A remarkable tale of slavery and opportunity in early Detroit

Tucked into a bucolic corner on Grosse Ile, an island community in the Detroit River, a small wooden Gothic Revival chapel adjoins the congregation of St. James Episcopal Church. The building is quaint and charming, matching the leafy setting and peaceful environment of the island. The story of the building’s existence, though, dates back nearly 150 years and testifies to the enduring friendship of two remarkable women and serves as a reminder of Michigan's oft overlooked history with the institution of slavery. Along the way, the story includes quite a few famous names from Detroit history, as well as some statewide firsts.
Elizabeth Denison was born in 1786 on the estate of William Tucker, on the Clinton River in Macomb County. Her parents, Peter and Hannah Denison, were slaves on the Tucker estate: Hannah served as a housekeeper while Peter traveled up and down the river conducting trades for his owner. Though few realize it, slavery was fairly common in Detroit from the time of its founding in 1701 into the first few decades of the 19th century. (Read more about the history of slavery in Detroit in this feature by Bill McGraw for Deadline Detroit)
This was during a period of legal ambiguity in Michigan’s history when the area was technically a part of the Northwest Territory, but still under British control, for the British would not surrender Detroit until 1796. When William Tucker died in 1807, he deeded all of his property—humans included—to his brother, with the codicil that the Denison family was to be freed. Unfortunately, though, Tucker’s widow retained ownership of the six Denison children under a technicality. They were transferred to Elijah Brush, a prominent Detroit lawyer whose name still dots streets and neighborhoods around the city. But Brush was sensitive to the Denison family’s plight, and represented them in a legal case demanding that by the laws of the new territory, they were free citizens.
The case made its way to Federal Judge Augustus B. Woodward, recently arrived in the settlement. In a rather open-to-interpretation ruling, Woodward declared that all slaves born in Michigan before July 11, 1796, who were “in possession” of settlers before May 31, 1793, were slaves for life. Others born after that, Woodward ruled, were to be freed at the age of 25. It was a complicated solution for the problem, and points to a part of Michigan history that many aren’t aware existed. (“Mapping Detroit Slavery,” an interdisciplinary project from the University of Michigan, offers further information and a detailed map of Detroit’s slave sites in the pre-Civil War era.) And though his ruling was incredibly harsh by our standards, Woodward left some wiggle room by declaring later that year that any slaves entering from Canada automatically held free status. Soon Elizabeth and her brother escaped, likely with the aid of Elijah Brush, to Canada.
With her return to Detroit around 1812 as a free woman, Elizabeth Denison took a position as housekeeper with Solomon Sibley, another notable Detroit lawyer and politician. Although Denison never learned to read or write, she had a keen eye for business transactions and accounting. Soon she was speculating on real estate and stocks and amassing a remarkable nest egg, especially given her background and the circumstances at the time.
On April 12, 1825, Denison purchased 48.5 acres of land in Pontiac from Sibley. With this act, she became the first black woman in Michigan to own land. In 1827, she married Scipio Forth, who died within a few years of the marriage. Beginning in 1831, she entered the employment of Major John Biddle, and more especially, his wife. Denison maintained an independent lifestyle, however, owning property in several areas of greater Detroit, as well as a house in Greektown, and stock in several prominent Detroit banks.
Denison's relationship with the Biddle family was, by all we can tell, a close and rewarding one. For the next 35 years until her death she remained in contact with and frequently traveled with the family.
Biddle’s wife, the wealthy New York-born socialite Eliza Falconer Biddle, grew up in circumstances that were vastly different than those of her friend Elizabeth Denison Forth. Her 1821 portrait by noted painter Thomas Sully depicts a young woman in the most fashionable of dress. She moved with her politician husband to Detroit, where he served at times as mayor and Congressional delegate, and founded the settlement of Wyandotte, named after the Native American tribe settled in the area.
In Detroit, the Biddles met the former slave turned savvy investor. And despite their differences, the two women struck up an intimate friendship that led Denison Forth to accompany her friend and employer to Philadelphia and even Paris for several years, where according to Brian Short of LSA Magazine, she solidified her reputation as a fine chef while tending to the often sickly Eliza.
After 1853, the Biddles retired to Philadelphia and Denison Forth to her home on Macomb and Brush streets. The women remained closely linked, though, joined by a common devotion to their Episcopal faith, and while in Detroit Denison maintained ties with the Biddle’s children, who had moved to Wyandotte and Grosse Ile by then.
Eliza Biddle died in 1865 and Elizabeth shortly after in 1866. In her will, Elizabeth Denison Forth deeded nearly half of her sizeable savings for the establishment of “a proper Protestant Episcopal Church” on the island of Grosse Ile, especially focused on charity to the poor. The chapel stands on East River Road, looking across the water to the Canadian shore where Elizabeth gained her freedom in a youthful gamble. The chapel celebrated its first service in 1868 and continues to welcome parishioners and visitors to the island.
Mickey Lyons is a Hamtramck-based writer and historian. She is the creator of Prohibition Detroit, a blog about Detroit's historic drinking establishments.
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Mickey Lyons is a Hamtramck-based writer and historian. She is the creator of Prohibition Detroit, a blog about Detroit's historic drinking establishments.