American History · history

Woodward Avenue: The Backbone of Detroit

Woodward Avenue is one of America’s most iconic roads. The road 27 miles that connects Detroit River to Pontiac, Michigan and was once the main way to connect the suburbs to the main city. What makes it so special?

It is the home for many firsts in America: the first paved road, the first four way stoplight, possibly the first ice cream soda mixed by Sanders, and the first road where a ticket for street racing was written (March 1895). In 1963, thousands marched and listened to Martin Luther King, Jr gave a precursor to his “I have a Dream” speech. It is the home to the famous “Dream Cruise” where thousands of classic cars owners come to cruise, socialize, and show off their vehicles. It is also just an important part of Detroit culture; it is a landmark. The road was also important to the auto industry. The auto industry grew up and expanded on this road. It truly is the spine of Detroit.

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Originally, Woodward Avenue (before it became an official road) was actually a Native American trail, the “Saginaw Trail.” This trail stretched further than the current road and stretched all the way to Saginaw, Michigan. Soon enough, the trail was converted into a wood planked road to assist in carriage and wagon travel. In the 1805, the streets of Detroit were laid out and Woodward Avenue obtained it’s name. The road was named after Judge Augustus B Woodward. He was appointed by President Thomas Jefferson to be stationed in Detroit and assisted in laying out the plans for the city’s streets. He wanted to create a “Paris of the West” out of a burnt down town and bleak community. Woodward was one of the main roads of his plan.

By the 1890s Detroit had grown (in part due to the lumber and steel industry) and many department stores began to pop up including Kay & Co, Wright, B. Siegels, Kern’s and James Vernor’s drugstore (where the first soda pop was made). In 1911, the famous Hudsons was built on Woodward.

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Then the auto industry came and changed the game. According to “Woodward Avenue: Michigan’s Main Street” by Susan Whithall, over “one hundred auto companies grew up on Woodward.” The big three (Ford, GM, Chrysler) were included in those auto companies and fully established themselves not far from this central road. Henry Ford built his first car at his home, which was only a few blocks from Woodward. The road was convenient for auto workers to travel down to work and back to their homes and families in the suburbs. Eventually, after street racing on Woodward Avenue became popular, many engineers from the auto industry would use the road as an opportunity to test out new setups and designs.

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Henry Ford

Street racing and cruising became popular in the 1950s and 1960s in Detroit and on Woodward Avenue, but it was not the first instance of racing. As early as the 1840s, people would race horse drawn carriages down the road and stopped at taverns in between. As stated before, in March 1895, the first ticket for street racing was issued when two vehicles were caught speeding by in early dawn.

After World War II, the suburbs grew and so did businesses along Woodward in the suburbs. It became a hub for drive in movies and restaurants. There were all places that young people wanted to go to hang out with their friends. The patrons of these restaurants, theaters, and stores would naturally begin to cruise in their automobiles up and down the miles of Woodward. The first racers did not drive anything special, but took their family’s cars out for a spin. Eventually, when the auto industry took notice and wanted to test their ideas, they took them to Woodward and used the road as a drag strip. Today, cruisers are still present (and not just during Dream Cruise week). Drag racing was also brought back in a “legal” form during Pontiac’s roadkill nights event where a strip of Woodward is blocked off and one can register themselves and their car to race. The tradition is still kept alive by car lovers today.

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This blog post was short and again featured Detroit history, but I found this piece to be so unique and important to the culture of Detroit. As I type this, I can hear the Dream Cruisers revving their engines outside my window as they drive up and down Woodward all night. Though I may not be that interested in cars, Woodward Avenue, the auto industry, and the culture is important to remember and traditions are important to keep. It is part of what built and made Detroit.



“Woodward Street Racing: The Facts Behind the Legends” by Rex Ro

“Detroit’s Ride form Horse to Horsepower” by Richard Bak

Detroit’s Ride from Horse to Horsepower

“Woodward Avenue: Michigan’s Main Street” by Susan Whithall, Detroit News–Michigan-s-Main-Street

“Woodward Avenue History” by Robert Genat

“Detroit’s Woodward Avenue is One of America’s Most Iconic Roads” by Jessica Shepard

American History · history

Code Word: “Midnight”

“Midnight” was the code word for one of the final stops of the Underground Railroad. By the time the former slaves arrived at “Midnight” they must have been filled with a sense of relief after surviving miles and miles of dangerous travel. Dawn was right around the corner. At this time, the country was teeming slave catchers. After the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act, a new popular profession was created. This law gave the slaveholders the ability to seek out and have their runaways returned. The law of 1850 expanded this and allowed the capture of fugitives slaves anywhere in United States held territory. It did not matter if the fugitive was north of the Ohio River border (1787 Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery north of the Ohio River), they could still be caught and returned. If they made it to Midnight (though not danger free) they were just a few miles and a ferry ride from freedom. Have you guessed where this was?

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Gateway to Freedom Monument, Detroit, Michigan

Detroit, Michigan was the most important and most popular crossings from the United States to freedom in Canada. Thousands traveled across the Detroit River a new life in Ontario. This included not only former slaves, but also free people of color. The Colored Vigilante Committee of Detroit assisted over 5,000 runaways with protection and transportation across the Detroit River between 1850-1865. Trade was not very regulated during this period either, which made it easier to slip across the river through the night. Despite being the final stop, there were many difficulties and hardships. Slave catchers (and even the slaveholders) would travel to the bitter end to retrieve what they deemed was their property. In this post I wanted to discuss a few aspects of the Underground Railroad system in Detroit. First, the community of free African Americans and abolitionists who came together to form networks to help, the importance of churches (such as the Second Baptist Church) and their communities, the Colored Vigilante Committee, and important figures.

