Cecelia Jane Reynolds | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Cecelia Jane Reynolds

Cecelia Jane Reynolds, freedom seeker (born c. May 1831 in Virginia; died 4 June 1909 in Louisville, Kentucky). In May 1846, Cecelia fled her Kentucky enslavers by way of Niagara Falls and the Underground Railroad. Letters between Cecelia and Fanny Thruston, the Louisville belle to whom she had been a personal servant, have become unique primary sources for historians studying enslavement and relations between the formerly enslaved and American slaveholders.

Early Life

Cecelia was only five months old when she and her mother, Mary, were purchased from a slave trader. In October 1831, they came into the household of attorney Charles W. and Mary Eliza Thruston. Cecelia’s father, Adam Reynolds, an expert ropemaker, was already working at Charles W. Thruston’s ropeworks and bagging factory. The factory operated with enslaved labour across the street from the Thruston family home in Louisville, Kentucky.

As a child, Cecelia played with the Thruston children. But when she was just six years old, she watched as her father, Adam was torn from the arms of his family and sold South to an Arkansas plantation. At the age of nine, the little girl was legally gifted to her childhood playmate, Fanny Thruston, aged 14. Cecelia trained as Fanny’s lady’s maid, a highly skilled position. With her being responsible for caring for Fanny’s clothes, for dressing her hair and all the other details of her toilette, the two girls traveled extensively together.

Escape and the Underground Railroad

Cecelia was only 15 years old when she arranged her own flight to freedom. After learning that she would accompany the Thruston family to Niagara Falls, New York, she secretly communicated with Louisville Underground Railroad operators. They set into motion the mechanism for her escape. Through the well-organized network of the Underground Railroad, abolitionists in Louisville sent word to a Toronto-based Underground Railroad conductor about Cecelia’s desire to be free. (See also Black Enslavement in Canada.)

The Thruston family was planning to stay at the elegant Cataract House hotel, signing the hotel register on 14 May 1846. It was a popular destination with Southern guests, who sometimes brought along their own enslaved “servants” to care for their personal needs. Unbeknownst to people staying there, the Cataract’s all-Black seasonal waitstaff were operating the busiest Underground Railroad station on the Niagara frontier. Under the leadership of the hotel’s head waiter John W. Morrison, likely formerly enslaved himself, they co-operated with friends and relatives on the Canadian shore to rescue uncounted numbers of freedom seekers in the years before the American Civil War.

Rapids and Cataract House by George E. Curtis, date unknown.

A month before Cecelia and the Thruston family arrived, Benjamin Pollard Holmes, a dining room waiter on the steamboat the City of Toronto, signed the guest register at the Cataract House. Holmes had fled Virginia enslavement and was living in Toronto. He visited the hotel to prepare for Cecelia’s rescue. Benjamin’s employer, Scottish-born Captain Thomas Dick, who is believed to have transported refugees from bondage on his steamboat, also visited the hotel.

On 14 May 1846, the Thruston family with the youthful Cecelia in tow reached the Cataract House. She was listed in the guest register as a “servant.” However, Fanny later wrote out Cecelia’s full name alongside her own in the Bath Island visitors’ book on the day they arrived at the Falls.

A few days later, Fanny’s lady’s maid vanished. Charles W. Thruston and his son Sam tried to find a slave catcher who would cross the river to kidnap Cecelia from her Canadian haven. Fanny, however, took the ferry across the border to Clifton, as Niagara Falls, Canada, was then known. Just 19 years of age at the time, she entrusted a local abolitionist with Cecelia’s trunk full of clothing, tucking a sum of money in between the folds to see her former maid safely in her new homeland. Neither the box nor the funds ever reached Cecelia.

Life in Canada

After being concealed for a time in Canada’s Niagara Peninsula, Cecelia was transported to Toronto, most likely on the City of Toronto steamboat. A few months later, Cecelia and Benjamin Pollard Holmes married at St. James Cathedral and she became stepmother to his two young sons.

In her new life, Cecelia (now Mrs. Holmes) had to learn to manage a household while her husband was away working on the Great Lakes. It is possible that she also worked outside the home, as her skills as a lady’s maid were in demand. Like many of their neighbours, the Holmes family would have welcomed incoming freedom seekers into their home. Refugees from Southern bondage were often welcomed into the homes of local African-Canadian families when they first reached freedom.


Cecelia longed for the mother and younger brother, Edward, whom she had been forced to abandon in her flight from slavery. In fact, she may have learned to write expressly so she could communicate with the Thrustons and try to secure her still-enslaved family’s freedom. In the fall of 1851, she sent her first letter asking the price of her mother and brother’s liberty.

Now a married woman with children of her own, Fanny Thruston Ballard, responded to Cecelia’s letter. She and her former lady’s maid began a correspondence that would last for 20 years.

Did you know?
Five of Fanny’s letters to Cecelia survive in the archive of the Louisville Filson Historical Society. The letters are accompanied by a personal account left behind by one of Fanny’s sons, to whom his mother recounted the tale of her long-lost maid, Cecelia.

Fanny and Cecelia’s letters are unique in the annals of American slavery (see Historical Sources).

