-- documents Feed--
-- All of Bhamgov Feed --

Elijah S. Fish: Birmingham Abolitionist

Print this page
Text resize increase font size decrease font size

Excerpt, Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Application (January, 2022)
by Leslie Pielack
Detroit to Pontiac Saginaw TurnpikeBirmingham, founded in 1818, is one of the oldest settlements in southeast Michigan. It drew migrant families from New York and the northeast, many of whom held strong abolitionist views. One of these was (Deacon) Elijah Fish, one of the first settlers who purchased land in 1820 in what is now Birmingham. Fish was a principled and hard-working man who was influential in the growing community, founding its first Presbyterian Church, and becoming its deacon.[1]

Within a few years, territorial Michigan’s population grew, and Birmingham became an important settlement on the route from Detroit to Pontiac, the county seat. Birmingham’s location and commercial importance were a factor in connecting it politically and economically to the county as well as the territory. This played an important role in the growing anti-slavery movement in the 1830s. Though Michigan was still little more than a wilderness at the time, Elijah Fish worked to organize anti-slavery efforts through his association with other like-minded local abolitionists such as lawyer and state legislator George Wisner of Pontiac, and Quaker activist Nathan Power of Farmington. Fish co-founded the Oakland County Free Discussion and Anti-Slavery Society with about fifty members in 1836, even before the territory of Michigan had organized its own society. Throughout the early 1840s, Fish actively worked to organize anti-slavery groups and support abolitionist political interests, with Birmingham as his base.[2]

Henry Bibb engravingNoted formerly enslaved abolitionist Henry Bibb came to Michigan in 1840 and traveled the region giving lectures about his experiences and the evils of slavery. By that time, Michigan had developed a well-organized anti-slavery movement, and thousands of freedom seekers were aided on its Underground Railroad network. During the 1840s, bounty hunters from Kentucky and other slave states became more aggressive and numerous in Michigan, where they raided Underground Railroad stations and re-captured many escapees. In the wake of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, pressure to relocate escapees to safety in Canada dominated Michigan’s abolitionist efforts. Bibb moved to Windsor, Canada, across the Detroit River and began publishing The Voice of the Fugitive and promoting the cause of purchasing large tracts of land in Ontario to re-settle escapees, who could buy lots on easy terms and establish independent lives. He was supported by abolitionists on both sides of the border in Michigan and Ontario, including Michigan’s Friends of Humanity, an anti-slavery society whose active members included Elijah Fish, Farmington’s Nathan Power, and Wayne County’s Rev. Marcus Swift. On May 21, 1851, a convention was held in Detroit with members of both groups, with Elijah Fish as president. The result was the formation of the Refugee Home Society, whose mission was to raise funds to begin land purchases in Canada for refugee freedom-seekers, a cause that Fish continued to support. His other anti-slavery activities continued, including funding and providing supplies for Underground Railroad escapees and organizing abolitionist speakers in the town of Birmingham that brought people from all over Oakland County. Fish himself gave public lectures as well, promoting the cause of freedom for enslaved people and raising public awareness.[3]

Fish’s sons Edmund and Lucian continued in his footsteps in the 1850s. Edmund was involved in the organization of the Republican Party in Jackson, Michigan in July of 1854. He relocated to Kansas shortly thereafter, and his brother Lucian joined him. Both became involved in the free-state movement. At the time, Kansas was a territory on the brink of statehood. Because it could choose whether to be a slave state or a free state, intense political pressure built quickly and activists from both sides of the slavery issue were anxious to tip the scales in their favor. Riots and violence erupted in the territory as the issue intensified. Lucian was a delegate to the anti-slavery Leavenworth Convention, and also served in the Kansas legislature during this volatile period, representing the anti-slavery position.[4] 

William CooperToward the latter 1850s, Elijah Fish’s health began to fail. Even so, he continued to promote anti-slavery values and bring speakers to Birmingham. In September of 1858, for example, Martha Baldwin, a young woman from Birmingham (who would later become a tremendous force for progressive ideas in local education, politics, and public health) attended a talk by an unnamed Black lecturer. That speaker was Boston abolitionist William Cooper Nell, who came to Birmingham as part of a national anti-slavery lecture circuit. Like others before him, Nell spoke before a gathering of people in Birmingham at the largest venue in town, Mechanics Hall. Martha also noted in her diary that on September 18, there was a large Republican meeting in Birmingham, further underscoring the interest in anti-slavery politics in the community.[5]

Elijah Fish died in February of 1861 after a long illness. His lifelong contributions to the anti-slavery movement range from political activism and influential leadership to community education and awareness raising; and from individual cash and material donations to the Underground Railroad to organizing efforts on a large scale to purchase land in Canada for the safe re-settlement of escapees. Rather shy and reserved himself, he brought opportunities to the residents of Oakland County to hear eloquent lectures by nationally famous abolitionists. He continued to support the cause of liberty for enslaved people until the end, and was a devoted member of his family, church, and community. A family history sums it up this way:

“The peculiar characteristics which secured to him so many friends and made few, if any, enemies are hard to define in words. Self love and self esteem had small place in his make up (sic). 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.

“His life is an example of the good that may be accomplished without wealth, genius or educational advantages, by simply living an upright life in a kindly natural way. But after all, his virtues shone brightest in his own home.

