It’s the dawning of a New Year, and in many ways a new era.
In 2018 we’ll see state elections and a new gubernatorial regime. We’ll possibly vote to legalize recreational marijuana. Canada is scheduled to legalize nationwide this year. Nationally there will be a grinding battle for control of Congress.
In Detroit we’ll start to see if the city government can actually help breathe life into a neighborhood as the Fitz Forward process should actually start showing progress.
But, as we look forward for more revitalization in Detroit, a look back can ground you on what is going on here. Some of that grounding can be found in The Dawn of Detroit, a great book that came out of 2017. Written by University of Michigan history professor Tiya Miles, Dawn examines the century starting with the founding of this frontier outpost on the river. Focused on the lives of the unfree — Native Americans, Africans, and indentured servants — we get a fresh perspective on Detroit’s history. Miles seeks to find what their lives were like by peering into the shadows and corners of historical accounts and documents that more often than not noted the unfree only in some sort of financial transaction. The lack of information is exacerbated by the fire of 1805 which burned down most businesses and private homes in the settlement.
Dawn isn’t a slave history or a black history. It’s American history. It’s also about shifting alliances between select groups of Europeans, native tribes, free and enslaved blacks, and racial mixtures of all of them. Miles invites us to envision a land that was neither the United States nor Canada — when Detroit was a settlement on both sides of the river, and still not clearly a part of any nation well after the revolution. As in all really good histories, Miles invites us to think differently about the legends and myths we grew up with.
For instance, Detroit was a key component of the Underground Railroad, a last stop before people escaping slavery could cross the river to freedom in Canada. It is a neat, easily digested story. The question of slavery here in Detroit is never addressed. Nor is the complex idea that enslaved blacks in Canada escaped across the river to freedom in Detroit. Apparently part of the dynamics of the day were lingering animosities from the American Revolution. As boundaries and allegiances began to jell in the years following the revolution, harboring escaped slaves became a way to poke a finger in the eyes of interests across the river.
It’s not that slavery did not exist in Canada, but the Canadians, part of the British Empire, felt no compunction to return the property (escaped slaves) of the Americans. And folks on this side of the river chose not to return the escaped property of the Canadians. As Judge Augustus Woodward ruled in an 1807 case:
“There are no reciprocal treaties between Canada and the United States requiring the return of fugitive slaves, and if African-Americans established their freedom in Canada, they could not be returned to slavery upon return to the U.S. and vice versa.”
But that was long after Fort Pontchartrain du Detroit was founded in 1701 by Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac as a bit of geopolitical jousting between the French and the English. The frontier outpost’s real value turned out to be as a center for fur trading and transport. Europe had grown fond of animal hides, particularly beaver pelts, and the fort’s position on the waterways made it a good trading point. Native Americans trapped animals and cured the skins for trade to Europeans, who then used slave labor to carry them out East, or loaded them on ships largely manned by enslaved crewman.
That’s one of the points to make you think differently about slavery. We mostly envision it in terms of labor on southern plantations, where scores of people farmed acres of cotton. In Detroit and elsewhere it was more often a situation where there might be two to several held in servitude and ownership passed down for generations within the same family.
In Dawn this is highlighted with the case of Hannah and Peter Denison, an enslaved couple who were held by the Tucker family in what is now Macomb County. William Tucker bequeathed the Denisons (including four children) to his wife Catherine. Hannah and Peter, the document states, were to be freed upon Catherine’s death. However, the Denison children were to continue being held by the Tucker children. It was a strange bequeathal that gave one-sixth value of the four children to each of Tuckers six sons. The Tucker daughter had no equity in the Denison children, but would receive two cows instead.
We also learn how Denison became the leader of a local black militia that was largely made up of Canadian slaves enticed to cross the river.
There is plenty more food for thought in Dawn. There is discussion of how native groups were encouraged to live near the fort so that it would be easier to trade with them. Then when competition between tribes led to war, the Europeans sat on their hands — some even welcomed war due to fears of having too many Indians nearby.
And we learn again that the men behind many of Detroit’s major street names — Woodward, Campau, Macomb and others — were slaveholders. This was pretty well known, but in Dawn we get a closer look at how these oligarchs gained their wealth and influence.
Don’t let that information tie you up in finger pointing and blame. If that is where you end up, then you haven’t learned the lessons of Dawn. The real importance of the book is in examining the complexity that exists in things we take for granted. It’s in understanding the geography of economic value. It’s in seeing the area as a fluid and evolving landscape rather than something that always has been and always will be.