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Tower of Freedom Monument, Windsor, Ontario, Canada

Early Detroit Underground Railroad

It is known that by 1813, the people of Detroit were involved in the harboring and protecting of fugitives slaves. The War of 1812 actually had a large role in promoting the idea Canada as the place to go to start a free life. By 1793, Upper Canada had made laws to prohibit further slave importation and the expense of keeping slaves was not worth the gain. Canada’s economy did not depend on slave labor like the United States. During the War of 1812, many African American men fought in uniform for the British forces. The American soldiers found this so unusual, that they would begin to talk about their experiences to their families back home, which then spread to their slaves. African American’s who served American officers also began to find ways to slip away while they were brought to Upper Canada while their masters were at war. This was the first time that Canada was really brought to the Nations attention as a place of freedom.

A huge increase in the migration to Canada greatly affected the population of Detroit. By the 1830s, there was a large enough African American population to begin to organize and  create churches, political groups and resistance groups. The American government began to notice as well, as President John Quincy Adams and his Secretary of State, Henry Clay, began to petition Canada to return their runaway slaves. Though the British government would not comply to these entreaties and responded that they would never “depart from the principle recognized by the British courts that every man is free who reaches British ground.” In 1833, Great Britain abolished slavery across their entire empire.

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Michigan also began to attempt to stop the great migration by requiring that one had to present a “certificate of freedom” and pay a $500 fee. Also attracted by the increase were slave catchers who were began to invade Michigan in rapid numbers searching for their bounty. Yet, this did not stop the brave men and women who traveled or volunteered on the Underground Railroad.

One of the first examples of the Detroit African American community coming together was in 1833 when the Blackburn Riots took place. It was likely the first race riot to have happened in the city.

Thorton and Lucie Blackburn worked as slaves in Louisville, Kentucky and were married. In June of 1831, Lucie was sold and was to be separated from her husband. Together, they forged freedom papers and escaped on a steamboat. Eventually, they found their way to Detroit and to what they believed to be the freedom they were searching for. The Blackburns joined the growing community of African American families and the beginning of the community churches. They were well liked and respected.

Yet, in 1833, the Blackburn’s were spotted by a slave catcher who had worked for their previous owners and it was ruled that the owner still had the right to take the couple back as his property. The African American community of Detroit crowed the balcony of the courthouse waiting to hear the verdict, and, when that verdict came, they were furious. They threatened to burn down Detroit if the Blackburn’s were not freed. Mobs began to gather, including those from across the river in Canada and in the surrounding rural areas of Michigan. They refused to see their friends rightful freedom be taken away. During the night of the trial, the principal families of the African American community met and came up with a plan to break the couple out of jail and ferry them across the Detroit River.


The next morning two wives from these families (Mrs. Lightfoot and Mrs. French) visited Lucie Blackburn stating that they wanted to sit with Mrs. Blackburn in prayer. The objective of this visit was to complete a quick switch and free Mrs. Blackburn. Lucie Blackburn traded clothing with Mrs. French (who then stayed behind in the cell) while the other two women left weeping into their veils to “hide their tears” (or, rather, their faces).

Thorton Blackburn’s escape was not as easy. He was brought out of the jail, closely guarded, as he was placed upon the cart that would bring him to the steamboat docks (to return to the south). But, the mob of protesters began to follow and prevented the cart from moving further. Blackburn was tossed a pistol which he fired in the air causing mass chaos. Through the chaos of the riot, Thorton Blackburn was taken with great speed to the river front and escaped to meet his wife on the other side. This example shows the first time that the African American community of Detroit really came together to protect each other and freedom, yet there were consequences. Many who were thought to have participated in the riots were arrested, federal troops patrolled the streets and even African American homes and buildings were burnt to the ground. This caused a reduction in the African American community as many began to also cross the river to Canada.

The Importance of Churches 

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Second Baptist Church, Detroit, Michigan

The church was extremely important to the lives of former slaves who had made a home in the Detroit region. Communities were formed around the churches which provided support to the minority and provided comfort to those who were victims of harassment and discrimination. The Second Baptist Church of Detroit actually formed as a result of this. The First Baptist Church used discriminatory practices (including restrictive seating and banning them from participation in church offices/fellowships) and thirteen former slaves took the leap of faith and broke away. This number included many who were the leaders during the Blackburn riots. They formed the Second Baptist Church in 1836, which is still active to this day. This church, along with others across the river, became one of the top supporters of abolition and became very involved with the politics of this issue and the Underground Railroad.

The church served as a station for fugitive slaves before they could cross the river to Canada. They hosted thousands of fugitives from 1836 through the end of the Civil War. The church’s leaders helped to form the Amherstberg Baptist Association (Ontario) and the Canadian Anti-Slavery Baptist Association. The Second Baptist Church teamed up with other black Baptist churches across the river to form unity and to protect those searching for freedom. They also worked to provide people of color with a religious haven, which could not be obtained through the white churches.

Other prominent African American churches in Detroit included St Matthews Protestant Episcopal Mission and the Bethel AME Church (which included a publicly funded school for African American children).

St John’s Church was actually a German Congregation, but assisted in the efforts. In the case of St John’s, tradition has it that funerals would be staged where fugitive slaves would be transported in a casket and the procession would move toward the Detroit River. From there, they would access the escape boat and make it across the river. This would fool any slave catchers who were patrolling the streets.

Detroit Colored Vigilant Committee

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Detroit River
Since the Blackburn riot, the African American community in Detroit had grown and more and more fugitives began to pass through. It is estimated over 5,000+ traveled through Detroit between 1842 and 1862. There needed to be an organized system for mobilizing those of the African American community in Detroit. The Detroit Colored Vigilant Committee was formed in 1842 and were key to the protection and assisting fugitives across the Detroit River. They would patrol the streets and spread the word among the community if  they had news of slave catchers in the city, they would mobilize a militia to distract the slave catchers and help the fugitives escape or hide. The Committee would also meet with incoming fugitives, hide them and then take them across the river. They were in charge of keeping the boats they used hidden during the day time.
The Committee was also active in protests, as they not only assisted physically with the rescues, but were also trying to assist in spreading the word about abolition and African American rights. This helped to bring abolition to the nation’s attention and lobbyed the federal government. The committee was organized by some of the church leaders that founded the African American churches above, such as William Lambert and George DeBaptista. It is said that about 60-70 local Detroit African Americans were involved in the Committee and these were from all different class levels.


