Transcript, News clippings and Family History
Elijah Fish was a footnote in the stories told about his brother Imri; the brother who had to sit on the jury that convicted Imri of murder, the brother who lived in the area, the brother who monetarily supported Imri during his imprisonment, etc. But it is time though for Elijah to step out from the shadows and to be recognized for his own incredible life and accomplishments helping those fleeing from injustice. While Imri is remembered primarily for taking lives, Elijah did what he could to help improve the lives of untold numbers of strangers.
This is Birmingham Uncovered, a podcast by the Birmingham Museum, where we are exploring the diverse and compelling lives that built Birmingham Michigan into the community that it is today. First, some background on Birmingham: we are a city of approx. 20,000 people over 4.73 square miles, approximately halfway between Detroit and Pontiac in Oakland County. This area was occupied by members of the Three Fires Confederacy of Indigenous People before white settlement in the area started in the late 1810s after the War of 1812. Birmingham became a city in 1933 and today is known as a prosperous and multi-faceted community with a thriving cultural scene.
This episode we are returning to that early settlement to look at the life of Elijah Fish, the younger brother of Imri, the subject of our last episode, to take a look at early religious life in the settlement and what anti-slavery activism looked like in Oakland County before the Civil War. A quick note on sources for this episode: much of the account of Elijah’s early life and movements come from an account written by his grandson, Lucien Fish, and preserved by Elijah’s great-great-grandson, Jerry Fish, who has written a history of the Fish family. Later abolitionist activities are pieced together from the family history as well as taken from primary sources like newspaper accounts.
Just a note on language before we go on. Our language conventions when talking about the institution of slavery and the people held in bondage in such a system are changing and for the better. We use enslaved or held in bondage instead of slave: using the adjective “enslaved” instead of the noun “slave” shows that the person was subjected to the situation of enslavement as an act by another, rather than of being an object that can be owned. Using “held in bondage” retains a person’s humanity while pointing out the position into which they were forced. We use enslaver instead of slaveowner or master: using the word “enslaver” emphasizes the action of one person forcing servitude upon another person without reinforcing any suggestion that owning another person is possible or real. We use freedom-seeker instead of fugitive: the word “fugitive” implies that the person was acting against society and were unlawful. It also suggests that enslavers were acting legally and appropriately. By using “freedom-seeker,” the emphasis is on the intent and actions of the person seeking his/her rights to freedom. Lastly, we use self-emancipation: this word gives agency to the person who decided to face extreme dangers to free themselves from bondage. However, we maintain the original language when quoting from historical sources.
Elijah was the sixth and last child born to Josiah Fish and Elizabeth Hazelton Fish in Athol, Massachusetts in 1791. When he was very young, the family moved to Allen’s Mill, which is now located within the city limits of Rochester, New York but was then a wilderness area that was crossed by travelers looking to settle further west. By the time the Fish family moved to it, the mill had fallen into disrepair and travelers commented on the cramped, primitive and oftentimes flooded living conditions. In 1798, when Elijah was 7, his mother died of malaria, sometimes called “ague” in historical records, a disease which an older brother remembered everyone in the family getting at one point or another.
In the late 1700s, mainstream American society didn’t see men as the sort of nurturing beings who were suited to caring for young children. And to add to it, in such a harsh environment a 7 year old child, who couldn’t do the tasks that his older siblings could do, was more of a burden than help. So Elijah was sent to live with an aunt and uncle in Vermont. According to a family history written in 1937 by his grandson, Lucien, Elijah recalled little of his life in New York but recalled that, upon setting out for the long journey on horseback to Vermont, he didn’t have a suitable hat to wear so he made do with a woman’s old silk hat until another could be procured in the nearest town. He then gave the silk hat to an old woman he met who mentioned that she had a grandson who needed a form of headgear.
Elijah spent the next 11 years in Vermont with his aunt’s family as the only boy and only young child- all his female cousins were older than him and many already out of the house. His Grandmother Hazelton was also a member of the household and one of his tasks was to help keep her warm during cold nights by heating up a brass warming pan for her bed and to accompany her around to the homes of his aunts and uncles in the neighborhood when she went visiting.
As opposed to his brothers’ lives in New York, Elijah never went hungry-true some of the food was a bit plain, but he always had enough of it. And he had the opportunity to attend school as well, which he didn’t really utilize, a fact that he regretted when he was older.
At 18 he and a friend went looking for work in Boston, no lasting career was found but he did return home with some money in his pocket and the absolute height in men’s fashion at the time: white topped boots. Picture those knee high riding boots with the band of brown on the upper calf-and then replace the brown with white and you tell me that’s not the height of style.
Due to the distance between New York and Vermont, Elijah hadn’t seen his father for most of his childhood and decided to go for a visit. But, it being the War of 1812, he got pulled into the fight, getting employment as a teamster in the army and served in the battle of Chippewa Falls.
