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The Settlement of Oklahoma Blacks in Western Canada:

According to the 2001 Canadian census, visible minorities made up almost 4 million of Canada’s total population of 29.6 million people, or well over 10% of the population. In total, 662,210 Canadian residents identified themselves as Blacks.1 This makes Blacks the third-largest of Canada’s visible minorities, after people identifying themselves as Chinese and South Asian. The vast majority of Canada’s Black population now lives in Ontario and Quebec, particularly in the metropolitan Montreal and Toronto areas, but significant populations of Blacks are also found in other provinces including Nova Scotia and Alberta. This reflects the immigration experiences of particular groups of Black settlers.2 According to 2001 census figures, over 31,000 Blacks live in Alberta. Saskatchewan, which also attracted group settlement of Blacks from Oklahoma at the same time as Alberta, has a much smaller Black population in both absolute and relative numbers. Just over 4,000 residents of Saskatchewan identified themselves as Black on the 2001 census.3

John Ware's cabin at Dinosaur ParkAlthough not generally known, Blacks have a long and varied history in western Canada. As several authors have pointed out, there were a number of Black employees of fur trading companies such as Pierre Bungo, who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company in the 1840s and who was mentioned on occasion by George Simpson in his journals. In the 1870s and 1880s, more Blacks found their way into the fur trade, including the somewhat notorious Dan Williams in the Peace River area; Henry Mills, who married into the Blood tribe; and William Bond, a whiskey trader in southern Alberta. The growth of ranching also brought Blacks to the Canadian West. Blacks made up a significant proportion of the workforce trailing cattle north from Texas onto the plains, and many kept on moving north with the ranching frontier. John Ware is undoubtedly the best known of these Black cowboys in western Canada. He arrived in 1882 and his skills with cows and horses ensured he found regular employment until he set himself up as a rancher in his own right first at Millarville and later near Brooks, Alberta. John Ware’s cabin from his Brooks area ranch was later moved to Dinosaur Provincial Park where it has been preserved as a historic structure by the Alberta Parks Service.4 Other individual Blacks also settled in western Canada. For example, Alfred Shadd, a noted educator, doctor, and community leader, settled at Kinistino in 1896 and later practised medicine at Melfort. Shadd was a member of a very prominent Black family that had come to Ontario via the “Underground Railroad” in the 1850s.5

As Howard and Tamara Palmer note, the Blacks who reached what would become Alberta and Saskatchewan prior to 1905 were “few but highly visible.”6 This changed with a significant movement of Blacks from the United States of America to western Canada in the period from 1908 to 1911. Most of these Black settlers came to take up homesteads in Saskatchewan and Alberta, although some chose to remain in cities, especially Edmonton, which had a small but vibrant Black community prior to World War I. When the initial migration of these Black settlers produced a strong nativist and racist backlash,7 particularly in Alberta, the visibility of the Black communities became an issue. Ironically, after 1911 Black settlers were no longer so few in number but they seem consciously to have avoided being too visible.

The story of these Black settlers’ migration from the United States of America to western Canada has been well-studied in a number of books, articles and graduate theses. This literature ranges from local histories of specific communities to academic monographs and scholarly articles and is reviewed in Part Four: Bibliographical Notes.

The available literature makes it clear that the story of this Black migration is rooted in both the social, political and economic circumstances in Oklahoma and other neighbouring states in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and in the concerted efforts of the Canadian government to attract American farmers to homestead in Canada’s “Last Best West.”

Oklahoma was initially established as an “Indian Territory” in the 1820s. In addition to the Aboriginal peoples native to the area, groups of Creek, Choctaw, Cherokee, Chickasaw and Seminole were forced to relocate to Oklahoma from Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and the Carolinas along what came to be known as the “Trail of Tears”. Known collectively as the “Five Civilized Tribes,” many had had been successful farmers and entrepreneurs before being pushed into relocation in Oklahoma, and, like other successful farmers in the southern states at that time, some were slave owners. As a result, Black slaves joined their Aboriginal owners in the Oklahoma Territory. Treatment of these slaves varied considerably among the tribes. The Creeks and Seminoles often married Blacks and the children of these unions became tribal members. The Cherokees and Choctaws opposed abolition of slavery and appear to have maintained a relatively strict policy of segregation.

