The Underground Railroad was a railroad in spirit only. Rather, it was a network of secret routes connecting safe houses that snaked its way from the slave states in the South, through the Free states in the North and on to Canada. While exact numbers are impossible to determine, it has been estimated that by 1850, 100,000 slaves had escaped through the Underground Railroad, with an estimated 30,000 people making their way to Canada. Chatham-Kent was home to three such terminus' of the Underground Railroad; Chatham, Dresden, and North Buxton. In the early 1800's five Black families settled along McGregor's Creek in the tiny town of Chatham, then known as "the Forks". The Village soon became a haven for runaway slaves and by 1850, its population was 1/3 Black. Once in Chatham, the community thrived in business, education, medicine, sport, and literary and cultural arts. News of their success attracted Blacks to the area from across North America.
In 1845, the Dawn Settlement in Dresden, now known as Uncle Tom's Cabin, was founded by Josiah Henson. The settlement grew to include mills and a brickyard, with settlers clearing their land and growing wheat, corn, and tobacco. Locally-grown black walnut lumber was exported to Britain and the United States and at its peak, about 500 people lived at the settlement.
In 1849 the Elgin Settlement, most commonly known as Buxton, was founded. This was the largest Black Settlement, with 9000 acres, and classified as the most successful. This community continued to grow and prosper in the years preceding emancipation. The industries were Black owned and operated. There was a shoe factory, blacksmith, pearl ash, potash factory, grist mill, brick yard, bank and many of the other things necessary for self-sufficiency in a pioneer era. The education was renowned and people were coming to Canada for freedom but coming to Buxton to educate their children. At its peak, there were 2000 Blacks that lived here.
The history of the Chatham-Kent Black community's migration through the Underground Railroad is featured on the Canadian government's Immigration Matters website as a historical example of how Canada is built on migration.
Many of the Black community members in Chatham-Kent today consists of descendants of some of those original families that remained. Three historic sites exist in the communities of Chatham, Dresden, and North Buxton which are dedicated to the Underground Railroad and the people that were instrumental in the success of these communities. Each share the same rich story but share specific stories and interpretations from the sites' history. Some of the descendents of the original families still operate these sites.
The Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society also showcases stories of the Black community throughout the 20th century, including displays and information on the 1934 Chatham Colored All-Stars who were inducted into the Baseball Ontario Hall of Fame in 2018. The Chatham Colored All-Stars website tells the story of the championship year, and includes an interactive timeline and indexed oral history interviews.
Buxton's Next Generation is a local group with the mission to "Engage our youth and preserve our culture." Established in 2003, the group began with a $500 donation from Bonnie and Mike Robbins. Proceeds from that donation went to sponsor entertainment for the first ever "Party in the Park" during their annual Homecoming Celebration. In 2011, the group officially changed its name to Buxton's Next Generation (BNG) and a Board of Directors was established. Monthly events are posted on their Facebook page and website http://www.buxtonsnextgen.com.
Uncle Tom's Cabin Dresden
29251 Uncle Tom's Road, Dresden ON N0P1M0
Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society
177 King St East Chatham Ontario
Buxton National Historic Site & Museum
21975 A D Shadd Rd North Buxton Ont
Buxton Next Generation
21975 A D Shadd Rd North Buxton Ont