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TeachNYPL: The Underground Railroad to Canada (Gr. 6-8)


"I left the States for Canada, for rights, freedom, liberty. I came to Buxton [Ontario] to educate my children" —Henry Johnson (pp. 307 A North-side View of Slavery: The Refugee, Or, The Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada)

A group of refugee settlers, of Windsor, Ontario.  Mrs. Anne Mary Jane Hunt, Manfield Smith, Mrs. Lucinda Seymour., Digital ID 497459, New York Public Library
NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID# 1159685 A Group of Refugee Settlers of Windsor, Ontario

The Underground Railroad, since its beginnings, was both a political lightning rod over the 'peculiar institution' of slavery and the subject of intense popular interest. Harriet Beecher Stowe's fictionalized account of slavery and escape, Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), was the second most popular book of its time (second only to the Bible), selling more than 300,000 copies in its first year, and galvanizing support for the abolitionist movement. In more recent times, the Underground Railroad and the flight from slavery has continued to stir and provoke discussion—particularly in the classroom—as the subject of novels like The House of Dies Drear (1968) and the more recent Christopher Paul Curtis novel Elijah of Buxton (2007)—which won the Coretta Scott King Award (2008) and was recognized as a Newbury Honor Book (2008).

However, what were the experiences of escaped slaves once they made it to the 'promised land'? Many narratives of the Underground Railroad end at the border—be it the Canadian border, the Mexican border, or any of the other multiple terminus points of this intangible 'railroad.' Yet more than 40,000 escaped slaves made their home in Upper Canada alone.

To address these questions in a common core-aligned Social Studies unit on Slavery in the United States and the Underground Railroad, we have collected the following texts for students in grades 6-8 to read and examine. These include primary and secondary sources of the era, including first person and secondary accounts, to compare and contrast in a manner that meets Common Core State Standards. 

In particular, this groupings of texts asks: How did the different national laws (British vs. American) concerning slavery before and after the Civil War impact the experiences of escaped slaves in Canada? Was Canada a 'promised land'? This includes the British Abolition Act of 1833 that abolished slavery in British colonies, the US Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Treaty between the United States and Great Britain for the Suppression of the Slave Trade in 1852, and the eventual abolition of slavery in the United States in 1865 with the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment.

Classroom Reading

To start, all students can read the historical fiction novel Elijah of Buxton (2007). Synopsis: In 1859, eleven-year-old Elijah Freeman, the first free-born child in Buxton, Canada, which was a haven for slaves fleeing the American south, uses his wits and skills to try and bring to justice the lying preacher who has stolen money that was to be used to buy a family's freedom. After reading this novel, ask students how they think this novel compares with the real experiences of escaped slaves living in Canada, and how laws at the time impacted events in the book. Lexile 1057L.

Primary Sources

Students can then compare the events described in Elijah of Buxton and Elijah's experiences with primary sources from the period including:

[Seize him! Seize him.], Digital ID 1150352, New York Public LibraryNYPL Digital Collections, Image ID #1150352 'Seize him, Seize him' [1862]

Secondary Sources

As a final step, students can use secondary sources to add context to both Elijah of Buxton and the primary sources that they are examining from the time period.

  • Secondary source map of all underground railroad routes, detailing the multiple terminus points. Questions to consider: why is this map different from the primary source maps above? How did policies surrounding slavery in Canada, Mexico, Cuba, and the Bahamas impact these routes? When was slavery outlawed in the British Commonwealth? What did this mean for British territories? (Map from NYPL Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture)
  • Secondary source, I Came as a Stranger: The Underground Railroad. Written by a sixth generation resident of Buxton, Ontario this title chronicles the history of the Underground Railroad from the Canadian perspective, with an emphasis on Ontario; includes a time line and a listing of historic sites such as Uncle Tom's Cabin in Dresden, Ontario (the former home of Josiah Henson) to Harriet Tubman's Canadian base of operations in St. Catharine's, Ontario. Questions to consider: what does this secondary source tell us about the overall experience of slavery and the underground railroad? How does this information and source compare to the first person primary source narratives from A North-side View of Slavery?
  • Secondary source, Fleeing to Freedom on the Underground Railroad: The Courageous Slaves, Agents, and Conductors by Elaine Landau. An American secondary source that discusses the entire history of slavery in the United States, including vital information on pertinent historical events like the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act; also, includes biographical information on conductors of the underground Railroad. Questions to consider: does this secondary source provide different information on the time period? What information does this source provide that a primary source does not?


I Came as a Stranger 

Common Core State Standards for this Texts and Task Unit: 

R.H.6-8.1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.

RH.6-8.6 Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author's point of view or purpose

RH.6-8.7 Integrate visual information with other information in print and digital texts. 

RH.6-8.9 Analyze the relationship between a primary and secondary source on the same topic. 

WHST.6-8.1 Write arguments focused on discipline-specific content 

Historical Thinking Skills: Students will be able to differeniate between historical facts and historical interpretations 

Want to use these texts in the Classroom? 

All the above texts are compiled in NYPL Classroom Connections Texts & Task Unit - for Common Core Lesson Plans: Slavery and the Underground Railroad Gr. 6-8 (PDF). Texts and Task unit can be used for lesson planning or to supplement and enhance current lessons. Texts and Task Unit includes the materials discussed above, along with information on text complexity, text dependent questions, and a recommended performance task for this unit aligned to Common Core State Standards. 

The Underground Railroad to Canada: Texts & Tasks Unit for Common Core lesson planning


Additional Resources for Further Reading

Feel free to add additional reading suggestions, lesson plans, and other educational resources in the comments below.


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