The Underground Railroad is a term that is often used to describe the network of secret routes and safe houses in the United States and Canada used to protect runaway slaves from being recaptured by slave catchers.

The Underground Railroad was a network of organized safe houses and routes across the United States that aided fugitive slaves in their escape to freedom in Canada. It was a courageous effort by people of conscience to help runaway slaves who faced harsh laws in the United States. The Underground Railroad was a covert network of people and safe houses that helped runaway slaves escape to Canada.

Not too many people are aware of the underground railroad and the abolitionists that made it possible. The “underground railroad” is the name given to the network of some 300 safe houses, most of them in the Deep South, used by escaped slaves to route them safely north and free them from slavery. Historically the most famous of these safe houses were in Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and the states of the Upper South. But by the early years of the 19th century, the system had expanded into Canada, where it was known as the Underground Railroad.

Detroit Sheriff John M. Wilson rolled his eyes worriedly. Furious mutterings and sounds of commotion can be heard from the balcony of the courtroom. Dozens of black faces stared at the railing.

Before him stood a young couple, well dressed and respectful of Judge Henry Chipman, who occupied the seat of Wayne County on that Saturday morning in 1833. Thornton Blackburn, 21, and his beautiful wife of nine years, Ruthie, are accused of escaping from slavery. Under Michigan law, persons claimed as fugitives had to prove their right to freedom before a judge or justice of the peace. Although no black could testify in his own name against a white prosecutor, the law guaranteed legal protection so that truly free men would not be enslaved. Slavers – ruthless bounty hunters who captured fugitives and returned them to their owners in the South – were known to kidnap free blacks and sell them into slavery. Detroit city attorney Alexander D. Frazier was hired to defend the defendants.

Despite Fraser’s passionate defence, the Blackburns are not doing well. They could not produce certificates of manumission, documents recorded in a local court when a Southern slave was legally freed by his owner. In contrast, the Kentucky attorney hired by the owners of the Blackburns, Benjamin G. Weir, and Talbot Clayton Oldham, the nephew of owner Thornton, who came to Detroit to identify himself, filed signed affidavits stating that the Blackburns were fugitives.

After a difficult escape from Kentucky, the Blackburns lived in Detroit for two years. Ruthie was sold at auction to a Louisville merchant, Virgil McKnight, who was suspected of buying up groups of slaves from Kentucky to sell in Southern markets. The pair made a daring and incredibly dangerous escape in broad daylight. They traveled up the Ohio River by steamboat to Cincinnati, where they arrived on the 4th. July, Independence Day, 1831, free country, whence they departed and settled in Michigan Territory. As a young man, Thornton apprenticed as a stonemason and soon found work. The couple became respected and popular in Detroit’s small black community.

Shortly after the fugitives reached Michigan, a Louisville resident who had come to Detroit recognized Thornton Blackburn on the street. Thomas Rogers knew that Blackburn was Susan Brown’s fugitive slave, but for some inexplicable reason he withheld the information about his discovery for nearly two years. When he finally revealed where the Blackburns were in late May 1833, Judge John Pope asked Oldham, Brown’s brother-in-law, and McKnight Weir, a prominent Louisville lawyer and city councilman, to travel to Detroit and bring their claims against the Blackburns before a Michigan court.

Weir and Judge Oldham’s son, Talbot, arrived in Detroit on the 13th. of June and demanded the return of Thornton and Ruthie Blackburn. Judge Chipman had no choice in the matter. The Federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 requires him to return the unfortunate couple to their rightful owners. Similarly, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which prohibited slavery north and west of the Ohio River, guaranteed that fugitive southerners apprehended in those areas would be returned to their owners. Runaway slaves like the Blackburns received terrible punishments: Flogging, branding and mutilation were known consequences of running away. Then one or both will probably be sold. Thousands of Kentucky slaves, worth less in the cool climate of that border state than in the great markets at the mouth of the Mississippi, were sold over the years to satisfy King Cotton’s endless thirst for labor.

Black Detroit was furious at the idea. When Judge Chipman delivered his fateful verdict and sent the Blackburns back to slavery, the mood turned to evil. Observers in the courtroom that day later said the black men present threatened to set Detroit on fire.

