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Dawn and Elgin Settlements



Abolitionists in the United States argued that the freedom seeker’s decision to make the dangerous trek on the Underground Railroad undercut the slaveholder’s argument that Africans were content in their bondage.

And, continued the argument, once in Canada, African Americans who thrived in free and open society would effectively challenge proslavery claims that African Americans were incapable of functioning on their own as responsible citizens.

Nowhere was this symbolism more potently advertised than in the two planned communities -- Dawn and Elgin -- which were established in Canada. Organized and funded by abolitionists and philanthropic groups and individuals, they were set up to assist freedom seekers, many of whom arrived with little more than a set of clothes and exhaustion.

The Dawn and Elgin settlements were organized in the 1840s. Dawn attracted some 500 African American settlers to its 1500 acres situated near Dresden. Its chief attraction, aside from the assistance and comfort of a shared community, was a manual labor school -- the promise of education.

Near Buxton, Elgin became the most successful of the planned communities by 1861, with three schools, two hotels, a general store, and a post office to serve the 300 families who lived on 9000 acres. These communities were home to freedom seekers, but they also took on great importance in the U.S. struggle over slavery.

Guided by religion and education and dedicated to self-help and improvement, the settlements were promoted by abolitionists as proof of African American fitness for freedom.

The communities never became what there promoters hoped. Dawn shut down in the 1850s, while Elgin struggled along for another 20 years. The fate of Dawn, Elgin, or others like them all over North America does little to diminish the life that thousands of African Americans made for themselves in the lands north of slavery.

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