About the Underground Railroad
The Idea of Slavery
Slavery is an institution far older than America, even older than the ancient Egyptian civilization. Slavery was not limited to the 'white man'. Slavery was not invented by the 'white man'. It is likely that from the earliest time that people needed extra help to carry loads, gather fruit, hunt and create dwellings, strong men conquered and enslaved weaker people. When early European explorers came to America, each group had its traditions of slavery well established in their sociological makeup. Europeans, with their sophisticated vehicles, ships, weapons, tools and materials, compared the indigenous people they encountered to their own achievements. They judged these people according to a yardstick that measured technological achievement, and were found greatly lacking in power. As human beings they were valueless.
The idea of slavery is abhorrent to most modern people. As repellent as slavery is to us, it is important to remember that American colonists and settlers brought with them the European values and culture of their societies. Their attitudes about slavery ranged from toleration, to promotion and participation in the age-old institution of forcibly using weaker human beings as work animals. Children, women, and the poor in general were valueless, except for the work that could be wrung out of them.
The idea that all human life is equally valuable is now an institution in our American society. The adoption of that idea happened very quickly and involved a great deal of violence, death and suffering. In less than 150 years, the age-old tradition of enslaving others was nullified by the youngest and greatest country in the world.
Brief History of the Underground Railroad in Michigan
Europeans had no more respect for the native people of the Great Lakes region than they had for any other people they encountered. The Native American culture was not highly developed compared to others like the Incas, and their lack of development was to their advantage. Europeans soon realized that the one valuable product of the Great Lakes region, furs, required the rigorous labor. Trapping, processing and moving furs to market through the wilderness required a partnership with the Native Americans, not a master-slave relationship. This is essentially why slavery was never introduced to the Great Lakes region.
Blacks were brought from Africa to the southern regions of America from 1619 to 1808 and sold as slaves to work on plantations where cotton, rice indigo, and tobacco were grown. Although Michigan eventually took a strong stand against slavery, there were some slaves held in Michigan before the Northwest Ordinance outlawed procuring new slaves in the Territories. The nature of small farms in the North was not compatible with slavery and did not fit into the economic system being developed in the industrialized cities. Slaves in the North worked primarily in the capacity of household servants.
English and French slave owners were allowed to keep their slaves if they owned them before the Ordinance was passed. England, who controlled Canada, abolished slavery in 1792 in England, Canada, and all of her colonies, but id did not end even then.
As early as 1787, records show that many American slaves attempted to find freedom by running northward. They were helped by people opposed to slavery for philosophical, religious and moral reasons. The most remarkable group was the Quakers who believed that the word of God held a higher authority than rules made by man. Even though both the U. S. Constitution and the Northwest Ordinance provided for the return of slaves because slaves were considered property, there was no teeth in those provisions until Congress passed legislation in 1793 to deter slaves from escaping and free citizens from aiding in escape attempts. This legislation was passed by Southern congressmen and it stipulated that it was illegal for any citizen to assist an escaped slave. Furthermore, the legislation, which was entitled The Fugitive Slave Act, demanded that if an escaped slave was sighted, he or she should be apprehended and turned in to the authorities for deportation back to the "rightful" owner down south.
The southerners believed that the Fugitive Slave Act would diminish the incentive for slaves to attempt escape because even if they managed to escape from their plantation, they could still be caught and returned by any citizen in the United States. The legislation was so severe that at the request of Senator Henry Clay, it was legislated that any United States Marshall who refused to return a runaway slave would pay a penalty of $500. The law gave the slave owner or his agent the right to seize the slave and return him to his owner. If a person was caught assisting the escape of a slave, he could be fined $500.00. A person obstructing the capture of slave could get a prison term.
In spite of the laws, abolitionists assisted escaped slaves regardless of the consequences. These abolitionists, including ex-slaves, Quakers and other citizens who believed that slavery was an immoral practice, helped establish what became known as the Underground Railroad.
Coincidental with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act was Eli Whitney's revolutionary new invention. The Cotton Gin was a highly successful invention. Excerpted below is the 1793 patent application written by Whitney.
Cotton Gin Petition
To the Honourable Thomas Jefferson Esquire Secretary, of State for the United States of America: The Petition of Eli Whitney, of the County of Worcester and Commonwealth of Massachusetts, humbly sheweth: That having invented a Machine for the Purpose of ginning Cotton, he is desirous of obtaining an exclusive Property in the same.
"That it is entirely new and constructed in a different manner and upon different principles from any, other Cotton Gin or Machine heretofore known or used for that purpose.
2d. That with this Ginn, if turned with horses or by water, two persons will clean as much cotton in one Day, as a Hundred persons could cleane in the same time with the ginns now in common use.
