independence of the community, rather King encouraged the Settlement’s benighted dependence on his authority[15].

Reverend William King remains a man defined by his religious convictions and morality. A commemorating plaque, displayed within St. Andrew’s United Church, South Buxton, Ontario, observed King as a National Historical Person and accredited “his religious beliefs and humanitarian ideals”[16] as his inspiration in establishing the Elgin Settlement. Congruent throughout all representations of The Elgin Settlement’s history, King’s incentive, and agency to establish the Elgin Settlement originates from his Christian beliefs and morality.

King declared the moral evils necessary in the institution of Slavery could not exist among Christianity, observing the evils slavery nurtured “bore[d] as heavily on the white families as on the black.”[17] Sharon A. Roger expands King’s white victimization in relation to his Christian ideals, arguing King’s disdain of Slavery did not consider the liberation of the enslaved peoples of America rather King’s concern was limited to the “moral degradation” enveloping white society.[18]

Reverend William King, while residing in Louisiana had a turbulent relationship with Slavery. Prior to the establishment of the Elgin Settlement, King used slave labour, admitting in his autobiography “One could not get a faithful and trustworthy servant unless you bought them.”[19]

The museum’s current interpretation seeks to contextualize King’s relationship with slavery by showing that his views (though despicable by modern standards) were rather progressive at the time. King’s contemporaries believed that the laws and institutions of slavery hindered an individual’s ability to “remain moral”[20], because in the American south hiring a white servant proved impossible. The white community refused to complete ‘slave’ work or chores and it was impermissible to emancipate a slave[21]. This reflex to defend King, without also contextualizing his paternalistic actions towards Buxton, might lead visitors to think that he had “reformed” and abandoned racist ideas after arriving in Canada. In truth, bias and prejudice continued to inform his actions, even as he continued to be rather progressive in his day.

As historian Sharon Roger makes clear, King’s ideals are uniform with the white-supremacy prominent among white abolitionists in this time. His aim was, as Roger writes, “Christianizing, not liberating slaves”[22]. Both William Wilberforce and Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, English Evangelical abolitionists, have been credited as great inspirations to King and echoes of Evangelicalism can be recognized in King’s manifesto.[23]

Conscious that the Evangelical abolitionist has no formal objection to exploitative labour[24], William King’s contributions to the Elgin Settlement never exercised the liberation of enslaved individuals, rather his intentions may be interpreted to proselytize and share Christianity. King’s intended “Moral improvement”[25] of Elgin’s Settlers delineated the Christianization of the community.

In essence, narratives of the Elgin Settlement’s history represent the manner in which public acknowledgements of Black history is often more straightforward in comparison to scholarly accounts. Narratives of the Elgin Settlement’s history center Reverend William King, celebrating his generosity and benevolence at the expense of a more nuanced account of the settlement’s development. The survey of public versus scholarly accounts of the Elgin Settlement’s history illustrates the importance of considering intention and audience when partaking in historical research and considering sources.

The Buxton Museum is a wonderful place to learn about the Black settlers who founded the community and their descendants. It is also a centre of scholarship that supports research that contributes to a growing body of knowledge about these early Upper Canadian Black families. I hope that, as we learn more about the “more complicated King,” that these stories too become a part of the interpretation at Buxton.

Raghd Abou Jarboua is an undergraduate student at the University of Western Ontario.

[1] Buxton Historical Society. “The Elgin Settlement.” Buxton Museum. Buxton National Historic Site and Museum,

[2] Historic Sites and Momentums Board of Canada. “King, Reverend William National Historic Person.” Government of Canada,

[3] Claudine Y. Bonner, “This Tract of Land: North Buxton, Ontario, 1873-1914”, (PhD Thesis., University of Western Ontario, 2010),

[4] Sharon A. Roger, “Slaves no More: A Study of the Buxton Settlement, Upper Canada, 1849-1861”, (PhD Thesis., State University of New York at Buffalo, 1995),

[5] ibid

[6] Buxton Historical Society, “The Elgin Settlement.”

[7] ibid.

[8] ibid

[9] ibid

[10] ibid

[11] ibid

[12] Bonner, “This Tract of Land”

[13] Howard Law, “‘Self-Reliance Is the True Road to Independence: Ideology and the Ex-Slaves in Buxton and Chatham” In A Nation of Immigrants: Women, Workers, and Communities in Canadian History, 1840s-1960s, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), 82-100.

[15] ibid

[16] Historic Sites and Momentums Board of Canada, “King, Reverend William National Historic Person.”

[17] Roger, “Slaves no More”.

[18] ibid

[19] ibid

[20] Buxton Historical Society, “The Elgin Settlement.”

[21] ibid

[22] Roger, “Slaves no More”.

[23] Law, A Nation of Immigrants, 82-100.

[24] ibid

[25] Buxton Historical Society, “The Elgin Settlement.”

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