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  • The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits by Tiya Miles
  • Dana Elizabeth Weiner
Tiya Miles, The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits. New York: The New Press, 2017. 352 pp. $18.99 (paper).

With The Dawn of Detroit, Tiya Miles eloquently uncovers slavery's hidden traces in the Old Northwest. Miles depicts the Detroit River region from the late colonial era through the early republic as an important international, imperial, and cultural border, as well as a border between slavery and freedom. This book makes essential contributions to the study of slavery and race in the Midwest in lyrical prose. Through tireless research, Miles has located sources about early enslaved people in Detroit. This available documentation facilitates greater understanding about Black slavery there, even though the enslavement of Indigenous people was more common. The introduction sketches continuities between past and current race and class discrimination in Detroit. Miles expands knowledge about unfree people of color in early America as she closely links Indigenous dispossession and slave labor. As she explains, bound African and indigenous workers built Detroit and its economy, resisted slavery, and moved across the porous international water boundary into and out of Canada. Unfree people pushed back against exploitation there, creating lives for themselves. Settlers' labor needs gave bondspeople some ability to negotiate work terms.

Miles puts unfree laborers at her story's core, joining an expanding historiography of North American slavery that recognizes how the institution pervaded the continent, including Canada. She claims that historians have [End Page 210] granted insufficient attention to Detroit's enslaved population; she, in contrast, chronicles the city's history with full attention to bondspeople's roles and impacts there. Miles adeptly addresses their struggles to protect their bodies and their freedom, as well as to enhance their citizenship rights. As she also explains, Detroiters' allegiances shift ed over the course of many years from Anishinaabe, to colonial French, and then to British Canada. They eventually assumed American loyalties. Detroit's population soon diversified to include immigrants from the British Isles, enslaved Africans, and migrants from other British colonies—and later from other parts of the U.S.

Chapter 1 focuses on the establishment of local slavery for processing furs, as well as on the transition from French to British colonial rule. Miles places chattel slavery at the center of Detroit's economy beginning with the fur trade, arguing that both institutions exploited animal and human bodies. In this chapter and later ones, Miles demonstrates how gender affected bondspeople's lives. Chapter 2 tells of enslaved people under British and then American rule in the Revolutionary War era. The link between peltry and slavery persisted, and a fluid form of slaveholding was common among elite British merchants in the 1760s and 1770s. Indeed, Detroit slaveholders acquired even more slaves during the war. Miles observes extensive sexual abuse of both Native American and African-descended bondswomen, even as some Indigenous women married into Detroit's elite and led privileged lives.

Chapter 3 examines slaveholders' struggles to maintain slavery in the nominally free Northwest Territory as well as enslaved people's use of the law to promote freedom. Only through concerted action did Detroit slaveholders keep the institution alive. after the Revolutionary War, Detroiters continued acquiring Indigenous land and enslaving people. Most enslaved people's lives altered little despite postwar changes in government. The 1790s saw a small uptick in the enslavement of African-descended people in the city, but Native American slaves still outnumbered Black ones. Chapter 4 reveals how Detroit began becoming American in the early nineteenth century. This affected enslaved people's ability to access the legal system; they could use new legal resources under the American regime, and—given the Northwest Ordinance—slavery had only tenuous protections there under American law. Enslavement in Detroit and across the river in Canada continued, despite bondspeople's resistance. Geography, however, facilitated fugitives' escapes. Miles carefully studies both the city's devastating [End Page 211] fire in 1805 and the 1807 Michigan Supreme Court case, Denison v. Tucker. That case aimed to secure the...