Black History
of Owen Sound: Version 2

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.

The British government passed an Emancipation Proclamation declaring the abolition of slavery in the 1830s. However, it was not until 1862, that President Abraham Lincoln enacted a similar law abolishing slavery in the United States.

Although the first settlers did not arrive in what would become Owen Sound until 1840, this community would become an important center for African Americans fleeing the shackles of slavery in the United States. Owen Sound would become the northern-most point on the route of the Underground Railway.

Although many African Americans who sought freedom in the Canadian colonies settled close to the border where they had crossed, in places like Chatham and Windsor, others made their way northward into the unsettled regions of the Upper Canadian colony. They made their homes in areas such as Priceville and Rocky Saugeen around the future community of Durham in what would become Grey County, before white settlers had arrived in those areas.  

When this region was opened up for settlement, hundreds of settlers arrived in the area, many of them claiming land that had been already settled by the former slaves. Unfortunately, most of the African Americans did not possess written titles to their land and for that reason, and others, many of them moved northward to the area in and around the new settlement of Sydenham (Owen Sound).

Soon, Owen Sound had a vibrant African American community living within its boundaries and in the rural regions abutting its borders. In the Fourth Entrance to Huronia, Melba Croft writes about a September 1854 report by Reverend L. Kribs in the Canadian Independent, a congregational newspaper, illustrated that there were indeed many former slaves living in this area. “At Owen’s Sound there are a number of Refugees from Slavery who have escaped from the Southern States.  They have asked me to form them into a congregation.”  

The black history of the area tells researchers that African Americans living in this area came, not only from the southern regions of Grey County, but also aboard the ships that called at the port of Owen Sound.

Although many of them made valuable contributions to life in this outpost in the Upper Canadian wilderness, two men, John “Daddy” Hall and Isaiah Chokee are the ones that have been given the most attention by historians.

Isaiah Chokee arrived here around 1842 about The Fly a small vessel owned by W.C Boyd. Chokee served aboard The Fly for a few years. At that time The Fly was the settlement of Owen Sound’s main connection to the outside world. Chokee braved the rough waters of Georgian Bay aboard The Fly bringing valuable supplies to sustain the first citizens of the area.

“Daddy” Hall arrived in Owen Sound from the Rocky Saugeen area north of Durham and became one of Owen Sound’s first citizens and certainly one of its most colourful!  He worked at many jobs, but he was most famous as Owen Sound’s Town Crier!

In 1865, the African American community in Owen Sound built its own church on the west bank of the Sydenham River, a few hundred yards south of the 8th Street bridge. In 1911 the BME Church moved to its present location on 11th Street West in what had previously been Westside Methodist Church.

Celebrations of Emancipation Day began here at least in the 1860s and may have been even earlier. At 2001 Emancipation Day Picnic someone had a prize ribbon from an Emancipation Day Picnic that was held here in the 1860s.

Who Was the First African American in Owen Sound's Black History?

Historian James Barry provides some information which may lead researchers to conclude that Isaiah Chokee holds the honour of first in Owen Sound's black history. The land records (Copy Books) for Grey County at the Grey County Archives show many African Americans (including Isaiah Chokee) owning land here and the various Census Records (1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, and 1901) reveal many others living here, but perhaps not owning their own land. The Census records of that era are somewhat questionable in their accuracy. However, I would believe that the numbers recorded are minimum numbers. Some African Americans were either not counted or were falsely given other nationalities. For example, the Glenelg Census of 1871 has at least one family listed as having Scottish origins when in fact they were African American!

Note of Sources: Barry, there are many different versions of the events as they happened.  This is because very little has been written down over the years. Instead, information has been gathered through looking at newspapers and government records. I have found a lot of information by reading the diaries of people like AM Stephens and pulling information that they have written about people like Isaiah Chokee. As well, the newspapers of the day have some information, but it is sketchy. 

Others have taken their information from the folklore that has transcended the generations.

Each method has value and somewhere in between is the total picture. This is what makes African American history in Canada (and this area in particular) so interesting and attractive to the people who will take part in the Underground Railway Tourism Project. 

