Slavery in the Early 1800's Detroit, Michigan. By J. A. Girardin.


In ancient times the city of Detroit and vicinity had slaves among its inhabitants.

The old citizens generally purchased them from marauding bands of Indians, who had captured the negro slaves in their war depredations on plantations.

Many were thus brought from Virginia, New York, and Indiana, and sold to the inhabitants of Detroit, sometimes for nominal prices.

Among our old citizens who were slaveholders in the olden times were the late Major Joseph Campau, George McDougall, James Duperon Baby, Abbott & Finchley, and several others.

The negro slaves were well treated by their owners.

Many of those poor captives when sold and released were at once well taken care of by our ancient inhabitants.

Sometimes the price of a negro slave was regulated according to his intrinsic value, but the price was quite high for those days.

For instance: A negro boy named Frank, aged 12 years, the property of the late Phillip Jonciere, of Bell Fontaine, now Springwells, was sold on the 22d day of October, 1793, by William Roe, acting auctioneer, to the late Hon. James Duperon Baby, for the sum of £213, New York currency, equal to $532.50 of our money.

Mr. Baby being the highest bidder, he, Frank, was adjudged to him for the benefit of Mr. Jonciere's estate.

In the records of baptism of St. Anne's Church, several persons of color we find recorded as having received the sacrament of baptism, and, in the absence of family names we find that the names of "Margaret," for instance, a negress, "unknown" would be entered in the absence of her regular family name; several instances of this kind are entered in the old records.

During the administration of the Governor and Judges of the Territory of Michigan, several negroes received donation lots.

Among them was a well-known negro named "Pompey," the property of the late James Abbott.

As a class the negroes were esteemed by our ancient population; many of them could speak the French language fluently, especially those living with their French masters.

But little cruelty was practiced by their owners.

There was no Wendell Phillips nor any Lloyd Garrison, nor any "higher law doctrine," expounded in those days to disturb the mind of the slave or the slaveholder.

Every one lived in arcadian simplicity and contentment.

The negro was satisfied with his position, and rendered valuable services to his master, and was ever ready to help him against the treacherous Indians.

During the war of 1812 several of them accompanied their masters to the battle-field, and materially helped their masters and the troops.

By an ordinance enacted by Congress, dated July 13, 1787, entitled "An act for the government of the territory of the United States northwest of the Ohio River," there was a clause in Article VI. saying that "there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes."

This was a safeguard by Congress to prevent the extension of slavery northwest of the Ohio river.

Notwithstanding this wise provision our ancestors paid but little attention to it, for whenever a spruce negro was brought by the Indians he was sure to find a purchaser at a reasonable price.

Most every prominent man in those days had a slave or two, especially merchants trading with the Indians.

Detroit and vicinity was a heaven to the slave compared to the Southern States, although slavery was carried on a moderate scale here, there being no cotton or rice fields to employ them in, their labor being on the plantations near Detroit, or at their master's houses.

The master once attached to his "Sambo," a great price would have to be paid to buy him.

The late Judge May had a slave-woman who had come to his hands for a debt owed him by one Granchin.

This faithful slave served the Judge some 25 years.

Mr. Joseph Campau, an extensive trader in those days, had as many as ten slaves at different times.

Among them was a young negro named "Crow," who was quite a favorite of Mr. C., who had him dressed in scarlet, a contrast with his color.

This negro, to the amusement of the inhabitants of the old town, used to ascend old St. Anne's Church steeple and there perform some of his gymnastic tricks.

He was supple and elastic as a circus-rider.

He had been purchased at Montreal by Mr. Campau.

He was afterwards drowned from one of Mr. C.'s batteaux.

"Hannah," another intelligent colored woman, was purchased at Montreal by Mr. C.

This faithful slave, after serving him several years, married "Patterson," also a slave.

"Mnlet," one of the most honest and faithful of all slaves, also belonged to Mr. Campau, who very often employed him as confidential clerk.

This slave died but a few years ago at a very advanced age, respected and esteemed for his great integrity and fidelity.

The slave "Tetro" was among the favorites of Maj. Campau.

He, too, was as faithful and as honest as the day was long.

The late Gen. John R. Williams also possessed a slave, named "Hector."

He, too, was faithful and trustworthy.

In the year 1831 Daniel Leroy, Olmstead Chamberlain, and Gideon O. Whittemore sold to Col. Mack, Gen. Williams, and Maj. Campau the newspaper called the Oakland Chronicle, the office being transferred here, and the well known slave "Hector" was placed in charge of it.

When the late Col. Sheldon McKnight entered to take possession he was fiercely resisted by "Hector," who showed fight, and the Colonel had to retreat.

This paper was afterwards merged into the Free Press of this city.

Ann Wyley, a former slave, suffered the extreme penalty of the law for having stolen six guineas from the firm of Abbott & Finchley.

She was sentenced to death by a justice of the peace, and buried on the spot where St. Anne's Church now stands, which ground was used as a place of burial in early days; and when, in 1817, the foundations of the church were being excavated for, the body of this unfortunate woman was found, face downward.

It was supposed that she was in a trance at the time of her burial.

This incident was related to me by an old lady, some years ago, who knew all about the facts, and who has since died.

The late Joseph Drouillard, of Fetite Cote, Canada, had two daughters.

Upon the marriage of one of them to the grandfather of your humble servant she received a farm; the other received two slaves as her marriage portion.

This goes to show that the negro in those days was considered a chattel.

Several of our French farmers on both sides of the river had one or more of them.

Many anecdotes can be related of Africa's sons among our ancestors, and they as a class were well cared for and educated by their kind masters.

I could digress and go into more details, but the present sketch will suffice to show our modern philanthropists that the slaves here in Detroit were as well treated as the families in which their lot had been cast.

The question may be asked: "How did slavery die out here?"

The owners of slaves, after having received their services for a number of years generally would liberate them, or sometimes sell them to parties outside of the- Territory.

When the celebrated ordinance of 1787 was extended over the Northwest, Michigan assumed for the first time the first grade of government, and the laws of Congress were put in force, no more slaves were afterward allowed to be brought into the Territory, and slavery was known no more here!


Know all men by these presents:

That I, James May of Detroit, for and in consideration of the sum of forty-five pounds, New York currency, to me in hand paid by John Askin, Esqr., of Detroit, the receipt whereof I do hereby acknowledge to be fully satisfied and paid, have sold and delivered, and by these presents, in plain and open market, do bargain, sell, and deliver unto the said John Askin, Esqr., a certain negro man, Pompey by name, to have and to hold said negro unto the said John Askin, Esqr., his heirs, executors, administrators, and assigns forever; and I. the said James May, for my heirs, executors and assigns, against all manner of person or persons shall and will warrant and forever defend by these presents.

In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and seal this nineteenth day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and ninety-four.



In presence of

Robert Stevens.

I do hereby make over my whole right, title, and interest in the above mentioned negro man Pompey to Mr. James Donnolson of this place for the sum of fifty pounds.

New York currency, the receipt of which I do hereby acknowledge, as witness my hand and seal at Detroit, this third day of January, 1705.


Witness, William Mcclintock.