Underground Railroad Monument Detroit
·

11 Underground Railroad Michigan Towns to Discover on the Michigan Freedom Trail

The Underground Railroad was an extensive, multi-state network that existed in the 19th century to help enslaved people reach freedom.

In its early days, the network was more spontaneous. But according to the National Park Service, it became much more organized after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

Let’s learn more about the Underground Railroad Michigan towns that played a part in this historic movement.

Nathan M. Thomas Home-Schoolcraft
The Nathan M. Thomas Home | photo via “UCantBSeriouz” b.seriouzzz

About the Underground Railroad

To be a part of the Underground Railroad meant that you were willing to assist enslaved people in escaping from bondage.

At distinct locations, freedom seekers could hide, sympathetic individuals would provide financing or supplies to those in need, and conductors would physically hide those seeking freedom in their homes, basements, places of employment, storerooms, and more.

The Michigan Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad in Michigan was more extensive than most people realize. Many towns across the state played an important role in helping enslaved people find safety, solace, and most importantly, freedom.

Known as the Michigan Freedom Trail, these are some of the most important towns and points of interest that played a role in the resistance to slavery in the state.

Cassopolis

The first stop in Michigan for freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad was Cassopolis, a small town in the southwest corner of the state.

The most famous conductor in Cassopolis was Stephen Bogue, a Quaker resident who launched the Friends Anti-Slavery Society in 1843. Not only did Bogue support the anti-slavery cause through advocacy and social activism, but he also played a critical role in housing freedom seekers who were hoping to reach the Canadian border.

Bogue lived in a small home at the corner of Crooked Creek and M-60, and it was there that he housed freedom seekers who needed shelter and refuge.

The Bogue House

Today, the Bogue House is owned and maintained by the Underground Railroad Society of Cass County, which has worked to preserve the property for visitors looking to learn more about this Underground Railroad Michigan site.

The Bonine House-Vandalia
The Bonine House | photo via archi_ologie

Vandalia

Also located in Cass County, Vandalia played a critical role in the movement to resist slavery and assist freedom seekers on the nationwide Underground Railroad.

Perhaps the most well-known conductor in Vandalia was Quaker James E. Bonine, who relocated to Michigan in 1843 and married Sarah Bogue, daughter of nearby stationmaster Stephen Bogue, just a year later.

The Bonine House & Carriage House

Designed in the Greek Revival style, the Bonine House was one of the grandest homes in the county, and there were plenty of rumors that it was used to house freedom seekers in secret. In fact, some local tales report that tunnels led from the home to its nearby Carriage House where there is some evidence that freedom seekers stayed there on the journey to freedom.

While there is little physical evidence today to prove the existence of tunnels or to verify that the home was used as an actual shelter, it’s clear that the property and its owners played a pivotal role in this Underground Railroad Michigan town.

Today, the Underground Railroad Society of Cass County owns and maintains both the Bonine House and Carriage House, and the organization continues to work to understand and preserve its history.

Schoolcraft

The Underground Railroad in Michigan consisted of several distinct routes, allowing freedom seekers to follow a pre-determined path that, if successful, would lead them to a safe place where they could live life on their own terms.

Dr. Nathan M. Thomas

One of the most prominent stops in Michigan was found in Schoolcraft, in the small home of Dr. Nathan M. Thomas. He was the son of Quaker parents and gained notoriety in Kalamazoo County for being its first practicing physician.

As his practice grew, he built a small home in town and continued to expand the size of his property and real estate holdings — earning him a prominent place in the community.

In 1840, before the network was an organized and definitive endeavor, Dr. Thomas and his wife began housing small groups of enslaved people seeking freedom. Together, they worked to help enslaved people reach Detroit and continue the journey.

By the time organization efforts were underway to connect the Underground Railroad as a secret and extensive network across the country, it was clear that Dr. Thomas’s house would be a station. With the new system in place, the Nathan M. Thomas house was a primary stop on the way to Battle Creek where the railroad continued.

The Nathan M. Thomas Home

Dr. Thomas and his wife helped more than 1,000 freedom seekers during their 20 years as stationmasters. Today, visitors can go to the Nathan M. Thomas Home, which is still located at 613 Cass Street in Schoolcraft. If you would like to tour the home, contact the Schoolcraft Historical Society in advance to make an appointment because there are no consistent operating hours.

Battle Creek

As freedom seekers worked to reach Canada through Michigan, they often found themselves in the heart of Southcentral Michigan in a town called Battle Creek. Today, Battle Creek is known largely for being Cereal City, but at one time, it was considered a pivotal Underground Railroad Michigan stop.

Here, Erastus and Sarah E. Hussey were two prominent stationmasters who worked to aid enslaved people seeking freedom. They were Quakers and staunch abolitionists, and they weren’t afraid to make their feelings known.

Once they received word about the formation of the network, they were quickly willing to become stationmasters, and soon, their home became one of the most significant stops on the route. It is estimated that they helped anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 enslaved people escape and find freedom.

