Profiles in Bondage: Alexander Grant, the ‘Father of Grosse Pointe’

This is the first in a series of profiles of Detroit slave owners.

Alexander Grant was an important British military officer, politician and businessman in the late 18th Century,  and he is widely known as the “Father of Grosse Pointe” because he built a large manor on his farm near the location today of Lake Shore Road and Moran, the site of St. Paul Catholic Church and the Grosse Pointe Academy.

A native of Glenmoriston, Scotland, Grant was born in 1734 and joined the British Navy in 1755. By the late 1750s he was part of the successful British effort to seize what is now Quebec, Ontario, Michigan and other land from the French. Grant took command of a gun ship, the Boscawen, on Lake Champlain in 1759, and became the overseer of the naval station at Fort Ticonderoga the next year.

As the British assumed control of the region, Grant remained with the Royal Navy, and by 1771 he had moved to Detroit, at least part-time, as superintendent of the naval department. He was in charge of maintenance and construction of vessels and the shipping of both military and private cargo. In 1774, he married into a prominent Detroit French family when he took the hand of Therese Barthe.

As the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online notes in the entry on Grant, the power to allocate cargo space on the Great Lakes “put Grant at the hub of the commercial network between Detroit and New York.” Eventually he began building his own vessels, and eventually he monopolized all shipping on the lakes. He also bought large tracts of land in New York State.

As a businessman, Grant sometimes employed cutthroat tactics, including selling whiskey at a loss to undercut other merchants and stalling the movement of goods that belonged to rivals.

During the American Revolution, Detroit was in British hands, and Grant became the commander of lakes Michigan, Erie and Huron.

After the revolution, Detroit remained in British control until 1796. Grant left the military and became a justice of the peace and served on a number of legislative boards; he was a member of the executive council of the provincial district that included Detroit before the American takeover.

Despite becoming wealthy and rising to a position of respect in the military and politics, Grant was semi-literate, and critics said he was a poor manager lacking social graces.

George Thomas Landmann, a British military engineer, wrote of Grant’s “round, plump, pocked-marked face,” adding it was “red as a pomegranate.” Landmann described Grant as “a large stout man, not very polished but very good-tempered.”

When introduced to Prince Edward, Grant reportedly said, “How do you do, Mester Prince, and how does yer Papaw do?”

Grant was 24 years older than Therese Barthe, and when they married she spoke no English and he spoke no French. After her death, he wrote that she was “as good a mother and as kind a wife” as ever existed.

They had 12 children. One child, who had been kidnapped by Indians in Ohio, was famously purchased from the natives, who were said to be planning to burn him at the stake.

Grant eventually bought a 640-acre farm on which he built a house made of oak timber. It was said to be 280 feet long – only 20 feet shorter than a football field — and two stories high, with balconies. (Another account put the house at a more reasonable, but still big, 160 feet long.) The rough-hewn mansion was known as Grant’s Castle, and became favorite gathering place for British officers, Detroit society and natives. It was the first estate on what became, by the late 19th Century, a stretch of mansions along Lake St. Clair owned by wealthy Detroit businessmen in the city of Grosse Pointe Farms. Grant’s Castle was torn down in the 1880s.

Grant died at his house in 1813 at the age of 79.

Grant owned both native and black slaves. The children born to his female slaves were given French names, an indication, perhaps, of the influence of Grant’s French wife, Therese, whom he once said sat at the “helme” of the family.

Grant’s slaves, according to historian Marcel Trudel:

1783: A black woman; no name recorded.

1784: A black woman; no name recorded.

Jeanne, an Indian woman, who gave birth to four children: Catherine (born 1788); Angelique (born 1791); Jean-Baptiste (born 1793); and Paul (born 1794).

Fanny, a black woman, who gave birth to Genevieve in 1798.

According to the 1782 census of Detroit, Grant owned two slaves that year. The 1810 census said he owned one slave.

Slavery in Detroit: An Introduction

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This story originally appeared on Deadline Detroit Aug. 27, 2012. Above: Joseph Campau.

By BILL McGRAW

Metro Detroiters love to celebrate their local history, especially when it involves the noble, magnificent and world-class chapters of the past: The auto industry. Motown Records. The Underground Railroad. Diego Rivera. Coney Islands.

