Part Three of Three – John Baptist Askin (1788-1869) – The Askin Family’s Connection to Detroit, 1700s-1800s

Part Three – Disclaimer: My references to the writings of other people–including Indigenous, Non-Indigenous and African American–do not in any way imply that they share my views on this matter.  The opinions expressed here are my own, and do not necessarily represent those of my family, friends or associates.

Part Three – Acknowledgements: A number of people–in London, Ontario, Canada and elsewhere–assisted me in the development of this three-part post series, not only in terms of the content, but also with technological matters relating to Google Blogger’s new interface.  Because of the controversial nature of some aspects of the subject matter, I have concluded it is probably best not to thank them all here.  Their help was deeply appreciated, but any errors or omissions are mine.

Part Three – Sally Ainse (1728-1823) and Lisette Denison (1786-1866)

The research I did this year (2020) has led me to conclude it was not just a simple matter of Askin Sr and Jr being disreputable people.  Their behaviour, although reprehensible by today’s standards, was common during the time period.

An Oneida/Shawnee trader and diplomat named Sally Ainse (1728-1823), and a former business associate of Askin Sr, profited from trafficking both Indigenous and Black slaves.  Askin Sr was one of the people she held an account with while she prospered as a successful Detroit independent trader.  She wore European clothes, owned two homes and was served by four slaves.  

In 1787, she moved to Upper Canada where she engaged in land transactions with Indigenous tribes and British officials.  In 1794, she acted as a go-between for Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant (Thayendanegaea) (1742/43-1807) in his negotiations with some Western Indigenous tribes during the aftermath of the Battle of Fallen Timbers.

John Graves Simcoe (1752-1806) was the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada from 1791 until 1796.  He initially took Ainse’s concerns seriously, but in the end she did not get the land she wanted.  Clarke said she did not deserve the treatment she received because she had negotiated in good faith between the Indigenous and Non-Indigenous communities.  He observed that she was on the “wrong end of the gradient of power.”

Elizabeth (Lisette) Denison (1786-1866) was born into Black slavery, but later secured her freedom partly though the actions of Askin Sr’s son-in-law, Elijah Brush (1775-1813).  Although Brush has been described as one of Detroit’s first abolitionists, he was not lobbying for the end of slavery, but advocating on behalf of the Peter and Hannah Denison family (Lisette was their daughter).  Brush had personal ties with and great respect for Peter Denison, in particular.

Although Lisette could not read or write, the Detroit elite who she worked for guided her through the legal proceedings necessary to make profitable investments.  In the process of doing this, she acquired dispossessed Indigenous land.  On some of this same land, she set aside provisions to establish a church at Gros Isles, Michigan.  She might not have realized the implications of what she was doing in terms of the land previously occupied by Indigenous tribes.  However, she was reportedly not as concerned with race as she was about inequality between rich and poor.  Her purpose for establishing the church was to have a place where people of any background could worship.  In 1868, St James Episcopal Church was consecrated, partly with the funds she had set aside in her will.  The church’s doors are dedicated to her memory, and an historical marker on the site recognizes her contribution.

Part Three – Detroit’s “Governing Classes”

Detroit’s “governing classes” transitioned from Indigenous to French to British to American from the early 1700s until around 1801.  Consequently, it was challenging to stay on the good side of those in power.  Askin Sr, Jr, Ainse and Denison were living during a period of intense political unrest, including the Seven Year’s War (aka French and Indian War), 1756-1763, Pontiac’s War, 1763-1766, and the American Revolution, 1775-1783.  

Part Three – Slavery Existed in Both Non-Indigenous and Indigenous Communities

Slavery was widespread throughout the world at this time, and the version introduced by both the French and the British into the Great Lakes region was often cruel and demoralizing.  But Miles said that generally speaking the northern version of slavery was not quite as brutal as what existed on the plantations in the American south.

However, it was not just the newly arrived Europeans who practised slavery.  Indigenous groups throughout North America had held members of other tribes in captivity for centuries before contact.  There were occasions when terrible things happened to those in bondage, e.g., torture and death.  A lot depended on the tribe in question.  Some tribes assimilated captives–particularly women and children–into their societies.

Since many of the slaves captured by the Great Lakes tribes came from the Western Plains, the French called them Panis.  The enslaved were offered in trade or negotiation, or replaced dead warriors.  Indigenous groups also traded African Americans they had taken during southern plantation raids.

