Isaac Riley, born in 1813, was an escaped slave from North Carolina who became the first black land owner in Southwestern Ontario.
He and his wife Catherine, born a slave in Maryland, escaped to Canada, after the birth of their son John. They initially settled in Windsor, Ontario but soon moved to Michigan because Isaac could not find good paying work and did not like the people they met in Windsor. His fear of slave hunters drove him, Catherine and John to St. Catherines where he found work making fifty cents a day. While living in St. Catherines, their sons Jerome and James were born.
A settlement for former slaves that opened in Raleigh Township drew them towards Chatham in Kent County. The family arrived in Buxton in 1849. They camped out in Reverend King’s barn until he arrived. Isaac purchased 100 acres of land at Lot 10 on Concession 11, next to Reverend King’s farm.
Many fugitive slaves came to Buxton and the “Liberty Bell” rang for each new person to arrive safely from slavery. Although many Blacks who were never slaves came to settle in Buxton, so did people who had settled in other areas of the Canadian territories. The majority of people who settled in Buxton wanted their children to receive a good education. John and Jerome Riley grew up to have successful careers, as a minister and doctor, because the excellent education they received in the Mission School prepared them to go on to college.
Isaac and Catherine’s sons were well educated. John attended Knox College (University of Toronto) and became a minister. He relocated to Louisville, Kentucky where he was married and had two sons. Jerome became a doctor and settled in Washington, D.C., where he helped establish Freedmen’s Hospital which became Howard University Hospital. James worked at a hotel in Chicago, Illinois, and daughter Ann Celeste married William Robinson and settled in Chatham.
Isaac and Catherine, with their son William, bought a farm in Nebraska. William married Charlotte Hatter and raised his family in Nebraska. William died in 1892. Son, James eventually joined his family and later died there in 1886. Isaac Riley died in Nebraska in 1882 and Catherine died in 1899. Descendants of the Riley family visit the Buxton museum every year.
Drew, Benjamin The Refugee: narratives of fugitive slaves in Canada, Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2008.