On the other hand, local history has its crazy uncles. Those are chapters that might be fascinating and important, but they are hidden in the back room and rarely talked about. Henry Ford’s anti-Semitism; taking land from the Indians; the Free Press’ 19th Century racism and the auto companies’ early abuse of workers come to mind.

Then there is the granddaddy of all forgotten local history. The subject no one talks about, virtually ever. The most neglected topic of all.

Slavery.

Slavery in Detroit has remained an enormous secret. It is an essential chapter in Detroit’s 311-year story, but it has been pushed back into archives and covered up by decades of neglect and denial. Few people, even well-informed college graduates, know that slavery played a key role in the growth of Detroit, and wealthy Detroiters owned slaves for the first 120 years of the city’s  existence.

When metro Detroiters talk about slavery, they talk about black men and women picking cotton in Georgia and Mississippi because that is what students in southeastern Michigan learn in school.

Yet slavery is very much homegrown. What has been called the “national sin” is also Detroit’s sin. It is the origin of our racial crisis, our peculiar institution, our “necessary evil.” Slavery belongs to Detroit just like slavery belongs to Charleston, Monticello and New Orleans.

Many roads, schools and communities across southeast Michigan carry the names of old, prominent families that owned slaves: Macomb, Campau; Beaubien; McDougall; Abbott; Brush; Cass; Hamtramck; Gouin; Meldrum; Dequindre; Beaufait; Groesbeck; Livernois and Rivard, among many others.

Detroit’s first mayor, John R. Williams, the namesake of two streets in Detroit – John R and Williams – owned slaves. The Catholic Church in Detroit was heavily involved in slavery – priests owned slaves and baptized them, and at least one slave worked on the construction of Ste. Anne’s Church around 1800. The men who funded the Free Press when it was founded in 1831 were ex-slave owners, and the paper supported slavery during the national debate before the Civil War.

The work of slaves helped build Detroit. And just like in the South, slavery in Detroit was reinforced by violence. Slaves worked without any pay for their entire lives, under threat of the lash and death.

Owners used their power over slaves to steal their labor and enrich themselves. Slaves arrived in Detroit stripped of their identity, culture, family and often their name. They were frequently maimed from torture.

Slaves died, often young, and were buried in graveyards that were soon forgotten, and then paved over by later generations of Detroiters, and their bones remain underfoot in America’s blackest big city, and their stories continue to be unknown in a region where race always has been a consuming issue.

Slavery was as much a part of early Detroit as the fur trade. Most residents who could afford slaves owned them during Detroit’s French, British and early American periods, from the city’s founding in 1701 to the second decade of the 19th Century. In 1750, for example, toward the end of the French regime, more than 25 percent of Detroit residents kept slaves.

“Not surprisingly, Detroit’s slaveholders came from the wealthiest segment of French society and produced a disproportionate amount of the village’s grain and livestock,” writes Brett Rushforth in “Bonds of Alliance,” a new book about slavery in Quebec and the Great lakes area in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Rushforth’s book touches upon the subject of slavery in Detroit, and in so doing he helps raise the veil on the city’s hidden history. Another academic, the University of Michigan’s Tiya Miles, has begun researching the subject, and earlier this year she told NPR’s Michel Martin that slavery “had a multilayered aspect in Detroit.”

Sexual violence

There are almost no physical reminders of slavery left in Detroit. But one artifact that remains is a scarred and cracked account book that has yellowed and brittle pages. It sits in storage in the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library. The book belonged to William Macomb, the richest person in Detroit when he died in 1796.

Macomb owned Grosse Ile and Belle Isle and several houses and page after page of livestock, tools and furniture. Macomb also owned people. Listed prominently near the front of the book along with things like shovel tongs, saddle bags and goats, are the names of, or references to, 26 human beings: Scipio, Tom, Guy, Charlie… Only one, Jim Girty, had a family name. Together, the slaves’ total value was listed as 1,655 pounds in New York currency.

In his will, Macomb wrote: “I give and bequeath to my loving wife, Mrs. Sarah Macomb, for her own use, all my moveable estate wheresoever…my slaves, cattle, household furniture, books, plates, linen, carriages and my utensils of husbandry.”

I examined that book last week, with a librarian and photographer. It is stark. We acknowledged that it felt strange to look at a simple page with lovely penmanship that represents a national horror involving so much human suffering.

