Recognizing the legacy of Chloe Cooley

January 30, 2023
3 minute read

On January 30, 2023, Canada Post issued a new stamp honouring Chloe Cooley, a young Black enslaved woman who lived in Queenston, Upper Canada, in the late 18th century. Her act of resistance on the evening of March 14, 1793, led to legislation that would change the course of enslavement in Canada – and help shape this country’s story.

Not much is known about Cooley, who was one of about 75 people enslaved in the Niagara region at the time. Like most enslaved people, she did not have the opportunity to leave behind an account of her own life.

“As an enslaved person she did not write and leave her own records. And slavery was an institution that sought to remove and rob the personhood and the humanity of those who were enslaved,” says Natasha Henry-Dixon, Assistant Professor of African Canadian History, York University.  “And so how she even shows up in the records that do exist is primarily as the property – the chattel – of those who enslaved her.”

It’s through these accounts and the historical record of the time that Cooley’s story is brought to life.

Upper Canada in Chloe Cooley’s time

Cooley lived in Upper Canada at a time when enslavement was on the rise.

After the American Revolution, Britain pushed for more Americans to settle in British North America, including Upper Canada. To help in this effort, it allowed enslavers to continue to hold Black men, women and children in bondage.

But the resulting increase in enslavement gave momentum to the abolitionist movement that opposed it.

Rumours that enslavement could be abolished started to grow and enslavers became concerned they could lose what was legally considered their property. Some planned to sell their slaves across the border while they still could – including Sergeant Adam Vrooman, who enslaved Cooley.

March 14, 1793

On the evening of March 14, 1793, Vrooman abducted Cooley. He bound her and, with the assistance of two other men, dragged her to the shores of the Niagara River. Known for her defiance, Cooley would not go quietly.

“She was someone who in different ways attempted to challenge her enslavement by Adam Vrooman. It’s noted that she would run away for short periods of time and that she endeavoured to do things that would help to improve her condition even though she was held in bondage,” says Henry-Dixon.

So, when her enslaver abducted her on that March evening, Cooley fought back.

She screamed and yelled for help as she struggled to get free. Her protests were so loud that they drew the attention of people in the area.

But she could not escape. She was overpowered, forced into a small boat and taken across the river to New York State where she was sold.

Although history doesn’t tell us what happened to Cooley after that night, it is not where her story ends.

Eyewitness accounts

There were witnesses to the violent event – including Peter Martin, a free Black Loyalist.

He and another man provided testimony of the event to Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe, who was an avowed abolitionist.

Simcoe attempted to introduce a bill that would abolish enslavement in Upper Canada, but it was rejected.

However, a compromise was reached. On July 9, 1793, almost four months after Chloe Cooley fought so hard on the shores of the Niagara River, the first Act to limit enslavement in Upper Canada was passed. Although she would not benefit from that legislation, it opened a pathway to freedom for others.

The Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada

The Act itself did not free any enslaved people, nor did it prevent their sale. However, it did set the stage for gradual abolition. Specifically, it banned the importation of enslaved people into Upper Canada and ruled that children born to enslaved women after the Act was passed would be freed when they turned 25.

It also created a legal refuge for those fleeing enslavement in other countries, such as the United States. This provision would help pave the way for at least 30,000 freedom-seeking Black Americans to make the dangerous journey north to Canada over the following decades.

In 1833, British Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act. When the Act came into effect the following year, it freed all enslaved people throughout its Empire, including the few who remained enslaved in Upper Canada.

With this stamp, Canada Post recognizes the life and the legacy of Cooley, along with all those who were enslaved in this country until 1833.

“It’s important for us to remember that those who were enslaved were still people, that they had humanity, that they had their personhood. We should see them as more than their condition,” says Henry-Dixon. “And we should continue to improve our recognition of the history of slavery and the way the legacy of it continues to impact people of African descent today.”

New stamp honours the legacy of Chloe Cooley

Available now