American Historic Towns
Historic Towns of The Western States

Edited by Lyman P. Powell
G. P. Putnam' Sons
New York and London
The Knickerbocker Press

"Here, beside the broad, blue river buflded,
I am Queen City of the Lakes."

A STREAM of crystal clearness, wide and swiftly flowing, the waters of silver and blue alive with fins and scales, a course dotted with islands large and small, wild ducks in myriads diving and dining along shores bordered with pond lilies and flags, stretches of yellow sand and bluffs of yellow clay peopled with buffalo, bear and deer, with wide leagues of grassy pastures and pleasing vistas beyond, walnuts, oaks and maples sentinelling the scene, and skies and sunsets of unrivalled azure and gold adding the final touch of beauty - such was Nature's invitation to the first visitors to the Detroit.

The earliest of the French travellers to this region was the Sieur Joliet, who came in 1670, and was followed the same year by the Sulpician priests, Galinee and Dollier. Eight years later La Salle in Le Griffon, the first sail vessel on the Great Lakes, passed through the "strait of Lake Erie," and July 24, 1701, Cadillac and his company landed at the present site of Detroit to establish a fort and permanent settlement.

The desire to escape from Roman or Protestant oppression which led to the founding of Baltimore and Plymouth had no place in the thought of those who colonized Acadia and the West. True, there had been one or two feeble efforts to found French Protestant colonies in America. The great Coligny sent a Huguenot colony to Florida more than fifty years before the Mayflower arrived at Plymouths Rock. The Spaniards, however, fell upon and hanged these colonists, their placards stating that it was done, "not because they were Frenchmen, but because they were heretics." Under Cardinal Richelieu, all Protestant emigration to America was discouraged for fear the emigrants would unite with the English or make converts of the Indians. The conversion of the Indians to the Romish faith was always specially designated among the objects of French enterprise in America. The charter of the "Hundred Associates" of April 29, 1627, expressly stated that it was granted for the primary purpose of converting to the Catholic faith the Indians, usually designated as "worshippers of Baal." All these motives played their part in the founding of Detroit, but not quite so important a part as the commercial motive.

Antoine Laumet de la Mothe Cadillac, the founder and commandant, was no mere adventurer. In courage, in scholarship, in mental grasp and in general acumen he deserves a place with the founders of Baltimore and Philadelphia. The confessedly fictitious description of his personal appearance and the one sided analysis of his character by Gayarre were founded on incomplete knowledge. As an officer of the French marine, Cadillac fearlessly crossed the Atlantic again and again as though it were but an inland ferry. On the coast of America he explored the.harbors and islands of New England and noted at length their peculiarities and advantages. As a soldier and knight of the Order of St. Louis, he penetrated into the wildest of western wilds, served as commandant at Mackinaw, Detroit and Mobile, repeatedly defeated the Indians at these posts, and compelled them to sue for peace. He had the scholar's habit of writing detailed memoirs of the places he established or was commanded to inspect. H e wielded a pen as sharp as his sharp sword. The opponents of his plans had need to fear its point. He spared no words. "A traveller cannot afford to stop," he said, "for every dog that barks." And illustrating the fact that many of the French lived so much among the Indians that they became like Indians themselves, he sententiously said, "With wolves one learns to howl."

He denounced frauds boldly. Count Frontenac spoke highly of his "valor, wisdom, experience and good conduct." It was no ordinary man to whom a wife could by word and deed alike bear witness as Cadillac's wife bore witness to her husband. After they had been married for fourteen years, and when the colony was less than two years old, in company with Madame Touty, in an open canoe with Indians and woodsmen for an escort, she made the journey of a thousand miles from Quebec to Detroit in the fall of the year when fierce winds and rough waves and heavy rains might be expected. When one of the Quebec ladies reminded her in advance, "At Detroit you will die of ennui;" she replied, "A woman who loves her husband as she should has no stronger attraction than his company wherever he may be; everything else should be indifferent to her."

