- The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits by Tiya Miles
In recent decades, nationwide news articles have underscored devastation, decline, and decay in their descriptions of the current state of Detroit. References to Detroit's heyday usually harken back to its distinction as the "Motor City" and the birthplace of Motown Records. In The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits, Tiya Miles exquisitely excavates and reconstructs "a chronicle of Detroit, an alternative origin story that privileges people in bondage, many of whom launched gripping pursuits of dignity, autonomy, and liberty" (2). Her book unveils the quilted and vexed history of Detroit's multinational, multiracial, multilingual, and multicultural past—composed of Indigenous people (including the Anishinaabeg—Ojibwes, Ottawas, and Potawatomies), people of African descent, mixed-race people, and French, French Canadian, British, and American denizens. To present this history, Miles adroitly mines myriad sources, including the account ledgers, diaries, and letters of merchants, traders, attorneys, government officials, missionaries, and slaveholding men and women; legal documents from property disputes and freedom suits; and the registry of Ste. Anne's Catholic Church (the second-oldest diocese in the present-day United States). Organized chronologically, each chapter exposes a particular swath of the composite historical quilt of bondage in Detroit—the purpose, practice, and processes of slavery among eighteenth-century French fur trader-merchants and Indigenous allies, slavery's expansion under British jurisdiction, and its evolution within a newly constructed American territory.
As a historian and storyteller par excellence, Miles remarkably creates spaces for Indigenous and black bondspeople as the backbone of Detroit's history and deftly carves out their presence in the midst of absences and silences. Throughout this book, she assiduously re-creates and reimagines the lives of enslaved people as they lived, labored, and died in slaveholding households and on the waterways, as they resisted and ran away together on their path to freedom, and as they fought individually and collectively as revolutionary renegades (e.g., as part of Detroit's black militia). She also vividly documents the intermingling of their lives with those of other [End Page 133] enslaved and free ("red and black") family members, as well as French habitants, French Canadian, British, and American slaver-traders. By so doing, Miles unearths the threads of experience of Indigenous enslaved people ("Panis"), with particular attention paid to unfree Indigenous women such as Marie-Marguerite, Mannette, and countless unnamed others who made up the largest percentage of enslaved people in Detroit. "Due to their ambiguous position in relation to Native groups and the pattern of French-Indian intermarriage," Miles posits, "indigenous women may well be the most invisible population in the history of American and Canadian slavery" (50). As Miles also poignantly reveals, children of enslaved Indigenous women and black men in this region generally followed the condition of their mothers. Thus the sociocultural dictates of Detroit in this case were more closely aligned with the tenets of partus sequitur ventrum, the guiding principle for the status of children of enslaved black women in America's slavocracy. Enslaved Indigenous women and their children satisfied a number of needs, and in the era of Pontiac's War in the 1760s and 1770s, "privileged residents in the Detroit River region . . . sought slaves for mobility (the movement of goods), for intimacy (the satisfaction of sexual desires), for domesticity (the maintenance of households), and for luxury (the pleasures attached to owning prestige goods)" (64).
Miles also breathes life into the fragments of archival material related to enslaved black women. She stitches a patchwork of resistance, vulnerability, fortitude, and coercion in her reasoned questions about the "negro slave" Ann Wyley's motivations (and the consequences) for conspiring with French Canadian Jean Contencineau in an act (or perhaps acts) of burglary at a furrier shop. Woven throughout the second half of the book are the moving accounts of the precariousness of slavery and freedom...