After the American Civil War, not only was slavery abolished in the Oklahoma Indian Territory, but the federal government passed legislation that defined former slaves as members of the tribes of their former owners. This was not such a major step for the Seminoles and Creeks, but among the Cherokee and Choctaw this was very contentious. In particular, many were concerned that tribal lands would have to be given up to former slaves. In addition, many Blacks moved into the Oklahoma Indian Territory from the 1860s to the 1880s. They were attracted by rumours of possible grants of land—“forty acres and mule”—to former slaves, and the prospect of better conditions. This was part of a much larger population migration by Blacks north and westwards from the old slave-owning states in the aftermath of the Civil War. Together the original Black population and the new arrivals established a number of communities that were often largely, or even exclusively, Black.

Although Black migration to Oklahoma was significant, many more whites moved to the territory in a series of so called “land rushes.” To accommodate these new white settlers the old Oklahoma Indian Territory was divided in 1890. What would become eastern Oklahoma remained ostensibly an Indian Territory, although in most areas members of the “Five Civilized Tribes” had become a minority. To the west, a new Oklahoma Territory was created as a separate political entity. Throughout the 1890s and into the early 1900s a number of initiatives were begun to try to secure full statehood for the two territories.

In the political manoeuvring leading up to the reuniting of the Oklahoma and Indian Territories as part of the creation of a new state to be called Oklahoma, many political and racial tensions were released. Most Blacks supported the Republican Party as the party of Abraham Lincoln, so white Democrats tried to limit the right of Blacks to participate in political activities. There was also a strong racial component to this discrimination directed at both Blacks and Indians. In a number of communities Black residents were pressured into leaving by local whites, segregated schools were entrenched, and Blacks also faced increased discrimination in the workforce. In response, Blacks sometimes made common cause with Indian groups, but many Black community and political leaders argued that a form of self-segregation was the best way to ensure social and economic security and preserve some political influence. As a result, more all Black communities and districts were created and some tried to argue that an all-Black state should be created.

It was in the midst of this poisoned political situation that Oklahoma became a state in 1907. Although the initial Congressional legislation passed to create the new state proposed that there should be “no distinction in civil or political rights on account of race or color,” it did allow for segregated schools and the election of the first state government produced a huge majority in the legislature for the Democrats. In rapid order the new state governor and legislature began to introduce clearly discriminatory legislation aimed at entrenching segregation and limiting Black civil and political rights. A wave of racial violence, including riots, lynchings, arson, and beatings, paralleled the imposition of discriminatory “Jim Crow” laws. Not surprisingly, many Blacks in the newly created state of Oklahoma began to think that moving somewhere new was preferable to remaining in such a volatile and disturbing situation. Schemes to encourage emigration to Liberia were proposed, and some Black Oklahomans began to take an interest in the prospect of resettling far to the north in Canada.8

Black interest in the possibility of taking up land in Canada was an unintended consequence of the Canadian government’s campaign to attract American settlers to homestead in western Canada. Ever since 1870, the Canadian government and large private land interests such as the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Hudson’s Bay Company eagerly promoted the virtues of land in western Canada, but with limited success until the 1890s. As available land in the United States diminished, the appeal of Canadian land rose. By the early 1900s the campaigns promoting western Canada as the “Last Best West” began to have considerable success in the United States. Canada offered a number of advantages to prospective settlers ranging from relatively attractive homestead terms and to an opportunity to settle in large groups—the so-called “bloc settlements.”

The Canadian government and other land interests concentrated their American recruiting efforts in areas like Oklahoma where demand for land outstripped supply and where residents had previous farming—and often homesteading—experience. Local agents placed much of the advertising of Canada’s “Last Best West” in community newspapers, but without making a concerted effort to ensure these newspapers served the communities the government was particularly targeting for potential homesteaders. These newspapers also regularly printed “boilerplate” material: promotional articles and other material that appeared as news items. Articles extolling the climate, resources, and prospects of western Canada were part of this flood of boilerplate journalism. In Oklahoma, this meant that some of this material appeared in Black-owned and operated newspapers or in newspapers read by primarily Black audiences in the early 1900s. Inadvertently, Canadian promoters were reaching a completely unintended audience.

Initially few Blacks seem to have turned their attention northwards, but by 1908 a number of individuals and small groups began to arrive in western Canada.9 Tony Payne settled in Wildwood, Alberta in 1908 and was soon followed by 20 other Black families from Oklahoma. Similarly Anderson Harper took up a homestead north of Maidstone, Saskatchewan in 1908, an act that laid the basis for the Black farming community that would also develop there. More Black homesteaders arrived in 1909 and 1910, particularly after Oklahoma enacted legislation in 1910 that barred anyone unable to read or write from voting, unless they could show that their grandfathers had had the right to vote prior to 1861. This meant in effect that illiterate whites could vote, while Blacks could not. It also empowered local officials to bar Blacks from voting by simply claiming that they were illiterate and thus ineligible—whether this claim was true or not. Faced with this blatant discrimination, even more Blacks decided to leave Oklahoma, and 1911 saw the arrival in Canada of larger groups of settlers. It was widely reported that several large parties of Black families were preparing to leave Oklahoma for western Canada: in one case a group of about 90 families and in another 1000 families or 7000 people. In reality, nothing like these numbers of people actually emigrated to Canada. Although actual numbers were never accurately recorded, most historians estimate that between 1000 and 1500 Black settlers took up land in western Canada between 1908 and 1911.10

