George DeBaptiste

Detroit Daily Post, February 23, 1875.

Death of George DeBaptiste

George DeBaptiste died a few minutes before 11 o'clock yesterday after a long and painful illness, which both he and his friends knew several months ago must prove fatal. His disease is said to have been cancer of the stomach. Though conscious that he was losing strength daily, he preserved a cheerful demeanor, was glad at any time to see his friends, and viewed his approaching fate with equanimity. He was about 57 years of age.

Mr. DeBaptiste was born in Fredericksburg, Va. His parents were free at the time of his birth, and he was never a slave. His boyhood was spent in his native town, and in early youth he went to Richmond, where he was apprenticed to learn the barber trade with Lomax Smith, who is still living in that city. After learning his trade he traveled through all the Southern States as the body servant of Amos Smith, a gentleman well known at the South in those days. Returning from his travels he married Miss Lucinda Lee, of Fredericksburg, and soon thereafter removed to Southern Indiana, where he commenced business as a barber. Living in the vicinity of Gen. Harrison he attracted the attention of the latter, who engaged him as a body servant. In that capacity he enjoyed the most intimate personal relations with that distinguished soldier during the exciting Presidential campaign of 1840, probably the most exciting that the country ever witnessed. Gen. Harrison traveled considerably, attended mass meetings and was constantly in the midst of stirring scenes. During all this time it was the business of Mr. DeBaptiste to look after the personal wants of the General, who obeyed the behests of his bright and intelligent servant in all matters relating to personal comfort and health as implicitly as a child. Upon the inauguration of President Harrison Mr. DeBaptiste became an inmate of the White House, and acted in the capacity of steward until the death of Gen. Harrison. Mr. DeBaptiste used to delight in narrating incidents of the campaign of 1840 and he had a fund of anecdote from which he was wont to draw for the entertainment of his friends on festive occasions.

After the death of his patron Mr. DeBaptiste returned to Indiana and resumed his barber business. He staid but a short time, however, and finally removed to Michigan, and settled in Detroit in 1849. He first engaged here as chief clerk in the store of Robert Banks, a colored man, who was then the leading wholesale clothier in the city. His store was on the present site of the Strong block, opposite the Michigan Exchange. Banks failed and then DeBaptiste bought out Wm. Lee and engaged in the baking business. Subsequently he sold this out and bought the steamer Whitney, which, with Capt. Atwood as master and DeBaptiste as clerk and manager, ran first to up river ports and afterward on the Sandusky route. He finally traded the steamer off for city real estate, and in the fall of 1863, when the colored regiment was raised in this city, he, with J. D. Richards, got the appointment as its sutler. He followed the fortunes of the regiment in its South Carolina and other campaigns, and after the close of the war returned to this city and set up as a caterer, which business he continued to follow in one location or another until his health failed.

Although never a slave, Mr. De Baptiste felt deeply the woes of his race, and was throughout his life active in their amelioration. He was prominently connected with the underground railroad in the days of the fugitive slave law, and was instrumental in forwarding many slaves to Canada and freedom. His friends recall many instances of personal daring and self-sacrifice in this work. We are assured that the John Brown raid was concocted in Detroit. After his Kansas campaign Brown, with 11 Negroes whom he had rescued from slavery, came to Detroit and put his men safely across the river, where some of them yet live. Here he met Fred Douglass and other kindred spirits, prominent among whom was Mr. De Baptiste, and among them the scheme was considered which resulted in the incursion upon Virginia soil, the capture and execution of John Brown at Harper's Ferry, the precipitating of civil war and the speedy emancipation of every slave in the United States. The expedition was armed here and started from here, and there are still living in Detroit several colored men who helped arrange the plan, and are familiar with it from its first inception.

Mr. De Baptiste led a rather eventful life, saw much of men and things, and always showed himself a bold, uncompromising advocate of right and justice, a firm friend of the poor and oppressed, and in every station an honorable, high minded gentleman. He was remarkably free from selfishness. He accumulated considerable property at one time or another during his life, but it is said he was more generous to others than just to himself. He was twice married, his second wife surviving him. His first wife bore to him 10 children, all of whom are dead except a son and daughter, now in their teens. He was throughout his residence in this city a member of the Baptist Church, and a most liberal contributor to all its needs. He was a strong man and strongly attached to himself many personal friends. In spite of early disadvantages he obtained a fair education, was a great reader for one of his opportunities, and was well posted on current events throughout the world and in the political affairs of the country. He was an ardent Republican and a vigorous advocate of his political principles.
The funeral will take place on Wednesday afternoon at the Croghan Street Baptist Church. The procession will leave his late residence, 134 Larned street east, at 2 o'clock.


Detroit Advertiser and Trubune, February 23, 1875



Yesterday morning at a quarter before eleven o'clock Mr. George De Baptiste, one of the most prominent colored men of Detroit, and a resident of this city for nearly thirty years, died at his residence, No. 134 Larned street east, after an illness of several months of cancer of the stomach. Mr. De Baptiste was well known in this city, having been in business here for many years, a portion of the time as a caterer, where he was brought into intimate acquaintance with many of our citizens. We present below a sketch of his eventful life, part of it as it could be obtained from one of his most intimate friends, and part of it as related by him during his lifetime to a reporter of THE TRIBUNE.