The American cities that equal us in age and population are few indeed. Two hundred years are behind us, and three hundred thousand people fill our homes. Our people are and ever have been of many types. In the early days coureurs des Bois, bluff, hearty, reckless, and Indians, the squaw trudging along bent double under her basket of bead work, the unburdened brave stalking proudly, noiselessly along, frequented the place. Dutch traders from the Mohawk coasting along the Lakes early brought negro slaves from Albany.(1) In our social life the Gallic spirit remains to soften and harmonize. The dash of gorgeous coloring which the almost continuous existence here of a military post has given, the distinction and grace which the early arrival of some of old Virginia's noblest children has lent, the intellectual vigor which Puritan New England has contributed, and the solidity and conservatism furnished by the presence of the many wealthy landed proprietors have all shared in the making of a social life as rich as it is attractive.

After the first Settlers came strange sights. Round towered and red painted windmills began to dot the banks of the Detroit, and all "along shore" narrow farms, a city block in width and fifty times as. long, stretched from the river rearward to meadows and woods. The canoe and the pirogue were always in the stream, and in them the French girls were as much at home as mermaids in the sea. The fort was the centre of every interest. It was a log stockade enclosing a plot of ground three or four hundred feet square, and lay south of what is now Jefferson Avenue, occupying at least the western half of the block between Griswold and Shelby streets. Within. it commandant and soldiers were gathered, the church was located, justice administered and goods were kept on sale.

A large influx of immigrants, especially in 1749 and 1754, caused the extension of the stockade, but at no time were grants of farms made within several hundred feet of the fort. The intervening space was in large part used as a "common field," and year after year oats and onions were produced where only paving stones could now be raised. Eventually of course the houses overflowed the stockade, stretching towards the farms, but for a long time the owners of farms on either side resisted any encroachment of streets or people, and for many years the city could grow only northwards. The French farms that hemmed in the city possessed many advantages. Even when included within the city they, for many years, practically escaped taxation because undivided into lots. Indeed, until a comparatively recent period there was no taxation of real estate and really no need for any; for whenever the city needed money it sold a lot. This reckless style of living continued till 1834, the extraordinary expenses connected with the cholera season of that year making larger taxation needful.

In this connection it is well to recall an unusual state of affairs that placed many lots at the disposal of the city. In the year 1778, during the Revolutionary War, the English, to protect them against the Americans, erected a large fort where the new Post office is located, in the block bounded by Shelby, Wayne, Lafayette and Fort streets. At the close of the war this fort, with its grounds, passed into the possession of the United States. In 1826 Congress gave this property, worth today more than a score of millions, to the city whose expenses had before been paid by fees derived from various licensed persons and pursuits. Upon the reception of this property the city fathers deemed it necessary to level and grade the old fort and its appurtenances and to lay out streets thereon. The cost of the work was paid by the issuing of city "shinplasters" which could soon be bought for sixty cents on the dollar. The lots laid out within the limits of the old cantonment were sold at nominal prices, the purchasers paying for them in the depreciated city bills. The result was that the net proceeds to the city from the sale of this extensive domain amounted to only $15,000, and even this was not permanently invested, and no vestige of the funds remains. In contrast to the dissipation by the city of valuable property is the wisdom displayed by individual holders whose property later became worth millions. If the city officers of that day had possessed foresight as well as power, they might have so conserved the city's possessions as to have made Detroit an Utopia. All the public schools and other civic buildings and appurtenances could have been built and paid for, and the city government could today be carried on without taxation, or at least with only a tithe of the amount that is now required to be paid.

It was during the decades of 1820-1840 that the tide of emigration from East to West reached its height. It began in 1825, on the completion of the Erie Canal, and was greatly increased by the larger number of steamboats on the Lakes that immediately followed. The opening in 1854 of the first railroad from the East to the West, the Great Western of Canada, made it possible to go still faster and with greater ease, and during the whole period Detroit gained largely in population. The introduction of street cars in 1863 afforded opportunity for easy access to outlying regions, and since then 'the city limits have been several times extended, until now they embrace an area of not far from thirty square miles, with a river frontage of seven miles.

