In the spring of 1837, an enslaved African American named Solomon Moseby took his master’s horse and rode away from Kentucky and slavery, to Niagara, where he could be free. Within a few weeks, his new-found freedom was jeopardized. Moseby was thrust into the center of a dispute that mobilized African Canadians in the Niagara area and beyond and raised the question of whether Canada was truly a safe haven for those fleeing from US slavery.
Four years before Moseby’s arrival, Upper Canada passed the Fugitive Offenders Act which allowed anyone in Upper Canada to be extradited for trial if they were accused of committing a serious crime in another country.
In August 1837, Solomon’s former owner, David Castleman, arrived in Niagara with a warrant for Moseby’s arrest and a request for his extradition to stand trial in Kentucky. Castleman swore before a Niagara Justice of the Peace that on14 May 1837, Solomon Moseby had stolen his horse. A warrant was then issued in Niagara for Moseby’s arrest, and he was imprisoned.
For Moseby, this meant that he would be returned into slavery. African Canadians in Niagara feared the wider implications of this situation as many of them had fled slavery themselves. If Moseby was to be returned to the US for trial for his alleged crimes, then any fugitive living in Canada could be falsely accused and extradited. Inhabitants, both Black and White, in the Town and township of Niagara wrote to the Lieutenant Governor requesting that he not sign the extradition papers.
Numbers vary according to source, but between 200 and 400 African Canadians gathered in protest at the jail. (The resident Black population of Niagara at the time was about 400.) It was a peaceful protest, in which women had a leading role. The initial plan was to raise enough money to cover the cost of the horse and to have the charges against Moseby dropped. But, on September 12, the extradition order came in, soon Moseby was to be handed over to the American authorities.
As the wagon with Solomon Moseby left the jail yard, Herbert Holmes, one of the leaders and a local school teacher, grabbed the reins of one of the horses. Another supporter, Jacob Green pushed a fence rail through the wheel to stop the wagon. Then Sheriff McLeod gave the order to fire. Holmes was shot, and Green was stabbed with a bayonet. Both died from their injuries. Two others were badly wounded. In the brawl, Moseby escaped. Many were arrested, but only six Black men and four white were brought to trial. Most of the male rioters were granted their freedom if they served in the militia, which was being raised to put down the Upper Canada Rebellion.
Solomon Moseby no longer felt safe in Canada, so he went to England, but according to a resident of Niagara, he eventually came back and lived with his wife and St. Catharines and Niagara. The Moseby case drew attention to a major flaw in the 1833 Fugitive Offenders Act: extradition could lead to a punishment in another country that exceeded what they would receive in Canada for the same crime. To this day this case has helped establish Canadian extradition and refugee policies that are still used today.