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Filing Cabinet - Underground Railroad

Dawn Settlement
Dresden, Ontario

Josiah Henson, his wife, Nancy, and their four children began their life in Canada in 1830. Finally, in Canada, they were truly free.

The following information is provided by the Ontario Heritage Trust which now owns and manages the property initially known as the Dawn Settlement:

Henson started his life in Canada working as a farm laborer and a lay preacher in the Waterloo area. In 1834, he moved to Colchester with 12 friends and established a Black settlement on land rented from the government. There, in 1836, Henson met Hiram Wilson, a missionary from the American Anti-Slavery Society who ministered to Black Canadians. Wilson introduced Henson to one of his friends, James Canning Fuller, a Quaker from New York. With financial assistance from Wilson and a silent partner (probably Fuller), Henson purchased 200 acres in Dawn Township to build a self-sufficient community for fugitives from slavery.

The Dawn Settlement, as it was called, centered on the British-American Institute – an all-ages manual school that trained teachers and provided a general education. The school opened in 1842 "to cultivate the entire being, and elicit the fairest and fullest possible development of the physical, intellectual and moral powers," and to provide Black Canadians with the skills they needed to prosper and to disprove the racist beliefs of proponents of slavery who argued that Blacks were incapable of independent living.

The Dawn Settlement grew to include mills and a brickyard. Settlers cleared their land and grew crops – mainly wheat, corn and tobacco – and exported locally grown black walnut lumber to Britain and the United States. At its peak, about 500 people lived at the Dawn Settlement. Henson purchased 200 acres of land adjacent to the community, where his family lived (100 of which he sold back to the Settlement at a discounted price). He preached in the Dawn Settlement's community church and served on the executive committee of the Institute.

The Dawn Settlement developed administrative problems and in 1849 the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society took over its management. After the school closed in 1868, the Dawn Settlement began to fade. Most residents either returned to the United States where slavery had finally been abolished or moved to other communities in Ontario. Josiah and Nancy Henson, however, continued to live in Dawn for the rest of their lives.

Throughout his life, Henson was an important leader for Canada's growing Black community. He led a Black militia unit during the Rebellion of 1837, advocated in support of literacy and education for Blacks, toured parts of the United States and Britain to raise funds to support his activities and helped Black Canadians to join the Union Army to fight against slavery during the American Civil War.

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