A Migrant Story - Ellen Dickens

Excerpt from the 1860 census in Ontonagon Township, Michigan
Ellen is among the people enumerated in the Lewis Dickens household of Ontonagon in 1860.

Ellen Dickens, 1860 U.S. Census, Ontonagon Township, Michigan. NARA Image. NPS edit.

In 1850, the US Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, a law which required that all captured fugitive slaves be returned to their masters. To counter it, Michigan enacted personal liberty laws to protect the rights of persons claimed as fugitive slaves. One person protected by these laws was a woman named Ellen, who was born in 1815 in Kentucky, a slave state. By 1860, she was living in Ontonagon in the home of Lewis Dickens, a widower with children; Ellen likely provided for their care.

Two white men with guns pull an African-American man forcibly from his home.
The effects of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 are characterized in this work.

Colorized wood engraving on paper. Bobbett & Hooper Wood Engraving Co. ca. 1855.

Dickens was also a native of Kentucky. His grandfather Joseph was a slaveholder in Campbell County, where a female slave of Ellen's age is recorded in his household beginning with the 1820 census. Was this Dickens family slave the Ellen who came to Michigan in the late 1850s? We may never know, but the possibilities of Ellen's migrant story are many. The Fugitive Slave Act was finally repealed in 1864

Last updated: January 4, 2018

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