Underground Railroad Sculpture

Today, the work that the Husseys did and the efforts of all those who organized and aided the Underground Railroad are honored with the Underground Railroad Sculpture. Located on W. Van Buren Street in Battle Creek, it is the largest monument of its kind in the country.

Spanning more than 28 feet long and 14 feet high, it is a larger-than-life rendition of the Husseys and Harriet Tubman assisting those seeking freedom. The moving sculpture pays homage to not only those who worked to implement the network but also those who relied on it to achieve the freedom that they deserved.

The National House Inn-Marshall
The National House Inn | photo via juliemaser

Marshall

After moving through Battle Creek, many freedom seekers found themselves in Marshall Michigan. The Michigan Freedom Trail was designed to provide enslaved people with a space to seek refuge at least every 15 miles.

During the Civil War Era, Marshall had earned a reputation for being a strong anti-slavery town, and many of its residents worked together to promote abolition and eliminate slavery. There is evidence to suggest that several buildings played an important role.

The National House Inn

The National House Inn is a historic bed and breakfast that still operates in Marshall today, and inside this building are several clues that it may have played an important role on the network in Michigan:

  • During renovations in the 1970s, a much smaller room was uncovered by the dining room. There was evidence that a tunnel once led to this room, though the tunnel was never verified.
  • A small closet was discovered on the first floor of the inn that had a trap door, which may have served as a lookout point.

Adam Crosswhite

In addition to serving as a station on the Underground Railroad, Marshall residents banded together to protect former slaves who had reached their freedom.

Famously, former slave Adam Crosswhite was living in Marshall when slave catchers attempted to abduct him and his family to return them to Kentucky. Rather than allowing this to happen, Marshall citizens arrested the slave catchers and worked to get Crosswhite and his family to Canada where they would be safe.

Crosswhite eventually returned to Marshall once the Civil War ended, and he is buried at Oakridge Cemetery.

Jackson

As the next stop on the Underground Railroad after Marshall, Jackson played an important role in the overall success of the secret network.

The DeLand Family

Several prominent activists worked to ensure that freedom seekers made it to their next destination on the railroad, ultimately helping many enslaved people find the freedom they deserved. The DeLand family was perhaps the most well-known abolitionists and activists in the Jackson area.

Mary Green Keith DeLand, William Rufus DeLand, and Charles Victor DeLand served the network in their own ways. Mary DeLand was a Quaker by birth and worked to influence her husband to join the abolitionist movement. She opened her home to freedom seekers who, according to her son, arrived in small groups during the night seeking food, clothing, and shelter.

Mary’s son, Charles DeLand, assisted his parents by transporting freedom seekers in a covered wagon overnight, trying to get them to the next stop on the railroad.

Emma Patton Nichols

While some freedom seekers moved on, others found new homes in Jackson. One of the most well-known freedom seekers who stayed was Emma Patton Nichols, who had once been enslaved in Virginia.

After arriving in Jackson, Nichols lived in a home on Biddle Street and worked as a seamstress. Visitors can pay homage to her at her grave in Mt. Evergreen Cemetery.

Brooklyn

As freedom seekers continued the perilous journey forward, they often found themselves in Brooklyn where they could seek refuge on a small farm in the countryside. Royal Watkins was an early settler in Brooklyn and owned and operated the Watkins Farm. He is believed to have played a prominent role in the Underground Railroad in this community, but he also worked to employ self-emancipated individuals.

John Felix White

The Watkins Farm was the site of one of the most famous capture attempts in Southern Michigan. John Felix White was a self-emancipated man employed by Watkins when a lawyer from his former enslaver showed up to kidnap him.

The reality was that even self-emancipated individuals did not have the freedom to live in peace and comfort because many enslavers worked actively with bands of people who sought to return their so-called “property” to them.

When the lawyer showed up, he aroused suspicion in the community, and they worked to relocate Watkins to Canada so that he would not be captured and returned to Kentucky. Their endeavors were successful, and Watkins avoided a disastrous fate. Eventually, White moved back to Michigan in 1860, and he is buried in nearby Ann Arbor.

Watkins Lake Park and County Preserve

The Watkins Farm no longer exists today, but the grounds where the farm was located are now part of the Watkins Lake State Park and County Preserve, which is considered a point of interest on the Michigan Freedom Trail.

Adrian

After moving through Brooklyn, freedom seekers often found themselves on a quiet farm in Adrian, where Laura Smith Haviland and her husband sheltered them. She was more than an abolitionist who wanted to assist freedom seekers on their challenging journey, though. She was also an advocate for racial justice.

In 1837, she and her husband worked to open the Raisin Institute, which was considered the first integrated school in the state. On top of that, she made dangerous trips down South to connect with family members of the enslaved people she helped, assisting them on their own journeys toward freedom.

Her efforts were so significant that she has been memorialized in Adrian as part of the Michigan Freedom Trail. A commemorative drinking fountain was constructed in her honor in 1909, and it is still part of the Adrian landscape today. The drinking fountain is no longer in operation, but visitors can take in the artwork and learn more about the life and work of Haviland.