If you’re like me, your history class only briefly touched on the War of 1812 as sort of midway point between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Part of that is that even though the War of 1812 gave us an important touchpoint in our national identity- the Star Spangled Banner-the War itself was a convoluted mess. I’m going to try my best to explain it as succinctly as I can. It partly grew out of one of the many wars between France and Europe and this one in particular dealt with Napoleon…and I know that really doesn’t narrow it down much but it was the first rise of the first Napoleon. Both Britain and France wanted the United States to cut off the other and we refused. Britain then started impressing American ships and their crews to help in their war effort.
In the Great Lakes area though, it was all about westward expansion and controlling the lucrative fur trade. Though places like what would one day become Michigan were ceded to the newly formed United States after the Revolutionary War in the 1783 Treaty of Versailles, Britain still controlled most of the fur trade that was happening within the territory.
As we touched on in Imri Fish’s episode, many Native American groups that were living in lands claimed by the United States allied themselves with the British. There are many different reasons for this, some because Britain promised that if they won they would stop settlement west of the Appalachians, some because Britain seemed like the lesser of two evils and some tried to stay neutral.
The British also sought to destabilize the growing US economy by offering freedom to enslaved people who joined the war effort on their side. Historians estimate about 4,000 formerly enslaved people from the Unite States found freedom in British Canada during the War of 1812. This is the largest single group emancipation prior to the American Civil War. Descendent of the Black Refugees, as they are known, still live in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Trinidad where their ancestors were settled by Britain. We simply don’t know what Elijah Fish’s opinion on this was. How did the future abolitionist feel about fighting for the side that was, in part, seeking to keep the enslaved enslaved?
As the Star Spangled Banner, written by Francis Scott Key put it in 1814, “No refuge could save the hireling and slave From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave, And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
But any staunch abolitionists knew that Britain was hardly a utopia where slavery didn’t exist. The transatlantic trade of enslaved humans from Africa had only been abolished in Britain in 1807 and, significantly, didn’t outlaw the institution from continuing in its overseas colonies. Slavery continued in British colonies until 1838.
We simply don’t have enough information on when Elijah Fish came into his abolitionist ideals or how he might have wrestled with the nuances of the time. Or even if he was aware of all the nuances at the time.
Fighting took place on land in the United States and what is now Canada-then a British Colony. Battles also took place on the Atlantic Ocean and in the Great Lakes. The Battle of Chippewa Falls, where Elijah Fish saw action as a Teamster, took place in the British Colony of Upper Canada along the Niagara River in what is today the province of Ontario in Canada. It began on July 5, 1814 with an invasion of American forces. This battle, along with the Battle of Lundy’s Lane showed that American troops could hold their own against the British Army. The Battle of Chippewa Falls was a victory for the Americans.
And what was Elijah doing during the battle? A Teamster during the War of 1812 was an enlisted person in charge of driving a team of animals that were pulling wagons full of supplies that were vital to keep armies fed, clothed and outfitted. Today, many will be familiar with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a union that formed in 1903 and at first only represented horse team drivers and stablehands but who now represent a wide variety of professions including truck drivers, healthcare workers, brewers, pilots, secretaries and even zoo keepers.
The War of 1812 concluded officially in February of 1815. And the outcome was… well, much remained the same. Neither the US or Britain gained or lost any territory. If you are every bored, jump online and ask a group of history enthusiasts who won the War of 1812, a heated debate will ensue. I was once in a Facebook group that had to ban all discussion of the war because of the fights. It was glorious. It does bear mentioning though, that Britain did compensate the US for the formerly enslaved people who had sought freedom on British soil. The formerly enslaved folks themselves never received compensation for their forced labor, nor would any emancipated folks in the future. Between the War of 1812 and the American Civil War, which began in 1861, 10,000-30,000 freedom seekers settled in Canada and some of those were helped by Elijah Fish.
But before that, in the winter of 1814, Elijah was in Ogden, New York where he met Fanny Spencer. His grandson wrote that for the sleigh rides and other amusements his group of acquaintances undertook that the young men decided in advance who would accompany which young lady. And even though Elijah wanted very much to go with Fanny, he always hung back in the decision making and then offered his arm to whichever young lady wasn’t spoken for. Lucien makes it sound like this was a testament to Elijah’s character but the modern reader is left asking why nobody just asked Fanny who she would have liked to sit next to on the sleigh ride.
Elijah and Fanny married on October 22, 1825 and settled in Black Rock, New York. This shaped the trajectory of the rest of their lives. At the conclusion of the War of 1812, the Unites State’s government realized that it is was in their best interest to encourage settlement in the Midwest quickly. During the War, the British took the Fort of Detroit without a single shot being fired due in part to lack of available reinforcements on the American side. New technology made this expansion even quicker and more convenient. Whereas an overland route from New York to the Michigan Territory took upwards of 5 weeks, taking a steamship through the Great Lakes halved that time.
