Was Peter Denison the first person to sue for freedom from slavery in the United States?
Denison is first mentioned in historical records in 1784, when he and his wife, Hannah, were listed as an enslaved people under the ownership of William Tucker in what is now Macomb County. When Tucker died, his will said that Peter and Hannah would be freed upon the death of Tucker’s wife, but that Tucker’s children would be owned by his heirs. In 1807, Denison brought suit in territorial court to gain his children’s freedom from the widow Tucker [Denison v Tucker was heard on September 26, 1807; see 1 St Ct Terr Mich 63 (1807).] Even though the Michigan Territory outlawed slavery, Denison lost. Based on the interpretation of various treaties and laws, Judge Augustus Elias Brevoort Woodward ruled that three of their children must remain enslaved for life and one could be emancipated after his 25th birthday. However, in a subsequent ruling, (In re Richard Pattinson, October 23, 1807), Woodward said there were no reciprical treaties between Canada and the United States requiring the return of fugitive slaves, and if African-Americans established their freedom in Canada, they could not be returned to slavery upon return to the U.S. (and vice versa). Two of Denison’s children, Scipio and Elizabeth, took advantage of this ruling by escaping to Canada and then returning to the United States as free citizens a few years later.
Peter Denison has been referred to as the first leader of Detroit’s African-American community due to his service in a militia company in 1808. Governor William Hull raised a militia company of African Americans to protect citizens and property from local Native Americans. Denison served as commander of the militia unit, which was disbanded before the War of 1812.
This story may be similar to those other early 1800s slaves who tried through the courts to secure their freedom, but Denison’s tale differed. After the 1807 Chesapeake-Leopard affair, territorial governor William Hull offered Denison “a written license,” permitting him to form a militia company of free blacks and runaway slaves. Apparently, Denison had gained the confidence of Detroit’s black population, and according to Hull, under his leadership segregated troops “frequently appeared under arms” and “made considerable progress in military discipline.” Hull maintained that these men demonstrated an unquestioned “attachment to our government, and a determination to aid in the defense of the country.” The crisis that prompted Hull to turn to Denison and the city’s black population soon passed, and the governor disbanded the militia.
Many of Denison’s men had fled from bondage in Canada to the freedom of Michigan; this short-lived southern exodus undermines the traditional image of the Underground Railroad leading north to Canada and freedom. During the late 1700s and early 1800s, the route to freedom most commonly led enslaved peoples south from British Canada to free American territories in the Old Northwest. Canada had phased out slavery in 1793, but not all enslaved people had gained immediate freedom; the institution ended over time, which meant that the Michigan Territory held out the prospect of immediate freedom to those brave enough to cross the treacherous waters of the Detroit River. Yet by the end of the War of 1812, few enslaved people lived in Canada, and Canadian law prohibited the further introduction of slavery. This reality prompted enslaved Americans to venture along a well-trodden path or “underground railroad,” yet thereafter north to a new Canadian land of freedom.
Military Service as a Pathway to Freedom
During the summer of 1812, Governor Hull issued commissions to Captain Denison, to Lieutenant Ezra Burgess, and to Ensign Bossett—all three black men. Hull insisted that the segregated militia of free blacks and runaways were free citizens of the Michigan Territory, and they, like white citizens, could bear arms in times of crisis. They would shortly be needed as the United States declared war on Britain during June 1812, and Detroit would be the first theater of operations; Denison was apparently captured when Hull surrendered the city to British General Isaac Brock.
Edward J. Littlejohn, “Slaves, Judge Woodward, and the Supreme Court of the Michigan Territory“, Michigan Bar Journal, July 2015 (94 MI Bar Jnl. 22).
Tiya Miles, Slavery in Early Detroit, Michian History, May/June 2013.
The Denison Family, courtesyof the Wright Museumof African American History.
Also see Gene Allen Smith, The Slaves’ Gamble: Choosing Sides in the War of 1812, New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Norman McRae, “Crossing the Detroit River to Freedom“, Michigan History, March/April 2010.
For more information about slavery in early Detroit, see