The Underground Railroad in Philipsburg Quebec
Story and Photos by Robert J. Galbraith 2009
The old Methodist Church stands on a grassy knoll overlooking highway 133 and the sleepy little village of Philipsburg, Quebec; its New England-styled homes reaching down to the shoreline of Missisquoi Bay. Thousands of motorists thunder by each day, making their way to or from some destination that they can’t seem to reach quite fast enough.
To the few who happen to glance up towards that knoll, the 190-year-old church looks as empty and desolate as some long forgotten Roman relic. But if the walls of this largely abandoned field stone church could only speak, they would reveal tales of unfathomable courage, determination, hope, and a love and sacrifice towards our fellow man that has been rarely been matched in modern or ancient history.
The church sees very few services throughout the year now, mostly from a dwindling congregation and the occasional visit by members of Montreal’s Men’s Black Choir, who still hold dear the link between the church and their ancestors’ quest for freedom and dignity.
But the church’s secrets, largely forgotten and worn away with time, are once again being revealed by a handful of local historians and the families who cling to the accounts of heroism passed down over generations.
“The story has been passed down in the family for generations of how my great grandfather, Joseph St. Laurent was an Underground Railway conductor who brought fugitive slaves up from the American south to Swanton and then to Philipsburg,” explained Alburg, Vermont resident Margaret Theoret, the great granddaughter of St. Laurent (both St. Laurent, in the US, and St Lawrence, in Canada, were used in reference to the same name).
“Peg Leg Joe, as he was known to the locals after losing a leg as a young adult, owned a small farm in Swanton around the 1850’s, but his principle occupation was that of a brick maker. He was contracted to supply finished bricks to Mr. Elinus J. Morrison, a contractor from Manchester, New Hampshire who supervised the construction of a number of houses in the Swanton area,” explained a smiling and effervescent Theoret.
The old Laurent farm backed up to the railway tracks of the Central Vermont Railway line on the east side of town, and the barn up to the line’s freight depot. The brickyard itself was located just north of town on the east shoreline of the Missisquoi River, six kilometres below the Canadian border.
“Joe used to go down to the state of Georgia to obtain special red clay to make his bricks. The clay was redder than other clays and had a high iron content, which weathered much better than ordinary bricks,” says Theoret. “He probably had to visit plantations to learn from the slave workers the proper way to prepare the clay, for it was known that they were the ones best skilled at that.” Peg Leg would then return to Swanton with his consignment of clay or finished bricks using the rail and steamer system.
“His cargo would be left off at the freight depot near his barn, but the family stories tell how he brought north more than just his special red clay. He also brought runaway slaves, which he would hide in his barn,” proclaimed Theoret.
“From the farm, Joe could take his “cargo” by wagon over to his brickyard and then at night he could take them (the slaves) by boat up the Missisquoi River into Dead Creek, a very secluded, vast swampy area. They would emerge at Goose Bay near Highgate, Vermont and continue a short distance more up to the next town on the Bay, Philipsburg, otherwise known as ‘Heaven’ to the escaping slaves.”
Margaret Theoret believes that on the way to Swanton, the slaves were stored in a cavity between the large blocks of bricks, which could allow for a person or persons to go undetected.
Vermont, at the time, was a staunch supporter of the anti-slavery movement where ‘safe houses,’ or ‘stations’ as they were known then, would be available to the fugitives through a huge network of some 5000 abolitionists that resided there. By 1837, Vermont boasted of 89 anti-slavery societies, some right up to the border of Canada. (This state was the first to outlaw slavery in their constitution in 1777).
Peg Leg Joe did not work alone in liberating the slaves. The man he worked for, contractor Elinus J. Morrison had met at least once and possibly on a number of occasions with the great black leader and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave himself, who toured the state in 1843. Douglass is one of the most prominent figures in African-American history who was an author of books, a newspaper publisher, an editor and a friend and confidante of President Abraham Lincoln.
Actual written documentation of the activities of the Underground Railroad is extremely rare, so it is difficult to follow a day-to-day account of the life of a runaway slave. “Abolitionist kept very few records or diaries as they could be the smoking gun (which could have exposed the workings of the networks) should they be discovered. This is why much of the details have been lost or remain hidden away in some family chest waiting to be rediscovered,” explained Theoret.