Whether this growing migration of Black settlers would have continued or not can never be determined. What is known is that the arrival of a thousand or more Blacks in western Canada prompted a sharp reaction from residents of western Canada, newspapers and community organizations, and ultimately the government of Canada against this particular strain of American settler.


1 For the purposes of this report the term “Black” will be used in preference to other possible ethnonyms such as Afro-American or Afro-Canadian. The term “Black” is used by Statistics Canada and has wide use within both the scholarly literature and among community groups, as for example in the annual “Black History Month” celebrations. This identifier does raise issues, however. Canada’s Black population is very diverse and comes from multiple backgrounds, ranging from Black Loyalists and escaped American slaves to more recent immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean. A good general survey of the history of the many Black communities in Canada can be found in Robin Winks, The Blacks in Canada (New Haven: Princeton University Press, 1971). A less detailed overview can be found in Colin Thompson, Blacks in Deep Snow Black Pioneers in Canada (Don Mills: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1979).

2 The Black population in Canada is a product of several very distinct immigration movements. Small numbers of slaves were taken to New France, and there were significant numbers of Black Loyalists who settled in British North America after 1783. Between 1815 and 1861, Upper Canada, in particular, became a haven for some fugitive slaves from the United States, and a small community of American Blacks was established on Vancouver Island in 1858. In the post Civil War period, a number of additional migrations of Blacks from the United States took place, including the creation of several settlements of Blacks from Oklahoma in the Canadian West. After World War II, changes in immigration policy led to a growing Black population based on immigration from the Caribbean and Africa. As result, although census records list Blacks as a single group, Canadian Blacks are a very diverse group ranging from families with ties to Canada dating back hundreds of years to very recent immigrants. Together they represent multiple cultural and historical traditions.

3 Recent Canadian census figures for visible minorities, including Blacks, are available at www.statcan.ca/english/Pgdb/demo40a.htm. Specific figures for Saskatchewan and Alberta are available at www.statcan.ca/english/Pgdb/demo40b.htm and www.statcan.ca/english/Pgdb/demo40c.htm respectively.

4 A good quick survey of early Black settlement in western Canada can be found in Howard and Tamara Palmer, “The Black Experience in Alberta” pp. 367-69. John Ware has been the subject of several articles and a full biography by Grant MacEwan, John Ware’s Cow Country (Edmonton: Institute of Applied Art, 1960).

5 Shadd’s career is summarized in Thomson, Blacks in Deep Snow in Canada, pp. 44-59.

6 According to the 1901 census, for example, there were twenty-seven Blacks living in the Northwest Territories in the area that would later become Alberta. See Palmer and Palmer, “Black Experience,” p.368. Thomson also addresses this point, noting that Alfred Shadd lived in an otherwise entirely white (and Aboriginal) community. “His colour presented little problem because he was one person. Had there been a thousand Shadds in the district would the situation have been different?”

7Thomson, Blacks in Deep Snow, p. 59.
The term “nativist “ is usually used to mean an “amalgam of ethnic prejudice and nationalism.” It is usually tied to some sort of “racial” or “racist” views, but nativism can be distinct from racism because it is not always directed at distinctive racial minorities. It is usually manifested as an “intense opposition to an internal minority on the ground of its foreign…connection.” The response to Black immigration to western Canada exhibits elements of both classic racism and a more generalized nativism. See Howard Palmer, Patterns of Prejudice a History of Nativism in Alberta(Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1982) esp. pp. 6-8.

8 The Oklahoma background to Black emigration to western Canada is discussed in some detail in the opening chapters of R. Bruce Shepard, Deemed Unsuitable.

9 Some of the earliest plans to settle Blacks from the United States in Canada are outlined in Harold Martin Troper, Only Farmers Need Apply Official Canadian Government Encouragement of Immigration from the United States, 1896-1911 (Toronto: Griffin House, 1972) pp. 124-30. As Troper makes clear, immigration from Oklahoma was part of a larger pattern of Black interest in emigration from the southern United States in the last years of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth century.

10 Shepard, Deemed Unsuitable, p.65: Palmer and Palmer, “The Black Experience,” p. 369.

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