Detroit’s history of slavery is complicated by the fact that African Americans were not the only people held in captivity. Native Americans were also enslaved here, especially during the early decades of the 18th Century when the French ran Detroit.

Indian slavery pre-dated the arrival of Europeans, and it was a very different system than the form of black slavery that Europeans brought to North America. Indians did not consider slaves property, and in native culture slaves possessed symbolic value, and were used as gifts during trade and negotiations, and to take the place of dead warriors.

Eventually, though, Indian slavery mixed with European slavery and produced a hybrid form of bondage that played a major role in relations among Indians and Europeans in Detroit throughout the 18th Century.

Slavery was important, for example, in the interaction between men and women. Traders in Detroit’s early days used female Indian slaves as backcountry wives, both for companionship and as a way to ingratiate themselves with the women’s relatives, which enhanced the traders’ ability to do business with the Indians.

During the British era, one of Detroit’s most successful traders was John Askin, who had three children with an Ottawa woman named Monette, a slave he owned and later freed. Askin was known for his aggressive business tactics, including plying Indians with alcohol. His papers, also preserved at the Burton Collection, show he bought and sold several native and black slaves during his career.

“Rum and sex paved the way for Askin’s success,” wrote historian E.A.S. Demers.

“Sexual violence permeated the slave experience” in the Great Lakes, wrote Rushforth. Many women, he added, like Monette, eventually rose to social acceptance and freedom, but not before a “prolonged submission to what could be defined as serial rape.”

Whether male or female, life was harsh for slaves on the Detroit frontier. They generally slept on the kitchen floors of Detroiters’ homes, and the record is clear that owners did not hesitate to flog their human property when they believed discipline was called for.

Yet in slavery’s scale, Detroit was not South Carolina. Detroit’s simple trading economy, small population and modest farms did not require large numbers of slaves, and slaves in Detroit generally lived in closer proximity to their owners than slaves in the south.

Slaves never exceeded 10 percent of the population in Detroit; in the south before the Civil War, slaves made up 33 percent of the population. In Detroit, Macomb was the biggest slave owner, with a couple of dozen slaves; in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson owned some 600 slaves in his lifetime. Jorge Castellanos, a former professor at Marygrove College, once wrote that Detroit was not a “slave society,” but a “society with slaves.”

Grosse Ile, once owned by William Macomb, is the largest island in the Detroit River. Residents have done a lot to keep alive the community’s long history. But no one knew anything about the Macomb family owning slaves until Joel Thurtell, a Detroit Free Press reporter, brought it to their attention while he was doing a story in 2007.

Denise de Beausset, who is Macomb’s great-great-great-great-great granddaughter, told Thurtell: “No, I wasn’t aware of them having slaves at all. That’s funny; you’d think there would have been talk about slaves running the farm. Nobody ever talks about it on our side. I wonder if it was out of embarrassment or it wasn’t politically correct. Nobody ever talked about slaves. I’ll be darned.”

I have two friends whose roots in Detroit go back to the French period of the early 1700s. When I told them their ancestors had owned slaves, they thought I was joking. One friend, who had researched her family’s history, was flabbergasted when I broke the news.

“NO WAY!” she said. “Wow! Nobody told me anything about that, but I guess they wouldn’t. I am just embarrassed. That’s interesting. Fascinating.”

They are hardly alone in their obliviousness. Students of local history could research Detroit’s past for years before they would stumble across evidence of slavery. Since the early 1970s, slavery in Detroit has been the subject of research by a small number of scholars, who wrote academic articles that were mostly read by other academics and advanced students.

One graduate student, Arthur Kooker, wrote his doctoral dissertation in 1941 at the University of Michigan on abolitionists in Michigan before the Civil War. In his preface, Kooker wrote about his surprise when he discovered slavery itself had existed in Michigan.

“As the work progressed one fact that seemed to require an exploration kept bobbing up,” he wrote. “Rooted deep in Michigan’s past was the very institution which had called the antislavery movement into being.”

Remembering

During the first years of the 21st Century, many Americans discovered the story of slavery in the United States, especially as it existed outside the south. Prodded by activists and historians, a number of institutions and individuals acknowledged their historic ties to slavery and other extreme racist behavior, and in many cases asked for forgiveness.