It is only with the advent of the Internet that researches have really begun to connect the dots of information, bringing the scant documentation together to give a better understanding of the slaves’ plight.
But there is one documented account of escaped Norfolk, Virginia slave, Shadrack Minkins who made his way north to Canada, with the help of abolitionists, and ended up living out his life in Montreal where he worked and raised a family. It was Minkins and other slave expatriates who created Montreal’s (just an hour’s drive north of the Vermont border) first black community, in the middle of the 19th-century.
Minkins escaped from slavery in Norfolk in 1850 and made his way to Boston, Massachusetts, the anti-slavery heart of the United States, where he took on the job as a waiter. It was that same year that Congress enacted the Fugitive Slave Law, which gave Southerners the legal right to apprehend escaped slaves living in Free states such as Massachusetts and Vermont.
He was the first slave in New England to be arrested under this law, but shortly after, on February 14th, 1851 a gathering of black residents raided the courthouse where the runaway was imprisoned and letting him lose, set in motion the journey that would take him on the Underground Railroad to Montreal and freedom.
Six days after being whisked out of Boston on February 20th, Minkins arrived in a snow-bound, mid-winter Montreal. It is unclear how he made his way up, but it is likely that trains would have been the most expedient and safest method, according to the scant notes that are available. On the way, he was being directed, housed, fed, funded and assisted by members of the Underground Railroad.
In Montreal he made a living first as a waiter, then operating restaurants of his own and finally, as a barber. He married an Irish woman named Mary in 1853 or 1854, with whom he had several children, two of whom survived. He and some of the family are buried in a Montreal cemetery. There were a few routes available that he may have taken. He might have taken the train from St Albans, Vermont, across the Champlain Islands to Rouse’s Point and then to St. Jean and Montreal; or from St Albans to Swanton; then by sled or carriage north along the Missisquoi Bay shoreline to Philipsburg, where the First Methodist Church and an established community of former African-American slaves lived. This would have been a short and safe sprint to the Canadian border, 6 kilometres from Swanton.
We do not know the names or origins of the thousands of African-American refugees who arrived in Canada, during those turbulent decades of our history. Minkins would have been one of the forgotten thousands of them if his arrest and dramatic rescue had not made headlines across the continent. But his story of capture, and later of escape, was surely one of the blazing sparks that lit the fire of freedom in the minds of many and sent out the message that no man is to be owned by another man. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 would proclaim that “all people held as slaves…shall be then, thence forward, and forever free…” Slavery everywhere in the United States was outlawed by the post-war (1865) ratification of the 13th Amendment. The 14th Amendment provided for citizenship and equal protection under the law. The 15th Amendment protected all citizens from being discriminated against in voting because of race.
After the Civil War, many of the Blacks in Canada returned home, but in the same breath, many remained in their adopted country and helped to build the nation we are today.
However, for the sleepy little town of Philipsburg, their starring role in the Underground Railroad was not its first in the liberation of the Black peoples of North America. In fact, by 1830 there was a population of over 200 black residents in the community; and they were not part of the Underground Railway of the 1850’s era.
These Blacks were first brought to the area by their United Empire Loyalist owners, after and just before the American Revolution in 1776, when those loyal to the British Crown were exiled or escaped themselves to Canada, to avoid lynching’s and worse persecution by the American Patriots, such as being tarred and feathered for being loyal to the Crown.
The attitude towards slave ownership was frowned upon in British-ruled Canada and most of these 18th-century Blacks were liberated by their owners. These people would form their own community near Philipsburg, and became active members in the building and opening up of the Eastern Township region of Quebec. They worked, lived, drank and celebrated as equals, hand-in-hand with their former owners.
Documentation (in the Ruiter Ledgers; which are in possession of the author and are a day-by-day account of life in the late 18th to early 19th century Philipsburg/St Armand) from this period prove this closeness. In fact, the site of their village, known as ‘Nigger Rock’ is known, though barely, in Canadian lore and history.
Even though this small area of Quebec is so rich in humanitarian history, it is little celebrated or even boasted-of, as the prejudices of the few are still intent on covering up this colourful period of our past. It is only with the perseverance of the sentinels of our past, (the historians and those who demand the truth), who stand strong and un-wavered, that the past can be brought to light; and it is to these relentless individuals, that this article is dedicated.
P.S. If you see inaccuracies in this or other articles on this blog/website, please contact the author.