Detroit's dark secret: Slavery

In the shadows

Miles in hallway

Tiya Miles (Image courtesy of Tiya Miles.)

Fur trader John Askin owned eight of them. William Macomb, owner of Grosse Ile, had 26. Even John R. Williams, the first mayor of Detroit, is said to have engaged in the practice. It’s a little-known fact, but some of Detroit’s first families — the Woodwards, the Campaus, the Macombs, and others — were slaveholders.

Historian/author Tiya Miles, a professor in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies and a 2011 recipient of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius” grant, is shining a light on Detroit’s dark secret in her new book, The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits (The New Press, 2017). Refuting some long-held stereotypes about the early American North and South, Miles paints a picture of Detroit from about 1760 to 1815, when Native Americans and African Americans were considered property.

Mapping Detroit

Miles, a native Midwesterner, had always been interested in Detroit’s role in the abolitionist movement. The city was the last stop on the Underground Railroad before crossing the border into Canada. But when the scholar started researching the life of Michigan abolitionist Laura Smith Haviland, she uncovered a surprising truth.

“When I came across some of Haviland’s speeches, that sent me on this road,” Miles says. “I realized that slavery was a real and concrete reality [in Detroit].”

As her research focus shifted, Miles scoured the archives for official city records and other documents to support her thesis. With little to go on, she relied on the wills, letters, and account ledgers of area slaveholders to stitch together a fascinating narrative. She also discovered early censuses that clearly marked citizens as slaves.

With the help of students in U-M’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) Miles hit the streets to make sense of this shadowy aspect of Detroit’s history. Together they mapped the locations of Detroit’s first families and their slaves.

This video originally appeared with a 2014 article in LSA Magazine.

Market in skins

Slavery in Detroit grew out of the bustling fur trade when the settlement was still under French control, Miles says. As trade ramped up along the busy river port, the power brokers needed a labor force – to grow and process food, handle fur, operate boats, maintain domestic spaces, and more. At this time, Native American slaves, local to the region, outnumbered their African American counterparts in Detroit.

“Trading in the pelts of beavers and trading in the bodies of persons became contiguous endeavors in Detroit, forming an intersecting market in skins that takes on the cast of the macabre,” Miles writes in her book. In addition, she says, some slaveholder-merchants also stole territories from native people, which she describes as the “intertwined theft” of bodies and land.

Where did the slaves come from?

The Dawn of Detroit book cover

(The New Press, 2017)

According to Miles, whose previous books address slavery in the American South, the earliest African American slaves to arrive in Detroit likely came as the property of French owners by way of Montreal. But even as the French lost control of Detroit to the British, the practice continued. Traveling from the Northeast and New York, the British often brought slaves with them to Detroit. In New York, they also entered into sales agreements to buy more African Americans, who were then sent to the settlement.

The early censuses posted by Miles and her students reveal the number of slaves steadily increased through the years. Records from 1773 show there were 73 slaves in Detroit. By 1782, the number had more than doubled to 170.

Even after the Northwest Ordinance took effect in 1787, clearly prohibiting slavery — “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist in the territory” —  slaveholders found loopholes in the language and continued as though nothing had changed. In 1795, the Jay Treaty between the U.S. and Great Britain averted war with England, but it did little to change the status of Detroit’s slaves. The treaty did ban the future purchase of slaves, but did nothing to free the nearly 300 people in bondage.

An 1817 letter written by Detroit merchant John R. Williams, descendant of the slaveholding Campau family on his mother’s side, revealed how deeply entrenched slavery was in Detroit’s culture, Miles says. Williams wrote to Samuel Abbott, a lawyer at Mackinac, to do a deal. He “would be glad to have a [Native American] boy and girl from 12 to 18 years of age, bound under indenture to serve for a limited number of years, say to the age of 30,” he wrote. And if Abbott would do Williams the service of sending him a “boy and girl . . . of good moral habits and tractable disposition,” Williams would clear the account on Abbott’s “draft at sight.”

Williams’ request bespoke his close association of Native American people with servitude, Miles writes. The merchant thought the French term for “Native American slave” was the name of a particular tribe.

The Denison family

Miles at the podium.

(Image courtesy of Tiya Miles.)

Through her research, Miles was able to trace the fascinating life stories and family sagas of some of the earliest slave families in Detroit. According to probate records detailed in the book, a family named Denison was owned by William Tucker, a farmer who’d earlier laid claim to Native American land. Tucker’s will specified that parents Peter and Hannah Denison would be freed upon his wife’s subsequent death. However, he “willed” the Denison children to his brother’s family.

