Five Weeks Out of Slavery

by Irena Lewycka

Irena Lewycka joined the House of Industry project as a volunteer transcriber in 2018, and recently switched to the role of proof reader. While reviewing the pages of Volume 1, 1855-1859, one entry in January of 1859 caught her attention.

1859 page 249 Case 65 (January 7, 1859)
Ann Jackson. 8 Terauly [Bay] St. Widow. colored. 40 years of age, about five Weeks out of Slavery. M. [Methodist] Ch. 6 children. girl 17. Boy 15. boy 13. girl 11. Boy 5 & Boy 2 years of age, expects to get the elder children into Service. Mr. Hobson recomd. 8 [pounds] Bread Wood & Soup.

As I read this entry, I came to the words “about five weeks out of Slavery” and they stopped me in my tracks. That phrase seemed to encapsulate an entire family saga and I was eager to investigate further. I searched available records in FamilySearch and Ancestry for the name ‘Ann Jackson’ with her calculated birth date, 1819, and was able to identify the aid recipient as Ann Maria Jackson (1820-1880).

Illustration of Ann Maria Jackson and her seven children from William Still’s The Underground Rail Road, page 512

The Harriet Tubman Institute at York University has recorded her story on a section of their website titled Breaking the Chains (see links below), which documents how Ann Maria Jackson and her children escaped from slavery via the Underground Railroad, and how her youngest child Albert Jackson eventually became the first Black letter carrier in Canada.

The family crossed into Canada, briefly stopping in St. Catharines, and a letter was sent, dated November 30, 1858, from Hiram Wilson to William Still in Philadelphia, informing him that the family had arrived safely.

Finding an entry for the Jackson family in the House of Industry minute book mere weeks later seems altogether extraordinary!

William Still wrote an account of his involvement with Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad in 1872, which has been digitized by The Internet Archive.

The underground rail road : a record of facts, authentic narratives, letters, &c., narrating the hardships, hair-breadth escapes, and death struggles of the slaves in their efforts for freedom, as related by themselves and others or witnessed by the author : together with sketches of some of the largest stockholders and most liberal aiders and advisers of the road

Still’s book was re-published in 2019, with an introduction by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Copies are available to borrow from Toronto Public Library.

In the final pages of the 1859 minute book, I discovered another entry for the Jackson family. Ann Maria and her children were settling in to their new life in Toronto, but would require some additional assistance from the House of Industry as they prepared for their second winter in Canada.

1859 page 334 Case 952 (December 20, 1859)
Ann Maria Jackson, No. 88 Edward St. colered. Methodist. 10 Children. 8 in Toronto and two in Toronto Slavery. She has 4 at home, 2 boys 3 and 5. and two girls 9 and 11 years of age, four in Service 2 girls 13 and 18. and 2 boys 14 and 16 years of age. the Visitor thinks her very industrious but she will require some relief.

Ann Maria Jackson’s story also appears in the 2007 award-winning book by Karolyn Smardz Frost, I’ve got a home in Glory Land which relates the story of Thornton and Lucie Blackburn, and Ann is interred in the Blackburn family plot in the Toronto Necropolis.

The City of Toronto named a lane in memory of Albert Jackson in April 2013.

In 2017, an historical plaque was erected about Albert Jackson on Lombard Street (the site of the Toronto General Post Office.)

And in 2019, an Albert Jackson stamp was released by Canada Post.

The transcribed House of Industry minute books are available on The Internet Archive as searchable PDF or plain text (TXT) documents. Just think how many more stories from Toronto’s past are waiting to be explored. If you find an interesting story in the minute books that you would like to add to our blog, please email our Project Coordinator at

Additional links:

York University—Harriet Tubman Institute—Breaking the Chains—links

Breaking the Chains—Toronto

Breaking the Chains—Ann Maria Jackson

Breaking the Chains—Ann Maria Jackson—primary documents

Breaking the Chains—Albert Jackson

Breaking the Chains—Albert Jackson—primary documents

Canadian Encyclopedia—online article

Joshua Wilson of Yorkville (and the Toronto Necropolis)

We are presently working on the records of the Toronto Necropolis in the Cabbagetown neighbourhood where we’ve run across lots of interesting people including a Joshua Wilson of Yorkville who seems to have been 116 when he died of “old age” in 1861. (An understatement, don’t you think?)

Entry in the Toronto Necropolis burial register

While we resist the urge to research most of the names we transcribe—old Joshua deserved a second look. My first thought was a death notice in the newspaper. Surely dying at 116 deserved a note in the Globe. But although the digitized pages for the end of year 1861 were difficult to read, I didn’t find a notice for Joshua Wilson.

Joshua died on December 28, 1861, so I next consulted our Toronto Branch expert on the 1861 census, Pat Jeffs. Using a combination of her annotated transcription, and the images at, Pat located a Joshua with a difficult-to-decipher surname that she had transcribed as “Wisbenon”. The name certainly didn’t look like Wilson, but this Joshua lived in Yorkville and was listed as 115 years old. He was also born in the United States, which matched our Necropolis entry, and was Wesleyan Methodist so burial in a non-sectarian cemetery like the Necropolis was logical.

Joshua “Wisbenon” in the 1861 census of Yorkville

So was Joshua a “Wilson” or some variation of “Wisbenon”? Had the census taker transmogrified the name, or was it the cemetery sexton?

Joshua lived in Yorkville, just outside the boundaries of Toronto in York Township, so the 1851/52 census returns survive. (Those for Toronto do not.) A quick search on located a Joshua WILSON in Yorkville, aged 106, born in the “States” and a Methodist. Clearly the same fellow, and confirmation of the surname Wilson.

Joshua Wilson in the 1851 census of York Township

The 1861 and 1851 census showed Joshua as a widower, living alone in a frame house. Both census returns also identified Joshua as “coloured”. So while we’ve managed to answer some questions about Joshua Wilson, I’m intrigued to know more about the circumstances of this African-American man.

Born in about 1746, nearly certainly into slavery, when and how did Joshua come to Canada? Was it as another man’s property, or as a Loyalist, or as a later refugee? He would have been an elderly man by the time the Underground Railroad was in full swing. In the months before his death, was he aware of the developing conflict that would lead to the US Civil War and the abolition of slavery?

Looking at Joshua Wilson’s life has also pointed out just how important the records of the Toronto Trust Cemeteries are, and why it will be so beneficial to have an index and the digital images available free online.

We’d love your help indexing these records. It can be done from the comfort of your home. All you need is a computer with a high-speed connection, and a little knowledge of Toronto communities. To find out more about the project, explore the pages of this web site. To sign up, please e-mail us at

You can also hear more about the Toronto Trust Cemeteries project at OGS Conference 2010. The “New Toronto Research Tools” session, on Saturday afternoon, will highlight four new online Toronto Branch projects, one of which is the Toronto Trust Cemeteries project, and another is Pat Jeff’s 1861 Census project mentioned above.