Looking back over nineteenth century Michigan history, it is not surprising that slavery was never debated or litigated extensively. From the territorial period, white emigrants had gone to Michigan seeking greater opportunities than they had in the East, or to escape competition with slave labor in the South. Moreover, Michigan's soil, climate, and economy made the use of large-scale agricultural laborers unlikely. Indentured servitude or hired-out slaves never became an industry in Michigan. The African-American population remained comparatively small throughout the antebellum era. There were only two themes in Michigan's early judicial history that involved black residents: runaway slaves and enfranchising African Americans.
Like most states, except Wisconsin, the courts in Michigan joined federal courts to uphold federal fugitive slave laws. The courts supported the idea that a slave holder should be able to capture a runaway slave and that persons who obstructed the process were punishable under federal laws. Obstruction could have meant aiding a runaway slave, participating in a rescue, or denying knowledge of the whereabouts of an alleged refugee.
For example, when a district court reviewed the case of Gitler v. Graham ( 1848), the court supported Gitler's claim that his slaves escaped to Michigan in 1843, where they stayed unmolested until 1848. The whites who knew them considered them free; and if they had been slaves, it did not seem to matter to the whites. Gitler, the slave holder from Kentucky, produced an affidavit for their arrest. He and his men caused a scene when apprehending the refugees. Whites who knew the refugees believed they were free. During the fracas, the alleged slaves escaped. Gitler, unable to immediately pursue them, sued the men who interfered under federal law. A federal district court ruled in Gitler's favor.