Excerpt, National Underground Network to Freedom Application (January, 2022)
by Leslie Pielack
Like so many of those formerly enslaved, George Taylor‘s birth and family history are unknown. In an interview published in 1898, he estimated his age as 31 at the time of his flight in 1855, making his birth around 1824 (in later years he was less certain of his exact age, as reported in his 1901 obituary). In the interview, he named his slaveholder as “Mrs. Greathouse” and the place as Hancock, Kentucky. Records show that the Greathouse family had a presence in Hancock County since the 1820s, and its primary members were Dr. Isaac Newton Greathouse and his wife Elizabeth (Lewis), with several children born to them in the 1820s and early 1830s. Elizabeth inherited ownership of an enslaved girl (“Marguerite”) and a boy named “George” when Isaac died in 1832. The boy’s age was not recorded on the list of Mrs. Greathouse’s inherited goods, but he was noted as having a value of $275.
Unfortunately, the 1840 census for Hancock County did not include a count for enslaved members of a household, so nothing about George or Marguerite is noted in that record. However, in the 1850 Slave Schedule for Hancock County, the record shows that Elizabeth Greathouse is slaveholder for six people—one of them an unnamed man whose age is given as 28. As there is no other slaveholder by the name of Greathouse in Hancock County or the vicinity in 1850, and a relatively small number of slaveholding households, it would appear that this record refers to George Taylor. This would make him 32 or 33 at the time of his escape in 1855, and corresponds closely to his self-estimated age. The importance of finding George in these early records is that it helps identify other potential avenues of research and can be used to cross-reference related details.
Taylor’s 1898 account of his enslavement and flight provides additional context of what he experienced both before and after his escape. He states that although he was not treated very kindly in general, it was not until he was subjected to a public whipping that he determined to escape. This is a significant statement, since it suggests that he tolerated enslavement and ill treatment until it became so unbearable that he was compelled to face the dangers of escape. It is important to note that by 1855, the risks taken by freedom seekers in George’s situation were very high. Freedom-seekers were commonly hunted down by hired men with dogs and often re-captured within days, returned to enslavement and severely punished. Although thousands of escapees ultimately found their way to Michigan in the 1850s, many were even then re-captured by bounty hunters who targeted homesteads of known abolitionists on both sides of the border in organized raids. Large and small-scale politics in border states added to the problem. Local policies and legal mechanisms were volatile and unpredictable—one town might be a safe haven, while the next might enforce the Fugitive Slave Law and turn freedom seekers over to their slaveholders. Furthermore, the Underground Railroad network could be unavailable in many areas, or hard to find without a map and assistance. In Taylor’s case, the distance from Hancock County, Kentucky to the Michigan border was over 300 miles of unfamiliar country. The specter of bloodhounds and bounty hunters, the need to avoid towns and farms, and only the North Star as a guide in the dark make his decision to flee on foot all the more desperate.
After being ferried across the Ohio River on April 1, 1855, Taylor spent two weeks traveling only by night. His progress was slow and difficult, so he decided he had to travel by daylight, and this is where his journey became much more dangerous. He fell asleep in exhaustion in some bushes at the side of the road and awoke to find he was the prisoner of two bounty hunters with dogs. He made his escape from them, running into the undergrowth, pursued by their bloodhounds and gunshots. He was able to beat the dogs off and got away; after five days on foot, without food or water, he was fortunately discovered by an abolitionist. He had been traveling almost three weeks and was still not near the Michigan border, but after recovering, he continued on. After two days’ journey, he was once again run down by bloodhounds, and this time, he was arrested and taken before a local justice. In another fortunate twist of fate, the justice was an abolitionist, and Taylor was released.
He continued on his journey, finally making it to Niles, Michigan, where the Underground Railroad network transported him east to Detroit and on to Windsor, Canada to final freedom. It had taken four perilous weeks for Taylor to make his escape. In 1857 or 1858, Taylor came back to Michigan to the vicinity of Birmingham, working as a farmhand. By 1860, he was living in the household of farmer J.P. Stewart, just a few miles from the Village of Birmingham—the next farm over from abolitionist and Underground Railroad agent, Rev. James S. T. Milligan.
