The Dawn of Detroit

A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits

From the MacArthur genius award winner, a beautifully written and revelatory look at the slave origins of a major northern American city

Tiya Miles “has reframed and reinterpreted the history of our diverse nation.”
—The MacArthur Foundation

Most Americans believe that slavery was a creature of the South, and that Northern states and territories provided stops on the Underground Railroad for fugitive slaves on their way to Canada. In this paradigm-shifting book, celebrated historian Tiya Miles reveals that slavery was at the heart of the Midwest’s iconic city: Detroit.

In this richly researched and eye-opening book, Miles has pieced together the experience of the unfree—both native and African American—in the frontier outpost of colonial Detroit, a place wildly remote yet at the center of national and international conflict. Skillfully assembling fragments of a distant historical record, Miles introduces new historical figures and unearths struggles that remained hidden from view until now. The result is fascinating history, little explored and eloquently told, of the limits of freedom in early America, one that adds new layers of complexity to the story of a place that exerts a strong fascination in the media and among public intellectuals, artists, and activists.

A book that opens the door on a hidden past, The Dawn of Detroit is a powerful and elegantly written history, one that completely changes our understanding of slavery’s American legacy.


“In this exemplary history that shows how slavery made early Detroit, Professor Tiya Miles demonstrates that Malcolm X (whose activist father was lynched in Michigan) was right when he insisted that all of the United States is south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Out of careful research, supple prose, deeply humane generosity to her historical subjects, and a knack for uncovering gripping family narratives, Miles has crafted a work from which any reader can learn new things. There is no finer writer among historians than Tiya Miles.”
—Edward Baptist, professor, department of history, Cornell University, and author of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism
“Extracting seemingly lost lives from sparse records to recover the humanity of people regarded as property, Tiya Miles exposes the tenacity of slavery and forced labor, both black and Indian, in multiethnic and multicultural Detroit during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It is an often ugly—but also a revealing and surprising—story. She creates a pointillist account of a complicated borderland.”
—Richard White, Margaret Byrne Professor of American History, Stanford University, and author of The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815
“‘There is currently no historical marker acknowledging slavery in Detroit— revealing that people were bought, sold, and held as property . . .’ Tiya Miles tell us in her rich account, detailing Native American and African American slavery in that city and the surrounding countryside. The Dawn of Detroit is a brilliant telling of chattel bondage’s long and twisted history and the evolution of race relations in the . . . City on the Straits.”
—Ira Berlin, Distinguished University Professor, University of Maryland, and author of Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America
“The Dawn of Detroit once again demonstrates that Tiya Miles is the rarest sort of historian: a brilliant and humane observer who can build an account of the terrifying difference of the past out of a series of observations that have the plain familiarity of family history.”
—Walter Johnson, Winthrop Professor of History, Harvard University, and author of Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market