A partial list of those performing a self-examination, and often issuing an apology or moving for reconciliation, includes President Bill Clinton (on behalf of the United States); Brown University; Yale University; Harvard University; Wilmington, N.C.; New York City; Philadelphia, Miss.; Duluth, Minn.; Birmingham, Ala.; London, England.; various insurance companies; the Southern Baptist Convention; the U. S. Senate; the Hartford Courant, the Raleigh News and Observer; the Lexington, Kentucky, Herald-Leader; J.P. Morgan Chase and several other banks.

Ira Berlin, one of the nation’s foremost historians of slavery, wrote in 2006 that “slavery has a greater presence than at any time since the end of the Civil War.”

Slowly, the curtain has begun to rise across the country on slavery and other forms of historical racism. Most notably, the collective amnesia is disappearing that allowed the north to absolve itself of involvement in slavery while castigating the south. People are realizing that understanding slavery is central to understanding the origins of America itself.

Detroit’s selective memory, however, has remained intact. Almost nothing has been done to seek out the truth about the role of slavery in Detroit’s history. And that seems unfortunate in a region where the theoretical underpinning of slavery – racism – remains a paramount issue.

It’s not a happy story. It’s probably not a coincidence that we celebrate the uplifting saga of the Detroit and the Underground Railroad rather than the tremendously sad story of Detroit and human captivity. For a nation – and city — built on the notion of freedom, to consider the idea that slavery was also a major part of the foundation is difficult and disillusioning.

But telling the truth about our history can be a start on telling the truth about today.

“Slavery is the ground zero of race relations,” Berlin has written. “There is a general, if inchoate, understanding that any attempt to address the question of race in the present must also address slavery in the past.”

Names of Slave Owners in Detroit, 1701-1820; An Evolving List

The following is a partial list of Detroiters who owned slaves during the city’s first 120 years.

I’ll be adding to the list as my research continues. Most of the names come from the work of the late Marcel Trudel, a Quebec historian whose book, “Dictionaire des Escalves et de leur Proprietaires” (“Dictionary of Slaves and Their Owners”), contains many of the names of slave owners from the major settlements of New France, which included Detroit until 1760.

Note on the names: Many entries contain two last names, separated by the French word “dit.” “Dit” (pronounced: dee) is the past tense of the  word dire, (“to say”), and it translates as “called” or “known as” when seen in names. For example, in the name Alexis Bienvenu dit Delisle, the name would be translated as Alexis Bienvenu, known as Delisle.

The first name was the family’s original surname, which was passed down to them by ancestors, while the “dit” name was the name the person or family was actually called by contemporaries in Detroit, or Montreal, or elsewhere in New France. There were a variety of reason why someone would have a “dit” name, including military service and ancestral region in France.

Also, spellings have changed over 300 years. Readers will note familiar names such as Chene are spelled “Chesne” and Campau is spelled “Campeau” in the list. I have kept to the spellings in the old records.

Detroit Slave Owners

James ABBOTT; AINISSE, no first name; John ASKIN; John ASKIN Jr.; Toussaint-Antoine ADHEMAR dit SAINT-MARTIN; Jacques BABY dit DUPERON; Francois BABY dit DUPERON; Jacques BABY dit DUPERON; Charles BARTHE; Louis BEAUFAIT; Basile BELANGER; BERANGER no first name; BERNARD no first name; Guillaume BERNARD; Antoine BERNARD dit LAFONTAINE; Joseph BERTHIAUME; Alexis BIENVENU dit DELISLE; Charles BOURON; Dietrich BREHM; William BROWN.

Joseph CABASSIE; William CALDWELL; Leonard CAMPEAU; Jacques CAMPEAU; Jean-Louis CAMPEAU; Jacques CAMPEAU; Jacques CAMPEAU; Simon CAMPEAU; Jean-Baptiste CAMPEAU dit PERRICHE; Jean-Baptiste CAMPEAU; Hippolyte CAMPEAU; Claude CAMPEAU; Louis CAMPEAU; Louis CAMPEAU; Joseph CAMPEAU; Pierre CARDINAL; Joseph CARDINAL; Jacques CARDINAL; Jacques CARDINAL; Pierre CARDINAL; Charles-Eusebe CASGRAIN; Noel SAINT-AUBIN dit Casse; Lewis CASS, Claude CECIRE dit RIBERVILLE; Joseph CERRE dit SAINT-JEAN; CHABERT de JONCAIRE no first name; Daniel-Marie CHABERT de JONCAIRE.