Contemporaneously with the rush of settlers to the State and city between 1830 and 1840, came what is known as the "flush times of 1837." Emigration to the West had become almost a stampede, both steam and sail vessels were crowded to their utmost, and knowing the dearness of Eastern lands and the cheapness at which Western lands could be purchased, nearly every person came prepared to buy and did buy lands for settlement or speculation. So great was the rush that all careful preliminaries were dispensed with, and if only a title could be shown, anything that "lay outdoors" could be disposed of. Town sites were a favorite form of investment, and the supply kept pace with the demand. Surveyors and draftsmen were soon busy day and night representing imaginary cities on paper. On these plans, literally like "Jonah's gourd," there sprang up in a night, stores, dwellings and court houses, indeed, all the appurtenances of an old established town. The era of "wildcat" banks had just begun and the principal security of their bills was the land covered by these imaginary towns. Theoretically, twenty per cent. of the bills issued by the too easily organized banks were to be secured by specie deposits. Actually, not five per cent. was so deposited. The same coin in some cases in the same boxes, was exhibited by a score of different banks, and in some instances "coin boxes" were filled with iron and other substitutes for specie. These frauds were winked at by bank commissioners, who should have inspected the contents of the boxes. There was thus a trinity of imaginings, imaginary towns, imaginary banks and imaginary inspection. When the bubbles burst there were left in some places towns and houses without a single inhabitant, and certain of these houses contained room after room in which the walls were literally papered with bank bills in sheets that had never been cut apart or signed.

The most important local event was the fire of June 11, 1805, which destroyed every house in the city save one. The memory of the fire is preserved in the present seal of the city, the mottoes, Resurget Cineribus, "She has risen from the ashes," and Speramus Mealier, "We hope for better things," representing both prophecy and fulfilment. Out of the fire grew an entirely new plan of the town, new lot alignments and assignments, and a new form of government, The former streets, twelve feet wide, grew into broad avenues, and the years have added areas and improvements which in any city would be marks of prosperity and beauty.

The form of government which the fire introduced was, however, its unique result. The beginnings of the strange methods of government that obtained are found in the organization of the Ohio Company, and in that notable document, the Ordinance of 1787. Under the latter, Congress was to appoint a governor whose term was for three years, unless sooner revoked, who was required to possess in freehold an estate of one thousand acres in the territory; a secretary for the term of four years, unless revoked, who was required to have five hundred acres of land; and three judges, any two of whom constituted a court to have common law jurisdiction, and each of whom was required to own five hundred acres of land.

The governor and judges were appointed January 11, 1805. Judges Woodward and Bates arrived at Detroit June I2th, and found the town wiped out by the fire of the previous day. A few stone chimneys and, near the fire line, several antique pear trees alone remained. Governor Hull arrived on the evening of July 1st. The date of the arrival of Judge Griffin is unknown. In many respects the Governor and judges were well fitted to enter upon and complete the laying out of a new Detroit. Judge Woodward came from Alexandria, Va., and understood and admired the plan of Washington, then new. He manifestly desired and determined that Detroit should be modelled after that "City of Magnificent Distances." Sections of his plan as drawn by A. F. Hull, the son of the Governor, could be laid upon the plan of Washington and matched to a line.

