Canada Immigration from the US (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Canadian:Immigration Records  by Patricia McGregor, PLCGS. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Arrivals from Other Parts of North America

Travels back and forth across the Canadian-U.S. border have been going on since long before there was an actual border. In fact, the Native Americans’ hunting grounds and trade routes included territory in both countries. Even once the two countries were developing, the dividing line was not one they recognized.

This was the time also when those loyal to the British crown moved from the Thirteen Colonies into British controlled territory. The most common routes were from New York City to Halifax, through the 13 Colonies up towards Montreal via the Eastern Townships of Quebec and through western New York to the Niagara River. As mentioned in the section on the Loyalists, many Blacks came as well.

The following is an account of the route from Quebec into south-western Upper Canada in 1819:

“Emigrants intending to proceed to Upper Canada, take their departure from Montreal to La Chine, a distance of 9 miles: from thence they go to Prescot in boats, 111 miles: from thence there is a steam-boat to Kingston, where there are other steam-boats proceeding to York, the capital and seat of government for the Upper Province. After landing passengers, the boat proceeds to Queenstown, on the Niagara frontier. Between Queenstown and Lake Erie, there is a portage of 18 miles.” (Lamond 1978, 109)

The Underground Railroad

In 1793 an act was passed in Upper Canada to prevent the introduction of slaves into the province. It was the first British possession to legislate against slavery. After the turn of the century some 30-40,000 fugitives from the slave system made their way north via the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad was not about trains, rather it was “an extensive network of up to 3,000 dedicated men and women who used railroad terminology to disguise their liberation efforts.” (Riendeau 1984, 10)

The influx of former slaves along with the many Black Loyalist settlers stimulated the growth of Black communities particularly in Essex and Kent Counties of Ontario. Amherstburg in Essex County was regarded as the principal terminal of the Underground Railroad because of its location at the narrowest part of the Detroit River. Other terminals included Windsor and St. Catharines. The largest centre of Black population in Ontario was Chatham in Kent County. While some Blacks returned to the United States after the Civil War ended, many more who had established roots in the area decided to stay.

“Moving to Canada via the Underground Railroad was a traumatic experience for the Black refugees and certainly a stern test of their courage and determination. They had to endure the sorrow of leaving friends and relatives behind, the danger of night-time escapes through swamps and forests, and the uncertainty of having to start a new life with no worldly possessions in a distant and unknown land.” (Riendeau 1984, 11)

Because this was a secret network it’s easy to understand why few records exist. There were no free land grants awaiting these fugitives. Assistance to fugitive slaves was voluntary and secret—assistance was offered through word of mouth and not administered through detailed record keeping. Some former slaves later wrote accounts of their experiences and two newspapers were established in Ontario that served the Black communities:

  • Voice of the Fugitive, established in Sandwich in 1851
  • Provincial Freeman, established in Windsor in 1853

Library and Archives Canada has microfilm copies of issues of Voice of the Fugitive from the years 1851-1852. Two small articles from the newspaper are included to give you a sense of the type of information you might find.

Voice of the Fugitive Articles

Just From Slavery. Voice of the Fugitive. 12 Feb 1851, Page 2, Column 2, Library and Archives Canada. Microfilm N-9538.

Voice of the Fugitive Articles, Library and Archives, Canada.jpg
Slavery in Michigan. Voice of the Fugitive. 1 Jan 1851 Page 3, Column 1, Library and Archives Canada. Microfilm N-9538
Slavery in Michigan, Library and Archives, Canada.jpg

Sources for More Information

You can learn more about the Underground Railroad at the AfriGeneas website which includes many other links.

The Olive Tree Genealogy website contains information on blacks in Ontario. After accessing the page at the following link, click on “Blacks in Ontario”:

The following articles and books are also recommended:

A Proud Past, a Promising Future: Ontario Black History Society by Grace Lawrence in OGS Seminar Annual 1987.

The Black Image in Nineteenth-Century Ontario by Allan P. Stouffer in Ontario History, vol. 76 (1984).

Upper Canada’s Black Defenders by Ernest Green in Ontario History, vol. 27 (1931).

The Search for Mary Bibb, Black Woman Teacher in Nineteenth-Century Canada West by Afua Cooper in Ontario History, vol. 83 (1991).

The Blacks in Canada: A History by Robin Winks.

An Enduring Heritage: Black Contributions to Early Ontario by Roger Riendeau.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Canadian: Immigration Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.