Weir and Oldham booked tickets for themselves and the Blackburns on the steamer Ohio, which was to leave for Buffalo the next day, Sunday. Legally, Detroit’s courts and guardians no longer have any responsibility in this area. But Sheriff Wilson, rightly fearing an increase in racial tensions in the town, made the unprecedented decision to lock the Blackburns up in the town jail. Then he began to persuade Captain Ohio to postpone the departure until Monday afternoon, when most blacks would return to work.

Wilson’s actions exacerbated the anger of the city’s black residents. They thought he was exceeding his duty as sheriff in the interest of the slavers. In addition, rumors circulated that Wilson and the jailer, Lemuel Goodall, had promised Weir $50 for the safe delivery of Thornton and Ruthie Blackburn to the port.

By the early 1830s, the theoretically free area of Michigan was already home to many former slaves. Detroit was an important stop on the route that would soon be called the Underground Railroad. When the judge and sheriff voluntarily turn the Blackburns over to the agents of the slavers, no black man, woman or child in Michigan Territory is safe. The more militant elements of the community immediately armed themselves and took to the streets.

Angry crowds have gathered around the Gratiot Street jail since Saturday night. People came from as far away as Fort Malden in Upper Canada to support us. Sheriff’s Deputy Alexander McArthur later testified:

A large number of negroes and mulattoes, armed with sticks, clubs, knives, pistols, swords, and other illegal weapons, gathered around the said jail, and with vigorous threats declared their determination to free the said prisoner, Thornton Blackburn, who was in the custody of John M. Wilson, sheriff of said county. The sheriff… He tried to talk to her to break it off, but to no avail. They told him that they expected some of them to be killed, but that they were determined to save the prisoner at any cost.

On Saturday evening, after the announcement of the verdict, concerned men and women gathered at the home of respected local businessman Benjamin Willoughby. Willoughby was a freed slave from Kentucky who lived near Thornton’s birthplace. He brought his family to Detroit about 1826, and he and his wife had great influence in the black community.

Also present are several individuals who would later become leaders of the Detroit River Underground Railroad: Madison J. Lightfoot and his wife Tabitha; George and Caroline French; and John Cook, who ran a lucrative barber shop with a predominantly white clientele. Fraser, the white lawyer who defended the Blackburns, and his friend Charles Cleland, the white editor of the Detroit Courier and also a lawyer, were also present. The group devised a daring plan to save the Blackburns while making it clear to the territorial government of Michigan that the return of escaped slaves to slavery would not be tolerated.

The next day, Sunday 16 June, masses of armed blacks flocked to the prison grounds. They also gathered on the stem docks at the foot of Randolph Street, where the Ohio was gently rocking on its jetty. In the afternoon, Tabitha Lightfoot and Caroline French approached Sheriff Wilson. Could you ask Mrs Blackburn to visit her in her cell to pray with her and comfort her before the journey? Wilson, concerned about the possibility of civil unrest, saw in allowing the visit a way to ease tensions and agreed.

It was already dark when two very angry ladies, covering their faces with a veil of tears, left the prison and hurried home. When the jailer entered Ruthie Blackburn’s cell the next morning, he found Caroline French in her place. The publisher of the Detroit Courier newspaper of 19 inst. June wrote: By a ruse, showing that negroes are not without insight, the woman was rescued from jail Sunday night and escaped to Canada, where she now is. It was later revealed that she had been transported across the Detroit on the advice of Fraser, who had visited the Blackburns in their cell and informed them that they were only safe if they went to the British colony of Upper Canada.

When Weir and Talbot Oldham heard of Blackburn’s escape, they approached Judge Chipman about Mrs. French in place of their lawful prisoner. They wanted to sell her into slavery so Ruthie Blackburn’s owner, McKnight, could recoup his losses. Fortunately for French, her husband George and Madison Lightfoot worked at the popular Steamboat Hotel in downtown Detroit. Many members of the bar visited the hotel bar, including Judge Charles Larned, who sympathized with French’s plight. Larned immediately issued a writ of habeas corpus to protect the Frenchwoman and she was released, but she quickly crossed the river and remained in Canada for months after this incident.

At the moment Ruthie Blackburn is safe with friends in Amherstburg, in what is now Ontario, but her husband is still in prison, awaiting his soon return to slavery.

Around 4pm on the same day Ruthie’s escape was discovered, Monday the 17th. In June, Thornton, accompanied by Sheriff Wilson and jailer Goodall, was brought to the jail door in handcuffs. Deputies MacArthur and Oldham are also there. Weir is already on board the Ohio. Only a few black men and women were outside the prison, but they were armed and very agitated.