Many people associate the Detroit area as a gateway to freedom for slaves via the Underground Railroad.  But during the 1770s to 1810 period, in particular, there were slaves there.  This was because of loopholes in legislation, such as the Northwest Ordinance.

These indentured people were not part of the fur trade economy per se, but provided stability to the settlement economy.

Miles recognized the relationship between the free and unfree was complex.  She noted the interconnectedness between Indigenous, French, British, Black, American and Canadian societies.  She acknowledged that some Native American tribes warred with each other, utilized slaves, and did not treat their women very well.

There were numerous variations on this theme.  For instance, Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant, mentioned earlier in connection with Sally Ainse, held Blacks in bondage starting around 1784.  One of them, Sophia Pooley, was interviewed about her experiences when she was 90.  Her account was published in an 1856 book of fugitive slave narratives.  Pooley had some positive, but mostly negative, experiences when she resided in the Brant household.  If you want to know more, consult the sources listed in the bibliography.

Another factor that adds to the complexity is that some Blacks felt more comfortable in the White world than they did in the Indigenous one.  However, Indigenous and Black slaves also intermarried.

In Detroit, Aboriginal slaves initially outnumbered Blacks, but this gradually changed to Blacks outnumbering Aboriginal.  It was more difficult for British officials to enslave Indigenous people, because of the political situation.  As previously mentioned, the French often had a better relationship with the original inhabitants than the British.  By 1810, the Native population had dwindled, and freed Blacks had moved across the border to Canada.

Part Three – Conclusion to Part Three and to This Three-Part Series

Due to all the variables discussed in Part Three, and in this three-part series generally, I think it is important to consider Askin Sr et al’s behaviour in historical context.  During the fur trade, Indigenous people still retained some power and influence in the Great Lakes, and they often used it to gain concessions from the colonists.  They could be either perpetrators or victims, depending on who was in power.  Europeans also contributed to the discord, by frequently sowing divisions between Indigenous and Black people.

The situation is quite different today in many respects.  But Canada and the United States are still struggling with political, cultural and racial upheavals.  I am mulling over the issues raised by the research I did for this series, so this is the best I can do for a conclusion at the moment.

Part Three – Bibliography

Allen, R S, & Conn, H. (2019, July 9).  Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea).  Retrieved from Canadian Encyclopedia:

Banersee, M. (2018, February 19).  Detroit’s dark secret: slavery.  Retrieved from Michigan Today:

Clarke, J. (1987).  Ainse (Hands), Sarah (Montour; Maxwell; Wilson (Willson).  Retrieved from Dictionary of Canadian Biography:

Clarke, J. (2001).  Land, Power and Economics on the Frontier of Upper Canada.  Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Curnoe, G. (1994).  Deeds/Nations.  London, Ontario: London Chapter, Ontario Archeological Society.

Henry, N.L. (2020, June 9).  Black enslavement in Canada.  Retrieved from Canadian Encyclopedia:

Historic Elmwood Cemetery & Foundation.  (2020, September 20).  Elijah Brush.  Retrieved from Historic Elmwood Cemetery & Foundation:

Historic Elmwood Cemetery & Foundation.  (2020, September 20).  Elizabeth Denison Forth “Lisette”.  Retrieved from Historic Elmwood Cemetery & Foundation:

Holroyd, I. (2014, February 21).  Burlington audience hears story of slave owned by Joseph Brant.  Retrieved from Burlington Post:

McNeil, M. (2013, July 30).  One of the first non-natives in the area was a slave.  Retrieved from Hamilton Spectator:

Miles, T. (2013, May/June).  Slavery in Early Detroit.  Michigan History, pp. 33-37.

Miles, T. (2017).  The dawn of Detroit: a chronicle of slavery and freedom in the city of the straits.  New York: New Press.

Shamus, K J. (2017, July 25).  How a freed slave made it into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame.  Retrieved from Detroit Free Press:

Wikipedia contributors.  (2019, November 29).  Elijah Brush.  Retrieved from Wikipedia:

Wikipedia contributors.  (2018, August 29).  Sally Ainse.  Retrieved from Wikipedia:

Wikipedia contributors.  (2020, August 11).  Lisette Denison Forth.  Retrieved from Wikipedia:

Wikipedia contributors.  (2020, September 19).  Slavery among Native Americans in the United States.  Retrieved from Wikipedia: