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  • The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits by Tiya Miles
  • Catherine Cangany
The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits. By Tiya Miles. New York: The New Press, 2017. 351 pages. Cloth, paper, ebook.

Writing a full-length monograph on slavery in Detroit from 1750 to 1850 is an ambitious enterprise. Enslaved people constituted a small and declining percentage of Detroit's modest population: about 7 percent in 1750, 6 percent in 1778, and less than 1 percent in 1810. The source base for reconstructing their lives is extremely slim, the silences deafening. There are no slave narratives, runaway slave ads, or recovered archaeological material from slave quarters, and virtually no images. There exist only some impersonal bills of sale, probate inventories, censuses, and vital records, coupled with occasional references tucked into merchants' correspondence and some fragmentary records from court cases. The historiography on slavery in Detroit, by extension, is equally thin.1

Add to all these hurdles the colossal challenge of discerning labor status from imprecise terminology. For example, panis, a French term also used by Detroit's anglophones, could mean a Pawnee man (sometimes rendered panis de nation), an enslaved Native man of unspecified tribal affiliation (sometimes panis esclave), or an enslaved Pawnee man (sometimes esclave panis de nation). Sometimes, a Native slave was not called a panis at all, but an esclave from a particular nation, such as esclave teste plate ("flat head," a Haudenosaunee [Iroquois] term for their neighbors to the southeast). There are also examples in the Detroit records of Native individuals described as panis libre (free) and of at least one Native woman still termed "la panise [End Page 824] de Sieur Moran," her former owner, two years after her manumission.2 Similarly, nègre could mean a Black man of unspecified status (whether esclave, libre, or non esclave) or serve as shorthand for esclave nègre.3 Often, panis and nègre appear in the historical record unmodified, leaving historians to deduce status from context, instinct, or, if extant, supporting documentation. It is tricky work that demands care, method, and diligence.

Less daring historians might have sized up Detroit's challenging source base and bolted. Tiya Miles, and her team of six graduate and undergraduate research assistants, forged ahead. The dearth of sources, Miles insists, "does not mean we should ignore the enslaved in Detroit" (13). She continues, "We owe it to them, and ourselves, to bear close witness to their triumphs as well as their trials" (14). It is an honorable and difficult aim, enveloped in Miles's signature lyrical prose. [End Page 825]

Miles's purpose is to restore Native and Black slaves' centrality to early Detroit, which was what we might call a "fur-trade society with slaves," to riff on Ira Berlin's famous phrase.4 Opening chapters foreground the eighteenth century, when Detroit's two economies, "trading in the pelts of beavers and trading in the bodies of persons[,] became contiguous endeavors in Detroit, forming an intersecting market in skins" (15). Chapter 1 begins with early British control and the presence of Native slaves; chapter 2 moves to the American Revolution and Detroit's expansion to accommodate refugee loyalists and their Black bondspeople. Chapter 3 examines the tension between the theory of the Northwest Ordinance banning slavery in 1787 and its reality: Detroiters continued to hold slaves after joining the American fold in 1796.

Miles's chronology, however, omits virtually the entirety of Detroit's French period (1701–60), which provided the foundations for slavery and relations between Native, Black, and white peoples during the British period (1760–96). She does use the 1750 census, which enumerated 33 slaves of unspecified race out of 483 inhabitants. But although Miles otherwise did not employ them, Detroit's extant French-era records are significant and revealing.5 They confirm that Native slaves were present at Detroit by 1710, shortly after slavery's 1709 legalization in Canada. Individuals of African ancestry—their labor status unspecified but likely enslaved—were present in 1736 and probably earlier. Thus, the 1750 census almost...

Additional Information

ISSN
1933-7698
Print ISSN
0043-5597
Pages
pp. 824-829
Launched on MUSE
2019-11-07
Open Access
No
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