The house is elegant in its simplicity. Its weathered clapboards are surprisingly sound in a building more than 180 years old. Two windows on the home’s front face look like eyes in a darkened face.
Inside: only four rooms; two upstairs two down. One fireplace did double duty—heat on those bitter-cold Ontario winter days and providing fire to cook the food. Game most likely—deer, rabbits and grouse were abundant in the forests that surrounded the homestead.
Griffin House is our thirteenth and last visit to the Hamilton area National Historic Sites. Its homeliness belies a rich story—one that began in slave-owning Virginia around 1829.
Enerals Griffin, a black slave had forged his master’s signature on “Freedom Papers” after the latter had died. He, his wife Priscilla and their one-year-old son then fled. The Griffin family were only three of an estimated 40,000 slaves who followed the North Star along the Underground Railroad network to freedom in British North America.
Not a railroad at all, The Underground Railroad was secret network of safe houses stretching from the southern states to Canada. While the fugitives might occasionally meet guides along the way to assist them in their flight to freedom, the route was a perilous one. Torture, even death would be their fate if apprehended.
Code words assisted the travellers. Safe houses were called “stations;” those who offered a bed for the night were known as “conductors.” The refugees were called “passengers” or “cargo.”
However, Enerals’ fate, if apprehended, was a more perilous one than for most. His wife Priscilla was a white woman. Their one-year-old son, James was of mixed race.
But fortune smiled on the Griffins’ faces. The family is believed to have crossed into freedom in 1829, at Port Stanley on the Canadian shores of Lake Erie. Where they lived between 1829 and 1934, is lost to history.
What is known is that in 1834 they arrived in Ancaster, near the thriving town of Hamilton. There other black families had settled. A pre-Confederation census shows almost 500 black residents in Hamilton and over 360 in the surrounding area.
It appears that Enerals had accumulated the significant sum of 125 British pounds in the interim. With that reserve, he purchased a parcel of 45 acres of forestland and a house overlooking the Dundas Valley.
Here the Griffin family grew, living in freedom and relative acceptance in this predominantly white area. Given their mixed-race marriage, this bears testament to a shining example of Canadian pre-Confederation tolerance.
Like their neighbours, both white and black, the Griffins farmed to feed a growing family. Some land was under cultivation; they also kept a few pigs, a cow or two, and a flock of chickens.
Enerals Griffin lived to see the birth of Canada in 1867. He passed away a year later and was buried in the graveyard of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Ancaster. There he joined Priscilla who had died in 1840.
After Enerals’ death, his son James took over the farm. And for the next 154 years, Griffin descendants occupied the home and farmed the land.
Over the succeeding generations, Griffin offspring married white spouses. By the third or fourth generation, their black past was unknown. (See recent photo of the Griffin family.)
Various home improvements were made over the years. The clapboard was covered with white stucco in the 1950’s and a derelict summer kitchen was torn down.
In 1988, the last Griffin departed the home. The property was purchased by the Hamilton Conservation Authority.
Archaeologists then moved in. Over the years, they’ve unearthed more than 3,000 artifacts, including stoneware, porcelain, clay pipes, and masonry.
Between 1992 and 1994, careful restoration of the house was undertaken to return it to its original appearance. Griffin House was designated by Parks Canada in 2008 as a National Historic Site. It is called “a fine example of vernacular domestic architecture of the early period in this province’s settlement.”
Griffin House is also recognized as an important part of Canadian Black History. It is one of 6 sites in the Central Ontario Network for Black History.
History lovers are invited to visit Griffin House on Sunday afternoons from 1 pm to 4 pm. But don’t lollygag! Griffin House closes for the winter after Thanksgiving.