Stegner Lecture Series explains slavery of the Old Northwest

Tiya Miles’ lecture, “Slavery and Freedom in the Old Northwest,” challenged notions commonly held about slavery in the United States. Miles presented as part of the Stegner Lecture Series, which continues the legacy of the late environmentalist, novelist and historian Wallace Stegner. Miles was introduced by President Waded Cruzado and the Wallace Stegner Endowed Chair Mark Fiege. Miles is currently a history professor at the University of Michigan and is a noted author and recipient of the MacArthur “Genius Grant.” The lecture was held March 6 in SUB Ballroom A.

Miles’ recent work focuses on the Old Northwest, a region that encompassed Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and part of Minnesota. This area is often believed to have been a haven from slavery, but Miles’ work proves otherwise.


“Scholars have expanded on our awareness in which some human beings possessed other humans as property. They have demonstrated that this pivotal aspect of our nation’s past was not bounded by the iconic cotton fields of the plantation south,” Miles said. “New Yorkers held slaves, New Englanders held slaves, and it turned out that westerners held slaves as well.”

The legality surrounding slavery in the Old Northwest is less transparent than in other regions, but enslavement of African Americans and Native Americans by European settlers was present until the early 1800s. “The irony is that we see these areas as free states, and founding national documents would seem to support this understanding. Unlike the original 13 colonies, where slavery took a decisive shape according to customs and law, the Old Northwest was designated on paper as a different kind of place,” Miles explained. Miles will continue her research on American slavery in other regions of the U.S., including Montana.