Once freed, the elder Denisons went to work for a wealthy lawyer who encouraged them to sue for the freedom of their children under the Northwest Ordinance. It would be the first legal case to define the parameters of slavery in the Michigan Territory. Unfortunately for the Denisons, slaveholder and judge Augustus Woodward sided with the Tuckers. The Michigan Supreme Court returned the children to slavery, leaving the parents no option but to escape to Canada with their offspring.

Woodward eventually ruled the Michigan Territory had no obligation to return slaves who had been freed by establishing residence in Canada. So, in about 1815, Elisabeth (Lisette) Denison, Hannah and Peter’s daughter, returned to Detroit as a free citizen. She worked as a domestic servant, eventually becoming a successful businesswoman and property owner. Upon her death, Denison willed some $3,000 toward the construction of a church. Today, the doors to the St. James Episcopal Church in Grosse Ile are dedicated to her.

Early research

Miles began her research into Detroit’s dark history in 2012, working alongside two graduate students and four undergraduates via UROP. The team spent two years tracking and transcribing the records and documents that would come to shape the book’s content. In addition to The Dawn of Detroit, the researchers translated their findings into an interactive map showcasing early slave posts, notes, and census materials.

Little evidence of Detroit’s history of slavery remains today. In fact, few people who pass through the intersection of Woodward and Jefferson avenues in the heart of the city may realize it once was the site of a public whipping post. For Miles, that is just one little-known fact about the city that deserves more attention.

“History is critical to how we think about ourselves as individuals, as members of a global society,” she says.


  1. Kenneth McGregor - Law, 1968

    I am related on my mother’s side to a Campau family in Ionia, Michigan, her father Daniel J. Campau, whom we always thought was French-Canadian, mother Mary Campau (née Guhse). I doubt there’s any connection with the Detroit Campau family, yet curious.
    Good article


  2. Peter Rogan - 1977, LSA

    So the shadows of the past are pierced by light and understanding, and we find another world that is still part of ours. This is the mission of history, to rediscover, to learn, and to educate.


  3. K Mueller - 1970 (MSW)

    Fascinating. Thank you.


  4. Aileen Schulze - 1950

    I grew up in Belleville, Mi.. My maternal grandmother ‘s last name was Matevia, and she was related to French families in Detroit.There was an
    Archambeau group,and my mom says Joaeph Campeau was a shirttail relative. Some part of the families owned farm land where the original Detroiit City Hall was built. Others owned a large tract of land on Belle Isle.i don’t know whether or not Joseph owned slaves.I doubt that any of the others were wealthy enough to own slaves.


    • Brad Munce - 2000

      My grandmother was Ruby. I’m researching genealogy with my Matevia family from Belleville and would love to connect. -Brad


  5. Jim Boles - 1976

    Great research and reveal of history which support must be given for further exploration.


  6. Laura Manuel - 1973

    Family history has it that my great-great grandfather ran one of the last stops on the Underground Railroad into Canada. I believe there is a plaque in his honor in Wayne. His name was Glode Chubb and I wondered if you knew of any references to his activities. Thanks if you happen to know where I could find them.


  7. Mia Hesterly - 1983

    Thank you this was a great article , I will look at that intersection of Woodward and Jefferson differently when i’m there.


  8. kalissa maxwell - 2007

    I understand Judge Woodward’s was not in support of slavery I have read in other sources that Woodward stated slavery was the worst thing to befall mankind. Here from wikepedia:
    Woodward protected the free status of Michigan Territory in regard to slavery. In 1807 as Territorial Justice, he refused to allow the return of two slaves owned by a man in Windsor, Upper Canada (present-day Ontario). Woodward declared that any man “coming into this Territory is by law of the land a freeman.” [5]


    • Donna Gloff - ????

      It is important to get as much light on the subject as we can. This is the first I’ve heard of Woodward owning slaves.Is the author able to share her source for this?


  9. Darren Campeau

    Fascinating yet shameful. I always thought the northerners were anti-slave. Thank you for your work.


  10. Tia Collins

    How can you find anything positive out of slavery? To discuss slavery,from any aspect, to a descendant and survivor of a slave to a somber and heartbreaking reality.


  11. Jury Petre - 1991

    I found the story interesting too, to find out where some of the street names and county, city names originated. It’s terrible to think that blacks still hold a grudge on whites today when they should know blacks owned slaves too.


