Academic journal article The Journal of Law in Society

Slaves, Laws, and Courts in Early Detroit and Michigan 1701-1835

Academic journal article The Journal of Law in Society

Slaves, Laws, and Courts in Early Detroit and Michigan 1701-1835

Article excerpt

A. Slavery and the Law in Michigan

In early Michigan, Africans and Native Americans (1) were enslaved in the Detroit settlement, (1) which at the time spanned both sides of the Detroit River. (2) On a smaller scale, slavery also was practiced in the northern fur trading posts at Michilimackinac. (3) Black slavery existed during three distinct periods of governance in Michigan's history: the French, 1701-1760; the British, 1760-1796; and the American, 1796-1837. (4)

In addition to dislocations caused by warfare among sovereign governments vying for control of the territory, the legal status of slavery was complicated by international treaties and laws that regulated changes in the region's governance. (5) These included the surrender of Montreal under the Articles of Capitulation of 1760; the Treaty of Paris, which ended the French-British struggle for the North American continent; and the Jay Treaty of 1794, which transferred possession of the Northwest posts from Great Britain to the United States. (6) Notwithstanding the provisions of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 that prohibited slavery in the area above the Ohio River between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River, slavery was not abolished legally in Michigan until 1837 when the state's first constitution officially ended involuntary servitude. (7)

Slaves, owned by Indians and the French, were reported in Detroit in 1701 when Antoine L. de la Mothe Cadillac became commandant of Detroit and Port Pontchartrain. (8) During its early period, most of the slaves in Detroit were Indians. (9) The transition to black slavery progressed slowly under the French and was not completed until after Detroit came under British rule in 1760. (10)

The first black slaves brought into Detroit were captured by the Indians in raids on Southern slave plantations and sold or traded to the French. (11) Later, some slaves came with their masters who migrated from the South. (12) A small number of slaves were purchased from Eastern slave-merchants as the following late eighteenth century letters from the trading firm of James Phyn and Alexander Ellice in Schenectady, New York illustrates: (13)

Schenectady, 23 (rd) August 1760

Mr. James Stirling, Detroit


Your favor, 29th June, attending your order, we had the pleasure to receive, and immediately thereon J.P. made a jaunt to New York, with a view to be particular and expeditious in making up to the goods. We now enclose you Invoice per L-----, the loading of six boats is under the direction of James McDonald, who is engaged to proceed with them to Detroit. * * * We have tried all in our power to procure the wenches and negro lads, but it's impossible to get any near your terms. No green negroes are now brought into this Province. We can purchase negroes from eighty pounds to ninety pounds, and wenches from sixty pounds to seventy pounds. If such will be acceptable, advise and you shall have them in the spring, and perhaps under, if we can meet with Yankees in the winter.

With great esteem, yours,

P. & E. (14)

Schenectady, 13 August 1770

Mr. Levy:


We have received two negro boys; the oldest will do for Mr. Stirling, at Detroit, and its entered in our Order book. But we are entirely at a loss what to do with that fat-gutted boy, having orders for none such for any of our correspondents, and we don't by any means want him for ourselves. * * * Pray, are not bills of sale necessary with these African gentlemen?


P. & E. (15)

Schenectady, 22 March, 1771

Mr. Carpenter Wharton:


Upon your arrival at Philadelphia, please advise us by letter addressed to the care of Mr. Samuel Franklin, Jun., if you can purchase for us two negro lads from fifteen to twenty years, for about fifty pounds, New York currency, each. They must be stout and sound, but we are indifferent about their qualifications, as they are for a Frenchman in Detroit. …

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