Big Names

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William Lambert was one of the most prominent abolitionist in Detroit and was very involved in many of the organizations above. He came to Detroit in 1838 and set up shop as a tailor. Yet, by night, he became one of the most important conductors of the Underground Railroad. He used his station to guide thousands of fugitives searching for a new home. He was one of the leaders of the Second Baptist Church and then later went on to establish St Matthews Protestant Episcopal Church where he provided education services. He spoke in front of the Michigan State Legislature and fought for black rights and hosted the meeting with John Brown and Frederick Douglas regarding the Harper’s Ferry plan.

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George DeBaptiste was originally hired as the valet for President William Henry Harrison, but, as the president only lived 32 days into office, DeBaptiste’s career was cut short. DeBaptiste used this opportunity to become involved with assisting fugitives on the Underground Railroad in Indiana. Eventually, he took his talents to Detroit in 1846. He was a businessman and ran a barber shop and bakery. He even bought a steamship, which was used not only for business, but to assist in the secret escape of many former slaves. He was one who helped to organize and form the Colored Vigilante Committee and other secret societies all in the effort to get as many fugitives across the river as safely as possible. DeBaptiste was also present at the meeting with John Brown. He continued to help fellow African Americans and his community for the rest of his life.

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Laura Smith Haviland grew up as a Quaker in Michigan and soon made a name for herself as a abolitionist, suffragette and an important part of the Underground Railroad. Haviland and her husband used their home as a station for the Underground Railroad and established the first bi-racial school in Michigan (Raisin Institute). Haviland and 32 other women founded the Anti-Slavery Society of Lenawee. They promoted all writings published by abolitionists, hosted lectures and assisted fugitive slaves. Despite losing her husband, her youngest child, and her parents from a sudden spread of disease, she continued to work for the abolition movement. Even though she was now a poor widow with a farm and seven children to take care of, she still did not let this stop her from continuing to fight for her beliefs.

Haviland even traveled to the South and into slave territory in order to assist in freeing any slaves she could. Unfortunately, this was not to succeed, but it shows her devotion and bravery for the cause. She had ties with her friend Sojourner Truth and was affiliated with William Lambert and George DeBaptiste. She boosted her contacts all along the Detroit River in order to give warning regarding slave catchers and know where it was safe for the fugitives she assisted. She also helped to form the Refugee Home Society in Windsor, Ontario. Henry and Mary Bibb (the writers of the newspaper Voice of the Fugitive) were the main administration of the Society. This society took donations from the United States and Canada to create schools, a church community, and provide fugitive families with the supplies and land they needed to get their start in their new home.

Detroit was the last stop before freedom, yet sometimes gets looked over in the bigger picture of the history of the Underground Railroad. Though by the time they reached Detroit, they were so close to freedom, but the danger was still present. Without the strong African American and abolitionist communities present in Detroit, many of these thousands of fugitives who passed across the Detroit River would not have made it. It is important to remember the hard work and devotion that made the success of the Underground Railroad possible and assisted in the fight for the end of slavery in the United States. This was such an interesting story and it was great to dive into the details of local history. Many of these churches and sites can still be seen today and the Detroit Historical Museum has a wonderful exhibit that goes further into the topics of the Underground Railroad and into the 1960s.


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A Fluid Frontier: Slavery, Resistance, and the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River Borderland Edited by Karolyn Smardz Frost and Veta Smith Tucker.

biography · english history · european history · history

Book Spotlight: The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold

In this post I wanted to highlight a new book by author and historian, Hallie Rubenhold. The Five is a history that involves the now infamous story of Jack the Ripper. Jack the Ripper was a serial killer that terrorized Victorian London. In the modern area, it seems his killing spree has almost been glorified through the media and tourist attractions. It is all about Jack the Ripper, his mysterious identity, and his modus operendi. His victims are only remembered as “prostitutes”, but can any of us even recite their names?

With this book, Rubenhold takes a different approach. She is bringing identity back to the five canonical victims of the heinous killer. She breaks the negative stigma attached to these women. She argues that they were not “prostitutes” (a term made popular by the Victorian newspapers) and they were just your average working class women. There is only evidence that one of these women truly considered herself a sex worker. Rubenhold brings agency back to these women and tells their true stories. They are the ones who should be remembered, not their killer. In this book she tells the life stories of Mary Ann “Polly” Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elisabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly. Their killer and then the media for centuries after took away their identities, but in this book they are acknowledged again.

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The last sentence of Rubenhold’s conclusion states that the victims were “daughters, wives, mothers, sisters, and lovers. They were women. They were human beings, and surely that in itself is enough.” I love that sentence. I do follow many true crime podcasts, books, etc and in many cases the victim is forgotten over the fuss of who the killer was. This book creates small biographies of each woman and through these Rubenhold brings to life the Victorian era. She draws attention to how the working class truly lived. There is essentially no mention of the killer, it is completely focused on the women.

I loved how this book focused on the working class. As readers of popular history, we are surrounded by Queen Victoria or other nobles/notables biographies. It is difficult to get a picture of how the average person lived when we are constantly reading about those of the upper class. Rubenhold discusses life in an out of workhouses, the neighborhoods these women lived in, the difficulties of disease and alcoholism, raising a large brood of children on almost nothing, and the struggles of supporting oneself as a woman. These five women lived very difficult lives and often made mistakes which led them down the wrong paths. Yet, they were also strong as well.

For example, Polly Nichols was a loyal daughter, a wife, and a mother. Yet, an addiction she could not control took over her life. She was born a blacksmith’s daughter and had the uncommon privileged of attending school up to age fifteen years old.  According to Rubenhold’s research, “it was conventional to teach reading but not writing to working class girls, Polly mastered both skills.” Her life was changed when her mother and baby brother passed away from tuberculosis and she had to take on the household duties. She was lucky her father took responsibility of his children rather than send them to the workhouse after the death of his wife (which seems to have happened often). Unlike most of working class daughters, Polly could not take the normal path of entering domestic service and earn a wage. As the eldest daughter, she was expected to stay at home and care for the domestic chores, her younger siblings, and her father. During these years she grew a special bond with her father.

