Pathways to British North America

Introduction

Rideau Canal Locks at Bytown, n.d.


As we explored in the chapter about local economies and global trade, early-to-mid nineteenth century British North America was a period of intense colonial immigration onto Indigenous lands. Though this wave of migration affected large-scale change, individual stories of arrival into Britain’s North American colonies varied significantly. In this chapter, you will be introduced to three accounts written about arriving in Upper Canada in the 1830s and early-1840s. We have deliberately selected three divergent perspectives.

In the first document, you will read about Josiah Henson the founder of the Dawn Settlement near present-day Dresden Ontario. Born into slavery in late-eighteenth-century Maryland, Henson escaped to freedom across Lake Erie in 1830. Over the 1830s, Henson (a skilled preacher) learned to read and planned for the creation of a settlement set aside for freed slaves. By the early-1840s he, and a number of other supporters, had created the Dawn Settlement and the British-American Institute, a manual labour school focused on equipping the settlement’s youth with skills necessary to engage the colonial society developing around them. In 1849, he penned his autobiography, from which we have included a selection. Some claim that this work formed the basis for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. You can read more about Henson’s life in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

The second document provides a very different perspective on life in the colony. Susanna Moodie’s Roughing it in the Bush is a travel account that provides insight into what it was like for relatively wealthy Britons to arrive in the newly created colony. Moodie was born into a relatively well-established family in Britain with strong ties to Upper Canada; her sister Catharine (Parr Traill) was another prominent author in the colony and her brother (Samuel) an agent for the Canada Company. Moving to British North America with her new husband in 1832, Moodie’s book recounts the early years of the couple’s new life on the north shore of Lake Ontario (around present-day Cobourg). You can read more about Moodie’s life in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

The final document in this chapter traces a similar geographic path as Moodie’s but from a very different class and gender position. Wilson Benson arrived in Upper Canada with significantly less resources than Moodie. A Protestant Irishman, Benson crossed the Atlantic with his wife Jemima Hewitt in 1841 after a number of years moving from job to job. As you will see in the reading, these patterns continued as he adjusted to life in the colony. Initially settling in Brockville, it took Benson well over a decade before he was able to acquire a farm in the bush of what it today known as Grey County. Though he lived nearly ninety years (1821-1911) the autobiography he published in 1876 remains one of the few accounts of his life.

Historical Documents

  1. Josiah Henson, The Life of Josiah Henson, formerly a slave, now an inhabitant of Canada (Boston: Arthur D. Phelps, 1849)
  2. Susanna Moodie, Roughing it in the Bush or Life in Canada, vol. 1, (London: Richard Bently, 1852)
  3. Wilson Benson, The Life and Adventures of Wilson Benson, (Toronto: Hunter, Rose & Co., 1876)