Between 1782 and 1803, there were approximately 30 Africans enslaved in Niagara-on-the-Lake and between 500-700 were held in bondage in Upper Canada until slavery was abolished in 1834.
Chloe Cooley was a Black woman enslaved by United Empire Loyalist Sergeant Adam Vrooman — a resident of Queenston, Upper Canada. On 14 March 1793, Vrooman violently bound Cooley in a boat and transported her across the Niagara River to be sold in New York State. Cooley resisted fiercely, causing Vrooman to require the assistance of two other men — his brother Isaac Vrooman and one of the five sons of Loyalist McGregory Van Every.
Peter Martin, a Black Loyalist and fellow veteran of Butler’s Rangers, witnessed Cooley’s struggles and screams and, along with witness William Grisley, reported the incident to Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe and the Executive Council of Upper Canada. Grisley, a white resident of Mississauga Point and employee of Sergeant Vrooman’s, was able to substantiate the account of the events as he was on the boat that transported Cooley, but did not assist in her restraint.
However, this was not the first time Cooley fought against her bondage. She regularly protested her enslavement by behaving in “an unruly manner.” She stole property entrusted to her on Sergeant Vrooman’s behalf, refused to work and engaged in truancy (leaving her master’s property without permission for short periods of time and then returning).
At the time of the Chloe Cooley incident, whispers of abolition and freedom circulated in the Niagara area among slaveholders and enslaved Blacks alike. These rumours pushed Vrooman and other slaveholders to liquidate their slave assets rather than lose money on their investments should the reports prove true. William Grisley further testified that he saw another Black person bound in the same manner as Cooley and made light the fact that other slaveholders planned to sell their slaves in the United States.
Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe and Attorney General John White used the Chloe Cooley incident as a means to introduce legislation to abolish slavery in Upper Canada. On 19 June 1793, John White introduced an abolition bill to the House of Assembly, which he said received “much opposition but little argument” from the politicians who were slaveholders. After going through the legislative process, the government brokered a compromise and passed “An Act to Prevent the further Introduction of Slaves and to limit the Term of Contracts for Servitude” (also known as the Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada). The members of the legislative body were against the outright abolishment of slavery. They agreed to gradual abolition over two or three generations. Simcoe gave the bill Royal Assent on 9 July 1793.
Chloe Cooley’s defiance garnered attention that triggered legislative change. The Act was the first and only piece of legislation to limit enslavement in the British Empire until 1833, when “An Act for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Colonies; for promoting the Industry of the manumitted slaves; and for compensating the Persons hitherto entitled to the Service of such Slaves” (later called the Slavery Abolition Act) abolished enslavement in all British holdings, including Canada, as of 1 August 1834.
*Queens Royal Park and the Niagara River are being used to represent the movement of Chloe Cooley across the River to the united States. The actual events took place closer to Queenston which has been marked by a plaque along the Niagara Parkway.*