Polly married William Nichols and had five children rather quickly. They even obtained one of the exclusive and highly competitive spots at the Peabody Building, which was donated by banker,  George Peabody,  to help the less fortune find better living conditions. The strict guidelines to obtain a lease required spotless moral character and cleanliness. This was so much different from the slums of the working class in London where large families would share one dirty room. There were even spaces for privacy in the Peabody Building.

Yet, Polly began to develop alcoholism which may have come about as she discovered her husband was having an affair with another resident in their building. Arguments grew fiercer and Polly made the powerful decision to leave. It was near to impossible for divorce to occur, so many women would have to stick out the choice they made. Polly did not. Polly stood up for herself and left the conditions of where she lived to take on the world alone. Unfortunately, this included abandoning her children, as a woman who left her proper role had no custody. The evidence does not suggest she was ever a sex worker after this split, yet after her death she was described as a “prostitute”. This was because she did not fit into the social morals of the strict Victorian era. A woman leaving a bad relationship and abandoning her children did not fit the mold.


Whitechapel c1849 Illustrated London News. Scanned image by Philip V. Allingham . 

Another example is Annie Chapman. She was the daughter of a military officer and experienced many of the high points of England during the era as she traveled with the army to various barracks. She would have grown up surrounded by other soldiers and their families as they would all share a common barrack. She was fortunate to attain an education, like Polly, in the schools provided by the military. Yet, tragedy also entered Annie’s life. As a young girl she lost four siblings out of six to the scarlet fever outbreak. This left only her and her remaining sister (though more siblings would be born later). At age fifteen, she had to enter domestic service to send money back to her father. These servants were paid very little for essentially constant work as they lived at their employers’ home.

Her father would eventually leave military service and become a valet for an army officer. Yet, his addiction to alcohol and depression would consume him as he left the constant rhythm of army life. He would commit suicide leaving his wife without the pension income he brought in and small children who had nothing to fund their shelter and food. The only money was what Annie and her sister were bringing in from domestic service. Still, the women survived, and Annie married at 27 years old (desperate to avoid becoming the dreaded “spinster”). She moved to her own home. She married a gentleman’s coachman named John Chapman which was a step up the social ladder. She began to have children and, due to her husband’s rising in the employment ranks, they were about to break into the middle class.

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Annie and John Chapman c 1869

Annie had inherited her father’s love of drink and after living through her family dying and her father’s suicide, she may have felt depression as well. As a wife who did not need to work, there was also boredom and loneliness. Many housewives turned to drink as it was easy to access. It was a remedy for many illnesses which was also a way to easily obtain more. Annie wanted to rise up to middle class and if she was to do that, she had to conceal her drinking by using illness as a cover up.

Yet, her drinking became extreme. Her children began to be born with disabilities related to her heavy drinking, while many died shortly after birth. Her first daughter, Emily, would die of meningitis throwing another difficulty into Annie’s life. She would be found by police wandering around the village in a drunken state. Her sisters (who had dedicated their lives to abstinence from alcohol) would try to support her and many times they entered her into a rehabilitation program. Unfortunately, Annie would always fall back into her habit. Her husband’s employer placed an ultimatum. Either John was to leave his wife, or he would lose his job. He had children to care for and made the difficult decision to separate from Annie, who he had always supported as she went through rehab. He would continue to pay her alimony until his death.

As I read, I realized that alcoholism was a common theme between most of the women and it usually was triggered from a tragic event. Polly’s husband betrayed her, and Annie had lost all of her family to disease. Life was difficult for women in Victoria society, was alcohol the way to dull that pain and make it through each day? Working class women were expected to stay pure (though their male employers in domestic service would use their power to take advantage of them) and they were expected to support many children in a tiny room in the slums of London. They were expected to be married by a certain age and their only ambitions were to be a good mother and wife. Women were expected be obedient to their husbands (even if they had to watch him be unfaithful or spend all their household money on drink), but were seen as a failure if they left their husband because of this behavior. In one of the biographies, I learned that women were almost entirely blamed for the spread of syphilis. Rubenhold concludes that the word “prostitute” was a word used by Victorian society that did not necessarily mean sex worker. Instead, it referred to a woman who did not play by societies standards. A woman just trying to survive in a difficult world.

In conclusion, I highly recommend this book. I think it give a great alternative perspective on Victorian England. It creates a picture of Victorian working class life from childhood, education, careers, workhouse, disease, etc. It also focuses on women’s history as well. I can already see that this will be in my top favorites for books read in 2019.


The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold

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Asian History · biography · european history · history · ottoman history

The Rise of Roxelana

Roxelana’s notoriety has lasted long after the end of her life. Despite her status as a female slave in a patriarchal society, she would go on to make her mark in politics, break traditions, and create an example for royal women in the future of the Ottoman Empire. She also founded many charitable foundations throughout Istanbul and beyond. Roxelana would gain the title Haseki Sultan of and become the wife of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. To many, Roxelana may be an unknown figure in history, but she has always been a person of interest to me. I had watched the first season of the Turkish drama, Magnificent Century, and was inspired to learn more. I have been very excited to create this post and hope to bring more awareness to Roxelana’s impact in Ottoman history and women’s history.

16th century portrait of Roxelana titled Rosa Solymanni Vxor

Roxelana was likely born in Ruthenia. This would have been in modern day Ukraine. During the 16th century, this area was ruled by the King of Poland. After Roxelana’s notoriety grew, many different parts of Europe tried to claim her for their own (France, Italy, etc), but Ruthenia is the best estimation of her origins based on the evidence historians have. Roxelana was born around 1505. As a young girl she was captured by Tartar raiders who then sold her to the Istanbul slave market. Slavery was a huge part of the Ottoman economy. Their captives would come from many areas throughout the enormous empire and from trading partners. These areas included Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans. As Leslie Peirce points out in her biography on Roxelana, so many of the Slavic-speaking people were taken that the origin of the word “slave” comes from Slav.