“After he was gone, when many sympathizing friends spoke of his kindly deeds, his family said one to another,’ no one knows as we do how good he was.’ His epitaph sums up his life work:

‘A useful life and peaceful death
Is the epitome of his history’”[6]

Elijah S Fish Marker

Elijah Fish’s grave marker is still identifiable in Greenwood Cemetery, although it has weathered considerably and been repaired several times over the years in an effort to preserve it. Likewise, his mark on the community is still discernible, and is recounted during guided cemetery tours and in published materials. His unwavering values and concern for the well-being of others laid a foundation in the community that has continued to the present day, as visitors and residents alike express interest in the anti-slavery history of our area. Although there is no evidence the two men knew each other, Fish’s contributions likely laid the groundwork in Birmingham for the people of color who found refuge and welcome in the community afterward, such as George Taylor, as well as others. Taylor settled in the area after a harrowing escape from enslavement and flight to Canada via Michigan’s Underground Railroad, ultimately making Birmingham his home. His final resting place is in Greenwood Cemetery, not far from that of Elijah Fish.

[1] Fish, Lucien E. History of the Descendants of Elijah Staunton Fish. Memphis, TN: Lucien E. Fish, 1937, 6. [Birmingham Museum Collection, Birmingham, MI]; Smith. Kay. Bloomfield Blossoms, Bloomfield Twp, MI: Bloomfield Township Bicentennial Commission, 1976, 148-149.

[2] Durant, Samuel W. History of Oakland County. Philadelphia: Everts, 1877, 54.  Ndukwu, Maurice Dixon. “Anti-slavery in Michigan: A Study of its Origin, Development, and Expression from Territorial Period to 1860.” Michigan State University (Doctoral Dissertation) 1979, 25,48, https://www.proquest.com/openview/a42779309680ac68bcb75702a8d8c1c9/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=18750&diss=y. Accessed 9/21/21; Wisner, Geoff. “A Natural Curiosity: George W. Wisner, Abolitionist Reporter.” http://geoffwisner.blogspot.com/2008/05/george-w-wisner-abolitionist-reporter.html. Accessed 7/21/21; “Anti-Slavery Meeting” Pontiac Courier, Vol. 3, No. 33, 25 May 1842, 3. Digital Michigan Newspapers, Central Michigan University Libraries https://digmichnews.cmich.edu/?a=d&d=OaklandPCRIR18420525-01.1.3. Accessed 9/12/21; “Liberty Meeting in Oakland County,” Ann Arbor, Signal of Liberty, 9 May 1842, 2, https://aadl.org/signalofliberty/SL_18420509-p2-05. Accessed 9/10/21; “Liberty Party Senatorial Convention.” Ann Arbor, Signal of Liberty, 7 Aug 1843, https://aadl.org/node/24642, 3. Accessed 9/10/21; “Mass Liberty Convention! in Oakland County.” Ann Arbor, Signal of Liberty, 9 Sep 1844, 3, https://aadl.org/node/26833, Accessed 9/12/21  “Oakland County Convention.” Ann Arbor, Signal of Liberty, 21 July 1841, 3. https://aadl.org/signalofliberty/18410721, Accessed 9/10/21; “Oakland County Convention.” Ann Arbor, Signal of Liberty, 14 Aug 1843, 2, https://aadl.org/signalofliberty/SL_18430814-p2-04; “Public Notice.” Pontiac Courier, Vol. 2, No. 26, 25 Jul 1836, 3. Digital Michigan Newspapers, Central Michigan University Libraries, https://digmichnews.cmich.edu/cgi-bin/michigan?a=d&d=OaklandPONTC18360725-01.1.3, Accessed 9/9/21.

[3] Carlesimo, Peter., "The Refugee Home Society : its origin, operation and results, 1851-1876." (1973), 4-7. Electronic Theses and Dissertations, 4196, https://scholar.uwindsor.ca/etd/4196, Accessed 12/1/2021. Landon, Fred. “Henry Bibb, a colonizer.” Journal of Negro History, 1920, (Oct), 443. University of Chicago Press for the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, https://www.jstor.org/stable/2713678. Accessed 4/7/21; “A Call to the Friends of Humanity,” Voice of the Fugitive, 7 May 1851, 2, https://news.ourontario.ca/abolition/97859/page/2. Accessed 9/17/21; “Help for the Fugitives,” Voice of the Fugitive, 12 Mar 1951, 2; https://news.ourontario.ca/abolition/97848/1851-03-12/issue. Accessed 9/21/21; “Help for the Fugitives,” Voice of the Fugitive, 23 Apr 1851, 2. https://news.ourontario.ca/abolition/97858/page/2.Accessed 9/21/21; “Refugee Home Society,” Voice of the Fugitive, 4 Jun 1851, 2, https://news.ourontario.ca/abolition/97861/page/1. Accessed 9/21/21.

[4] Fish, Jerry. “Fish Family Record” (E-mail communication), 2/19/2007, 3. [Birmingham Museum Collection, Birmingham, MI]; Fish, Lucian E. History of the Descendants of Elijah Staunton Fish. Memphis, TN: Lucien E. Fish, 1937, 9-10. [Birmingham Museum Collection, Birmingham, MI]; Kansas, a Cyclopedia of State History Embracing Events, Institutions, Industries, Counties, Cities, Prominent Persons, Etc., Vol. I, Ed. Frank W. Blackmar, Chicago: Standard Pub. Co., 412-413, https://books.google.com/books?id=o8X5krq3fP8C&lpg=PA413&ots=ZZzP2LUobl&dq=lucien%20fish%20kansas%20free%20state&pg=PA413#v=onepage&q=lucien%20fish%20kansas%20free%20state&f=false. Accessed 12/1/2021.

[5] Baldwin, Martha. Diary, April 1, 1858-April 1, 1859, [April 6, 1858] 18-19, [Birmingham Museum Collection, Birmingham, MI]; Nell, William C., “Sketch of a Tour to the West” The Liberator, Boston, 12 Nov 1858, 3.  Massachusetts Collections Online, Digital Commonwealth, www.digitalcommonwealth.org/book_viewer/commonwealth:5h742h84z. Accessed 9/9/2021.

[6] Fish, Lucien E. History of the Descendants, 6-7.