Freedom-Seekers of the Straits
U-M and Detroit’s Underground Railroad Network
University of Michigan graduates and faculty were involved in anti-slavery activism before and during the Civil War. Some served as “conductors” on the Underground Railroad, guiding freedom-seekers across the Detroit River to safety in Canada.
The International Underground Railroad Memorial now stands at the edge of the Detroit River, commemorating freedom-seekers and their guides. (“The Gateway to Freedom,” sculpted by Edward Dwight. JasonParis for Wikimedia Commons, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.)
The Underground Railroad and the University of Michigan
Constantly shifting laws on slavery in Canada in the United States meant that in the 18th and early 19th centuries, the Detroit River served as a bi-directional border between slavery and freedom. Canadian enslaved people might find refuge in Detroit, while Americans fled to Windsor. However, Canada’s abolition of slavery in the mid-19th century changed the Detroit River’s significance. It became a one-way escape route on the Underground Railroad, with Detroit as one of the Railroad’s most important terminals.
The narrow Detroit River loomed large as a border between slavery and freedom, and crossing it had powerful real and symbolic consequences for freedom-seekers. In one published account, a fugitive slave vividly described the River’s significance:
“Thanks be to Heaven that I have got here at last: on yonder side of Detroit river, I was recognized as property; but on this side I am on free soil. Hail, Brittania! Shame, America!”
In order to get to Detroit, however, many freedom-seekers had to pass through Ann Arbor.
Ann Arbor was the center of Michigan’s anti-slavery movement in the 19th century. The Michigan State Anti-Slavery Society was founded there in 1837–the same year that the University of Michigan moved into town–at a Presbyterian Church on the corner of Huron and Division streets. One of the society’s most prominent members, Guy Beckley, published the nationally-distributed abolitionist newspaper The Signal of Liberty out of Ann Arbor (where the fugitive slave account quoted above appeared). Beckley, among many other Society members, was also active on the Underground Railroad. Ann Arbor stood at the intersection of interstate freedom trails coming from the South and West; after arriving in the town, freedom-seekers could leave via either Ypsilanti or Plymouth on their way to the Detroit River border.
Because of the necessity for extreme secrecy, many of the names of Ann Arbor’s Underground Railroad “conductors” have been lost. However, records suggest that at least two members of the U-M community had significant roles on the Underground Railroad:
John Monteith, Founder and Abolitionist
Histories of the University of Michigan routinely credit Reverend John Monteith as one of the University’s three founding fathers, along with Judge Augustus Woodward and Father Gabriel Richard. In 1817, Monteith was President of the University’s Bates Street school in Detroit. However, these same histories often bypass Monteith’s deeply-held anti-slavery convictions. In the 1830s Monteith joined Theodore Weld’s group of evangelical abolitionists in Ohio, helping freedom-seekers escape the United States from the Southern shores of Lake Erie. His home in Elyria, Ohio, was a station on the Oberlin Underground Railroad network. He returned to Monroe, Michigan in 1845, where he likely continued to assist escaped slaves.
(Courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library, The University of Michigan.)
Conductor Alumnus: Samuel Codes Watson
Samuel Codes Watson led a noteworthy life, even setting aside his antislavery activism. In 1853 Watson was the first Black student admitted to the University of Michigan, although he passed for white during his studies. Watson enrolled in the U-M Medical School but did not ultimately finish his degree, later graduating from the Western Homeopathic College of Cleveland in 1857. In 1863 he moved to Detroit, and by 1867 he was Detroit’s wealthiest black property owner. In the next twenty years he also became the city’s first Black elected officer and its first Black city councilmember.
Evidence suggests, however, that before his political success Watson had an active role in assisting one of Michigan’s premier Underground Railroad conductors. From approximately 1858 to 1861 Watson managed a steamship out of Chatham, Canada: that steamship happened to be George DeBaptiste’s T. Whitney.
George DeBaptiste was one of two freeborn Black men who coordinated the Underground Railroad in Detroit (the other was “President of the Underground Railroad” William Lambert). In 1850 DeBaptiste purchased the T. Whitney to aid his operation. Posing as a standard cargo ship, it transported freedom-seekers between Sandusky, Ohio and Chatham, Canada, with stops in Detroit, Amherstburg, and Wallaceburg: a route which passed through the Detroit River and Lake St. Clair. Considering DeBaptiste’s and the T. Whitney’s real purpose, it is almost certain that as ship manager Watson also consciously abetted fugitive slaves’ bids for freedom across the Detroit River.
