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.
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 The Fugitive Slave Act was finally repealed in 1864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