There was much delay in adopting the plan; but after summering and wintering as best they could, however, among their friends outside, the inhabitants were gratified with the news that April 21, 1806, Congress had authorized the Governor and judges, to lay out a new town, build a court house and jail, dispose of ten thousand acres near, give former owners and householders lots, convey lots to others and in general settle all details therewith connected. It was not, however, until September 6, 1806, or four months after the date of the act, that the Governor and judges held their first meeting. Interminable slowness seems to have been their purpose; plans and counter plans, change and repeated change in surveys, their method. Lots were numbered and renumbered, streets laid out on paper, obliterated and then laid out anew in new directions and locations. Decisions were bandied about and referred from one person or authority to another, and questions of ownership of lots, like a shuttlecock, were tossed to and fro. Plans were prepared, approved, used and then discarded. Every new difficulty and scheme seemed to give rise to new and radically different lot outlines and numbers. Lots were capriciously granted and as capriciously withdrawn. Without bond or books of account, without method other than the method of not leaving any record of what moneys were received or how expended, they did as they pleased. As a result, for a year and a half after the fire there was not a single house erected, and up to May, 1807, deeds had been given for only nineteen lots. Meantime, the debris of the fire covered the site of the ancient village, the blackened stone chimneys standing as monuments of the disaster and of the incompetency or worse of those in authority.

The three judges and the Governor in themselves possessed all power, legislative, executive, judicial. They made laws, built court houses; issued scrip, laid out streets and lots, gave away lots to churches, schools, societies and individuals and were practically "Lords of the Manor of Detroit." The adoption of laws from the original thirteen States, which was all that they were authorized to do, became under their methods a mere burlesque. A writer of that period openly charged, and exaggerated but little in saying, that they would

"parade the laws of the original States before them on the table, and cull letters from the laws of Maryland, syllables from the laws of Virginia, words from the laws of New York, sentences from the laws of Pennsylvania, verses from the laws of Kentucky, and chapters from the laws of Connecticut."

It is due to one or two of those associated as judges during a part of this regime, to say that Judge Woodward, who was in office for the entire period, was very largely responsible for the conditions that existed. The accession of General Cass as Governor, the establishing of the Detroit Gazette, which exposed the proceedings, and the coming of new immigrants finally secured sentiment and people sufficient to have a General Assembly. And with freer discussion and elective methods, order began to reign after twenty years of disorder.

In military matters Detroit has had an almost continuous series of startling experiences. Indians, French, English, and. Americans have all struggled in and about the city. Blockhouses, stockades, forts, and cannon have defended it. Stories of attacks, sieges, battles, massacres, and conspiracies crowd its annals. The tramp of regiments, the challenge of sentinels, the bugle call, the drum beat, and the war whoop of the savage were familiar sounds in its past.

Within two years after Fort Pontchartrain was erected, hostile Indians surrounded the stockade, and at varying intervals during many subsequent years the savages sought to dislodge the French and destroy their fortifications. The French traders, however, soon demonstrated that they were willing to deal more liberally than the English, and there can be no doubt but that many Indians came to prefer French methods and manners, for they finally united with the French during the French and Indian War in attacking the English settlements. The victory of Wolfe at Quebec in 1759 and the consequent surrender of Detroit to the English did not please the Indians, and before the final treaty of peace was signed, Pontiac, an Ottawa chief, who had declared his intention to "stand in the path," formed his conspiracy to overthrow all the English posts. He secured the cooperation of a number of tribes and in May, 1763, prepared to strike at Detroit. Fortunately, as has happened more than once in similar plots, female sympathy and tenderness caused the revelation of his design. An Indian maiden gave warning to Gladden, then commanding at Detroit, who made preparations to foil the conspirators. On the morning of May 7th, Pontiac and a number of his warriors sought admission to the fort.

