As the Continental Congress discussed the Northwest Ordinance, a Massachusetts delegate suggested adding a provision banning slavery in the Northwest Territory, which included the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan. The Ordinance, including this measure, was adopted on July 13, 1787. It was the first time the federal government set limits on the expansion of slavery. However, despite this ban, a small number of slaves continued to live in the Northwest Territory,
As more people settled the Northwest Territory, some areas tried to get around the ban on slavery. This was particularly true in Indiana and Illinois, but less so in Michigan.
Slavery in Michigan began with the arrival of the French. When the British took control of the Great Lakes in 1761 they discovered Native American and African slaves in Detroit. A 1782 census showed 78 male and 101 female slaves living in Detroit. The number of slaves declined after the British left Detroit in 1796. Only 15 African Americans lived in Detroit in 1805, and it is unclear how many were slaves.
Few Michiganians ever owned slaves and most disapproved of what became known in America as “the peculiar institution.” In 1807 a Canadian living in Windsor demanded that his two escaped African American slaves-then living in Michigan-be returned to him. Territorial Justice Augustus Woodward denied the request, declaring that every “man coming into this Territory is by law of the land a freeman.”
The 1830 census showed 32 slaves living in the Michigan Territory, but these numbers dwindled quickly. Michiganians also grew openly critical of human slavery. As the Civil War neared, Michiganians spoke out against this southern institution; many others worked along the Underground Railroad to assist people escaping slavery in the southern states.
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