In 2019 Tylonn J. Sawyer completed a mural in the University’s Modern Building commemorating Samuel Codes Watson, the University of Michigan’s first black graduate. (Author photo.)
“The Detroit-Sandwich circle of elites who assisted the Denisons can be understood as an early formation of the Underground Railroad in the frontier era—a transnational network of freedom-seekers.”
–Veta Smith Tucker, A Fluid Frontier: Slavery, Resistance, and the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River Borderland
The Denison Case
Heroic figures like John Monteith and Samuel Codes Watson stand out in the University of Michigan’s history. However, the lives of the Denison family reveal a more complex picture of how University affiliates engaged with Detroit’s slavery economy: alternately employing, befriending, and condemning Black people who tried to survive and thrive in the border city.
Peter and Hannah Denison were a Black couple enslaved on Catherine and William Tucker’s farm just North of Detroit. After her husband’s death in 1805, Catherine indented Peter and Hannah to lawyer, farmer, fur merchant, and co-mayor of Detroit Elijah Brush. The terms of the indenture would free the couple after one year; however, Catherine Tucker kept the Denisons’ five children on her own farm. Peter and Hannah quickly grew friendly with the Brush family, so much so that within a year Elijah agreed to use his legal expertise to sue for the Denison children’s freedom. The ensuing legal battle has been compared to the famous Dred Scott case, in that it had far-reaching consequences for slavery policy.
In 1807 Tucker v. Denison came before Judge Augustus Woodward: the very man who drew up the University of Michigan’s founding documents a decade later. After extensive deliberations, Woodward ruled in Catherine Tucker’s favor. Although the Northwest ordinance forbade slavery in Michigan, Catherine Tucker was a British citizen who had settled in Detroit before American rule began in 1796; as a result, her property rights to the Denison children were recognized under international law. However, Woodward also instituted a system of gradual emancipation. Although people born into slavery before 1796 would remain enslaved for life, those born after 1796 were granted emancipation after a period of 25 years. While Woodward’s decision allowed British citizens to keep holding slaves in Michigan, but it also put the territory on a path towards abolition.
A portrait of Lisette Denison hangs in the church her bequest funded. St. James Episcopal Church still stands on Grosse Ile, where Denison spent many summers working for the Biddle family. (Courtesy of St. James Episcopal Church.)
Because four out of the five Denison children were born before 1796, Tucker v. Denison condemned them to a lifetime of slavery. But just a month later, Woodward passed another significant ruling. In a case concerning two British-Canadian slaves who had found refuge in Detroit, Woodward determined that U.S. sovereignty entailed no obligation to help reclaim and return them to the enslavement across the river. Woodward’s decision gave the Denisons a glimmer of hope: if the U.S. refused to recapture Canadian fugitives, and the Canadian government responded in kind, the Detroit River became a route to immediate freedom. The entire Denison family escaped across the river to Sandwich in the Fall of 1807, taking refuge with John Askin (Elijah Brush’s father-in-law). While their legal case set a precedent for the continuation of slavery in Michigan, their escape set a very different one: one historian writes that “the Detroit-Sandwich circle of elites who assisted the Denisons can be understood as an early formation of the Underground Railroad in the frontier era—a transnational network of freedom-seekers and accomplices operating on one or both sides of the river.”
Woodward was not the last University of Michigan community member to be involved in the Denisons’ lives. Between 1820 and 1860 Lisette, the eldest Dension child, worked as a cook and nanny for both Solomon Sibley–prominent early donor to the University–and John Biddle–one of the University’s first trustees and a frequent employer of former or runaway slaves. Lisette’s hard work and wise investments accumulated her enough wealth to leave a remarkable legacy behind after her death in 1866: a chapel on Grosse Ile, where she once kept house at the Biddles’ vacation cottage. St. James Episcopal Church still stands on the river island, with a portrait hanging in its entryway to commemorate Lisette’s founding bequest.
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