A version of this article first appeared in my Owen Sound Sun Times Local History column in 2002.

More Great Information Pages
About Owen Sound

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 in Owen Sound: Who was the First Black Citizen in the community is a cause for debate.

Black History: The Underground Railway is an important part not only in terms of black history, but of the history of southwestern Ontario.

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.

A Curvy Route to Toronto provided a rail connection between Owen Sound and Toronto, the curvy part was thrilling, but beautiful for the passengers and strenuous for the crew.

Billy Bishop: Owen Sound Hero earned national and international fame as a World War One Fighter pilot and used his high profile to aid in the World War Two effort.

John Muir, the legendary naturalist, who promoted the idea of protected nature spaces, spent time in Ontario and I went to help find evidence of his stay in the Owen Sound area.

Black Clawson Kennedy: An Iconic Owen Sound Industry provided income for area residents and economic development for the community for almost 150 years.

Amalgamation In and Around Owen Sound is not an unusual happening. Some form of boundary changes have occurred at many different times over the years.

Canada' First Pharmacy Chain Store: The Owen Sound-based drug store chain of Parker and Cattle is credited with being the first pharmacy chain store enterprise in Canada.

DC Taylor: Owen Sound Entrepreneur was not only progressive businessman, he was also an important contributor to the social and cultural fabric of his community.

Owen Sound Businesses: 1920s were owned and operated by families whose deep roots in the community and their efforts had created the backbone of the community and brought success to the port city.

Owen Sound: Dry Gulch Canada Learn the reason why Owen Sound was the last city in the grasp of the temperance movement.

First Cars in Owen Sound could be purchased for less than $500.00!

The harbour history of Owen Sound is rich with detail of businesses which were located at various wharves.

Hillcrest School Memories a look back at my public school days when Owen Sound's Hillcrest Public School celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1998.

News of War: The 1940s was supposed to provide the world with a respite after the hardship of the 1930s depression. However World War Two brought more adversity.

Owen Sound 1840 Onward! From a clearing in the Georgian Bay wilderness to a booming port city the 1800s were a time of growth and prosperity.

Owen Sound's First Newspaper: The Comet came into existence a mere 10 years after the first settlers braved the wilderness that would become the Grey and Bruce region.

Owen Sound's First Town Council was created to develop the necessary infrastructure for a pioneer community to grow and prosper.

Owen Sound Tavern Bylaw (1857) tried to tackle the issue of monitoring taverns in the Upper Canadian pioneer wilderness.

Owen Sound's 1857 Bylaw: Dog Control illustrated how a pioneer town controlled dogs in the community, sometimes even using harsh measures.

Owen Sound CPR Strike in 1908 immobilized harbour activities in that important Georgian Bay port, the CPR's eastern Great Lakes terminus.

Owen Sound CPR Link began with a bang, suffered a setback, and ended with a whimper.

Owen Sound Entrepreneurs: S.J. Parker & Richard Notter used their wealth and their friendships to built many community-oriented businesses in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Owen Sound 1920 Stories provide an interesting look at the community as it was about to become a city.

Owen Sound 1920s: Optimism abounded in the port city as a new decade began, The town was becoming a city and the economic outlook seemed bright.

Owen Sound Hospital History is one of a community coming together to take care of the medical needs of the entire community.

Owen Sound Softball and Baseball has a Long Tradition From the 1980s Clippers and the Wawanekas to the 1990s Selects, Owen Sound has a been well-represented in these sports.

Owen Sound Stories: On the Attack! Throughout the history of the community, citizens were not afraid to go on the attack to promote the needs of their town.

Owen Sound Street Names honour the individuals who made a contribution to Owen Sound's development. Today the streets are numbered to help visitors find their way.

O.S.C.V.I.: the History of an Owen Sound High School details from the very beginning the establishment of a high school in the community.

Pioneer Story of a Child in 1846 Owen Sound details life in the last wilderness in Upper Canada in the 1840s.

Pioneer Story of a Child in 1846 (Part 2) continues the memories of Elizabeth Byth as she encountered life in the Upper Canada wilderness that became Owen Sound.