Jean-Baptiste CHAPOTON; Charles CHAUVIN; Pierre CHESNE dit LABUTTE (CHENE); Pierre CHESNE dit LABUTTE; Charles CHENE dit LABUTTE; Rene CUILLERIER; Joseph CUILLERIER; Lambert CUILLERIER; Jean CUILLERIER; Antoine CUILLERIER dit BEAUBIEN; Jean-Baptiste CUILLERIER dit BEAUBIEN; Joseph CUILLERIER dit BEAUBIEN; CUILLERIER dit BEAUBIEN, no first name.

DAGNEAU, no first name; Guillaume DAGNEAU dit DOUVILLE-LAMOTHE; Louis-Cesaire DAGNEAU dit DOUVILLE-DEQUINDRE; Phillippe DEJEAN; Pierre DESCOMPS dit LABADIE; Louis-Antoine DESCOMPS dit LABADIE; Alexis DESCOMPS dit LABADIE; Pierre DESCOMPS dit LABADIE; Mathew DOLSON; James DOLSON; Joseph DOUAIRE de BONDY; Joseph DOUAIRE de BONDY; Simon DROUILLARD; Pierre DROUILLARD; Joseph DROUILLARD, Jean-Baptiste DUBERGER dit SANSCHAGRIN; DUFY, no first name; FAFARD dit DELORME dit MACOUCE, no first name.

FISHER, no first name; Donald FISHER; FORESTIER, no first name; GAGNE, no first name; Isaac GAGNE; GAMELIN, no first name; Pierre FRECHETTE; Joseph-Antoine GAMELIN; Laurent-Eustache GAMELIN; Francois GAMELIN; Simon GENDRON dit Potvin; GERVAISE, no first name; GERVAISE, no first name; Louis GERVAISE; Jacques GODEFROY; Claude-Thomas GOUIN; Charles-Francois GOUIN; Robert Goin;  Guillaume GOYAU; Alexander GRANT; Jean-Baptiste GOYAU dit Lagarde; William GROESBECK.

HANDS, no first name; William HANDS; Jacob HARSEN. John HAY; HOPKINS, no first name; Jacques HUBERT dit LACROIX; Ignace JEAN dit Vien; Dominique JOURDAIN dit LABROSSE; Whitmore KNAGS; William MACOMB; Jacques LACELLE; MORAND, no first name; Claude-Charles MORAND; Charles MORAND; Robert NAVARRE; Nicolas-Joseph NOYELLES de FLEURIMONT; Joseph PARANT; Albert PARANT; Jacques PARANT; William PARK; PAULING and BURNETT Associates; Louis PAYET (priest); Jean-Baptiste PELLETIER; Jacques-Amable PELLETIER; Etienne-Joseph PORLIER dit BENAC; Joseph POUPART dit LABOISE; Charles POUPART dit LABOISE.

Francois PRATTE; Jean-Baptiste REAUME; Pierre REAUME; RIVARD, no last name; Jean-Baptiste RIVARD; Alexis RIVARD dit MAISONVILLE; Francois RIVARD dit MAISONVILLE; Pierre ROBERT; Joseph ROCHELEAU dit LESPERANCE; Ralph ROSS-LEWIN; Francois ROY; Pierre Roy; William SAINT CLAIR; Pierre SAINT COSME; Jacob SCHEIFFELIN; George SHARP; Zacjarioe SICOTTE; Jean-Baptiste SICOTTE; James STERLING; Pierre-Francois TASCHEREAU; Pierre-Jean-Baptiste TESTARD de MONTIGNY; Ignace THIBAULT; John THOMPSON; Alphonse TONTY de PALUDY; Jean-Baptiste TOURANGEAU; Alexis TROTTIER dit DESRUISSEAUX; William TUCKER; Jean VERGER dit Desjardins; Nicolas VERNET dit BOURGUIGNON; VESSIERE, no last name; John WHIPPLE; John WHITEHEAD; Michael YAX; John R. WILLIAMS; Thomas Williams;