3d. That the Cotton which is cleansed in his Ginn contains fewer broken seeds and impurities, and is said to be more valuable than Cotton, which is cleaned in the usual way."
Whitney's great technological innovation, the Cotton Gin, removed the processing impediments to growing cotton. Where before cotton was a minor crop in the South, suddenly, cotton became highly valuable and desirable. The demand for more and more field hands grew, as did the number of slaves in the South. As their economy became more and more dependent on slavery people in the South had an even greater incentive to perpetuate it.
The antislavery movement evolved gradually in Michigan. As stated earlier, the economy of the small, self-sufficient farm was not suitable for slave labor, nor did it sync with the growing lumbering and mining industries in Michigan. When escaping slaves began coming to Michigan, they told stories about the harsh and cruel conditions they lived in. Back-breaking hard work was the least of their complaints. Although not all slaves were mistreated, rape, murder, starvation, separation of family members, and unspeakable punishments were common occurrences.
The 1830 census counted 22 male and 16 female black slaves and 139 free males and 102 free female blacks living in Michigan. Most of the free black settlers in Michigan were descendents of blacks who won their freedom by fighting in the Revolutionary War. The status of slaves in Michigan was a problem for the early settlers. In spite of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, in 1827, legislation passed by the Territorial Legislature stated that blacks were not residents or persons with civil rights. This legislation imposed impossible hurdles for most blacks because it stated that each free black person had to register with the county clerk and had to purchase a bond of $500.00 for "good behavior". Those certificates were easily lost or stolen, so getting and keeping proof of freedom posed a problem for free blacks and their white supporters.
In 1799, a group of seventy-one free African Americans in Philadelphia submitted a petition to Representative Robert Waln. The petition asked for protection from prejudice, violence and assaults that people of color were openly subjected to. The petition refers to the Constitution and Fugitive Slave Act, pointing out that the rights and liberties of men did not include only whites, but blacks as well. When Representative Waln introduced the petition to Congress on on January 2, 1800, it created a major stir which quickly died. The document, however, is worth reading because it demonstrates that while African Americans were virtually powerless, they used their resources to inspire others to help them.
A Petition (1799)
To the President, Senate, and House of Representatives of the United States-
The Petition of the People of Colour, Freemen within the City, and Suburbs of Philadelphia:
That thankful to God our Creator and the Government under which we live, for the blessing and benefit extended to us in the enjoyment of our natural right to Liberty, and the protection of our Persons and property from the oppression and violence which so great a number of like colour and National Descent are subjected; We feel ourselves bound from a sense of these blessings to continue our respective allotments and to lead honest and peaceable lives, rendering due submission to the Laws, and exciting and encouraging each other thereto, agreeable to the uniform advice of our real friends of every denomination.
Yet while we feel impressed with grateful sensations for the Providential favours we ourselves enjoy, we cannot be insensible of the conditions of our afflicted Brethren, suffering tinder curious circumstances in different parts of these States; but deep in, sympathizing with them. We are incited by a sense of Social duty and humbly conceive ourselves authorized to address and petition you in their behalf, believing them to be objects of representations in your public Councils, in common with ourselves and every other class of Citizens within tile. Jurisdiction of the United States, according to the declared design of the present Constitution formed by the General Convention and ratified in the different States, as set forth in the preamble thereto in tile following words--viz - "We the People of the United States in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestick tranquility, provide for the Common Defence, and to secure the blessings of Liberty, to ourselves and posterity, do ordain &c."- We apprehend this solemn Compact is violated by a trade carried on in clandestine manner to the Coast of Guinea, and another equally wicked practised openly by Citizens of some of the Southern States upon the waters of Maryland and Delaware: Men sufficiently callous as to qualify, for the brutal purpose, are employed in kidnapping those of our Brethren that are free, and purchasing others of such as claim a property? in them; thus these poor helpless victims like droves of Cattle are seized, fettered, and herded into places provided for this most horrid traffic, Such as dark cellars and garrets, as is notorious at Northurst, Chestertown, Eastown, and divers other places. After a sufficient number is obtained, then, are forced on board vessels, crowded tinder latches, and without the least commiseration, left to deplore the sad separation of the dearest ties in nature, husband from wife, and Parents from children thus pocket'd together they are transported to Georgia and other places and there inhumanely, exposed to sale. Can any Commerce, trade, or transaction, so detestably, shock the feelings of Man, or degrade the dignity of his nature equal to this, and how increasingly is the evil aggravated when practised in a Land, high in profession of the benign doctrines of our blessed Lord who taught his followers to do unto others as they would they should do unto them!--Your petitioners desire not to enlarge the volumes [that] might be filled with the sufferings of this grossly abused class of the human species (700,000 of whom it is said are now in unconditional bondage in these United States.) but, conscious of the rectitude of our motives in a concern so affecting its, and so essentially interesting to [the] welfare of this Country, we cannot but address you as is Guardians of our Civil rights, and Patrons of equal and National Liberty, hoping you will view the subject in an impartial and unprejudiced light.--We do not wish for:- the immediate emancipation of all, knowing,- that the degraded state of many and their Native of education, would greatly disqualify for such a change; but humbly desire, you may exert every means in your power to undo the heavy burdens, and prepare way for the oppressed to go free, that every yoke may, be broken.