It took a while for me to digest the importance of this book. There were moments while reading that I wanted to get a clearer look into the domestic lives of the people being discussed, the kind of thing that might be in a diary or oral history. But those kinds of accounts don’t exist, and Miles’ work stands out as a masterpiece of piecing together what can be found and breathing some life into it.
It also breathes life into a piece of American history that has been rendered in a formulaic manner for so long, things that we celebrated as part of the DNA of the town — but, like DNA, incredibly more complex and nuanced than most folks want to contemplate.
Still, it’s something you might do on a cold evening shared with a book. The reason that Cadillac chose this location is the same reason why Detroit is enjoying a rebound right now — all that water, and the ability to move goods. We still live and play on both sides of the river even though it’s now designated as a national border.
Finally, even as we label eras with economic forces and industries and wars, in the end it’s people’s lives that we are talking about. Miles renders life wonderfully.
— Larry Gabriel, The Detroit Metro Times, January 2018.
‘Please rip your mental map in half and turn it upside down.” These are the marching orders from Tiya Miles in her new, groundbreaking history, “The Dawn of Detroit.”
Here Miles asks us to rethink our idea of the Midwest — and of Detroit in particular — and the role of enslaved and indigenous people in its creation. “We tend to associate slavery with cotton in the commercial crop heyday of the southern ‘cotton kingdom,’” she writes. But the institution also was central to the fur trade, the industry on which the northern territories were built. “Detroit was born of the forced captivity of indigenous and African people and the taking of land occupied by Native people,” Miles writes. “Captivity and capture built and maintained the town, forged Detroit’s chin-up character.”
Miles calls her book “an alternative origin story” — and with good reason. Hers is a history that “privileges people in bondage, many of whom launched gripping pursuits of dignity, autonomy, and liberty.” Piecing together voices from primary source material — wills, letters, account ledgers, church registries, court cases and papers of attorneys — Miles chronicles “the rise, fall and dawn of Detroit while centering on the experiences of those who were held in bondage from the mid-1700s to the early 1800s.”
Years of perusing dusty volumes, leafing through court records, deciphering handwritten letters, and making sense of myriad complex treaties and settlements have resulted in a comprehensive study of Detroit’s formative years. Miles, a historian at the University of Michigan and a MacArthur “genius grant” recipient, has compiled documentation that does for Detroit what the Works Progress Administration and the Federal Writers’ Project slave narratives did for other regions, primarily the South.
Miles demonstrates a unique insight on native and African American culture. Very few scholars move so seamlessly from the intricacies of the Africans to those of the Ottawa, Potawatomi and Objiwe cultures. Miles’s voice is consistently authoritative. This is evident in the passionate account of the great warrior chief Pontiac and is no less commanding in the depiction of enslaved people, such as Peter and Hannah Denison, whose lives are framed by the historical narrative.
“The conflicting nature of limited evidence makes the Denison family’s origins difficult to reconstruct,” Miles admits, but she patches together records and oral histories to create a fascinating family saga. According to probate records, the Denisons were owned by William Tucker, a farmer on Indian land. Hannah and her husband, Peter, had multiple children; one of them, Elisabeth Denison, became the first African American landowner in Detroit. Many historians have briefly written about the Denisons, but Miles provides a full tableau of their struggle for freedom. Central to this endeavor were the court battles in which the Denisons fought to rescue their children from Catherine Tucker, who was bequeathed the children after her husband’s
Besides her analysis of the Denison v. Tucker case, Miles explains such ambiguous and complicated enactments as the Treaty of Detroit, the Jay Treaty and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, and shows how slaveholders in Detroit through their illegal machinations managed to sidestep the provisions of the ordinance, which outlawed slavery in the territory. Miles’s considerable research fully discloses the deceptive maneuvers of two prominent Detroiters of that day, Gov. William Hull and Judge Augustus Woodward.
As episodes unfold in fragments, there are redundancies, seemingly for the purpose of reacquainting the reader with a particular incident and the characters involved. At times Miles resorts to speculation. For example, she writes: “Perhaps Hannah spoke often of her children in the French language, pulling on Adelaide’s heartstrings. Or perhaps Hannah, a woman handy with the needle, even claimed the superior skills of a dressmaker and could craft the fashionable clothing that Adelaide so adored.” But most of these passages are quite plausible. (No speculation would be required, however, if there were more thorough, previous accounts of the role that African slaves played in extinguishing the fire of 1805 that destroyed the city.)
Miles has a keen eye for details, including in her long disquisitions on the city’s rich and famous, and on several occasions she describes those women’s fashionable finery and accomplishments — contrasting the lifestyles of the slaves and their owners. She writes, for example, of the wife of John Askin, a leading slaveholder, “She was fluent in both French and English and had grown up enjoying the domestic services of indigenous and black women who had been stripped of their freedom.”