A story published many years later in the Detroit Daily Post on the 7th. February 1870, published and probably greatly embellished, gives an inspiring picture of what happened when the car arrived to take Thornton to the docks. A crowd of about 200 angry black men marched down Gratiot Street toward the jail. At their head was an old woman with a stick, bound with a white cloth, pointing forward like a spear. The sheriff tried to take the prisoner back to the jail, but Thornton offered to calm the crowd. Oldham, who grew up with his aunt’s former slave, said he thought Blackburn could have more influence than the sheriff. As Thornton stepped forward, a black man in the crowd threw a gun at him and said: Shooting the bad guy, i.e. Wilson, who then tried to take the gun from his prisoner. Thornton fired shots into the air, leading to the events known as the Blackburn Riots of 1833, the first race riots in Detroit history.

Although no one suspected it at the time, the event was carefully orchestrated. Prominent local blacks, such as Lightfoot, Frenchy and Willoughby, stood aside as a group of stout young men prepared to seize Thornton and carry him to a boat on the river. All but one were fugitive slaves themselves, and all were easily identified by Wilson and other officials. The rescuers knew that if they succeeded in saving Thornton, they would never be able to return from the shores of Upper Canada.

Norman McRae, a prominent Detroit historian, wrote the following account of the riot:

Seeing that Blackburn was stranded, members of the crowd attacked Sheriff Wilson, and Lewis Austin dragged Blackburn into a stagecoach that was ready to take Blackburn, his captor, and the sheriff to the dock. Earlier, several women removed a pole from a vehicle to make it inoperable. Blackburn was then held in the wagon until two old negroes, Grace’s father and Polly, who was sleepy, could get him out. So… Blackburn was put in a horse-drawn carriage, which fled into the nearby woods.

Goodall, Oldham and MacArthur retreated to the prison, leaving Wilson alone in the face of the angry crowd. The sheriff fired several shots to stop the violence, but he was thrown to the ground and severely assaulted. Afterwards, Wilson could remember little of the events of that day, and a year later he died from his injuries. Not even the rescuers could be saved unharmed. According to an 1870 retrospective edition of the Detroit Daily Post, published at a time when blacks in Michigan were finally getting the right to vote, a black man named Louis Austin was shot in the chest, with a balloon penetrating his lung and lodging in his shoulder blade….. After two years of suffering, Luis died, attributing his death to the effects of his injury.

The Daily Post also gave the following description of the escape, which revolved around Papa Grace (or Papa Walker, opinions differ). These figures are greatly exaggerated; most modern sources state that only 30 or 40 men participated in the battle.

During the skirmish an old colored man, named Pope Walker, who had been recruited with his wagon and a blind horse, retreated in his wagon to the steps of the jail, and an old colored man, named Sleepy Polly, who had never shown signs of activity, seized Blackburn and dragged him into the wagon.Pope Walker and the crowd, which numbered as many as 400 or 500 people, immediately hurried down the Gratiot road, with the express intention of reaching the river as soon as possible.

The coachman accepted the task with some reluctance, but the negro in the wagon, holding his sword above his head, urged him and his blind horse to a fair speed. The crowd continued to walk along Gratiot Road, and when asked where the fugitive had been taken, they pointed forward and said: Next. But the car went into the woods on the north side of the road, about where Russell Street is now, and disappeared.

The sound of barking dogs alerted Blackburn to the formation of a pursuing group. They found a clever trick to make the dogs lose track. After sending Papa Grace and his car as bait, rescuers broke the chains on Thornton’s legs with an axe and wrapped bandanas around his chains to prevent them from colliding. Together they walked through the forest to the river. They paid the waiting boatman with a gold watch and were taken safely to Sandwich (now part of Windsor) in Upper Canada.

Detroit was chaos. General Palmer witnessed this event as a young man. A great riot broke out; the Presbyterian church bell sounded the alarm, throughout the streets there was a call to arms, and on all sides men appeared with rifles, pistols and swords, Palmer wrote in 1906. Wilson stood bleeding alone on the steps of the jail until MacArthur, Goodall and Oldham came out to let the sheriff in and bandage his wounds. They stayed there until the whole crowd dispersed, around 8 o’clock.

After the riots, many African-American residents of the city were arrested and jailed. Their cases were tried in the mayor’s court. Those who were found not guilty nevertheless had to pay bail to ensure their good behavior, after which they were released. At least 10 men, including an elderly Papa Grace, were sentenced to hard labor and had to work in the city for several months.

