Before the American Civil War (1861-1865), thousands of people who were enslaved in the southern United States ran away to find freedom. Many came to Canada. Some freedom-seekers were helped by Underground Railroad conductors, but many more found their way to Canada without any help, or with only the chance kindness of strangers they found along the way. Not everyone succeeded in reaching freedom. Nobody knows how many people were captured and taken back to slavery, or were killed on their journey.
Enslaved Africans were very valuable to slaveholders. They were not paid for their work. Men, women and children could be bought and sold like property. Often they were terribly punished by whipping, or by having a member of their family sold away. When someone ran away, the slaveholder wanted to find them and bring them back, just as they would have for a runaway horse or cow. Slave catchers were bounty hunters who were paid a reward for capturing escaping enslaved people and returning them to those who legally owned them.
Sometimes, a slaveholder would ask the Canadian government to return a refugee to stand trial in the United States, often falsely accusing them of theft, murder or other crimes to make their extradition more likely. “Extradition” means the formal return of an accused criminal from one country, state or province to the place where the crime had supposedly been committed. The Canadian government usually refused.
In 1837, a slaveholder named David Castleman travelled from Kentucky to Niagara-on-the-Lake in Upper Canada (now Ontario). He went to the sheriff and demanded the arrest of his former slave, Solomon Moseby, for the crime of horse-stealing. That was a very serious offense in the days before there was any other form of transportation available. People accused of horse-stealing had nearly always been extradited to the US, so Moseby was imprisoned and the case was prepared against him.
African Canadians knew that Solomon Moseby would be returned to slavery in Kentucky, whether he was guilty of horse-stealing or not. Both Black and white residents of Niagara wrote petitions to the Lieutenant Governor, Sir Francis Bond Head, saying they believed Castleman was using the theft of his horse as a trick to take Solomon Moseby back to slavery. The African Canadian community had raised $1000 to repay Castleman for the lost horse, far more money than the horse was worth, but he had refused it.
If Solomon Moseby was returned to the US on the accusation of horse-stealing, African Canadians were afraid that other slaveholders might copy Castleman’s trick. Canada would no longer be a safe place for freedom-seekers. More than two hundred Black supporters camped out around the Niagara jail, waiting for the government’s decision. Some of the leaders were women, and they persuaded the men not to bring weapons. For more than two weeks, the peaceful protest continued. Soldiers came to reinforce the sheriff’s men, because he was afraid the crowd would try to rescue Solomon.
When the warrant arrived from Toronto ordering that Moseby be released to the Americans, the Niagara sheriff ordered the crowd to leave. But the people did not move. As Moseby was brought out of the jail, two Black men rushed to rescue him. The soldiers fired, and two protesters were killed. In the confusion, Solomon Moseby escaped.
He no longer felt safe in Canada, so Solomon Moseby travelled to England. Some years later, he returned to Canada, and lived in the Niagara area with his wife.
Solomon Moseby’s case raised an important question that had already been dealt with in an earlier fugitive slave extradition incident: should Canada send an accused person to another country for trial, if the punishment in that country is harsher than Canadian standards would permit? This principle first tested in 1833, and reinforced by the Solomon Moseby case of 1827, influences Canada’s extradition and refugee policies to this day.