Standing Firm for Freedom: Black Women in the Moseby Affair
Black women in the Niagara area played a pivotal role in the Solomon Moseby Affair. In May of 1837, an enslaved African American named Solomon Moseby escaped slavery in Lexington, Kentucky by stealing his enslaver’s horse and riding to Buffalo, New York. He then crossed the Niagara River into Upper Canada and free soil.
He settled in Niagara (today Niagara-on-the-Lake). But his recently acquired freedom was threatened. His former enslaver, David Castleman, arrived in Niagara with three associates. He had a Kentucky-issued warrant for Moseby’s arrest for stealing a horse, a capital crime, and a request for his extradition to Kentucky for trial based on the 1833 Fugitive Offenders Act. Niagara Sheriff, Alexander McLeod, took Moseby into custody and detained him in the Niagara jail (located where Rye Park is today) until he received the decision on the extradition from Lieutenant-Governor Bond Head.
At the behest of Sarah (also known as Sally) Carter, a respected member of the Black community, and local preacher and schoolteacher, Herbert Holmes, Black men and women from the surrounding area immediately took vigil outside the jail to ensure that Moseby was not secretly taken across the border. They were joined by some supportive white residents who also held anti-slavery views. Soldiers were placed on duty to secure the jail. Black and white residents submitted two separate petitions to Bond Head requesting that he not extradite Moseby and even raised £1,000 to compensate Castleman, but to no avail. The women appealed for a peaceful protest, convincing the men not to carry weapons to demonstrate that they did not intend to commit any violence.
On September 12, three weeks after Moseby’s arrest, the government of Upper Canada ordered that Moseby be delivered to United States authorities and his American enslaver. The sheriff called for assistance from soldiers at nearby Fort George to turn Moseby over in Lewiston. The Black women were determined that Moseby would not be returned to slavery and were involved in the dramatic encounter that ensued. Between two and four hundred Black people gathered at the jail to block Moseby’s removal. The Black women present launched a series of tactics to aid in the freeing of Moseby. One group stood on the bridge near the jail, blocking the road and singing hymns as a diversion to help make an escape possible. Some women in the large crowd were armed with all kinds of weapons. One woman had a large stone in her stocking and many other women had stones in their aprons ready to throw at law enforcement. Writer Anna Brownell Jameson described how the women
“…had been most active in the fray throwing themselves fearlessly between the black men and the whites, who, of course, shrank from injuring them. One woman had seized the sheriff, and held him pinioned in her arms; another, on one of the artillery-men presenting his piece, and swearing that he would shoot her if she did not get out of his way, gave him only one glance of unutterable contempt, and with one hand knocking up his piece, and collaring him with the other, held him in such a manner as to prevent his firing.”
In the attempt to free Moseby, when the wagon pulled out of the jail, Holmes was shot, and Jacob Green was stabbed with a bayonet by one of the four soldiers who were transporting Moseby. Both men were killed. During the melee, Moseby was able to escape and was spirited away to safety. He received sanctuary in the Toronto home of Wilson Ruffin Abbott, a free-born Black man until money was raised to send him to England. Moseby returned a few years later to settle in the Niagara area and reunited with his wife.
One of the key figures of this unrest was Sally Carter. From an interview conducted by Jameson, we learn that Sally was a ‘mulatto’ (biracial) woman, approximately 45 years old. She was enslaved in Virginia and escaped at the age of 16, making her way to Niagara. Jameson asked
“[Sally] if she was happy here in Canada? She hesitated a moment, and then replied, on my repeating the question, “Yes - that is, I was happy here - but now - I don’t know - I thought we were safe here - I thought nothing could touch us here, on your British ground, but it seems I was mistaken, and if so, I won’t stay here - I won’t - I won’t! I’ll go find a country where they cannot reach us! I’ll go to the end of the world, I will!”
Sally was interviewed at her home at the corner of Anne and Simcoe Streets. She and her husband Samuel purchased lot 361 in 1838. By 1851, Sally was widowed and in 1855 she was living on part of lot 362, which was owned by William Dickson and was located directly behind the property which the Carters once owned at Anne and Gate Streets.
The involvement of Black women like Sally Carter in the Moseby Affair was instrumental in securing the freedom of Solomon Moseby and a vivid example of the resolve of Black men and women to ensure freedom four years after the abolition of slavery within the British Empire in 1833. The local Black population, with support from some of their white neighbours, mobilized to prevent Moseby’s return to slavery and the Black women involved boldly put their lives on the line for justice and freedom.
"Canada Census, 1851," database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MWTC-QKD: 3 August 2016), Sarah Carter, Niagara, Lincoln County, Canada West (Ontario), Canada; citing p. 125, line 32; Library and Archives Canada film number C_11736, Public Archives, Ontario.
Carnochan, Janet. “A Slave Rescue in Niagara Sixty Years Ago,” Niagara Historical Society No. 2, 1897, http://www.niagarahistorical.museum/media/NHS2CentenialPoemFortNiagaraandSlaveRescue.pdf, accessed 8 May 2019.
Jameson, Anna Brownell. Winter studies and summer rambles in Canada, Vol. II. London: Saunders and Otley, 1838: 41 – 47.
"Ontario Census, 1861," database, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MQ7N-1SM : 5 September 2017), Sarah Carter, Niagara, Lincoln, Ontario, Canada; citing p. 4, line 24; Library and Archives Canada film number C-1049, Public Archives, Toronto; FHL microfilm 2,435,924.
Prince, Bryan. “The Illusion of Safety: Attempts to Extradite Fugitive Slaves from Canada,” in A Fluid Frontier: Slavery, Resistance, and the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River borderland / edited by Karolyn Smardz Frost and Veta Smith Tucker
Solomon Moseby Report, Harriet Tubman Institute.
Shadd, Adrienne. Journey from Tollgate to Parkway: African Canadians in Hamilton. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2010: 97 – 101.