Milligan came to the Southfield/Birmingham area to accept a church appointment in late 1853 and was active in Michigan’s Underground Railroad network in the years leading up to the Civil War. His farm at Twelve Mile Road and Evergreen outside Birmingham had become a shelter for freedom-seekers waiting to cross from Detroit into Canada, because numerous bounty hunters patrolled the city, making Detroit too dangerous a place for escapees. Milligan hid freedom-seekers until they could be safely taken across the river to Windsor. Since a major plank road (Woodward Ave., also known as the Saginaw Road) ran from Birmingham to Detroit at the time with heavy farm traffic, Milligan had a quick and discreet method of transporting people by wagon directly to the Detroit River. Although it is not clear whether George Taylor knew James S.T. Milligan during this period, there are hints that he may have, in fact, been aided by Milligan when he was an escapee in 1855. They include his choice to relocate near Milligan when coming back to Michigan as well as his later activities and close association to the Milligan family after the war. Milligan also frequently got employment for former escapees he had helped who came back from Canada when there was work in Southfield. This may have included George Taylor.
Whether or not he knew Milligan earlier or had his help, after he settled in the Birmingham area, Taylor’s economic prospects steadily improved, as shown by the 1870 and 1880 censuses and other documents. By 1870, he was no longer a laborer but a farmer with his own household, and had married Mrs. Eliza Dosier, a formerly enslaved woman who came to the area seeking her biological mother after the war ended. In 1872, however, he left the farm for a time to help Rev. Milligan and his family relocate to Denison, Kansas to build a new church.
In 1876, Taylor was back in Oakland County, as he and Eliza formally adopted Clara Blevins at that time. By 1880, George was again recorded as head of household on the census, with the occupation of farmer. Soon after the 1880 census, however, the Taylors moved to Denison, Kansas, rejoining Rev. Milligan in his new location. In 1893, Milligan retired and moved from Kansas to Pennsylvania, and the Taylors returned to Birmingham—this time to purchase property. They became the first African American property owners (and, as Taylor liked to recount, taxpayers) in town. Taylor’s apparent bond to Milligan and his willingness to aid in building the church and then to relocate to Kansas suggests a strong relationship not likely to have been by chance alone. Milligan’s Underground Railroad role and the physical proximity of the two men instead suggests their connection could date to Taylor’s flight in 1855, when Milligan may have helped him cross to Canada, helped him find work when he came back, and that Taylor may have felt a lifelong sense of indebtedness and gratitude to Milligan.
What is certain is that George and Eliza Taylor were well known and well liked in Birmingham, active in a newly formed Presbyterian congregation, enjoying the respect of their neighbors and community when they returned in 1893. Their daughter Clara married Joseph Farmer of Nankin Township in town in 1898, and they also lived and raised several children in Birmingham. Abbie Farmer, Clara’s husband’s sister, also married in Birmingham, and she and her husband Abe Harris were property owners in town as well, making at least three families of color living in the small community in the last years of the 19th century, joining the first Jewish family to live in Birmingham at the same time. Thus, the evidence suggests the diverse and welcoming nature of the Birmingham community as a whole, and its willingness to be inclusive. These values been part of the community since its earliest beginnings, shaped by people such as Elijah Fish, whose persistence and advocacy helped pave the way a generation earlier.
George Taylor’s life and experience fleeing enslavement was recounted again in his obituary when he died in 1901. He was mourned by the community and by his church, and, unfortunately, his wife Eliza followed him a few months later. The couple was buried in Greenwood Cemetery, but did not receive grave markers. In the past two years, funds have been raised to install an appropriate monument for the couple that acknowledges their early enslavement and their importance to Birmingham. The marker is planned for installation in 2022 with the inscription, “Born into slavery, died free in Birmingham.”