On arriving at the gateway,' Pontiac and his warriors were freely admitted, but found the garrison under arms, the cannons loaded for service and the inhabitants ready for battle. At a glance he foresaw the certain failure of his scheme, and after being warned by Gladwin that his plot had been discovered, he retired still protesting friendship. Within a day or two afterwards he threw off all attempts at concealment, summoned his warriors, massacred several persons on the island now known as Belle Isle and commenced a siege which lasted for five weary months. During the siege, the garrison was relieved several times by provisions and ammunition from Niagara, and on July 29th, by the arrival of 280 soldiers commanded by Captain Dalyell together with 20 rangers from New Hampshire under Major Robert Rogers. Captain Dalyell now determined to "turn the tables" by an attack on the Indians. GlaGlàdwinposed the idea, but was compelled to yield, and on July 31st 250 troops in three detachments marched against the savages. Pontiac in some way was informed of the plan and, ambushed on the border of Parents' Creek, afterwards called Bloody Run, awaited the approach of the soldiers. As the latter reached a small bridge that then crossed the stream not far from what is now the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Adair Street, they heard the war whoop of the Indians and from every side bullets thinned their ranks. Dalyell and seventeen others were killed, nearly forty soldiers wounded and several captured. Within six hours after this ignominious failure, the rest were glad to be within the shelter of the stockade.

The siege was then renewed with increased vigor until at last General Gage of Boston determined to send a force large enough to subdue the Indians. Accordingly, Colonel Bradstreet was put in command of a combined force of 100 friendly Indians, 900 Canadians, and a detachment of 219 Connecticut militia in charge of the noted Israel Putnam. They came by water from Albany and reached Detroit on August 26, 1764. Their bateaux and barges blocked the river; the display of flags and force alarmed the Indians, and made them yield before an army such as they had never seen before.

Meantime the war clouds of the Revolution were gathering. The common impression is that the war was fought in the East, around Boston and New York. The important events that occurred at Detroit are usually ignored; that, too, in spite of the fact that at no other point was so much use made of the Indians by the English.

King George and his ministers evidently feared that, unless kept busy defending their homes, the hardy settlers of Western Virginia and Tennessee would aid their brother colonists in the East. In order to prevent them from so doing, deliberate and pitiless plans were made to incite the Indians against the western settlers. Indians were invited to Detroit from as far west and south as Arkansas, and gathered here by thousands. They were feasted, clothed and furnished with guns, scalping-knives, and tomahawks. Blankets, shirts, scarlet cloth and other things were given. The value of the requisitions for this post in a single year reached hundreds of thousands of dollars. The writer has personally seen the original record 'of the supplying of "sixteen gross of red handled scalping knives." Fully equipped, they set forth on their forays, returning with men, women, and children as prisoners, and with many scalps. The expedition which perpetrated the "Massacre of Wyoming" was equipped at this post, as was also the expedition of Captain Bird against Kentucky at a cost of over $300,000. The writer has an original account book of that period giving the names and pay per diem of the French who as guides and interpreters accompanied the English and Indians on some of their raids. The noted Daniel Boone was brought as a prisoner to Detroit after one of these expeditions. After the return of each party the guns of the fort were fired, the prisoners and scalps were counted and recorded, and again the Indians were feasted and given presents.

It was during these days that Col. A. S. De Peyster was in command at Detroit, but he was not in full sympathy with such savage warfare. It will be remembered that it was to him that Burns, while in his sick chamber, dedicated his last poem, on "Life," beginning:

" My honored Colonel, deep I feel
Your interest in the poet's weal," etc.

De Peyster himself could turn a bit of society verse. On one occasion he addressed the following lines to the wife of Lieutenant Pool England, then at Detroit:

"Accept, fair Ann, I do beseech, This tempting gift, a clingstone peach, The finest fruit I culled from three, Which you may safely take from me. Should Pool request to share the favor, Eat you the peach, give him the flavor; Which surely he can't take amiss, When 't is so heightened by your kiss."

The English officers then at Detroit did not have an easy life. There were resident rebel Americans who made much trouble, some of whom were sent away and others fined. American prisoners, too, were brought here. Some were compelled to work in the streets, in ball and chain, and others were forced to cut wood on Belle Isle.

