Buffalo is a border city. From the observation deck at the top of Buffalo City Hall, you can look across the Niagara River to Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada. We even fly the Canadian flag in front of City Hall.
Ferry service between Buffalo and Fort Erie began around 1795, to be replaced by the opening of the Peace Bridge in 1927. Many Buffalo families own vacation homes on the Canadian shore of Lake Erie. Before 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic, a daily summer commute across the Peace Bridge was common and casual.
This easy border access positioned Buffalo to be an important stop on the Underground Railroad. which I have already written about. Historians and laypersons continue to seek evidence of the efforts and lives of freedom seekers and their allies.
In my own lifetime, Buffalo was likewise well-positioned to enable another movement of fugitives. I refer to young American men who avoided the draft during the Vietnam War and settled in Canada, either permanently or until President Carter granted amnesty. Most entered Canada illegally. The legend is that Ontario understood what was going on and the officers at the border turned a blind eye. I don’t know if this legend is true or false.
There is a lot I don’t know about how the mechanics of how these men entered Canada. For example:
- Did they act independently and take their chances at the border?
- Or did they have help from friends or relatives?
- Or did they get advice or assistance from organized groups on how to get past customs & border officers? If so, who were these groups? Do their records survive?
- What communication networks informed those deciding to leave the US at this time?
- What were the most heavily-used crossing points?
- Once they were in Canada, what assistance did they find?
These questions are critically important to answer now, while so-called draft dodgers are still living and can be interviewed. Why does this matter?
Because we’ve seen what happens when participants in major events begin dying off. This is when popular culture worship and wishful thinking begin. Underground Railroad efforts began to be romanticized in the 1920s and 1930s, 60+ years after the end of the Civil War, when few witnesses were left to refute anyone’s stories. This is when some claims about Underground Railroad sites first appear in print, to be treated as gospel truth ever after.
Across the Northeast, when people discover that a building predates the Civil War, they are eager to claim it for the Underground Railroad, without being expected to produce any evidence.
Vietnam-era draft evaders are due for a romantic revival in popular culture. When it happens, I predict that we will see the same phenomenon with automobiles that we see with old houses. Everyone near the Canadian border with a 1960s or ’70s junker in the garage will be eager to claim that it was used to sneak draft dodgers into Canada. Every activist who participated in anti-war protests will be claimed as a Draft Evasion Agent.
The best way for historians to head off these retroactive bids for glory is to find and interview draft evaders now, and get detailed accounts of the process of crossing the border, while they can still speak for themselves.
Do you know of oral history interviews with draft evaders? Suggested reading? Please drop it in the comments.
Photograph of Peace Bridge by By Óðinn, 2008 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3621392