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Archaeology and Black Heritage at Wilberforce Settlement

For our last post of Black History Month 2021, we are highlighting an upcoming project planned by Dr. Charles Orser, with Western University Anthropology department and Timmins Martelle Heritage Consultants, Inc.  The project, entitled “Landscapes of Freedom: Tangible African Canadian Heritage in Southern Ontario,” is explicitly aimed at identifying and examining Ontario’s Black heritage. 

The pilot project will focus on the Wilberforce Settlement in what is now Lucan, Ontario, Northwest of London, Ontario.  In addition to archaeological excavation, the project will use documentary research, interviews with residents, cartographic research, and other sources that may reveal information about the settlers’ daily lives.

Lucan, Ontario, from Google Maps.

The Wilberforce settlement was founded in 1829 by six free Black families who had left the United States and wanted to live in a society of their own making where they could experience greater social equality and civil rights, away from systemic oppression and violence.  A number of factors contributed to the decline of the settlement by the end of its first decade, including the difficulty of making a life in the area, changing values and concepts of freedom, and internal conflicts. By the 1840s, most settlers had dispersed, and the local area became dominated by Irish immigrants fleeing the Great Famine of 1845-1849.  In some cases, the new settlers even directly occupied the homes left behind by the original Black occupants.

Salome (Quacum) Butler, 1806-1873, one of Wilberforce’s settlers and a major landowner along with her husband, Peter. Read more about her family history here. Image courtesy of Western University Archives.

Short and well-defined occupations are ideal of archaeological investigations of daily life.  This makes the Wilberforce colony an excellent opportunity to investigate the experiences of these early Black settlers. Also, the introduction of Irish immigrants into the area as the Black population was dispersing provides an equally excellent opportunity to compare these two communities and to observe how they interacted.

While the pilot for the project is focused on the Wilberforce settlement, longer term plans involve identifying and investigating sites of Black heritage in Middlesex, Elgin, Oxford, Kent, and Essex counties.  Community engagement is very important, and the project plans include several platforms for disseminating information about the project and its findings, and to encourage discussion and other forms of participation.  The project will provide material for honours projects, theses and dissertations, but will also engage younger public school students and community volunteers.  Work on the Landscapes of Freedom project had been planned for 2020, but like many things, plans were delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

This blog was prepared from materials shared by Dr. Charles Orser. 


mike osterhout

Dr. Orser,
I am also researching Austin Steward and the Wilburforce Colony. I’m not a historian or scholar but an artist who writes. Austin Steward and the “Colored Conventions” led me to the black Osterhouts of Lenox Mass. and C. Osterhout a delegate at the 1840 Albany Convention. The Osterhouts were adopted grandparents who helped raise the Harlem photographer James VanDerZee. The whole thing has occupied me for a few years. Steward’s life and connection to Wilburforce has always fascinated me. Outside of his memoir and scattered odds and ends online I can’t find much primary material on Wilburforce. Could you help in any way directing me to source material. My email is I live in upstate NY. Thanks so much.

Heather Hatch

Hello Mike, please note that Dr. Orser does not monitor this blog. I can pass him along your comment, but I cannot guarantee whether he will reply.

Robin Moore

Can someone tell me the status of the project now? I am always interested in Wilberforce Colony History.

Heather Hatch

Hello Robin – as far as I am aware, things have been delayed for Covid, though there is some research ongoing.

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