After her capture, Roxelana was likely taken to Caffa to be sold on the slave trade. It was there that she may have been purchased by imperial agents for palace service or at least shipped to the market in Istanbul. It can be inferred that Roxelana held a lot of inner strength as a young girl. She had just been torn from her family and her homeland. She successfully made the dangerous journey across the Black Sea to Istanbul as slaves were never treated well by their owners. She would have to have been strong willed and brave to make it through with her will to survive still intact.

Eventually, Roxelana was sold to the imperial palace and into Sultan Suleiman’s harem. In the Ottoman Empire, slaves made up much of the palace staff and held a great deal of power. The palace slaves, both male and female, were actually better educated than many citizens. They all had to learn the language, proper etiquette, religion (all were converted to Islam), and political skills. The reason the slaves were more educated was to gain their loyalty to the empire. The harem concubines were especially well-trained as they held an important duty to the empire.  There was also opportunity for advancement and wealth. Many government officials had once been slaves and the entire imperial harem was made of captured slaves from outside the empire. The eunuchs who served as guards in the harem and many of the military janissaries were also slaves. Yet, based on the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, slaves were usually freed after a seven-year term of service.

It is said that Roxelana may have been a gift to the young Sultan Suleiman and may have had a wealthy patron before this presentation. This was to her advantage if she was to succeed. She would have received superior training. To be a successful concubine, she would have had to have not only a healthy body, but a healthy mind. She would need to know the customs (ex: how to dress, when to bow, etc). Political survival was key in this world, where everyone was a rival. A concubine had an important role to play in Ottoman culture and intelligence was key.

The Ottoman Empire had a very different set up compared to European courts in regards to marriage and lineage. In Ottoman society, mothers of potential heirs were extremely important. It was their job to dedicate their lives to make sure their son was prepared to take on the sultanate. By 1400, the Ottoman sultans discarded the practice of marrying foreign princesses and instead relied on slave concubines. A foreign princess’s loyalty would be split between her own son and her native country. She could not be completely dedicated to her son. A concubine had no loyalties and her son would be all she had. Once the concubine had a son, she knew that her future would be secure. As a mother, she could not be sold and would automatically be freed once her master had passed. She would also gain a higher salary and a higher status in the harem. Yet, once she was a mother of a prince, she was not eligible to continue relations with the Sultan. Her life would be dedicated to that of her son and his preparation to become the best sultan. There was no order to which son would take over after his father, as it did not follow the primogeniture system. All brothers were essentially rivals and, once the father passed, it would go to the survivor of the bloody fights that followed.  Suleiman’s own father, Selim I, overthrew his father then had all his brothers and nephews put to death so he could win the throne.

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Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent

Before Roxelana came on the scene, Suleiman already had four children. Each prince began to build their own harems before they came to the throne as the creation of heirs was high importance in a war-torn era. Their names were Mahmud, Mustafa, Murad and a daughter (whose name is not confirmed). They each had different mothers which illustrates the Ottoman system. The most remembered is Roxelana’s rival, Mahidevran. She was the mother of Mustafa. Each mother had passed the first phase of their life as a concubine and now moved into the important role of motherhood. Their attention was wholly devoted to their son and mentoring him to become the best candidate for the throne. Daughters were cherished but did not take the mother out of the running from producing a son. In 1521, the first three children died which left Mustafa as the eldest son of the Sultan and Mahidevran in the highest position (until Roxelana came onto the scene).

Hierarchy was important in the harem. The harem was in the Old Palace in Istanbul, which was the domain of women, and contained the Sultan’s honored mother, all the concubines, and his children. Princesses who were unmarried and widows would also come to stay in the harem. The harem was also staffed by many servants and the eunuch corps who protected the occupants (men, besides the Sultan, were not allowed in the Old Palace, so eunuchs had to be the guardians). The New Palace was the place for men, the Sultan and government officials. The mother of the reigning Sultan held the highest position in the harem and oversaw the day to day operations, solved disputes and received one of the highest salaries on the palace payroll. Hafsa was beloved by her son Suleiman and he would often go to her for advice. She had begun as a Christian slave convert who gave birth to the winning son of the Sultan Selim. As a mother, she would begin to create and run the domestic household of her son as he moved through governorship around the empire and eventually the palace. She would have been the elder figure throughout her son’s government career. She was his mentor and she fought fiercely for him to get where he was. Therefore, she has the most honored position and her position was the goal for many young concubines. After Hafsa, came the mothers of the sultan’s sons in the ranking system.

What did Roxelana do to change the traditions of the palace and cause such a stir? She knew to secure power she had to keep the Sultan’s attention long enough to become the mother of an heir, but, in the end, she reached for an even higher goal. In 1521, Roxelana gave birth to her first child and son, Mehmed, which should have secured her final position. Now she was supposed to be like Mahidevran and devote her life to that one child. Her salary was increased and she gained status in the harem. She could afford everything that was necessary for a fine woman of noble status.

Yet, to everyone’s shock, Roxelana was called back to the Sultan’s bedchamber and would go on to have four more children. Suleiman became entirely devoted to her. He had no need to visit his concubines any longer. This was a serious and very unpopular break with tradition. Monogamy was not the way that the dynasties work. Now, Roxelana, would not be devoted to mentoring one son , but instead had three sons to divide her attention between. This would cause the eventual conflict between the princes to be unequal. Would Mustafa have the advantage now because his mother was solely his? The public did not like the over affection they were witnessing from their Sultan. To the public, it was a distraction from his duty. It was the Sultan’s job to create a diverse gene pool and monogamy was not a part of that agenda.

