Thornton Blackburn

Arriving in Upper Canada: The Promised Land?

Image 5.1 Route from Detroit to Toronto. Esri, 2014 National Geographic Society, i-cubed.

Prisoners in the ‘Promised Land’

After Thornton made it to Upper Canada and was reunited with Ruthie, she changed her name to Lucie in honour of their newfound liberty (Smardz Frost 2007; 193). However, this freedom was short lived. The couple was arrested and jailed in Sandwich, Ontario while a request for their extradition was issued by the Governor of Michigan. Because Thornton and Lucie were out of the Fugitive Slave Act’s jurisdiction, Detroit officials and representatives of Thornton’s former owners argued for the couple’s return by appealing to the Fugitive Offenders Act (Smardz Frost 2007; 194).

Thornton and Lucie had escaped slavery, but their freedom was far from assured. Their arrival in Upper Canada sparked a legal battle in which American and Canadian ideas of freedom and slavery clashed. Upper Canada, often viewed as a ‘Promised Land’ of freedom, had a long history of slavery under French and then British rule. Although Upper Canada had outlawed the practice in 1793, slavery was not formally abolished in the British Empire until 1833.

Image 5.2 Amherstburg, Upper Canada, 1865. lvin D. McCurdy fonds, Archives of Ontario, F 2076-16-6-2-44, I0024850.

In the Eyes of the Law

Although slaves had been recaptured in Upper Canada in the early nineteenth century (Murray, 2002; 198), the province’s official policy was to acknowledge the freedom of escaped slaves. Therefore the governor of Upper Canada, Sir John Colburn, a firm abolitionist (Smardz Frost, 2007; 211), refused to acknowledge proof of legal ownership of the Blackburns and allowed them to settle in Amherstburg.

The Blackburns’ case was the first time the Fugitive Offenders Act had been tested in court. It served as a legal precedent for the extradition of fugitive slaves from Upper Canada in the years to come, influencing how British colonial authorities in Upper and Western Canada responded to American demands concerning escaped slaves for the next three decades (Murray, 2002; 198). The colony continued to receive foreign slaves until the American Civil War began in 1861.


How did Upper Canada’s decision not to criminalize escaped slaves help to facilitate the Underground Railroad as an effective effort to move people to the north?

Instituted in 1833 only a few months before the Blackburns’ arrival, this act formalized the extradition of criminals from foreign countries. Many slaveholders believed that it applied to escaped slaves.

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