The Law not long since enacted Congress called the Fugitive Bill, is, in its execution found to be attended, with circumstances peculiarly hard and distressing for many of our afflicted Brethren in order to avoid the barbarities wantonly exercised upon them, or thro fear of being carried off by those Men-stealers, have been forced to seek refuge by flight; they are then hunted by armed Men, and under colour of this law, cruelly treated, shot, or brought back in chains to those who have no just claim upon them.
In the Constitution and the Fugitive bill, no mention is made of Black people or Slaves -- therefore if the Bill of Rights, or the declaration of Congress are of any validity, we beseech that we as men, we may be admitted to partake of the Liberties and unalienable Rights therein held forth firmly believing that the extending of justice and equity to all Classes would be a means of drawing down the blessing of Heaven upon this Land, for the Peace and Prosperity of which, and the real happiness of every member of the Community, we fervently pray --
The story of the Crosswhite family enraged slave-holders in the South. Mr. Crosswhite was a mulatto fugitive slave and lived in Marshall, Michigan with his wife and five children. The youngest child had been born in Michigan, which made him a free-born child. Crosswhite's master located Crosswhite and around 4 o'clock in the morning attempted to abduct the family. Neighbors rescued them, charged the slave catchers with breaking and entering, and helped the Crosswhites escape. The slave catchers were found guilty in the local court, thus giving the Crosswhites ample time to get to Canada. The slave catchers were set free by a higher court, but this case so enraged Southerners that they managed to pass the fugitive Slave Law of 1850 that doubled the penalties for people aiding escaped slaves.
The period between 1820 and 1865 was a time when most antislavery advocates abandoned their hope for gradual emancipation and adopted pro-active measures to abolish slavery as their goal. Abolitionists were vocal, made speeches about slavery, wrote articles, and generally stirred the simmering pot. The abolitionist movement was very successful in expanding and publicizing their informal network known as the Underground Railroad.
The Underground Railroad was neither a railroad nor was it underground. Instead, it was a clandestine organization of abolitionists who sheltered, fed and guided slaves from the South to Canada. The myth of the origin of the name "Underground Railroad" is said to have come from a slaveholder who pursued a runaway to a small Ohio town where all traces of the fugitive abruptly ended. Days later, the slave was spotted in Detroit. When the angry slave owner heard this, he exclaimed that the slave must have boarded a railroad that ran underground.
Both slave, owners and abolitionists began to refer to the network of people helping the runaways as an "underground railroad" by the 1830s. The "underground railroad" was an activity that was locally organized, but which had no real national center. It existed rather openly in the North and just beneath the surface of daily life in the upper South and in the western territories.
Because of its proximity to Canada, the people of Michigan played a critical role in the railroad's success. The operation was covert and except for handbills, newspaper ads that were written in code, and accounts from diaries and letters. However, few official documents pertaining to it still exist.
A Quaker named Levi Coffin is credited with spearheading the underground railroad effort. Levi opened his North Carolina home to fugitive slaves and persuaded other Quakers across the country to participate. These people were referred to as "stockholders" in the Underground Railroad Company. Stockholders were men and women of all races and religious beliefs that believed in freedom for all. They risked their security and sometimes their lives to hide slaves in attics and cellars, in sheds and caves, in secret paneled rooms and under barn floors. They gave them food and a place to rest before the slaves went on to the next safe place.
One of the most famous and notable stockholders was Harriet Tubman. She escaped slavery in 1849 and then made 19 trips back to slave states to lead over 300 slaves to freedom. Elizabeth Chandler was a Quaker woman living in Lenawee County, MI, who persuaded many Quaker settlers to organize an anti-slavery society. Other notable Michigan stockholders were George De Baptiste, a black businessman and member of Second Baptist Church in Detroit who bought a ship, the T. Whitney, to take runaways across the Detroit River. Seymour Finney, a white Detroit hotel owner allowed slaves to hide in his barn at the northeast corner of State and Griswold. Erastus Hussey, a white businessman and Quaker, fed and sheltered more than 1,000 slaves in Battle Creek before sending them on to Marshall, the next stop on the line.