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Roxelana, portrayed by Meryem Uzerli in the Turkish drama Magnificent Century

Rumors began to flow that Roxelana had bewitched the sultan and caused him to stray from his duty. She would also gain the animosity of the Janissaries (military troops) who were extremely loyal to Suleiman’s first son, Mustafa. They saw her and her sons as a threat to the reign of their favorite. The populace was also bitter that the Sultan paid no attention to his eldest son’s mother, Mahidevran. Throughout history, rumors of witchcraft would haunt many strong women who took power into their own hands.

Eventually, Suleiman married Roxelana. This was the first time in 200 years that an event like this had taken place as the marriage tradition had been abandoned in the 14th century. As the bride of a Sultan, Roxelana was released from slavery and had become the most powerful woman in the harem (by this time, Suleiman’s mother had passed). She is also the first concubine to live in the capital her entire reign. Most concubines, when their son came of age, would follow their son to his assigned governorship. Mahidevran moved to Munsia with her son and then later to Amasya. Despite their apparent rivalry, Mahidevran and Roxelana really illustrate the conventional way the dynasty was supposed to go and the difference that Roxelana made. Roxelana was a witch, but Mahidevran was seen as a model mother.

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Mahidevran (Nur Fettahoglu) middle and Roxelana (Meryem Uzerli) right in the Turkish drama Magnificent Century

Roxelana showed her strength and cleverness as she worked her way up the ladder. She had grown in the Sultan’s affections and became the Sultan’s wife. She gained her freedom (freedom that other concubines, such as Mahidevran, would not have until the sultan died) and gained the title Haseki Sultan. With this move in status, Roxelana also increased her political power and expanded her monetary resources. She used to these funds to expand her charitable foundations.

Previously, the Old Palace was an entirely female domain and the New Palace the domain of men, but Roxelana quickly made a change in this and shifted the gender dynamics. She created her own female wing in the New Palace where she would preside as head and over time this area began to grow. This move gave women a chance to be in the heart of the Ottoman government. It was easier to place themselves into politics and gave royal Ottoman women a voice.

With the move to the new palace and her position as essentially Empress, Roxelana would now have her own agendas to keep up with. She would have had her own personal eunuch steward who would be her access to the outside world and fulfill all her transactions (despite her new status, royal Ottoman women were kept in relative seclusion). This was a huge change, having the new “empress” in the center of politics, but Suleiman did nothing to dissuade this. This is what would make the traditionalists most angry. After Suleiman, much weaker sultans would emerge which lead to the domination of women. It would be from these rooms that future queen mothers would be regents for their sons and would make decisions on state affairs with the advisers. By moving the harem closer to the government, it put women in the heart of the action and allowed their roles to change.

Roxelana now had money to spend and invest. It was common for wealthy Ottoman women to have business ventures and interests. A woman had the right in Ottoman society to control her own finances independently and to invest them how she wished. She would handle her business through agents, but it was possible. Shortly after her marriage, Roxelana would begin her first philanthropic foundation. It was common for concubine mothers to complete charities and building projects in the region where her son was governor and where she would have power herself as head of her sons household. Roxelana took it a step higher.

She was the first to build a foundation in Istanbul, the Ottoman capital. As she married the Sultan, she never left with a son to another territory. This was her territory and she was going to make her mark. It was an important Muslim tradition to give donations to the public welfare and was seen as something that would give them favor in God’s eyes. Not only would Roxelana be creating her own venture, but would also show the world how pious she was which would increase her popularity. Roxelana did not have a coronation to justify her queenship, so this was another way to consolidate and show off that power to the world. She was the first woman to have a foundation/mosque named after her, Haskei, in Istanbul, the capital. Today, the district where this was built is still referred to as Haseki.

The district she chose for her foundation and mosque was home to the weekly women’s market where the local women would come to sell their wares. As a woman herself, it seems like Roxelana may have selected this district purposely. Her mosque and foundation could immediately help the women who were the population of this district. Males would be the only ones to benefit from the higher education institutions that were established, but it seems Roxelana pushed for co-education of males and females in the primary schools that she created. The women would also be able to access the water at the fountains and the soup kitchens. It would also be a safe place for these women to come pray in private.

Mosque in Haseki Complex, Istanbul

Roxelana hired architects and provided jobs to a wide variety of laborers and skilled craftsmen. The five main buildings were constructed over the course of a decade.  This included a mosque, two schools, a women’s hospital and a fountain. This mosque was a huge boost to the community in this district and caused greater urban development. New shops would open around the foundation and more people would move in. Roxelana created a few rental units at the complex to facilitate this as well. She would hire over 130 staff positions, which included many female positions as well. One of the female positions Roxelana specifically requested was a female scribe. It seemed like an unusual request for the time, but perhaps this secretary took in the requests and complaints from female clientele. It seems overall Roxelana did have a goal to look out for the women living in the area.

Roxelana personally managed the development of this foundation and once this was completed she appointed herself as supervisor for life. Her successors (future queen mothers) would build off this example in their own lives. Her own daughter would go on to create many famous foundations. They would continue to focus on benefiting women. It was the women of the Ottoman families who took it upon themselves to help the public welfare. The Haseki foundation really increased Roxelana’s status and increased the gap between her and her rival Mahidevran.

Roxelana would also go on to create major charitable institutions in Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. These were all important cities in the Islamic religion. She would also support other smaller charities through the empire which included hostels for pilgrims, mosques, and soup kitchens.

Roxelana was also very involved in politics, specifically foreign affairs during her time as consort. She would often serve as Suleiman’s adviser and correspond with many different figures throughout Europe. This was especially key during her husband’s long absence on campaigns. Maybe this was because she originally hailed from that area before she was captured? Did they think this would hold some influence? Or did Roxelana enjoy this work and want to take on the responsibility?

Roxelana used letters to communicate with foreign rulers to help the empire to form new alliances and avoid conflict. This was different from anything done before. Women in society were not involved in politics. Since seclusion was now the way noble women lived, they were no longer used to carry messages or negotiate treaties. Roxelana used her position to create a powerful role for herself and helped the empire continue to prosper. It was a daring move, but it shows the strength and intelligence of her.

