The Underground Railroad in Michigan
The Centennial History of Michigan Chapter 26
Edited by George N. Fuller Lewis Publishing Co 1939

The underground railroad was an unofficial, informal organization for assisting fugitive slaves to escape from the slave states south of the Ohio River to places of refuge in the North or in Canada. It had no charter and kept no record of operations. Its operators justified it by the “higher law” to which the Federal laws concerning restoration of fugitive slaves were considered subordinate. Since the underground railroad kept no books and gave no account of its ac­tivities, its history was written long after the occasion for the exist­ence of the organization ceased, and the records of its history are with few exceptions statements from memory.

The chief operations of the underground railroad in the Old North­west were through Ohio. The reason was, that the Ohio River, which was the northern boundary of slave states, is closer to the Canadian line across Ohio than at any other point on its course. The northern terminals of the Ohio lines were all on the southern shores of Lake Erie, chiefly Ashtabula, Cleveland and Sandusky.

The Michigan routes of the underground railroad carried fugitive slaves from Indiana to the borders of Canada. The operators did not invariably follow the same course, but the general direction and the main stations are known. Battle Creek was the junction of both the routes that came out of Indiana. Many fugitives who crossed the Ohio River in the vicinity of Cincinnati were routed along the line leading through Quaker settlements in eastern Indiana, northward through Fort Wayne and thence across the Michigan line to Battle Creek. From Battle Creek the main line led east to Detroit approximately over the route of the Michigan Central Railroad. That rail­road was in fact used for conveying many of the fugitive slaves. Another route from Battle Creek ran northeast through Lansing and Flint to Port Huron, where there was an easy transit across the St. Clair River to Canada.

South Bend, which was a few miles from the Michigan border, was the point where two main routes from Indiana converged. The course of the “railroad” crossed the Michigan line in the vicinity of Niles. There were several hospitable stop-over stations in Cass County, and thence the road continued northeast through Kalamazoo to Battle Creek.

The underground railroad was in reality a complex transportation system, yet it operated with a minimum of red tape or official person­nel. The actual operations depended upon the vigilance of the individual station and its operator. Each operator was in touch with the adjacent station, accepting runaways from one and delivering them to the next on the north. But with the discharge of that duty his re­sponsibility ended. The distance covered by the individual operator might be considered a “division,” in railway parlance. Levi Coffin was sometimes referred to as “president of the underground rail­road.” However, there is no evidence that he, or any general manager or board of directors, issued any written orders or kept any account­ing to show that all the hundreds of divisions were comprehended in a “system.”

Not all the operators were Quakers, but the busiest routes followed by the railroad were those leading through distinctly Quaker communities. There was considerable pronounced abolition sentiment in Michigan. But as long as the abolition societies were concerned with the reform or extermination of an institution that did not exist in Michigan, the average citizen was more or less indifferent. Most people were little concerned about slaveowners and their property. Of course the agent of the slaveowner was regarded with intense personal dislike. Consequently when that agent demanded the aid of local courts and law enforcement officials to assist him in apprehending fugitive negroes, he received at the best only half-hearted co­operation. If the slave had run away it was the business of the owner to find him, if he could, and the Michigander while not putting any special obstacles in the way was loath to join in the pursuit.

The average citizen of Michigan was not disposed to inquire very closely as to the status of the negro, whether he was a freedman or a fugitive. The census of 1837 gave Wayne County 228 negroes, and the State a total colored population of 379. The largest number out­side Detroit were, in Washtenaw 62, Monroe 35, and Calhoun 24. Detroit in 1827 had 66 free negroes, and in 1830 a total of 126. A negro named Blackburn and his wife ran away from their master in Ken­tucky in 1830 and for several years lived peaceably at Detroit. In 1833 an agent from their owner arrived and claimed them as “fugitives from labor.” The runaways were tried and were lodged in jail preparatory to being returned south. The woman left the jail in the clothes of a friend and neighbor. Blackburn himself while being taken to the boat was rescued by a group of colored men and white friends. During the trouble the sheriff was badly injured. Martial law was declared and the report was spread that the local negroes were in insurrection. Many of them were arrested and put in jail and a large part of the negro population of Detroit moved across the river to Canada.

Public opinion held that the presence of the negro, whether free or slave, was provocative of disorder. Apparently the constitutional convention of 1835 recognized this when a majority of its members were unwilling to extend political rights to “colored persons.” Michigan nevertheless was a haven for negroes, free or slave, who had formerly lived in the South, really second only to Canada in point of their security. Some fugitives were returned to their owners, but on the whole an escaped slave, once arrived in Michigan from the South, seldom went back except of his own free will.

The neutral attitude of Michigan people toward slaves and slave-owners favored the organization of activities on the underground railroad through Michigan. The Friends or Quakers were highly respected, comprising some of the most substantial people in south­ern Michigan. The underground railroad invariably followed the general line of the Quaker settlements. One of the foremost operators was a Quaker merchant, Erastus Hussey, at Battle Creek. Hussey afterwards stated that influential citizens of Battle Creek opposed his efforts to outwit officers of the law who came to capture runaway negroes. In this respect the Quakers were reformers, and were tol­erated rather than encouraged largely because of their otherwise blameless records. An historian of the underground railroad has compiled a list of 47 “operators” in Michigan. Lenawee was the county that had the largest number, 12; Washtenaw and Wayne had 8 each; St. Joseph, 7; Calhoun, 4; Cass, 3; there were two in Oakland and one each in Kalamazoo and Genesee counties.

