Detroit: The Last Stop on the Underground Railroad

Fugitive Slave Act
Fugitive Slave Act

After the War of 1812 the United States experienced a period of unprecedented unity and nationalism called the “Era of Good Feelings”. In this era the country experienced huge economic growth and industrial development, as well as waves upon waves of new immigrants from Europe and elsewhere around the globe. These immigrants then worked their way west in an unprecedented wave of territorial expansion. So many settlers moved west in fact that in 1837, only 22 years after the War of 1812 ended, Michigan had enough population to be granted statehood.

Detroit has always been Michigan’s largest and oldest city and for 10 years Detroit was Michigan’s state capitol. However, the capitol was moved in 1847 to Lansing in order to protect it from British troops in Windsor, Ontario which could bombard the city from their forts across the river. The prosperity felt in Michigan was reflected in industrial growth, especially in Detroit, but in other parts of the country (i.e. the American South) it was reflected in the growth of huge plantation farms. These plantations were worked by hundreds of thousands of African slaves. The import of African slaves to the United States had been banned in 1807 by President Thomas Jefferson, but the domestic trading of those slaves continued.

View of Detroit from "Freedom" (a.k.a. Windsor)

View of Detroit from “Freedom” (a.k.a. Windsor)

These enslaved peoples of course desired to escape and find their freedom, thus the Underground Railroad was born. There were many routs to freedom, but the most traveled led escaped slaves north to Detroit, then across the Detroit River, and to ultimate freedom in Canada. The Fugitive Slave Act, which was passed into law in 1850, allowed Southern slave catchers to cross into Northern states in order to capture escaped slaves. This made escape to Canada essential, because even if a slave made it to the northern states where slavery was abolished; they could still be captured and returned to Southern plantations against their will.

George de Baptiste

George de Baptiste

During this time many of Detroit’s leaders and abolitionists rose up to protect escaped slaves and assist them in their eventual escape to Canada. As the last stop on the Underground Railroad before reaching Canada, Detroit was an exciting place to reach for all escaped slaves. Residents of Detroit, like Seymour Finney, Dr. Nathan Thomas, and George de Baptiste played key roles in receiving escaped slaves and ferrying them across the Detroit River to freedom in Windsor, Ontario. George de Baptiste also founded Detroit’s first African American church, Second Baptist Church, and an anti-slavery group called the Order of the Men of Oppression.

Second Baptist Church

Second Baptist Church

Eventually economic and moral tensions ignited between the northern and southern United States. Michigan and Detroit would supply many of the soldiers and weapons with which the Civil War was fought as well as General George Armstrong Custer, the Civil War would be fought from 1861 to 1865 and would result in the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which completely abolished slavery in every state and freed all slaves. After this point Underground Railroad ceased to be necessary and its last run would be in 1865.

General Armstrong Custer

General Armstrong Custer

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