In Michigan, slavery began after the arrival of the French in the 1600s. When the British arrived in 1761 they discovered Native American and African slaves. In 1782, a census, or count of the number of people living in an area, showed 78 male and 101 female slaves living in Detroit. The number of slaves declined after the British left Detroit in 1796. Only 15 African-Americans lived in Detroit in 1805. It is unclear how many were slaves, but businessman Joseph Campau owned ten slaves at the time.
Most Michiganders neither owned nor approved of slavery. In 1807 a Canadian living in Windsor demanded that his two escaped African-American slaves – then living in Michigan – be returned to him. Territorial Judge Augustus Woodward denied the request. He declared that slavery did not exist in the Michigan Territory and that every “man coming into this Territory is by law of the land a freeman.”
The 1830 U.S. census showed 32 slaves living in the Michigan Territory, but these numbers dwindled quickly. Michiganders became more critical of slavery and many began calling for its abolition – the act of officially ending something. As the Civil War neared, some worked in the Underground Railroad to help people escape from slavery.
The Underground Railroad was not a real railroad; “Underground” means secret or hidden, and the name referred to secret routes used to move escaping slaves, as well as to the homes where they were hidden. Traveling by night and hiding by day, escaping slaves often wore disguises as they made their way north.
Railroad terms were used as code words. Most southern Michigan towns had “conductors,” people who helped escaping slaves by hiding them in barns or homes, called “depots.” At night slaves were moved to a new depot in the next town on foot, in wagons, or by horseback. Some slaves stayed in northern states like Michigan, where they could be free. Others crossed the Detroit River to freedom in Canada. Escaping was dangerous. If caught, slaves were often whipped or beaten and placed in chains. Nonetheless, many who made it to the North worked to help other slaves escape using the Underground Railroad.
An African-American woman named Sojourner Truth escaped from slavery in 1827. Later, she made her home in Battle Creek. As an abolitionist, a person who worked to end slavery, she made powerful speeches denouncing the practice. She was one of many Michiganders who fought against slavery and worked to extend equal rights to all people.
Slave Records By State
See: Slave Records By State
Freedmen's Bureau Records
See: Freedmen's Bureau Online
American Slavery Records
See: American Slavery Records
American Slavery: Slave Narratives
See: Slave Narratives
American Slavery: Slave Owners
See: Slave Owners
American Slavery: Slave Records By County
See: Slave Records By County
American Slavery: Underground Railroad
See: American Slavery: Underground Railroad