George De Baptiste was born in Fredericksburg, Va., of free colored parents, about the year 1815, and went when a mere boy to Richmond, entered a barber shop, and learned his trade as a barber. When a young man, eighteen or thereabouts, he became the servant of a man named Amos, who was a sporting man, and traveled about the country a great deal, his home being in Alabama. He remained with Amos until his death, after which he returned to Richmond, and was married and subsequently, about the year 1838, removed to Madison, Ind., where he carried on the business of trading with Cincinnati, occasionally running to and from the two places on a steamboat. While engaged in this business he chanced to fall in with Gen. Harrison, afterward President of the United States, and became his servant, traveling with him during his political campaign of 1840. Upon the inauguration of Gen. Harrison as President of the United States, Mr. De Baptiste was appointed by him steward of the White House. He was very fond of Gen. Harrison, and attended him constantly during his last sickness. He supported the General's head in his arms when he breathed his last, and was one of the sincerest mourners at the General's funeral.

Shortly after he returned to Madison, Ind., and opened a barber shop. He lived there, in all some seven years, and removed to Detroit about the year 1846. He purchased an interest in the barber shop kept by Thomas Johnson, in the Michigan Exchange block, but did not work at the trade himself. He was employed as chief clerk and salesman for Robert Banks, a colored man, who kept a wholesale clothing store on Jefferson avenue, remaining with him until he closed up his business about the year 1850. Mr. De Baptiste then bought out Wm. Lee's bakery on Jefferson avenue, and conducted it for several years, when he sold out and purchased the steamer T. Whitney, whose route was between Detroit and Sandusky. Under the law a colored man could not get a license to run a steamboat, and he employed Capt. Atwood to manage the boat, while he sailed with her to look after her business and freight. After some two or three seasons he sold the steamer to M.B. Kean. He then went into the catering business.

During the war he was instrumental in assisting to raise a colored regiment in this State for the military service. He enlisted a large number of men in this city, and, with Mr. J. D. Richards, of this city, made a tour of the State to recruit colored men for the regiment. After the regiment was organized and sent to the field Messrs. De Baptiste and Richards were appointed sutlers and went with it in 1864 to South Carolina. He returned in about six months, and then went again into the business of caterer, having his headquarters at the corner of Jefferson avenue and Beaubien street. He afterwards established a restaurant and ice cream parlors on Fort street, near Woodward avenue, which proved a losing investment, and subsequently open a restraurant on Michigan Grand avenue, opposite the market. Last summer he opened a country house in Hamtramack, at the old Desnoyer homestead, but failing health obliged him to give up business early in the fall. Since then he has been confined to his house most of the time until his death.

George, as he was familiarly called by almost everybody who knew him, was an active, energetic man, very genial, whole-souled, generous, and an agreeable and sociable companion. He was a firm friend to the people of his own race. He was president of the colored Union League of this city for two or three years, and gave liberally of his own means for its maintainance. His gifts and benefactions during his life would amount to a small fortune. No one in need appealed to him in vain.

His first wife died some years ago, and he married again, his second wife surviving him. He leaves two children, a son and daughter. The most interesting portion of Mr. De Baptiste's life was while he was connected with the so-called "underground railroad," which as most of our readers know was a secret organization formed during the days of slavery to assist slaves in escaping from the slave States into Canada. Mr. De Baptiste became connected with this organization while living in Madison, Indiana, and has aided hundreds of poor negroes to escape from their masters and take refuge in a land of freedom. He used to say that he had often waited on the bank of the Ohio River for half the night, while the rain was pouring down, intently listening to hear the oars of an expected boat, which contained one or more fugitive slaves. It was his custom to pilot these fugitives some ten or twelve miles north to the house of a farmer, who kept them secreted during the day, and on the next night would send them on to another stopping place. This method of travel was kept up until they arrived at Detroit, when they were taken across to Windsor. Mr. De Baptiste would usually perform these journeys on foot, walking sometimes twenty miles during the night, returning to his work the next day, probably to shave the man whose slave he assisted to escape the previous night. He has on various occasions gone into Kentucky, met slaves secretly and arranged plans for them to cross the river. Then he would meet them when they reached the Ohio side and conduct them on the road to freedom, as far as his district extended. When slaves who were trusted by their masters crossed to Madison, to do trading or shopping, he would take the first opportunity that presented itself to advise and entreat them to become free by running away. At times he would conceal one, two or three negroes on board a steamer bound for Cincinnati, where parties would receive them and send them on their way to freedom.

