As part of Black History Month, Words in Place is publishing profiles of forgotten figures from local Black History. Today’s profile is of Thomas Elwood Knox, a nineteenth-century settler in what was known as the Queen’s Bush settlement.
The story of Thomas Elwood Knox demonstrates that not all black settlers of the Queen’s Bush had been enslaved. By his own account, Knox was born free in eastern Pennsylvania, but relocated to the Pittsburgh area, probably in the mid-1830s. As he recounts,
“I should not have left the States only that I was not treated with respect. I would go to market with provisions off a farm I rented in New Brighton. When I got into Pittsburg, other farmers would drive in with their teams into the tavern yard, and get their breakfasts and go and sell out, before I could get any thing to eat: so that by the time I would get to market, the best of it would be over. The same thing would run through all the conduct of the whites. In the place where I went, they were opposed to my coming,—but after four years they were grieved to have me come away. But I could not stand it, and left for Canada.”
Knox’s personal treatment was matched at the state level. In 1838 Pennsylvania passed a measure which restricted the franchise to white men. (A Thomas Knox of Arthursville, an area of Pittsburgh, was one of the African American men selected by the community to protest the resolution.) No doubt many feared what other offenses the disenfranchisement of blacks might foreshadow. By contrast, Knox found Ontario almost idyllic following his arrival around 1844: “All are equal here: I have been about here a great deal, but have seen no prejudice at all.” While contemporary accounts do record incidents of prejudice, it is notable that Knox implies they were anomalous.
While Knox did not mention his family in his account, it is possible to begin to flesh out his world. Notably, it seems unlikely that Knox came to Canada alone. Rather, it seems that he came as part of a family unit of Pennsylvania-born African American Quakers. While he notes of the settlement in 1855, “I know of but one, free-born, from Pennsylvania, and that is myself,” it appears he was not counting his family, most of whom had by then settled elsewhere. Four other Pennsylvania-born black Quakers by the name of Knox also resided in Ontario: Charles Knox, who was a resident of Queen’s Bush in 1851, apparently in Thomas’s household; Harmon Knox, a shoemaker who settled in Hamilton, and Mary Ann Knox, who married another Queen’s Bush settler. All four were born within a few years of each other, suggesting they may have been a sibling group. Moreover, Harmon’s son William carried a version of Elwood as his the middle name; Thomas Elwood named one of his daughters Mary Ann; Charles witnessed Mary Ann’s 1847 marriage to Jacob F. Stewart.
Thomas Elwood Knox was understandably proud of what he had achieved in the Queen’s Bush settlement:
“When I came here it was a complete wilderness: I took hold and cleared a farm. I would rather have remained in my native country, among my friends, could I have had such treatment as I felt that I deserved. But that was not to be, and I came into the wilderness.”
Yet the back-breaking labor involved in settling the bush did not necessarily translate into prosperity; he was recorded as being late with a loan repayment. Still, Knox evidently had the respect of others; he was described by a British-born Methodist minister as “colored and responsible.” This is in contrast to Charles Knox, described as “colored & poor. Shiftless.” Harmon preferred to ply his trade as a shoemaker in an urban environment, rather than endure the risks of the bush. In other words, proximity to family did not trump economic opportunity or security.
Queen’s Bush expert Linda Brown-Kubisch treats Thomas E. Knox and Elwood Knox as separate people; Benjamin Drew, who interviewed him, refers to him as “Thomas L. Wood Knox.” Knox married Ruth Kinnear Travis, also of Pennsylvania, and they had at least four children born in Canada: John, Mary Ann, Ruth, and Jacob.
With the close of the United States Civil War (1861-1865) Thomas Elwood Knox, like so many others, returned to the United States, living in Michigan. Harmon did as well, settling in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, where he was active in the founding of the AME church. Mary Ann Knox Stewart remained in the Queen’s Bush area, and is buried in the Peel Township BME Cemetery. Of the four, she was the only one to remain a Quaker.
What Knox and his family show us is that for many Canada was not simply a refuge. Some people came not just as fugitives from slavery, but with the hope of making this nation a home and accessing comparatively better economic, social, and political conditions. However, when those opportunities were not realized they again moved on in search of something better.
Census of Canada (1851, 1861, 1871); United States Census (1840, 1881, 1901); Hutchinson’s Hamilton City Directory, 1862-1863; Sutherland and Co’s Hamilton City Directory, 1866; Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, City Directory, 1888; “Congratulations to Hollidaysburg On Their 100th Anniversary.” Altoona Mirror Newspaper 8 Aug. 1936; Benjamin Drew, The Refugee: or the Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada (1856); Linda Brown-Kubisch, The Queen’s Bush Settlement: Black Pioneers, 1839-1865 (2004); Eric Ledell Smith, “The End of Black Voting Rights in Pennsylvania: African Americans and the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention of 1837-1838.” Pennsylvania History 65. 3, 1998.
Author: Dr. Jennifer Harris, Department of English Language and Literature
Image credit: Ancestry.ca