Beneath This Rock

My Uncle Peter Miller settled at St. Armand, Quebec on the Vermont border on Missiisquoi Bay. His daughter Margaret married Samuel Embury and were prominent builders of the Methodist Church at the next town of Philipsburg, Quebec in 1819. Samuel was a circuit rider on the St. Armand circuit. (He would have known whom to trust when “parcels” needed a safe house). My 4th great grandfather, Isaac Gibbs also settled in Brome-Missisquoi and son Abraham was born there in 1806. Along the Vermont border into Canada also were found the Saxes, and George Saxe and Rachel Leroy my 4th great grandparents had my 3rd great grandparent Anna Saxe born in 1806 at Missiisquoi, who married Isaac Gibb’s son Abraham in 1833. So what I am conveying here is that four generations ago my relatives were amongst the Loyalists that had settled the area escaping the ravages of the Revolutionary War by 1784. Some of those Loyalists brought their slaves with them and settled near St. Armand, south of Montreal. There are two stories to be told; those that brought as slaves and treated them as slaves and those that came through the Underground Railway.

Oral history whispers of many black slaves buried in a mass grave. The St. Armand Burying Ground is one of four black cemeteries listed in Canada under a large outcrop of black limestone rock. Between 1628-1833 there were 5000 slaves within the province, working for wealthy French families. Slavery was legal in Canada until abolished in 1834, with the Slavery Abolishment Act. The census of 1851 lists 283 blacks in this area. The place name of the grave site contains the “N” word. Quebec is working on replacing the name to say Slave Rock. Others argue it is part of history and want to formally recognize this historic site with its’ racist name. What will the future of “Nigger Rock” be? How to change the name without erasing history? Canadians can not have amnesia and forget the fact that our nation participated in cross Atlantic Slavery! The boulder below remains with no official recognition.

My relatives at St. Armand and Philipsburg were part of the covert network of abolitionists that helped the enslaved blacks escape north. In the 1860’s these refugees found haven in the homes of the Philipsburg United Church, in caves nearby, and in the homes of the congregation. It was a stop in the Underground Railroad. A plaque at the Old Methodist Church in Philipsburg states this fact.

The Underground Railroad wasn’t underground, nor a railroad. It was a secret and illegal organization that helped fugitive slaves stay out of sight. Railroad language was used to communicate. A safe house was called the station or depot. The owner of the home was the station master. The conductors believed in a cause greater than their own and moved the people statin to station. Stockholders provided money, food and clothing. A load of potatoes meant human cargo hidden in a wagon. A parcel was expected fugitives. Can you imagine making this life changing decision. If you are caught, the unimaginable horrors of torture and your master would never trust you again. A slave was considered property rather than an abused human being.

Under a midnight sky and silent stars, thousands of pre Civil War slaves fled the plantation of the south to find sanctuary in Canada. The runaways were guided by the North Star, told to follow the drinking gourd. Through the woods, walk all night, rest during the day time and arrive at the first station. Hide and be very quiet in the secret passage ways and closets. It would be a long journey of 800 miles, taking six weeks, through Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York, relying on the kindness of strangers.

On a trip, we three sisters stayed at this bed and breakfast, one of the “stations” with a “slave closet”

The closet was tiny and cramped while writing this blog I feel the weight of being quiet, because even if made to a free Northern state you are still owned by a master and the law permits your capture. Law passed Sept. 18, 1850 by US Congress

To discourage slaves from running their masters told them stories of the rivers being 3000 miles wide and that abolitionists were cannibals, “They’ll fatten you up and boil you to eat!”

Many were willing to take the chance. Canada banned the ownership of human beings decades before the U.S. did. It is estimated that 10-60,000 slaves reached sanctuary before the Civil War ended in 1865. A few remained in St. Armand becoming hewers of logs and farm hands. clearing rocks and working the land, finding in Canada a home. Canada offered them security, promises of freedom and opportunity from 1800-1865, when the Civil War ended the practice of slavery.

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