November 16, 2012

Abraham Lincoln's Canadian encounters


In 1857, he embarked on a secret mission in the southern states to inform slaves how the Underground Railroad worked. He was known as “the Birdman” because he would tell plantation owners he was an ornithologist studying local birds.

He had many close scrapes with slave owners and bounty hunters as he helped slaves escape north. At one point, he was captured and brought before a judge in Mississippi but spared from execution at the last minute by the sudden appearance of the slave he was accused of helping flee.

Ross returned to Canada around 1859 and practiced medicine as the war south of the border loomed then broke out. He then was summoned to Washington, where word had spread of his exploits as a secretive liberator of slaves. One of his fans was Lincoln ally and Massachusetts abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner (then nearly recovered from a near-fatal beating on the floor of the Senate.)

After a dinner in Ross’s honor, Lincoln asked him to be his spy in Canada, keeping an eye on Confederate activities up north. Ross, who initially believed the president to be too soft on slavery, grew to understand the complexity of his fearful position. The two shared several private conversations, and Ross developed a great admiration for Lincoln.

His secret-agent activities included intercepting a Confederate operative named Mrs. Williams on a train bound for the United States as she carried secret documents and correspondence. He brought the bundle to Lincoln in Washington, and overnight they pored over the documents, some of which hinted at an attack on Union forces in Maine.

Ross sped his way to the area and managed to avert the attack.

The exploits of Ross, as recounted in his memories, are so spectacular they have provoked denunciations by scholars. His later activities in a campaign against smallpox vaccination in Montreal may also have discredited him in the eyes of historians.

Regardless, he may still be one of the few prominent Canadians to have gone face to face with the Great Emancipator.

Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at




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