The most famous communication she has is with Sigismund Augustus, the new King of Poland. The goal was to keep a friendship and alliance going between the Polish and Ottoman empires. In her letters, she uses an affectionate tone, and congratulates him for taking the throne, expresses how she wishes to be friends, and that she can be trusted. She encouraged him to tell her anything he wanted to be passed on to the Sultan. She put herself in the position of a mediator between the two rulers. Roxelana would also send selective gifts to her communications. Roxelana sent the King of Poland gifts of embroidered clothing items (drawers, shirt, waistband, handkerchiefs). It seems she may have sewed most of these gifts. These are more private clothing items, but she dares to send them because it also represents the closeness of their two nations. It seems a warm friendship developed between the Haseki Sultan and Sigismund of Poland. Roxelana’s daughter, Mihrumah, would continue in her mother’s footsteps and use letters for diplomacy. Roxelana would communicate with many during her time as Haseki Sultan and encouraged friendship between the Ottoman Empire and other nations.

A portrait of Sigismund II Augustus, in a black hat with a white feather, a white ruff on his neck, and an ornate gold chain around his neck.
King Sigismund Augustus of Poland

Yet, there is still some questionable controversy surrounding Roxelana and her influence upon Suleiman. It is important to note that there are no first-hand accounts to support these theories and this was probably used to vilify her as many women suffered through history. She is thought to have had influence on the executions of both Suleiman’s Grand Vizier and friend, Ibrahim, and his first-born son, Mustafa son of Mahidevran.

Ibrahim also began as a captured slave as a young man who was brought into the service of the Suleiman. They would become extremely close friends during their lives and Suleiman put so much trust in him that he raised a capture European slave to the role of Grand Vizier, the highest adviser position. Ibrahim’s quick rise to such a high position was given due to his status as male favorite and many did not believe that he worked long enough to deserve that high rank. It hurt others who had worked hard to be considered for the position, just to have that taken away from them. Ibrahim was a very ambitious. He was a slave who had now been given the opportunity to have great influence on the entire empire. He would take on many of the roles of the Kingdom himself and was given great freedom by the Sultan to do whatever he wanted. He viewed himself as the power behind the Ottoman Empire. He had the Sultan’s ear always and they were always together. It was hard for others to break through that bond. He was the public face of the sultanate. He commanded the armies, he was the line for diplomacy and foreign relations, and he cultivated the Sultan’s public image. Ibrahim was another controversial figure in Suleiman’s reign.

He was also a great supporter of Mustafa, Roxelana’s rival to her son’s position. It seemed Ibrahim held a sympathy for Mahidevran and Mustafa due to having spent time with them prior to Suleiman becoming Sultan. Mustafa was also taking on a greater role in his governorship and was making a name for himself. Mustafa was extremely popular with the military.

Ibrahim’s career had been climbing and climbing, so it was quite sudden and unexpected when his fall came. No one was expecting it to happen. Under Suleiman’s orders, Ibrahim, his long-time friend, was strangled by executioners after being invited to a dinner party. He was executed on March 15, which was ironic as it is also the anniversary of Julius Ceasar’s murder as well. Theories exist that Roxelana was involved in this and was the one who convinced Suleiman to get rid of his Grand Vizier. She had just married her Sultan and had to protect her children by eliminating all those who supported their rival, Mustafa. Eventually, afterwards, their son-in-law was promoted to Grand Vizier. Yet, there is no evidence that Roxelana had anything to do with this and the contemporary public did not hold her responsible. There are other reasons why Ibrahim may have been eliminated. Many points that he was becoming too prideful and began to forget that he was doing this all for the Sultan and not for himself. He also made many errors in his last few years, including the execution of the royal treasurer Iskendar. Suleiman had instructed Ibrahim to take this treasurer’s counsel, but instead disaster happened. It seems that Ibrahim had gotten too big for his own good, and that caused his downfall.

Roxelana is also thought to have been involved in the execution of Suleiman ’s son, Mustafa. On October 6, 1553, Mustafa was ordered to his father’s army and to meet him in his tent. Despite warnings from his mother, Mahidevran, Mustafa rode to the camp. By his father’s command, Mustafa was attacked and after a gruesome scene, he was executed. Many were outraged at this horrendous deed and the fact that, like Ibrahims, it was very sudden and unexpected. Maybe this was why Roxelana was brought into the blame? As a mother of rival children, she would have the most to gain with the elimination of Suleiman’s older son. With Suleiman’s health in decline, it was time to take action to protect her sons for their future. She was already blamed for the banishment of Mahidevran from the Old Palace in Istanbul years before, so why would she not be involved in this?

Suleiman had many favorites, but he still was intelligent and had his own opinions on certain matters. It has been concluded by historians that the decision to execute his son was his own. Suleiman could see when his son was becoming too powerful that his own reign was at risk. Suleiman’s own father had overthrown his grandfather, so it was not out of the realm of thinking that his own son could overtake himself. Mustafa had always had great support from the military who were quickly rallying to his side and Mustafa’s popularity increased every year. Suleiman could not afford his army deserting him when they were in the middle of a new campaign against Iran. There were even rumors of a coup being thrown about and many were already beginning to call him Sultan. Mustafa denied all claims of a coup, but Suleiman could not take the risk. It was his success that killed him in the end. Mahidevran had now lost her entire life’s purpose in one stroke after almost 40 years of vying for her son’s success. She was left destitute and broke. It was not until Suleiman’s son, Selim II, took the throne that he would return her status and wealth to her.

Over time, out of their five children, only three would survive them. Mehmed would die from smallpox and the youngest, Chihangir, would also die of health issues. Chihangir, known to be talkative, friendly, and humorous, was born with many health defects which developed a humped back. He was his father’s favorite and would follow him around as they moved from different campaigns. This left Bayezid and Selim as the two sons who would vie for the throne. Their daughter, Mihrimah, had been married off to the future grand vizier and was active in charities, building projects and diplomacy, just like her mother. The remaining son’s may have caused strife between the two parents as they grew older and it grew closer to thinking about the succession.

