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Slavery, Resistance and the Underground Railroad in Michigan

An estimated 12 million Africans were forced across the Atlantic Ocean between 1450 and 1808, the year the United States outlawed "importing slaves" from Africa. The men who drafted the United States Constitution debated about slavery and the legal status of enslaved people.

The Constitution they wrote viewed enslaved people as property. But there were people—enslaved and free Africans, African Americans and European Americans—who challenged the idea that anyone could be considered property. They sought either to keep slavery from growing or to end it entirely.

Slavery was legal in the territory that would become Michigan until the adoption of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787. Michigan prohibited slavery when it adopted its first state constitution in 1835. The people who resisted slavery by escaping to Michigan, or by helping those people who escaped, made this state a place where the conflict over whether any person could own another shaped communities and lives.

Michigan's Underground Railroad stories document the lives of African Americans who escaped enslavement in rural and urban communities in states including Missouri, Tennessee, Louisiana, Arkansas, Virginia and Mississippi. A large number of them ran away from Kentucky by themselves, in pairs and in groups of acquaintances or families.

Those escaping slavery often used political and religious networks of African and European men and women, rather than specific routes. They traveled through places like Ohio, Indiana and Illinois on their way to Michigan. Most traveled by foot and/or wagons. Some made direct journeys from the south, while others spent short or longer times in communities along the way.

Antislavery activists used many strategies, including public demonstration, challenging and changing the laws, forming antislavery organizations or religious congregations, holding public meetings, and speaking and writing against slavery. Through religious and/or political affiliations, European American and legally free and formerly enslaved African American women and men in Michigan often knew each other. They provided safe places for African Americans who escaped slavery, food and sometimes clothing. They helped create opportunities for the formerly enslaved to start new lives in Michigan in tolerant communities.

While black and white communities did not always live side-by side, they sometimes joined together to resist attempts of "slave owners" to take formerly enslaved women and men back into slavery. In several cases, they provided defense and protection against the men and women who claimed ownership over African Americans who had escaped to Michigan. Their tactics included confrontation, legal battles, writing and speaking about slavery and the need to end it, publishing the Signal of Liberty, and passing P.A. 162, the Personal Freedom's Act, in 1855.

Michigan Pulses of Resistance to Slavery

The colored counties on the Michigan map below indicate pulses of resistance to slavery in Michigan as of August 2005. Stars show places in those counties with known activity. Documentation for events, people and places involved varies and researchers are always seeking primary sources to add more pulses. With the right evidence, this map can easily change and will be updated with new information as of October.

The map of Michigan shows areas of resistance to slavery. See text below for detail.

Each color shows varying degrees of three references or instances: Underground Railroad, antislavery activity and/or African American settlement.

  • Yellow (Bay, Eaton, Mecosta, Monroe and Muskegon) indicates a few oral references.
  • Orange (Allegan, Barry, Berrien, Ingham, Macomb, Mason, Oakland, Oceana and Ottawa) designates 1-2 documented references .
  • Dark orange (Calhoun, Cass, Chippewa, Jackson, Kalamazoo, Lenawee, Mackinac, Washtenaw and Wayne) specifies multiple documented instances.

Contact the Michigan Historical Center.

Updated 08/25/2010

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