Pioneer Theatre was a big hit in Owen Sound and across southern Ontario, where Vaudevillians like Perth Ontario's Marx Brothers played to full houses.

U.S. President Taft Visited Owen Sound Ontario, a Georgian Bay port in a momentous winter of events in 1920 as Owen Sound celebrated its incorporation as a ci

Some Interesting 20th Century Events in Owen Sound: One, in particular featured a mayor acting to avert a major labour-related confrontation.

The 1940's: An Eventful Decade in Owen Sound and Grey County: A war; a surprising political event; sports celebrations and much more.

Wawanekas: Fastball pioneers who were a legendary women's fastball team from Owen Sound who dominated their sport for a decade or more.

Political Corruption in 1852 Owen Sound? Does it seem possible that this could happen in a pioneer community on the Georgian Bay shores? Read on, and decide.

Emily Pankhurst Visits Owen Sound. The well-known suffragette visited Owen Sound and spoke not only about suffrage, but the bolshevik threat. 

Owen Sound Church History: First United Church was in fact the very first church in the Owen Sound community. It was preceded only Rev Neelands a circuit rider.

Lacrosse History in Owen Sound begins in the late nineteenth century and records the numerous championships that have been captured by Owen Sound teams.

Pioneer Ingenuity: Building Lime Kilns was essential for pioneers as without lime they could not build their brick homes.

Boosterism in 1890s Owen Sound targeted promoting economic development in Owen Sound. The port city showcased what it had to offer investors and visitors alike.

A pioneer home was very utilitarian. It served the pioneer family's essential needs, while the work of clearing the land and planting crops took priority.

Pioneer justice might be described as ruthless. But the question remains, did they always get the right man?

CPR Grain Elevator Fire in 1911 in Owen Sound harbour would have a profound impact on that Georgian Bay community.

Reverend Ryerson Visits Owen Sound and despite a great reception from the citizens of the community, he posts a negative newspaper story of the community.

The Leith Golf Course has provided many families with great memories. The history of this golf course starts, and ends, with the generosity of one family

Fenians: A Threat: The threat of an attack by Fenians was very real in Upper Canada in the 1860s and this was especially true in port communities like Owen Sound.

Inglis Falls is not only a beautiful place to enjoy nature, it is also the home of one of Owen Sound's first industries.

An Owen Sound pioneer, A.M. Stephens  provided us with a story about his early years helping to carve out a community in this part of Georgian Bay.

Pioneer industry: William Kennedy William Kennedy's efforts to build an important foundry and machine shop on the banks of Owen Sound's harbour.

Pioneer Resort: King's Royal Park From 1840 meeting to opulent pioneer resort, the citizens of Owen Sound have always worked hard to promote the economic growth and development of their community, and their part of the Georgian Bay shoreline.

Sailing stories: Owen Sound Shipbuilding from the earliest time of settlement busy shipyards dotted the Owen Sound bay where shipbuilding took place, sometimes at a feverish pace.

Spanish Flu Impacted Owen Sound, Ontario causing illness and death throughout the region. But it also illustrated the strength of the community spirit in the area.

Golf Course Review: Stone Tree Golfing at the Stone Tree Golf Club, a golfer can also enjoy sighting American Goldfinches, Purple Martins and the majestic Blue Heron while they pursue their quest to improve their golf game!

Owen Sound Ontario: A Unique Perspective: Book provides a unique and humorous perspective about this Georgian Bay port and hockey hotbed.

Water Quality in Owen Sound has been an issue since the 1840s, two Owen Sound entrepreneurs in the 1870s attempted to rectify the situation.

Owen Sound, located on beautiful Georgian Bay offers a wide variety of entertainment and shopping delights for visitors of all ages. The city and its surrounding area has a rich history, parks and other natural areas for bird watchers, hikers, cross country skiers, etc.


  1. History Articles
  2. Owen Sound
  3. Owen Sound Businesses in the 1920s were the Backbone of the Community
  1. History Articles
  2. Owen Sound
  3. Black History of Owen Sound Version 2