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Mihrimah , daughter of Roxelana and Suleiman

It was said that Suleiman favored Selim while Roxelana favored Bayezid. No concubine mother previously had to make this choice as they system was set up so they would be devoted to teaching and cultivating one son. Now, Roxelana had two (previously four) that she had to be impartial towards, which would be impossible. It is said that Roxelana favored Bayezid, though he was younger, because of Selim’s destructive habits (excessive drinking and was easy to influence). He was not interested in ruling as much as a life of pleasure. Bayezid was the underdog who did not receive the same training as his elder brothers Mehmed and Selim who were able to take on governorship’s while he remained in the capital with his brother Chihangir, was this why she may have favored him? There was no textbook on how to manage multiple sons. It came out later that she had ordered her daughter to give Bayezid as much financial assistance as she could when the time came.

Roxelana died in 1558 which seems to have been from an illness. She was survived by the Sultan and her two sons and her daughter. She died in the walls of the Old Palace, where it had all begun. Her devoted Suleiman had an elegant tomb built to hold her where he would eventually join eight years later. In the end, after Suleiman died, it was a bloody struggle between her remaining sons which ended in the execution of Bayezid and the triumph of Selim II.

Roxelana showed throughout her life that she was strong, intelligent, and was going to embrace every opportunity she could. She was thrust into an unfamiliar world as a captured slave when she was a young woman, only to be forced to become part of the Sultan’s harem. She used this to her advantage and created a great partnership with the Sultan. She gained more power than any woman before her as she married and solidified her position of Haseki Sultan. She broke many traditions and created a large family. She increased the role of noble women in the Empire and encouraged them to stop taking a back-seat role. She pushed for the move of women into the New Palace so they could be a part of the political action. These women would go on to take advantage of the weak rulers (beginning with Selim II) and follow in Roxelana’s example. After Selim II died, Nurbanu, queen mother of their son, would become regent for many years. She was in charge. Women would continue to take more powerful roles in the future and begin to build more great structures and facilities for the people. Despite Roxelana’s controversy and the bad press she received, she took most of the fate she was given and came out on top in the end.

1997 Ukrainian postage stamp as a tribute to Roxelana

I hope you enjoy this blog post. It has taken me a while to write it, but I find Roxelana to be a fascinating figure! There is so much more to say about her, but I pulled out the highlights. I will be going on a hiatus in May, due to many other commitments. I aim to have a new post in June!

Further Reading:

Empress of the East: How a European Slave Girl Became Queen of the Ottoman Empire by Leslie P. Peirce

Harem: The World Behind the Veil by Alev Lytle Croutier

Ancient History · english history · european history · history

Roman Frontiers: Antonine Wall

The final season of the popular show Game of Thrones is almost upon us, but much of the world that George R.R. Martin created was inspired by true events. This would include Hadrian’s Wall in England and the Antonine Wall in Scotland. These walls were the boundary of the known world for the Romans during the second century. Just as fan favorite, Jon Snow, looked out into the great unknown from atop the icy Wall, it would have been just as intimidating for the Romans who looked over these historical walls at the expanse of Scotland. They were at the edge of their known world, which could have been very intimidating. So, while there may not have been white walkers, to the Romans, there could have been anything.

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The Wall from HBO’s Game of Thrones

With this post I wanted to pay more attention to the lesser known Antonine Wall rather than the more established Hadrian’s wall. The Antonine Wall was the furthest point that the Roman empire stretched into Britannia. It was only manned for about twenty five years before the wall was abandoned. The wall cut modern Scotland in half as it crossed the land between Clyde to Forth (about 37 miles long). It was made mostly out of layers of turf rather than stone (like Hadrian’s) with a deep ditch that ran along with it. Forts would have been laid out along the wall, including Rough Castle, which would hold the 7,000 men that would have been stationed there. There would have also been a military service road that connected those at the wall with the rest of the empire in Britain. Continue reading “Roman Frontiers: Antonine Wall”

english history · european history · history

The Tradition of Courtly Love

It’s time for February’s post and I thought it would be only fitting to write a post regarding the theme of love. As I was beginning my research and narrowing down different topics I came across a most amusing book, The Art of Courtly Love, written between 1174-1184 (dates are not precise) by a clergyman by the name of Andreas Capelanus (also known as Andreas the Chaplain). Requested by his patron, Countess Marie of Champagne (daughter of the famous Eleanor of Aquitaine and her first husband, Louis VII of France), this book outlines the rules of courtly love in the guise of a lesson to Andreas’ fictional friend, Walter (who it seems has just been rejected by his beloved). Yet, there is more to it than just Capelanus’s rules. This was an important part of social life in noble circles, at least so much so that Countess Marie requested a written work on it. The work of Andreas Capelanus spread far through courts across Europe and began to be printed in the 1400s. There is debate whether courtly love was actually practiced or if it was just a literary device, but, either way, it seems to have been important to society. In this post, I wanted to dive into some of the details regarding this tradition. One of the most surprising discovers is the appeal that courtly love may have held for women of this period which is supported through the patronage of Eleanor of Aquitaine and her daughter Marie of Champagne. Continue reading “The Tradition of Courtly Love”

biography · english history · history

Aethelflaed: The Heroine of Mercia

Aethelflaed has received a revival of interest with the popularity of the show The Last Kingdom and other media. She is a fascinating character, but, in this post, I wanted to answer two questions. Who was the actual Aethelflaed and why is she so important to English history? I believe she is an important female figure who is often overshadowed by others during the Anglo-Saxon period. In the year 911, Aethelflaed, known as the Lady of the Mercians, took over the command of the kingdom of Mercia after her husband’s death. She was not just a regent until the next male heir came of age but was viewed as the head of government by her own people. She is known as an effective military commander, diplomat, and a benevolent ruler. By the end of Aethelflaed’s reign, she contributed much to the eventual consolidation of Saxon England.

Continue reading “Aethelflaed: The Heroine of Mercia”