The Quaker settlements in Penn and other townships of Cass County had protected many of the early negro fugitives who had come up from the South, and had encouraged a portion of them to remain. The first fugitive had located in Cass County in 1836. By 1850 the county. contained 389 negroes, 158 of them being in Calvin township, where the negroes were as one to three compared to whites. This negro colony contained not only fugitive slaves; its chief nucleus was a group of freed negroes who had come in from North Carolina about 1846. This negro colony made it inevitable that Cass County should attract considerable attention in the South, not only among the slaves, but from the whites whose blacks had escaped. Slave hunters would naturally think first of the negro settlement in Cass County in searching for an escaped slave.

The presence of escaped slaves in the county led to a concerted movement on the part of Kentuckians for their capture. The attempt became known as the “Kentucky Raid.” The raid was not a single incursion by one party of slave hunters. The Kentuckians directed their efforts to a broad field and carried on their operations for a considerable period of time, involving many separate expeditions. One of the chief parties of raiders from Kentucky arrived in August, 1847. They maintained secrecy as to their intentions, and directed their movements in the same manner that would characterize a gang of horse thieves. Nevertheless they clearly had the laws of the United States to support them in recovering their slaves, and were compelled to act covertly only because of the hostility of citizens to the slave institution. In the course of the raid the slave hunters visited the homes of three influential Quaker citizens, Josiah Osborn, Zachariah Shugart and Stephen Bogue, all of whom were known as operators on the underground railroad. At each of the houses visited, one or more negroes were captured. But before the southerners could collect the slaves and get away from the county, the alarm had spread and a large party of citizens, armed with guns and clubs, stopped their progress and compelled them to go to Cassopolis to prove their ownership.

A great crowd gathered around the court house. In the hearing before a commissioner of the circuit court, the attorneys for the negroes demanded that the Kentuckians show cause why the negroes should not be released. A decision was rendered adverse to the Kentuckians, the nine former slaves were liberated, and on the same night they were hurried out of the county over the underground railroad. Later the owners brought suit in Federal court, and in 1851 a compromise was effected by which the defendants paid an aggregate sum of about $3,000. But practically the total sum went to satisfy court fees and the attorneys. The slaves were never returned.

The net effect of this, and of similar cases, was of course a denial of justice. Repeated cases naturally irritated the southerners and added fresh fuel to their indignation against the northern abolitionist. There were stations at Albion, Parma, Jackson, Michigan Center, Leoni and Grass Lake, Francisco, Dexter, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, Plymouth. In Detroit at Finney’s Hotel, a well known hostelry in the 1850s, the landlord not infrequently entertained slave hunters in the hotel while in his barn nearby were the fugitives whom the owners were seeking.

Conductors of the railroad had little need of haste if they could get their passengers over the borders of Washtenaw, Wayne or Oak­land counties. Lenawee County, though off the main underground route, played an important part, due to the large Quaker element there. Darius Comstock, founder of Adrian, was a Quaker, and the first settler at Tecumseh was of the same faith. An interesting rural community is still known as Quaker Valley. The Friends Cemetery there is the resting place of Laura Smith Haviland, one of the most notable Michigan operators of the underground railroad. “Aunt” Laura, as she was affectionately known, was a native of Ontario, and had come to Lenawee County in 1829. She was one of the organizers of the first abolition society in Michigan, so prominent in the cause that the slave interests in the South offered a reward of $3,000 for her dead or alive. Another famous abolition worker was Elizabeth Margaret Chandler, the Quakeress poet, whose home was in Tecumseh.

The climax in the activities of the underground railroad in Michi­gan and the abolition movement was the Crosswhite case. Adam Crosswhite, his wife and four children, were fugitive slaves from Kentucky who had found refuge in a little home in the outskirts of the city of Marshall. Crosswhite is thought to. have been the proto type of the character “George Harris” in Uncle Toms Cabin. Marshall at that time contained about forty colored people, some of them free born and some former slaves. Crosswhite, fearing that he might be abducted, arranged that the firing of a gun should be a signal to his neighbors. This signal shot was heard on the morning of January 26, 1847, before daybreak. Four Kentuckians, in company with a deputy sheriff, had come to the Crosswhite home. They found the door barricaded, and to gain entrance had to break it down. Meantime friends and neighbors, aroused by the signal, were gathering fast and soon surrounded the little group of captors and captives. A heated discussion ensued. The attorney for the Kentuckians declaimed to the mob the law of the Federal Constitution and the stat­utes. His hearers were unconvinced, and while some of them were disposed to argue the case, others by their defiant attitude gave full evidence they intended to see to it that the negroes were not taken away captives. Several hours passed. The party dispersed. The Ken­tuckians were placed under arrest for using violence. The negroes remained among their friends. At the preliminary hearing one of Michigan’s celebrated lawyers, John Van Arman, made a moving argument in which he emphasized the cowardly attack at night, the curse of slavery, the gift of freedom, the spectacle of an infant child being torn from the breast of its mother. Meanwhile the Crosswhite family were taken out of the village and secreted during the night. At an opportune moment they were put on an early morning train for Detroit, and before the end of the day they had crossed into Canada.

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