The Underground Railroad

Merriman Hollow

Michigan played a critical role in the Underground Railroad and the abolition of slavery during the 1800s. As part of a political and moral battle, some Michiganders guided the formerly enslaved to freedom in Canada. Despite local lore about Underground Railroad stations in western Wayne County, there are no official records that confirm their existence. However, undocumented and potential locations include: General Schwartz’s home at Wayne Road and Ann Arbor Trail; McFarlane’s Tavern on the southeast corner of Stark and Plymouth Roads; and Brink Farm at Ann Arbor Trail and Ann Arbor Road. Additionally, it is believed that villages with Quaker, Covenanter, Wesleyan Methodist, and Free Presbyterian churches functioned as potential stations. Community lore also suggests that Indian Trails were used in Underground Railroad activity.

Anti-slavery operatives used railroad terms to describe everyone’s roles. The Underground Railroad consisted of conductors (those that guided freedom-seekers along the network), trains, stations (safe spaces to take shelter in during daylight such as abolitionists’ homes, barns, and churches), and finally agents (people who sheltered those escaping oppression).

Marcus Swift

One of southeast Michigan’s most prominent anti-slavery agitators was Methodist preacher Marcus Swift. Reverend Marcus Swift believed slavery was the “sum of all villanies” and an “evil institution.” The Reverend organized the Wesleyan Methodist Church in 1843, ensuring it supported the abolishment of slavery. Swift’s final words, upon learning that slavery and the Civil War was finally coming to an end: “The great principles for which I have labored and fought amid reverses and persecution, are now the ruling sentiment of the people. I have lived in a glorious age, and my eyes have seen the powers of darkness give way before the coming of the glorious reign of liberty and equality.” Reverend Marcus Swift died on February 19, 1865, and is buried in the Newburg Cemetery in Livonia.

Photograph of Marcus Swift
Marcus Swift

Marcus Swift was born in Palmyra, New York on June 23, 1793. Swift purchased land in Nankin Township and, with the help of the almost-completed Erie Canal, settled in Michigan in 1825. The Swift family built their log cabin close to the Rouge River, which at that time was a dense hardwood forest. They were the first to own land in the area now known as Garden City. 

Politically and spiritually engaged with the local community, Marcus Swift was elected the first territorial supervisor of Bucklin (Redford, Dearborn, and Livonia today) on May 28, 1827, and served nine terms. The following year, Governor Lewis Cass appointed Swift the Justice of the Peace. By 1834, Swift was also in charge of the Plymouth Methodist Circuit. 

Slavery in the Northwest Territory

America’s institution of slavery was a hotly debated issue throughout the Northwest Territory during the late 1700s and early 1800s. There were those who supported the institution while others sought its elimination. In 1783, the federal government created and enforced Fugitive Slave Laws that made it illegal to help shelter and guide fugitive slaves to freedom in Michigan and Canada. Despite this national decree, the Northwest Territory pushed back. 

The Northwest Territory (including Michigan) created the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, one of the first laws created to make slavery illegal in any territory. Its sixth clause declared “there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said Territory otherwise than in the punishment of crimes where the party shall have been duly convicted.”      

Local newspapers inspired community conversations, Congress debated in Washington, while Michigan abolitionists secretly helped the enslaved reach freedom in Canada. By the summer of 1836, many in Michigan desired a state-level abolitionist organization. The American Anti-Slavery Society also urged Michigan to consider starting its own State Anti-Slavery Society. 

In November 1836, a convention was held in the Presbyterian Church in Ann Arbor. Seventy-five delegates from Wayne, Oakland, Washtenaw, Livingston, and other Michigan counties together launched the Michigan State Anti-Slavery Society, along with a “Declaration of Sentiments.” In addition to condemning slavery, the society believed that African Americans “should have the right to enjoy those privileges provided in the Declaration of Independence.” 

The “Declaration of Sentiments” document also introduced the “doctrine of nonresistance and nonviolence in reform” movement. The anti-slavery organization was instrumental in developing “the nation’s guilty conscience about race.” The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King is known to have been inspired by these writings and resolutions, influencing his own humanitarian work for civil rights.

North to Canada

Southerners were furious that northerners adopted alternative means of housing and helping runaway slaves. Because of this, a second Fugitive State Law was enacted. Those found harboring the formerly enslaved were jailed and fined up to $1,000 per fugitive they had helped escape. Fugitives were also required to return to the south. Michigan was no longer a safe haven for those seeking freedom. Canada became the primary location to send runaway slaves. 

This only increased Michigan’s critical role in Underground Railroad activity for the entire country. Though there were still many who sought to uphold this violent system, more and more vocalized calls for unity and peace. It is no surprise that Michigan hosted an active interconnected system of Underground Railroad stations. However, it has been difficult pinpointing their locations, since this activity was illegal and therefore meant to be secret. 

Community members speculate that fugitives may have hidden near or at Nankin Mill on their journey along the Rouge River to Detroit. Nankin Mill could have been a marker or a station on the Underground Railroad. It has even been suggested that Nankin Mill burned down in 1843 because of abolitionists used it in aiding runaway slaves. Another possible clue that suggests Underground Railroad activity is that local abolitionist Marcus Swift’s home also caught fire in 1843. 

Rochelle Danquah contributed to the development of the text for this location.