Madison Lightfoot and George French, who along with Willoughby were undoubtedly the leaders of the conspiracy, were imprisoned only briefly, although Lightfoot was suspected of having supplied Thornton with a weapon. After his demobilization, French moved to Upper Canada and resided there for several months with his wife; he then returned to Detroit. Neither Willoughby nor Cook were suspected, and their names were never mentioned in the official report of the case. Tabitha Lightfoot was fined $25 as the main perpetrator of the disturbance, a charge she did not contest.

For several weeks Detroit was placed under curfew and a militia commanded by General John Williams, a veteran of the War of 1812, was assigned to patrol the streets. Lewis Kass, former governor of Michigan and military secretary to President Andrew Jackson, was in town at the time of the incident. He declared martial law and called in federal troops from Fort Gratiot to support the militia.

There were all sorts of rumors. It was believed that blacks from Upper Canada (now the province of Ontario) were planning to cross the river en masse and take Detroit. Contemporary letters attest to the fear of the white residents and draw comparisons to the early days of the Michigan Territory, when people feared Indian attack. A night patrol of 16 men was assigned with orders to leave no blacks on the banks of the Detroit. Their only catches were a smuggler illegally trading along the river, and the mayor himself, wandering the streets looking for intruders and being stopped by an overzealous sentry.

Black residents of Detroit have faced a terrible backlash because of the community’s support for Thornton and Ruthie Blackburn. People were attacked in the streets and houses were set on fire. Many blacks sold their possessions for little money or simply gave up what they had and fled across the river to Upper Canada. As a result of the 1833 riots and their aftermath, Detroit lost all but a few of its black residents, and the population did not begin to grow again until after 1837, when Michigan became a state and ratified a constitution that rejected slavery and protected individual freedom.

Immediately following the riots, the Detroit City Council established a citizens’ committee to investigate the events. His report was published in the Detroit Journal and Advertiser on Friday the 19th. July 1833, published and with resolutions reiterating support for the federal Fugitive Slave Act :

We regard individual liberty as a sacred and inalienable right, but when the property of a slave is clearly established by his master, it is our duty to enforce the laws and not to allow a seditious mob to violate them.

The report also acknowledges the role of Canadian authorities:

Resolved: We express our gratitude for the prompt and efficient action of the civil authorities of the province of Upper Canada and of our British neighbors in apprehending and capturing the Negroes involved in the disturbances in this city.

Sackville Street Public School now stands on the site of Blackburn House. (Courtesy of Karolyn Smardz Frost)

How Canada Became the Last Stop on the Underground Railroad

The charge was that the mayor of Detroit had sent a letter to the sheriff of the Western District of Upper Canada, whose administrative headquarters were at Sandwich, requesting the arrest of Thornton Blackburn and his assistants on the grounds that they had incited a riot and had attempted to kill the sheriff of Wayne County. Blackburn and his friends were arrested and taken into custody, Ruthie Blackburn was also taken into custody.

This was followed by the first extradition case between Canada and the United States on the complex issue of escaped slaves. Sir John Colborne, lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, who favored the abolition of slavery, and his attorney general, Robert Simpson Jameson, defended the Blackburns, arguing that even if they were acquitted in Michigan of the charges against them, they would be sentenced to life imprisonment. Under British colonial law, Canada could not extradite persons to a jurisdiction that imposed on them a heavier sentence than they would have received for the same offence in Canada. Thornton and Ruthie Blackburn remained in Ontario, and this landmark decision was a precedent for all future court cases involving fugitive slaves. More than any other incident, the Blackburn affair established Upper Canada as the main terminus of the legendary Underground Railroad.

Originally published in the April 2007 issue of American History. To register, click here.Following the end of the Civil War, the federal government began the process of reuniting the formerly slave-owning states. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 allowed any individual to report another person, or anyone helping that individual, to the authorities. In effect, this was a de facto ban on free blacks from entering the North, for fear that they would run away and be recaptured.. Read more about how did the underground railroad affect canada and let us know what you think.

Frequently Asked Questions

What was the last stop on the Underground Railroad?

The last stop on the Underground Railroad was in Canada.

Why did the Underground Railroad end in Canada?

The Underground Railroad ended in Canada because the United States had a law that made it illegal to help slaves escape.

Did the Underground Railroad end in Canada?

No, the Underground Railroad did not end in Canada.

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