After having assisted many negroes to escape from slavery, it was suspected about Madison that he was engaged in the "underground railroad" business, and he was not infrequently accused of it in a joking way by his customers, and also by Kentuckians and slaveholders who called at his shop. Of course he was obliged generally to give the impression that he was not engaged in the business, and would do so by the broad admission that he only "wished he was smart enough to steal the niggers, and he would steal all there were in old Kentuck." Having been suspected of being engaged in "stealing niggers," as it was commonly expressed, various plans were laid to entrap him, by having slaves go to his house at night and ask him to show them the way to Canada, but without success. A Kentuckian whom Mr. De Baptiste was in the habit of shaving almost daily, who lived but a short distance across the river from Madison and had business in that place, set a trap to catch George. He sent a fine-looking young darkey, one of his slaves, to George's house about ten o'clock one Saturday night to have George show him the way to Canada. The darkey, after calling, made several inquiries relative to the best road to Canada, and wanted to know how to cross the lake after he got to it. George suspected that he had been sent, and replied that he knew nothing about how to get to Canada, and that he must make inquiries from some other source. A few days afterwards the Kentuckian alluded to the circumstance of his darkey calling upon George, and at the same time remarked that nothing would tempt "the boy" to run away from him. George replied: "I'll bet you a new hat I'll steal your nigger inside of a month." The bet was accepted. Shortly afterwards George chanced to meet the darkey, and first upbraiding him for his treachery in calling upon him as he did for the purpose of betraying, began a series of contemptuous allusions to his condition of slavery and the relations he, as a black man, bore to a white man, and the "boy" in the course of half an hour agreed to run away that very night. He did so, and George conducted him on his way to the first stopping place. A few days afterwards, when the Kentuckian called for another shave, George claimed his new hat. The Kentuckian, though very much chagrined at the loss of his slave, paid his bet, and George received the hat.

So strong was the belief in Kentucky that he was concerned in the "nigger stealing" business that a large reward was offered for his arrest in Kentucky. This, however, did not deter him from going there by night, rowing across the Ohio River in a boat, and making and carrying out plans for the escape of slaves. There being no telegraph in those days, as soon as a slave once reached ten or twelve miles north of the river his escape to Canada was almost certain.

After Mr. De Baptiste removed from Madison to this city, he still maintained his connection with the underground railway. As soon as runaways arrived in this vicinity he found them out, and immediately got them across to Canada. A year or two after his removal he happened one day to be at the depot just as a train on the Michigan Central Railroad arrived, and there say a colored man whom he had brought across the river at Madison, and piloted as usual to his first stopping place. The man had come as far as Hillsdale county in this State, and there, having secured employment, remained. His master had by some means learned of his whereabouts, and came with several men to take him back. The negro was arrested, but by some means escaped from his captors and fled. The report of his arrest and escape had reached the city, and his master at once came to watch for his appearance here to cross the river by ferry, when he intended to capture him. It luckily happened that De Baptiste was at the depot when the man arrived, and knowing the circumstances he took charge of the negro, and securing a small boat got him across to Canada very speedily.

On another occasion an attempt was made to take back a family of five colored persons named Crossthwaite, who, after escaping, had settled at Marshall in this State. Their former owner, with others, had come on to capture them, and after they had done so the Crossthwaites were rescued by citizens, including the Hon. Charles T. Gorham, then a resident and attorney of Marshall, now United States Minister at the Hague. They were sent on to this city, and Mr. De Baptiste having been informed of their expected arrival met them at the depot, and soon after had them safe in Canada. The owner of the slaves sued Mr. Gorham in the United States Court in this city, and recovered a judgment against him of over $5,000, for the value of the runaway slaves. The judgment, together with the costs of the suit, however, was paid by subscription among the anti-slavery people of this State, Mr. De Baptiste being one of the most liberal subscribers to the fund.

The above are but a few of the many incidents that might be related of Mr. De Baptiste's experience at the time when it was lawful for one man to own his fellow man. Since the close of the war he has labored zealously for the improvement of the colored people of this city. He strove earnestly to secure the admission of colored children into the public schools on the same footing with white children. After the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment he was instrumental in getting up the grand celebration of the event by the colored people here, and that day he counted as the happiest day of his life. He was an ardent friend of admirer of the late Gerrit Smith, and one of the last acts of his life was to write a caustic and telling reply to an article which he deemed an insult to the memory of Mr. Smith in comparing him with the late Mr. Lamar, a former slaveholder of Georgia, which appeared over his signature in THE DETROIT TRIBUNE about ten days ago. During the hot days of anti-slavery, when Gerritt Smith visited Detroit on several occasions, he consulted with Mr. De Baptiste relative to the workings of the underground railway, and contributed liberally to the funds of that association. Mr. De Baptiste used to say that Mr. Smith had several times offered to give him a farm of forty acres near his own home, in Peterboro, N.Y., well stocked with horses and cattle, and supplied with all the necessary farming utensils for the working of it, if he (De Baptiste) would go there and live upon it, but he refused the offer. Mr. De Baptiste was a member of the Baptist Church on Croghan street, and his funeral will take place from that church to-morrow afternoon at three o'clock.