As knowledge of the Underground Railroad spread, the people who helped slaves escape their bondage adopted railroad titles like a conductor, a station manager and a station agent. Stock was a word applied to faith or belief in the abolitionist cause. So "hold you stock" was synonymous with "keep the faith."
There were at least seven well known ways to travel through Michigan to get to Canada. The first route was from Toledo to Detroit.
The second route was from Toledo to Adrian to Morenci to Tecumseh to Clinton to Saline to Ypsilanti to Plymouth to Swartzburg to River Rouge to Detroit.
The third route went along Old Sauk Road from Indiana; Niles to White Pigeon to Sturgis to Coldwater to Quincy to Jonesville to Somerset to Clinton to Saline to Ypsilanti to Plymouth to Swartzburg to River Rouge to Detroit.
The fourth route took escapees on Old Territorial Road from Indiana and Illinois; Niles to Cassopolis to Schoolcraft to Climax to Kalamazoo to Battle Creek to Marshall to Albion to Parma to Michigan Center to Jackson to Dexter to Leoni to Grass Lake to Ann Arbor to Giddes to Ypsilanti to Plymouth to Swartzburg to River Rouge to Detroit.
The fifth was the Grand River Trail from Indiana and Illinois; St. Joseph-Benton Harbor to South Haven to Holland to Grand Rapids to Lowell to Portland to Lansing to Williamston to Howell to Brighton to Farmington to Detroit. Route six was from Detroit, Lansing, Saginaw or Flint to Port Huron.
And route seven was from Chicago to Duluth to Mackinaw City, continuing on to Detroit or Port Huron via Saginaw, or to upper Canada via Sault Ste. Marie.
It is believed that Michigan had more than 200 "depots" on the Underground Railroad. A depot was a planned stop and included churches and fields and abolitionists' homes, or any safe place to hide.
A popular depot was the Finney Barn at the northeast corner of State and Griswold in Detroit. Ironically, the escaping slaves hid in Seymour Finney's barn while their pursuers, who came to Detroit hoping to catch the runaways just before they crossed the river to Canada, feasted in the dining room of Finney's Hotel a few blocks away at Woodward and Gratiot.
Second Baptist Church at Beaubien and Monroe in Detroit is a 160-year-old church that helped as many as 5,000 slaves escape to freedom. The church has turned the secluded basement room where the slaves hid during the day, into a monument to black history. The walls of the tiny room are painted with scenes of arriving slaves, maps of the railroad's path, and lists of black inventors. (To schedule a tour, call 1-313-961-0920 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. Admission is $1 for children, $2 for adults.)
When the 13th Amendment was signed into law on December 6th 1865, George DeBaptiste, general manager of the Underground Railroad in Michigan, displayed a sign that read,
"Notice to Stockholders - Office of the Underground Railway:
This office is permanently closed."
The sign was later attached to DeBaptiste's office building at Jefferson and Beaubien.
Timeline of Anti-slavery Movement in Michigan
1619 Slaves brought to America to work on farms
1787 Ordinance of 1787 provided for the return of slaves to their owners, although it did not apply to the Michigan area
1792 England abolished slavery, but did not enforce it in her colonies
1793 Jays Treaty established a boundary between Canada and US, thus making the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 applicable to Michigan area
1793 Fugitive Slave Act passed setting fines and punishment for people aiding escaping slaves
1793 Invention of the Cotton Gin provides additional incentives for cotton growers to purchase slaves
1827 Territorial passed legislation requiring free blacks to purchase a $500 bond and carry a certificate
1831 2nd Fugitive Slave Law passed
1832 Elizabeth Margaret Chandler, a Quaker, organized the first anti-slavery society in the Michigan Territory at Adrian
1833 The Negro Riot occurred when Michigan blacks and whites helped free two escaping slaves, Mr. And Mrs. Blackburn, from the Sheriff
1834 Erotius Parmalee Hastings organized the first anti-slavery society in Detroit
1836 The Michigan Anti-Slavery Society was formed in Ann Arbor
1837 Michigan became a state
1840 The Census listed 753 blacks living in Michigan
1846 The Crosswhite case took place in Marshall
1850 Fugitive Slave Law, the 3rd slave law, that doubled the penalties of the 1793 act
1856 Sojourner Truth moved to battle Creek
1860 Estimates show that more than 5,000 slaves escaped across the Detroit River alone
1863 The 102 United States Colored Infantry, an all black Michigan regiment, was formed to fight on the side of the North
1865 Surrender of the Confederate Army
1865 The 13th Amendment was signed abolishing slavery in the United States
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