Ann Arbor

During the years leading up to the Civil War, Ann Arbor was perfectly situated at the intersection of two well-known Underground Railroad routes. Most routes and stations worked to move freedom seekers north and east, ultimately reaching Detroit where they would cross the river into Canada and finally achieve freedom.

To assist the vast number of enslaved people who were traveling through the area, three large farms participated in the effort. These were the farms of Roswell Preston, William Webb Harwood, and Asher Aray.

Asher Aray

One of the most prominent examples of their heroism came in 1853, when Asher Aray — an African American abolitionist — helped shelter more than two dozen enslaved people.

Generally, most stationmasters took in groups of just six or seven people because any larger group would be too risky. Aray took charge of the freedom seekers himself, driving them in a wagon to the Canadian border where they could safely reach freedom.

Harwood Family Farmhouse

The farmers were known for always having wagons ready to board and supplies available for the freedom seekers who needed shelter and assistance on their way to Canada. Today, the Harwood Family farmhouse is the only structure remaining on the land, but it is private property and not open for public tours.

African American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County

Residents and visitors in Ann Arbor who want to learn more about the city’s important role in the Underground Railroad can book guided tours with local experts. The African American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County presents both walking and bus tours on a monthly basis that take visitors to points of interest that are significant to African-American history in the area.

Ypsilanti

Not far from Ann Arbor and near the intersection of two major Underground Railroad routes, Ypsilanti became a pivotal station on this network that helped self-liberating people on the journey.

According to the Ann Arbor District Library, several Ypsilanti residents assisted freedom seekers in whatever ways they could. These included:

  • Jotham Goodell was a local man who lived on Ridge Road and assisted freedom seekers by transporting them via wagon to Detroit. He crafted a wagon with fake floorboards, allowing the stowaways to hide safely until they reached the next stop on the journey.
  • Leonard Chase was a stationmaster in Ypsilanti who sheltered freedom seekers in his home and worked to deliver food to nearby stations.
  • Dr. Helen McAndrews was a resident who lived in the Octagon House on Huron Street and helped freedom seekers by providing shelter and medical care when they needed it. Dr. Andrews also helped to finance the education of Elijah McCoy, who would go on to become an inventor.

The McCoy Family

The McCoy Family was a well-known self-liberated family who lived in a cabin in Ypsilanti on the Starkweather Farm. George and Millie McCoy had been born into slavery, but George was emancipated at the young age of two. When he married Millie, she was still enslaved, so they escaped to Canada to find freedom.

In the 1850s, they returned from Canada to Ypsilanti and settled into a cabin on the Starkweather farm. The McCoys used the cabin to shelter self-liberating people who were relying on the Underground Railroad in Michigan and beyond despite the significant risk that it presented.

The cabin is no longer there, but the historic farmhouse on the Starkweather property remains, though it is not open to the public.

Detroit

As the final stop in Michigan before crossing the Canadian border, Detroit was a hub of activity during the active years of the Underground Railroad. According to Visit Detroit, some of the most significant points of interest in Detroit include:

  • Bethel African American Methodist Episcopal Church — This church played an early role in sheltering self-liberating people on the route to freedom.
  • Second Baptist Church — Operated by Reverend William C. Monroe, this was one of the largest and busiest stations in Detroit. More than 5,000 freedom seekers sought shelter in its basement before reaching Canada.
  • Mariner’s Church — Originally located on the banks of the Detroit River, Mariner’s Church was relocated in the 1950s. At the time of its relocation, workers found a tunnel that stretched underneath the Detroit River, allowing freedom seekers to take the final journey toward freedom.
  • Tommy’s Detroit Bar & Grill — Currently home to a famous local sports bar, Tommy’s Detroit Bar & Grill has a tunnel that is believed to have been used both during the Underground Railroad and Prohibition.

Underground Railroad Living Museum

Visitors interested in the Underground Railroad in Detroit can do more than visit historical markers and points of interest in the city. The Underground Railroad Living Museum offers immersive tour experiences in which visitors can watch a reenactment of what it was like to be a freedom seeker on the network.

The Station House Tour at First Congregational Church invites you to become a passenger on the railroad and be led to safety by a conductor, giving you a small taste of what it might have been like to seek freedom on this network.

Visit the Most Iconic Underground Railroad Michigan Locations

The Michigan Freedom Trail Commission works to maintain signage and to protect and preserve the rich history of the Underground Railroad in Michigan.

In addition to having signs placed throughout the state, the commission and the Department of Natural Resources maintain an interactive Underground Railroad map that highlights the places and people who played important roles in assisting freedom seekers.

Both travelers and residents can use these amenities to learn more about the Underground Railroad Michigan towns. By visiting these sites and absorbing the magnitude of what took place, you can become more aware of Michigan’s past, present, and future.

And while you’re exploring Underground Railroad sites, you can enjoy other things to do across the state. If you want more history, for instance, check out the best museums in Michigan.

3 Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *