Herb Boyd is the author of “Black Detroit: A People’s History of Self-Determination.”
‘Please rip your mental map in half and turn it upside down.” These are the marching orders from Tiya Miles in her new, groundbreaking history, “The Dawn of Detroit.”
Here Miles asks us to rethink our idea of the Midwest — and of Detroit in particular — and the role of enslaved and indigenous people in its creation. “We tend to associate slavery with cotton in the commercial crop heyday of the southern ‘cotton kingdom,’ ” she writes. But the institution also was central to the fur trade, the industry on which the northern territories were built. “Detroit was born of the forced captivity of indigenous and African people and the taking of land occupied by Native people,” Miles writes. “Captivity and capture built and maintained the town, forged Detroit’s chin-up character.”
Miles calls her book “an alternative origin story” — and with good reason. Hers is a history that “privileges people in bondage, many of whom launched gripping pursuits of dignity, autonomy, and liberty.” Piecing together voices from primary source material — wills, letters, account ledgers, church registries, court cases and papers of attorneys — Miles chronicles “the rise, fall and dawn of Detroit while centering on the experiences of those who were held in bondage from the mid-1700s to the early 1800s.”
Years of perusing dusty volumes, leafing through court records, deciphering handwritten letters, and making sense of myriad complex treaties and settlements have resulted in a comprehensive study of Detroit’s formative years. Miles, a historian at the University of Michigan and a MacArthur “genius grant” recipient, has compiled documentation that does for Detroit what the Works Progress Administration and the Federal Writers’ Project slave narratives did for other regions, primarily the South.
Miles demonstrates a unique insight on native and African American culture. Very few scholars move so seamlessly from the intricacies of the Africans to those of the Ottawa, Potawatomi and Objiwe cultures. Miles’s voice is consistently authoritative. This is evident in the passionate account of the great warrior chief Pontiac and is no less commanding in the depiction of enslaved people, such as Peter and Hannah Denison, whose lives are framed by the historical narrative.
“The conflicting nature of limited evidence makes the Denison family’s origins difficult to reconstruct,” Miles admits, but she patches together records and oral histories to create a fascinating family saga. According to probate records, the Denisons were owned by William Tucker, a farmer on Indian land. Hannah and her husband, Peter, had multiple children; one of them, Elisabeth Denison, became the first African American landowner in Detroit. Many historians have briefly written about the Denisons, but Miles provides a full tableau of their struggle for freedom. Central to this endeavor were the court battles in which the Denisons fought to rescue their children from Catherine Tucker, who was bequeathed the children after her husband’s death.
Besides her analysis of the Denison v. Tucker case, Miles explains such ambiguous and complicated enactments as the Treaty of Detroit, the Jay Treaty and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, and shows how slaveholders in Detroit through their illegal machinations managed to sidestep the provisions of the ordinance, which outlawed slavery in the territory. Miles’s considerable research fully discloses the deceptive maneuvers of two prominent Detroiters of that day, Gov. William Hull and Judge Augustus Woodward .
As episodes unfold in fragments, there are redundancies, seemingly for the purpose of reacquainting the reader with a particular incident and the characters involved. At times Miles resorts to speculation. For example, she writes: “Perhaps Hannah spoke often of her children in the French language, pulling on Adelaide’s heartstrings. Or perhaps Hannah, a woman handy with the needle, even claimed the superior skills of a dressmaker and could craft the fashionable clothing that Adelaide so adored.” But most of these passages are quite plausible. (No speculation would be required, however, if there were more thorough, previous accounts of the role that African slaves played in extinguishing the fire of 1805 that destroyed the city.)
Miles has a keen eye for details, including in her long disquisitions on the city’s rich and famous, and on several occasions she describes those women’s fashionable finery and accomplishments — contrasting the lifestyles of the slaves and their owners. She writes, for example, of the wife of John Askin, a leading slaveholder, “She was fluent in both French and English and had grown up enjoying the domestic services of indigenous and black women who had been stripped of their freedom.”
In her eloquent account, Miles conjures up a city of stark disparity and lives quashed. “Along the central waterfront, the footprint of colonial Detroit is snug as a vintage pin cushion,” she writes in her concluding chapter. “Here, where silver spires pierce the powder blue of sky, shiny high-rise office buildings reflecting the cool shades of water, it is difficult to imagine a prior world of French shingled homes and fruit orchards, of canoes and bateaux plying the waters. . . . But these are the same streets, now paved and densely populated, where an enslaved indigenous woman was forced to give birth in a prison cell . . . where Peter and Hannah Denison were purchased and later fought in the courts for their children’s freedom. These striking individuals have long been erased by the collective consciousness of the city.” At long last, we hear them.
By Tiya Miles
New Press. 288 pp. $27.95