  12. Minister Hanifah Hightower

    God Bless You! Professor Miles…
    I saw you and purchased your book: The Dawn of Detroit at Detroit Public Library (Main Branch). Have you discussed with your student’s this year’s Quad-Centennial (1619 – 2019) Commemoration of the en-slavement of African People in America?
    Minister Hanifah Hightower


  13. Charles Ferrell, II - 2014

    It is interesting to see and learn of the history of Detroit. My grandparents migrated to Detroit as adults and had their children here. I noticed that Tennessee, a birth state of one my grandparents, is voting now to abolish “slavery” from their state constitution in 2021. That is shocking as I was ignorant to the fact that there were states still upholding this legislation in their constitution. There are republicans voting to uphold it, cited on the grounds of upholding history and that it doesn’t affect citizens currently. However, once incarcerated, your human rights change, and you will become a slave of the state. This needs to change, and has me curious as to what other legislation is lagging behind in times that curated and implemented slavery, the most notorious human crime known to melanated people. Thank you for your research and insight.


  14. Ellen Kent

    It saddens me that slavery was in Michigan as well, and to know it was families of well known surnames. No one will ever convince me that the white individuals didn’t know what they were doing was wrong. If the white owners had kept the slave families together, treated them with respect, no torture, given decent housing and shared the same food, given ethical labor hours, the right to an education, health care, and gave them either money or a share in the plantations they worked for, it may have turned out better. The white plantation owners should have supported the black families bringing charges against the ship owners as well. My heritage is indigenous to the Texas and New Mexico areas and we all know what they lost as well. With all of the advancements and the comfort that our nation has today, we are still not a happy or satisfied country. What a waste. If this is what we have to show for the past transgressions, I wish I had never been born to know that generally all white people were capable of torture, rape, and exploitation. And yet these large corporations will not own the fact that that the success, money, and power they have today was only possible due to the slaves.

    Thank you for finding Detroit was no different than as it is today, always taking advantage of the less fortunate. We have very few silent saints who are making a difference.


  15. Jacynda Washington - 1994

    This article is either poorly written or deliberate misleading – or both. Michigan was part of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787, slavery was illegal. Michigan became a state in 1837, slavery was illegal. Slavery was NEVER legal in the state of Michigan as it was banned under Michigan’s constitution. Spinning Michigan’s history by saying there were slaves in Detroit and Michigan is a flat out lie – as neither the state of Michigan and Detroit (as a city in The state of Michigan) did not exist prior to January 26,1837. The way this article is written suggests slavery existed within the state of Michigan in the 1700s – when Michigan didn’t exist. How can the Michigan Supreme Court make any ruling on slavery 1812 when it did not exist until the state is created? This article is trying to spin Michigan like the antebellum south where slavery was rampant, which os disingenuous . Details about region are deliberately twisted or left out to make it seem slavery was rampant giving no credit whatsoever to those who outlawed slavery from day one on Michigan. It mentions loopholes in which slavers were permitted to keep slaves – yet those loopholes we never mentioned. The french and English didn’t capture slaves in Africans, they were already enslaved by their fellow Africans in Africa. First people also enslaved not only Africans & Europeans but also other first people from other tribes. Yet no mention of that whatsoever.

    To be clear, Christians and the countries of the USA and Great Britain ended global slavery. Muslims did not- in fact the Ottoman Empire as well as Saudi Arabia claimed they were permitted to have slaves because Islam permitted it. The prophet Muhammad was a notorious slaver, owned humans, traded humans, has sex slaves and accepted slaves as tributes. Islam never ended slavery. The Moors kidnapped and enslaved the Irish, English, Spanish, people from the caucuses, the Slavic people which is how the word ‘slave’ originated . POC enslaving white Slavs, yet no mention in this article on how “slave” originated.

    Slavery has been going on since the beginning of time, amd the majority white countries of the United States and Great Britain ended slavery. That is the truth. It never occurred to any nation ever to even consider ending slavery. Whites ended it. No other people.

    Africans never ended slavery until they were forced to end slavery by the Americans and British. Why did black Africans sell other Africans into slavery? Why no mention the Irish slaves (not indentured servants but the actual Irish were sent in chains to the West Indies & the colonies?), although for the this article about Michigan, perhaps white slaves on Islamic countries doesn’t fit the narrative . But then again, slavery in Michigan doesn’t fit the narrative either, since slavery has never been legal in the State of Michigan.


  16. Caroly Hardwick-Hedgespeth - 2010

    This broke something inside of me these familiar places and names, whether true or false. I lived here in the D all my life, as a child walking to Jos Campau street to the Martha Washington Theater every Sunday after church. My first seasonal job at the age of 16 years ola at Woolworth on down town Detroit on Woodward and I worked at Hudson and Winkleman in retail positions. I walk these landmarks but to know that slave owners are honored, and streets are given their names. People beaten, sold, chained, killed why, any race, color or belief. I hate racism the wealthy and I know one day again the first will be last and the last will be first. With God we are all the same. People looking down on one another when we all are the same a child of God.


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