In the course of their correspondence, Cecelia learned that her brother had died. Furthermore, Fanny and her husband, A.J. Ballard, would accept no less than US $600 for her mother Mary’s freedom. It was an impossible sum. Despite the warm tone to Fanny’s letters, the cold reality of the slave system lay beneath.

Seeking a means for raising the money to liberate her mother, Cecelia and her husband left his two young sons in Lowell, Massachusetts to learn the barbering trade. The couple crossed the Atlantic Ocean and Cecelia found work in Liverpool, England, while Benjamin sailed off to Australia to make his fortune in the Gold Rush.

Did you know?
Cecelia’s stepsons completed their education. James Thomas Holmes opened a barbershop in Peterborough, Canada West. Ben Alexander Holmes married Lucia, a girl from a white abolitionist family in Lowell, Massachusetts. He also became a barber in what is now Lindsay, Ontario. In 1867, Ben Alexander and Lucia joined some of Lucia’s family in a westward migration, settling in Faribault, Minnesota.

James’ daughters moved to upstate New York, while Ben’s two Canadian-born sons were the first Black doctor and first Black dentist to graduate from the University of Minnesota Medical School. Both had important careers, with the elder becoming the medical officer of health for northwestern Minnesota.

When the Crimean War broke out, postal service along the shipping lanes was disrupted and Benjamin and his wife lost touch. Thinking her husband dead, Cecelia returned to their Toronto home alone. In the spring of 1854, she gave birth to a baby girl, Mamie. Two years later, Benjamin returned to Toronto, his health greatly impaired. He and Cecelia reunited, building a second home on their lot of land to provide rental income and an inheritance for Benjamin’s two sons.

Benjamin Pollard Holmes died in August 1859. His funeral took place at the nearby British Methodist Episcopal Church, and he was laid to rest at the Toronto Necropolis Cemetery. Cecelia rented out her Toronto home and with her now six-year-old daughter traveled across the lake to Rochester, New York.

Later Life

Evidence suggests that Cecelia and her late husband Benjamin may well have been acquainted with Frederick Douglass, the most famous of all the Black abolitionists. Frederick and his wife Anna Douglass made their home in Rochester, New York, where Frederick published the North Star newspaper and later the Frederick Douglass’ Paper. After she and her daughter moved to Rochester, Cecelia was hired to work in the home of a white banking family.

In Rochester, Cecelia met a Delaware-born freedom seeker named William Henry Larrison. They married and she gave birth to another daughter, Sara. When the Civil War broke out, she and her two daughters accompanied her husband, who enlisted as a cook in the 14th New York Heavy Artillery. (See also American Civil War and Canada.) The family stayed together at Fort Richmond, which would have been used to defend Staten Island in case of attack. Cecelia was employed as a maid to the wife of William’s commanding officer. She and Wiliam were separated when his regiment was redeployed to the siege of Petersburg.

After the war, William suffered from injuries sustained from carrying heavy iron pots. He could never do hard physical labour again, so Cecelia took her family to Kentucky where she had another child, a little boy. In Louisville, she reunited with her mother, freed in December 1865 under the terms of the Thirteenth Amendment to the American Constitution. Sadly, all of Cecelia’s little children died in childhood, except for Toronto-born Mamie.

Sources suggest that Cecelia also reunited with Fanny Thruston Ballard, with whom she had grown up and by whom she had been enslaved. There is no evidence that Cecelia ever asked Fanny for money, but she and her husband were employed by friends or relatives of the Ballards for the next 20 years. Then, one day in 1885, William went out seeking work and vanished. No sign of him was ever discovered, but his wife believed that he had fallen victim to the Night Riders, a militant anti-Black group active in Kentucky during Reconstruction.

In failing health, an aging Cecelia applied for the Union army pension to which her husband was entitled. She was refused and only received the meagre income to which she was entitled in the last decade of her life. Daughter Mamie faithfully cared for her mother until she passed away on 4 June 1909. Cecelia was buried in Louisville’s Eastern Cemetery. Mamie later moved to Oklahoma and married a Union army veteran there, but she returned to Kentucky after her husband died, passing away herself in 1928.

Significance and Legacy

In 2015, Infrastructure Ontario commissioned archaeologist Holly Martelle and her team to excavate the site of the new Ontario Courthouse behind Toronto’s Osgoode Hall. Their discoveries shed new light onto Cecelia’s story as the dig revealed the remains of the Toronto home, she once shared with her husband Benjamin Pollard Holmes and his two little boys. Two years later, award-winning author Karolyn Smardz Frost, who had spent nearly a decade tracing Cecelia and her family’s journey in slavery and freedom, published this remarkable woman’s life story in Steal Away Home (2017).

The efforts Cecelia made in order to learn to write and her multi-year correspondence with the woman whose family once claimed to own her body, are significant sources for studying the history of African enslavement and the Underground Railroad. This single brave woman’s quest for freedom and her efforts to surpass barriers placed in her path due to racial prejudice and oppression reveal the resilience and perseverance of the freedom seekers who made Canada their home in the years before the American Civil War. (See also American Civil War and Canada.)

A five-part mini-series based on the book Steal Away Home is planned by Conquering Lion Pictures, the production company that made the television miniseries The Book of Negroes.

Black History in Canada Education Guide

Further Reading