Black History: The Underground Railway is an important part not only in terms of black history, but of the history of southwestern Ontario.
Many historians have written about the importance placed on a railway connection by the settlers in early Ontario communities. Researching old newspapers indicates the anger and remorse felt when Collingwood, instead of Owen Sound, was chosen as the northern terminus for a rail line from Toronto. For two decades Owen Sounders continued to lament the lack of a rail connection with the southern areas of what became the province of Ontario.
The period of the late 1840s and 1850s was a time of railway expansion in this part of Ontario. Consequently many historians have written extensively about the importance of a rail connection. However, while steel rails were being laid through the Upper Canadian wilderness another "railway" was transporting people into the same hinterland, often without the need of iron horses or tracks. In fact when this railroad arrived in town there was not any great billowing clouds of smoke and steam from a locomotive, instead it arrived almost unnoticed!
This "phantom" railway came to Owen Sound in the 1850s, or sooner and its passengers made as large a contribution to this community as those who would arrive on the Toronto Grey and Bruce railroad which arrived finally in the 1870s. The riders of the underground railroad were runaway slaves from the United States. Because it operated in opposition to existing laws in the United States it was known as the Underground Railroad. Its passengers lived under the constant threat of capture at any point along their route to freedom. One of the northern most terminals for this "freedom" train was Owen Sound!
Research indicates that many African Americans arrived and made their new life in Owen Sound and the surrounding area. The 1861 census reveals that Owen Sound Ontario's population totalled 2,216 citizens and that 88 were of African American descent. By the 1880s the black community numbered 667.
These numbers suggest that there should be a lot more written about the contributions of blacks in this community. Alas this is not the case. It is only in the past few years that stories pertaining to the community's black history heritage have surfaced.
Some of the information that does exist suggests that the first black citizen in Owen Sound may have been John "Daddy" Hall. He became somewhat of a legend in the community, as he was the town's watchman, town crier and bell-ringer. One writer of regional black history reported that the citizens referred to "Daddy" as a "walking newspaper". Adding to the mystique of Hall was the fact that when he died in 1925 it was thought that he was 118 years old!
Many claim that "Daddy" Hall was probably the first the black citizen in this community. However, I would like to point out that long before the Underground Railroad arrived in Owen Sound there was another man who was probably the first African American to call this community his home. Isaiah Chokee arrived in Owen Sound in either 1841 or 1842 aboard W.C. Boyd's vessel, the "Fly".
Many years earlier Chokee had been captured in Africa and taken to the United States to be sold into slavery. However, fate intervened, and while his friends, neighbours and probably members of his own family were sold he was kept on board a British man-of-war to work. After 12 years at sea he jumped ship in New York and made his way to Toronto where he was hired by Boyd to serve as a cook and deck hand aboard the "Fly".
An early settler to Owen Sound, A.M. Stephens writes in his memoirs of several sailing adventures that he shared with Chokee. However, Chokee disappears from the pages of the memoirs and no further indications of his presence exist to my knowledge. The "Fly" provided a life line for the early settlers of Owen Sound and because Chokee risked his life many times sailing on the "Fly" to bring the necessities of life back to this community.
Information for this article about the Underground Railroad and its role in the black history of Owen Sound came from the local history section in the Owen Sound Library as well as the Fourth Entrance to Huronia by Melba Croft and Georgian Bay; The Sixth Great Lake by James Barry.
A version of this article first appeared in my Local History column in the Owen Sound Sun Times.
For more information about the history of black community, and Owen Sound, please see my book, Owen Sound: The Port City published by Dundurn Press.
Charles Rankin, I Presume: October 7, 1840 marked the meeting of Land Agent John Telfer and surveyor Charles Rankin on the banks of the Sydenham River and the founding of Owen Sound.
Black History: Emancipation Day celebrates the abolition of slavery and it continues to be an annual celebration in many locations that were in some way, or another touched by the impact of slavery.
Black History of Owen Sound: Version 2: There is some debate about the first black citizen in the Owen Sound area. Here is more information for your consideration.
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