In her eloquent account, Miles conjures up a city of stark disparity and lives quashed. “Along the central waterfront, the footprint of colonial Detroit is snug as a vintage pin cushion,” she writes in her concluding chapter. “Here, where silver spires pierce the powder blue of sky, shiny high-rise office buildings reflecting the cool shades of water, it is difficult to imagine a prior world of French shingled homes and fruit orchards, of canoes and bateaux plying the waters. . . . But these are the same streets, now paved and densely populated, where an enslaved indigenous woman was forced to give birth in a prison cell . . . where Peter and Hannah Denison were purchased and later fought in the courts for their children’s freedom. These striking individuals have long been erased by the collective consciousness of the city.” At long last, we hear them.
— Herb Boyd, The Washington Post, December 2017.
The events of the 20th century loom large in Detroit’s racial history: the Great Migration that pulled black Southerners to the Motor City, the rise of Motown Records, the bloody riots of 1943 and 1967. In “The Dawn of Detroit,” the historian Tiya Miles transports the reader back to the 18th century and brings to life a multiracial community that began in slavery.
If many Americans imagine slavery essentially as a system in which black men toiled on cotton plantations, Miles upends that stereotype several times over. Her book opens in the early 18th century, when the French controlled Detroit and the majority of enslaved people were both Native American and female. The town came under British rule in 1760, then shifted to American control after the Revolutionary War. Laws, boundaries and national identities were unstable; so was the institution of slavery. Miles skillfully guides the reader across this complex terrain.
Slavery in Detroit revolved around the fur trade. “Trading in the pelts of beavers and trading in the bodies of persons became contiguous endeavors in Detroit,” Miles writes, “forming an intersecting market in skins that takes on the cast of the macabre.” Some slaveholder-merchants also stole territories from Native people. Miles probes this “intertwined theft” of bodies and land.
She presents African-American and Native American histories as “interrelated rather than separate streams of experience,” and explores the connections as well as the conflicts between these groups.
Miles confronts a dilemma in her effort to illuminate the lives of Detroit’s enslaved people. Their own words are “nearly nonexistent.” The archives hold no cache of interviews with ex-slaves from Michigan. So Miles has relied on the wills, letters and account ledgers of slaveholders. The result is an “oftentimes broken account of important events that stitches together historical interpretation, context and causes, while patching in intuitive descriptions of people moving through a fraught place.” Miles’s use of “intuitive descriptions” can seem overly speculative in a few instances. But on the whole, her book powerfully reconstructs the experiences of Detroit’s slaves. The dearth of archival sources makes her achievement all the more impressive.
Miles tells the story of Ann Wyley, an enslaved woman of African descent. In 1774, Wyley, together with a French Canadian servant, stole furs from Wyley’s owners. Wyley and her accomplice were both convicted in 1776 and sentenced to death. But the justice of the peace could find no willing executioners for the Frenchman, and so he offered Wyley a grisly deal: Wyley would play the part of hangwoman in exchange for her own life — and, according to one source Miles consulted, her freedom as well. Wyley carried out the deed months before the new nation declared its independence.
During the transition from British to American control, Detroit seemed a “mind-boggling morass of murky rules.” The Northwest Ordinance, which stated that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude” shall exist in the territory, was adopted in 1787 but did not take effect until 1796 — with the American occupation. By that point, Detroit’s enslaved population had reached a peak of 298 people. Slaveholders insisted that the ordinance applied only to incoming residents. Furthermore, the Jay Treaty protected British property rights in Michigan and permitted the continued possession of slaves. Yet the Northwest Ordinance could embolden those in bondage. They escaped to Canada — though Miles shows that Canada was not always a bastion of liberty — and some even sued for their freedom.
The story of Peter and Hannah Denison helps to illustrate both the “extraordinary and all-too-ordinary character of Detroit.” The Denisons struck a deal to secure their own freedom, but their four children remained enslaved. In 1807, they sued for their children’s freedom. That August, before the case was decided, Michigan’s governor formed a militia to defend Detroit against potential attacks from Native tribes. Extraordinarily, the militia was composed of nearly 40 runaway slaves — and Peter Denison served as its commander. Denison had enticed many of the men from the estates of British slaveholders in Canada. A special territorial committee later praised the militia members as “responsible and even patriotic,” Miles writes. “No other city, state, or territory within the nation had yet made such a bold defense of black men’s collective honor.” In the fall of 1807, a judge ruled against the Denisons. So the family fled to Canada. Detroit had revealed itself as an all-too-ordinary American town: committed to slavery, enriched by it, and enmeshed in it.
— Jason Sokol, The New York Times, November 2017.
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.