The first steamship of this sort, the Walk on The Water was built in Black Rock and left on its maiden voyage in May, 1818. Perhaps inspired by seeing the ship and maybe bitten by the same bug that caused his father to take his family westward, Elijah took his wife and two young children on a voyage west-to Detroit. They missed taking the Walk on the Water, though, and instead took a schooner and made their way into what is now Birmingham in 1820.
We talked a bit about what settlement in the area looked like in our last episode about Elijah’s brother, Imri, and the murders of Polly and Cynthia Utter in 1825. But suffice to say, the Fishes were among the first half dozen families to find a home in the wilderness of Bloomfield Township along the Saginaw Trail-today known as Woodward Avenue.
During the early years of their marriage in New York, both Elijah and Fanny joined the Presbyterian church and held the first Presbyterian church services in the settlement in 1834 in their barn. Christian churches, including the Presbyterian church, had been struggling with the question of slavery throughout the 1700 and 1800s. In 1818 the Presbyterian General Assembly adopted a resolution that declared enslavement a gross violation that was inconsistent with the law of God. Parts of the denomination took this language and ran with it, becoming radical abolitionists, while other parts tried to fly a more middle or neutral path in order to not offend members of the church who were enslavers.
Did Elijah come to the Presbyterian church because he also held anti-slavery ideals? Did the church influence him? Did the family of his brother-in-law, Elijah Giddings who was married to Elijah’s older sister Philotheta who were a well-known abolitionist family influence him? Again, we don’t know but in 1836 Elijah helped found the Oakland County Anti-Slavery Society with George Wisner, Nathan Power, John P. LeRoy and several others. In June, Elijah published several public notices in the Pontiac Courier looking for delegates to go to Ann Arbor for the Michigan Anti-Slavery meeting, listing him as Vice President in the notice. Abolitionists in Oakland County were members of many Christian denominations, including folks from other Presbyterian churches. Deacon Fish, as he was now known, was in good company.
From here on out, we are primarily tracking his activities via newspaper notices. His family does note with pride “He had a keen sense of humor and enjoyed a joke even at his own expense perpetrated by the other fellow. Perhaps to this appreciation and hearty recognition of “the other fellow” he owed some of his popularity. Indeed, “the other fellow” whether he was the negro slave toiling at his unrequited task, the red man being crowded off his hunting ground, the drunkard struggling with his growing appetite (his wife bearing the burdens that come to such lives), or the poor widow trying to bring up her little brood respectably, occupied a large space in the thoughts and sympathies of Elijah S. Fish.”
During the 1840’s, Elijah was very active in anti-slavery and abolitionist movements, as evidenced by several mentions of his work in the Signal of Liberty, an abolitionist newspaper published in Ann Arbor. Elijah continued as chairman for the Oakland County Anti-Slavery Society, and participated on committees to support candidates for election to local and state governments. He worked with well-known abolitionists of the time, including Nathan Powers of Farmington and George Wisner of Pontiac. In 1845, Elijah was one of 12 delegates to represent Oakland County at the Michigan State Anti-Slavery Society meeting in Marshall, MI.
The Underground Railroad isn’t a railroad, but it’s a term that folks today and at the time applied to the network of people that helped freedom seekers with food, clothing, shelter and transportation. It’s important to stress here that this network could be flexible- routes, safe houses and the folks who helped weren’t set in stone.
The 1850s marked a turning point in the Abolitionist movement in the United States. The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act was the first of such acts to actually have teeth, making it a crime to assist folks seeking freedom and allowing bounty hunters to arrest individuals even in Northern Free states. All these bounty hunters needed was an affidavit from an enslaver stating that they “owned” the individual for that person to be dragged into enslavement.
Oakland County suddenly became a much more significant location in the Underground Railroad network. Bounty hunters were thick on the ground in Detroit, a significant spot for Freedom Seekers to cross from the United States into Canada. It was increasingly dangerous for Freedom Seekers to spend time in Detroit, many now paused somewhere in Oakland County until the coast was clear to move right through Detroit and over into Canada or crossed at Port Huron. Locations like Birmingham and Royal Oak were in a great position here, being situated right on Woodward Avenue, the main thoroughfare to and through Detroit. Stories abound of Freedom Seekers hidden under a false bottom of a farm wagon, taking produce into the Detroit markets.
This meant that freedom seekers could no longer count on freedom upon reaching the border of a free state but instead had to travel onto Canada in order to fully attain their freedom. And the abolitionists who helped them along the way had to be even more careful about their activities, lest they risk the attention of bounty hunters who would stake out their homes or businesses in the hopes of capturing freedom seekers or end up in prison (the punishment for assisting freedom seekers was $1,000 and six moths in jail).
