reviews of the dawn of detroit – –


Miles (Tales from the Haunted South), professor of history at the University of Michigan, illuminates an “alternative origin story” of this much-studied city, which was “born of the forced captivity of indigenous and African people.” Detroit prospered from trade in animal skins rather than plantation agriculture, but it was black men who played a dominant role in the transportation of these furs across New France; meanwhile, indigenous women became a sexual resource plundered by French colonists. Miles gracefully recounts Detroit’s first century as it passed from French to British rule. The transition so antagonized local indigenes that in 1763 the Ottawa leader Pontiac launched a rebellion that took the British colonial military months to suppress. Miles emphasizes that even had the Ottawa succeeded, the situation of Detroit’s 1,500 slaves might not have improved. Neither the British nor the fledgling U.S. brought them release, and as nonplantation states turned against chattel slavery, Detroit’s whites and some Native American inhabitants continued to engage in the domestic slave trade. Despite slowly expanding rights, people of color could hope at best for a “hard-won and consistently compromised freedom.” Miles places Detroit’s history in a more expansive frame than its 20th-century boom and decline, emphasizing racial inequalities far in advance of the Great Migration.

—  Publishers’ Weekly Starred Review, October 2017.

Miles’ account of the founding and rise of Detroit is an outstanding contribution that seeks to integrate the entirety of U.S. history, admirable and ugly, to offer a more holistic understanding of the country. Recipient of a 2011 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant and decorated cross-disciplinary professor at the University of Michigan, Miles presents the reality of slavery’s foundational role in the “City of the Straits.” Northern cities, she argues, do not merit their reputations as safe havens for slaves fleeing the south. Native Americans and African Americans were forced to provide essential skills, namely hunting ability and transport labor, in the animal-pelt-driven economy that allowed Euro-Americans to grow roots in Detroit. Miles sets a standard for thoroughness. With scant historical documentation available, she details personal accounts of the lives of the “unfree” and the political ideologies and actions that affected them. Major events and historical figures from 1760 to 1815 are examined in relation to their consequences for Detroit’s enslaved in developments including Pontiac’s siege, the American Revolution, the great fire of 1805, the Michigan Territorial Court, black militiamen in the War of 1812, and the lives of Peter and Hannah Denison and their daughter, Elizabeth.

—  Emily Dziuban, Booklist Starred Review, October, 2017.

The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits examines the history of the American city of Detroit, Michigan (with emphasis on the years 1760-1817) through the impact that the heinous practice of slavery had upon it. Even though the Underground Railroad (a network created to help slaves from the American South escape) eventually ran through Michigan, loopholes in the Northwest Ordinance in Michigan allowed forced labor among indigenous people and African Americans. Slaveholders and forced labor are an unremovable stain on Detroit’s history during its early colonial years, although an influx of renegade bondspeople from British Canada eventually started to push popular sentiment against slavery – to the extent that “led Detroit dockworkers, hatmakers, and sailors of European descent to threaten their own lawmakers if they returned runaway slaves.” Although Detroit slave narratives are all but impossible to find, historical evidence reveals much about the sway that slaveholding had over the city’s early years. Extensive notes and an index round out this scholarly, heavily-researched, and eruditely written recontexualization of Detroit’s history, highly recommended especially for public and college library American History collections.

 The Midwest Book Review, October, 2017.

A history of the Michigan metropolis as a center of the Northern slave trade. “We tend to associate slavery with cotton in the commercial crop heyday of the southern ‘cotton kingdom,’ ” writes MacArthur Fellow Miles (American Culture/Univ. of Michigan; The Cherokee Rose, 2015, etc.), “but in the northern interior space, slavery was yoked to the fur industry.” In this connection, slavery enfolded Native Americans, putting individuals in thrall and binding communities in a network of trade obligations. When recently ascendant Americans imposed the Treaty of Detroit in 1807, they cleared several such well-entrenched communities both to create military defenses and to enhance the “processes of surveillance and recapture for American slaveholders” whose property—in this case African-Americans—tended to disappear into Native realms before the advent of the Underground Railroad. African-Americans were also bought and sold in Detroit, Miles writes, though this story is little known and unrecorded by any memorial. Whether those African-Americans were in personal service or worked as trappers or freighters, whether they were claimed by French Canadians, British, or American owners, they were just as unfree as if in New Orleans. Drawing on archival records and a thin scholarly literature, Miles pieces together a story in which African-Americans were used “like railroad cars in a pre-industrial transit system that connected sellers, buyers, and goods.” At times, the narrative takes turns that push it away from general readers into the hands of postmodern-inclined academics: “There is perhaps one space in the American-Canadian borderlands in which a radical alterity to colonial and racialized complexity existed.” But for the most part, the author’s account is accessible to anyone with an interest in local history as well as the larger history of world systems in the time of the Seven Years War and beyond. A book likely to stand at the head of further research into the problem of Native and African-American slavery in the north country.

– Kirkus, August, 2017.

The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits is available for purchase at independent booksellers including Source Booksellers and Literati. It’s also available on Amazon.