Slavery in Michigan?

In the fall of 2010, I enrolled in a course at Rutgers University called “Jazz and Race.” The course focused on the sociopolitical aspects of race in jazz music, but it also explored the outlying areas more generally (slavery, Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, Obama’s book, etc.). In one of the classes there was a discussion about slavery in northern states, particularly ones on the east coast. I had heard about slave cemeteries in New York and the recent controversy over Rhode Island’s state name (which is actually Rhode Island and Providence Plantations; the state’s history of slavery and the negative connotations associated with “plantations” did not stop a 2009 vote to change the name). “Well sure slavery existed in New England, but in the Midwest as well?” I inquired. Professor Lewis Porter tasked me: “That sounds like a research project. Find out if slavery existed in your home state.”

As a young Michigander, I had always considered my state to have been on the right side of history: Michigan was part of the Underground Railroad network and Union soldiers from Flint, Michigan were described in Ken Burns’ documentary on the Civil War. Michigan was a northern state after all! But, Michigan history reaches back much further than the mid-1800s.

The Frenchmen Étienne Brûlé was the first to arrive in 1620 and the French began colonizing the land with cities like Detroit. Michigan was under French control until 1763 (when the territory was lost to the British in the French and Indian War). It is known that the French had slaves, but there is no documentation to show how many were there. The ethnicities of the slaves are also unknown, but they are suspected to have been Native Americans (there is also a possibility of African-Americans too). The authorization for slave ownership in the territory came from the Catholic Church of New France.

After the British took control of the territory, they began collecting census data. A 1779 census shows that there were 141 slaves living in the territory (about 8% of the population recorded in this data). By 1782, a census of Detroit showed 78 male and 101 female slaves (179 total) living in Detroit alone. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 declared slavery illegal in that area by the United States. However, the land did not reach its slave population-peak until 300 slaves were recorded in 1796 when the British released control of the land to the United States (citation: Michigan’s Rich African American Past).

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 banned slavery in the area but left a “grandfather clause” that allowed people owning slaves before the ordinance to keep those slaves.  Children, however, should be freed “immediately or no later than their 25th birthday.”  Canadian slaves began fleeing French control to come to Michigan for freedom.  When the Canadians started demanding that their slaves be returned, Territorial Justice Augustus Woodward retorted that any man “coming into this Territory is by law of the land a freeman.”  Despite these comments, an 1830 census shows that there were still 32 slaves in Michigan- 43 years after the ordinance.  It is amazing to think that former slaves were running to Michigan for freedom during a 50-year period where slavery still existed for others (citation: Slavery in the Northwest Territory).

Slave life in Michigan was much different than the stereotypically large plantation life of the south.  Most slave work was either done in the home or involved trapping, fur trading, and some small farming.  Most slaves did not have their own quarters and lived/worked alongside their owners.  Although historians generally say that slave life was less harsh in Michigan than the South, there are at least two cases where slaves killed their owners and there were many other slave-instigated court petitions for freedom.  Bill McGraw, a writer for the Detroit Free Press, has many documented articles on slavery in Michigan. One of McGraw’s articles reveals that many of the prominent historical figures in Detroit were slave owners (including Lewis Cass and William Macomb): Slavery is a Quiet Part of City’s Past.

Here is another link about Michigan Pulses of Resistance to Slavery.  This link has a map that shows the varying degrees to which each geographical location of Michigan had historically referenced anti-slavery or the Underground Railroad in events, newspapers, speeches, etc.


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