Detroit’s Geographic Role In The Underground Railroad

Detroit is known as the “Motor City” and “Motown”. It is also known for things that have brought it a bad reputation. However, there is a very important part of its history, which was shaped by its geography.

Detroit was one of the major stops along the Underground Railroad. It must be understood that the Underground Railroad wasn’t actually a physical railroad. It was actually a series of clandestine routes. They led to places such as safe houses and churches, places where escaped slaves could hide while trying to escape to freedom in Canada. What made Detroit such an important stop?

Location, location, location!! Detroit was in a perfect location for escaped slaves to seek refuge while en route to Canada. Many slaves escaped into Canada via Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. Detroit, while not on Lake Erie, it is located nearby. And Detroit had another advantage. It borders Canada. Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Ontario, Canada are separated by the Detroit River. One can drive from Detroit to Windsor in 10 minutes (1.8 miles between Detroit and Windsor). The Detroit River is less wide than that. Slaves who arrived in Detroit could make a very narrow crossing into Canada at that point. Many slaves escaped to Canada via Detroit going into Windsor, Canada.

Location of Detroit (circled)

Detroit is also located close to Lake St. Clair. Some abolitionists living in Detroit would assist with helping slaves escape to Canada. George DeBaptiste would transport escaped slaves across Lake St. Clair into Amherstburg, Ontario via his steamboat, while also offloading lumber. And his boat was not the only steamboat to make journeys to Amherstburg. Its location where the Detroit River and Lake St. Clair sit, made it a fitting entry location for those escaping to Canada.

Location of Amherstburg/Fort Malden (circled).

Detroit’s location along the U.S./Canada border as well as its location along a relatively narrow body of water made it a major stopping point along the Underground Railroad, and a major point of departure for escaped slaves trekking to freedom in Canada.

Windsor, Ontario, Canada (as viewed from Detroit)
Detroit, Michigan,USA (as viewed from Windsor).

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