A Migrant Story - William Madison Hill

An area of grass has a building on one side and a parking lot on the other.
Hill's shop was located near the north end of River Street in Ontonagon. The site is shown in this 2016 photograph.

NPS Photo

William Madison Hill was an African American man from Fredericksburg, Virginia who ended his days in Ontonagon, Michigan. It isn't clear how he began his migrant story, but by 1860 he was operating a shoe and boot shop in Ontonagon. Evidence of his long residence there is found in census records, business directories, local memoirs, newspaper articles, probate records, and the Civil War draft; one has to ponder the circumstances that prompted his journey to Michigan, and his thoughts as the country went to war.

The Detroit Free Press: Saturday, November 23, 1907. Dead from shock of fire. Ontonagon Negro, once well off, poverty stricken at death. Ontonagon, Mich. November 22 - John Hill, colored once reputed to be worth $40,000 is dead.
William Madison Hill's death notice.

The Detroit Free Press.

His shop stood on River Street's 800 block, where the Lake Superior Credit Union's parking lot is today. It burned in the 1896 Ontonagon Fire, and Hill rebuilt. On November 18, 1907, it burned again. Although he made it out of the building, Hill died later that day at the age of 80. The Detroit Free Press reported on the circumstances of the tragedy, although they did get his name wrong. As the article states, it was believed that Hill had no relatives when he died, but the court was able to locate his family. They received about $100 after all of his debts were paid.

Last updated: January 6, 2018

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