Some freedom seekers chose to stay in Canada once they arrived and there were several prominent abolitionists and formerly enslaved people who helped them acquire the education and work that allowed them to live their free lives to the fullest. One such person was Henry Bibb, who self emancipated in 1837. Henry Bibb wrote an autobiography Narrative on the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, which gives an account of his life during enslavement and his escape. He toured Michigan on speaking tours, and visited Birmingham on August 19th, 1846. Bibb also published the Voice of the Fugitive, a newspaper in Canada, that brought news of the abolitionist movement, and advice for those seeking freedom. Bibb was one of the founders of the Refugee Home Society, an organization that helped purchase land in Canada for those escaping enslavement and wanting to start their new life of freedom. Elijah Fish was elected president of the society in 1851.
In several issues in the Voice of the Fugitive Elijah Fish is mentioned by name and thanked for donating money and goods to the Refugee Home Society. In March of 1851, the paper printed “We would also thankfully acknowledge a small lot of clothing and provisions which H.B. (Henry Bibb) received from the hands of Deacon E. Fish, of Birmingham, Oakland Co., collected by him from the friends of humanity, for the same object, in that town.”
In the village of Birmingham, Elijah was the voice of the “Friends of Liberty in Birmingham,” a group of local citizens involved in the abolition movement. The Friends were responsible for setting up lectures by prominent abolitionists, including Henry Bibb and William Cooper Nell (a well-known abolitionist from Boston). The Friends also held a least one Liberty Convention in Birmingham, at Mechanic’s Hall in 1844.
In the 1840s and 1850s, public talks and lectures were a big source of entertainment, especially in a small village like Birmingham. Henry Bibb and William Cooper Nell were celebrities of the traveling lecture circuit. Future Birmingham mover and shaker, Martha Baldwin, wrote in her diary about attending such talks and the excitement that they could produce. For many, hearing first-hand accounts of the horrors of slavery from those like Bibb, who had been enslaved, galvanized them into abolitionist action.
While working tirelessly for abolition, Elijah was busy. He was a deacon at the First Presbyterian Church, and a father to 7 children. Though he shared the urge to go westward, like his father, he appears to have been better equipped to provide materially for his family. In 1888, Elijah and Fanny’s daughter, also called Fanny (there had been another daughter named Fanny, who died a few years before this Fanny was born. Recycling names like that was common at the time and I cannot begin to describe how confusing this is for historians), wrote an article for the Oakland County Pioneer Society in which she reminisced about Birmingham’s early days. She writes warmly about the small, snug cabin of hewn logs her father built. Instead of the flea and mosquito infested rooms without a fireplace that her father had spent several years in growing up on the New York frontier, Fanny mentions an actual wooden floor and handmade shelves lining the walls. When the roof leaked, Elijah quickly set to work to fix it.
Towards the end of his life, the tide was turning against slavery in the US in the lead-up to the Civil War. Sadly, Elijah never saw the passage of the 13th amendment and the end of slavery in the United States, he died on February 28, 1861 at the age of 70, only a few months before Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter. Several of his sons carried on his work, first in Kansas (where they had breakfast with John Brown) and later in the Union Army.
His daughter, Fanny Fish Irving Trollope, inherited Elijah’s adventuring spirit, going to California and Mexico while making several scientific discoveries before returning to her hometown and settling down a bit. We’ll explore her story later on in another podcast.
Elijah Fish’s life is a great snapshot of American life in the early to mid-1800s. War, westward expansion, technological improvements, debates about religion, personhood and slavery. His life also illustrates that although the Birmingham he lived in was a small village, the residents were involved in national debates and national movements. Because of his involvement with the Underground Railroad, in 2022 Elijah Fish’s gravesite at Birmingham’s Greenwood Cemetery was added to the National Parks Service's National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, a program that recognizes both the Freedom Seekers who traveled along the Underground Railroad and the abolitionists who assisted them.
I thought about closing out his episode with Elijah’s epitaph, which reads “a useful life and peaceful death is the epitome of his history” which, sure, yeah that describes him. But why not use a quote that was actually said by him during his 25 year long public quest to end enslaving. A president of the Oakland County Ant-Slavery Society, he was quoted by the Signal of Liberty as saying “that slavery is a sin against God and a violation of human rights, subversive of the gospel”.
I’m Caitlin Donnelly and thank you for joining us for this episode of “Birmingham Uncovered”. Special thanks to the Birmingham Area Cable Board for PEG grant funding that made this podcast possible. Also thanks to past and present staff of the Birmingham Museum, in particular Leslie Pielack and Donna Casaceli, who have been hard at work identifying members and participants of Oakland County’s Underground Railroad Network. Join us next time for a look at the life of one of Birmingham’s “founders” who has a lot of things around town named after him for a guy who maybe set foot once on Birmingham soil.