Buxton Museum and Historic Site

Some classmates and I took a lovely little roadtrip to Buxton, Ontario on Friday to visit the museum there. This was for a class project where some of us are researching the underground railroad.

For those of you who don’t know, Buxton was a settlement for fugitive slaves who escaped into Canada. Thousands of acres were purchased by Rev. William King and divided up into 50 acre parcels to be sold only to black people, specifically, escaped slaves. It had a school, multiple churches, stores, a post office, and eventually a train station and some hotels, and was by most accounts quite a success until the Civil War. After the end of Slavery in the United States, most of the citizens of Buxton left to return to try and reconnect with their families in the states where they had previously been slaves.

At its height, Buxton hosted approximately 2000 people. Now there are only about 125 people left living in the area. One of the current residents was our tour guide, Spencer. He was descended from many prominent families in the area, including the Shadd family (Mary Ann Shadd, the first female newspaper publisher in North America being the most notable of the Shadds). He was the assistant curator of the Buxton museum and was incredibly knowledgeable of the history of the area.

There are four main buildings that make up the Buxton Museum and Historic Site. The main museum building, an old farm house, an old barn, and the original schoolhouse of the Buxton settlement. The museum has a short video which shares the history of Buxton, from William King becoming an anti-slavery activist right up to the 1980s. The museum itself started off with the history of African slavery in the early 1400s and traced the route of the triangle trade or Middle Passage into the Americas. The museum included a “door of no return,” a replica of bunks that slaves would have been held in on slave ships, manacles, an auction block, and instruments of torture used on slaves. From there the museum went into the history of slave resistance, featuring letters and newspaper publications that, for example, posted warnings about when there would be raids

An auction block with manacles and a photograph of a slave's healed back after a vicious lashing.
An auction block with manacles and a photograph of a slave’s healed back after a vicious lashing.

The museum described the history of the Underground Railroad, and artefacts included some original quilted blankets used as signals along the way. There were also many artefacts from the civil war, including some grapeshot (which we all got to hold), rifles and muskets, uniforms, and flags, as well as recruitment flyers. It was illegal for Canadians to fight in the Civil War as Canada/Britain were not involved. Many Canadians went to fight anyways (on both sides) and upon returning to Canada, some received jail time.

Recruitment posters for the Civil War
Recruitment posters for the Civil War


Outside the museum was an old house, the oldest house from the original Buxton settlement that was still standing. It cost almost $200 000 to restore it. It had been inhabited right up into the 1980s, and siding, indoor plumbing, electricity, and other modern comforts had been put in, so much of that had to be removed. Beneath all that, however, all the wood boards were still there. Spencer informed us that approximately 98% of the boards were original to the construction of the house.

The remaining house of the Buxton settlement.
The remaining house of the Buxton settlement.

There were strict rules that had to be followed in the construction of Buxton houses. They had to be at least 18×20 feet and at least 12 feet high with a minimum of 4 rooms and located at least 20 feet from the road with a garden for vegetables. Everyone who purchased land at Buxton was expected to build their own home to these specifications (which were minimums, the houses could be bigger). The house was surprisingly cozy, with many interesting artefacts including a vacuum cleaner from the 1940s, which operated with a hand pump to create suction. Not very efficient but definitely interesting to see!

Behind the house was a barn which housed some other artefacts, but the more interesting building was the schoolhouse, which was built in the 1850s or 60s.

The schoolhouse, restored to how it would have looked in 1912.
The schoolhouse, restored to how it would have looked in 1912.

It was quite a large schoolhouse, and housed at one time up to one hundred students and two teachers. It originally taught grades 1-10 and then by the 1960s (it closed in 1967) was teaching only grades 1-8.

Class photo of the school, pre-1912.
Class photo of the school, pre-1912.
Inside of the schoolhouse.
Inside of the schoolhouse.

The final part of our tour took us through the cemetery, where we saw many familiar names, including some Shadds. Spencer had many interesting stories to share with us, including stories of an outbreak of typhus after the Civil War and the story of the original church burning down, destroying the records of the unmarked graves in the graveyard. Apparently more than once they had gone to bury a body only to discover a body already in the grave.

Overall the trip was very worthwhile, both for research purposes and for personal interest. I would definitely recommend a trip to the Buxton Museum if you ever happen to be out that way!

The four of us in front of the house next to the Buxton Museum.
The four of us in front of the house next to the Buxton Museum.

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