At last Detroit and the West were yielded by treaty to the United States, but on one pretext or another they were not actually surrendered until July 11, 1796. On that day Fort Lernoult for the first time displayed the Stars and Stripes.(3)

The animosities growing out of the Revolutionary War were not allayed by the peace declarations. The Indians continued to hold allegiance to King George, and frequently massacred Americans. British officials on various occasions assumed such authority that at last there came a renewal of strife and the War of 1812. Again Detroit became a focal point. Twelve hundred troops from Ohio, under command of Governor Hull, were soon marching hither to secure the safety of Detroit. Governor Hull's trunk, containing military papers and plans of great value, which had been sent by boat, was captured near Malden, Canada, by the British who had apparently received the earliest announcement of the declaration of war. Governor Hull arrived at Detroit July 5th, soon afterward crossed to Canada and issued a proclamation, but a few days later returned without having accomplished any results of value. On August 16th, without any reasonable excuse, and without the firing of a single gun, he surrendered his entire force and All of the territory under his control to General Brock. He was tried and found guilty of cowardice, unofficer like conduct and neglect of duty. In his memoirs, Governor Hull, trying to defend himself, seeks to make Secretary of War Eustis a fool or a traitor, Gen. H. A. Dearborn a knave, and Colonel Cass a conspirator. Original letters and "testimony, however, from President Madison, ex-President Jefferson, and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams show that Governor Hull was justly condemned. On September 29, 1813, as the result of Commodore Perry's notable vietory of September 10th, the whole region was restored to American control.

Detroit's interest in several local and subsequent wars was large, but the unimportance of some and the well known results of others make comment thereon unnecessary.

While these varied historical events were taking place, the city was steadily gathering to itself prestige and reputation. Its houses now excel in number and beauty, its streets, wide and well paved, are edged with the smoothest of stone walks and lined with elms, maples, and grassy lawns. The distinctive buildings of the municipality, its court houses, schools, police stations, water works, and engine houses are remarkable for their excellent architecture and well kept condition. The churches, by their number and in their construction, indicate the possession of religious desire and aesthetic taste. The manufacturing interests of Detroit are varied. Its commercial representatives are found in almost every country, and "Detroit" stoves, drugs, and chemicals are known in every clime. We have numerous parks, but Belle Isle is indeed the priceless jewel in the crown of Detroit: woods of green and waters of blue, art and nature, moving waves and waving grass, stillness and activity, vistas and broad views, beautiful flowers and lofty trees, the white sails of numerous vessels, and the swift motions of great steamers all alike are combined in the captivating beauties of this favored place.

Besides serving as a charm to drive away care, our beautiful river gives us one of the greatest ports in the world. More tonnage passes annually through "the Detroit" than in the same time enters and clears the combined ports of London and Liverpool. During the season nearly, four hundred vessels pass daily, bearing more grain and minerals than traverse any other stream in the world. The city is a central starting point for reaching all northern summer resorts, and more steamboat passengers arrive and depart from our wharves than from any others on the Lakes. The stream that attracted the earliest visitors attracts later ones as well. The river never overflows and therefore is never a menace, but always a joy and blessing. Yachts, sail boats, barges, shells, ferries, steamers, and great "whale backs" fly and ply over it, and in the season it is a panorama of beauty, gay with music, streamers, and happy voyageurs.



1) Under treaty stipulations negro and Indian slaves were held until Michigan became a State. Detroit has always had to do with slavery questions. Before the Civil War it was an important station on the "Underground Railroad," and occasionally slaves were seized on our streets. Some of the conspicuous leaders of the party that secured the abolition of slavery lived at one time or another in Detroit. General Grant's home may still be seen. United States Senator Zachariah Chandler of "blood letting letter" fame was one of our oldest merchants, and the notable "fire in the rear" editorial appeared in a local paper.

2) The gateway was located on what is now the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Griswold Street, and a bronze tablet there erected bears a representation of an Indian warrior and the following inscription

"This Tablet designates the site of one of the gateways of Fort Detroit. The original stockade was known as Fort Pontchartrain and was erected when the city was founded in 1701.

"Through the gateway here located Pontiac, the Ottawa chief, with a band of Indians, passed on May seventh, 1763, intending to surprise and massacre the garrison.

"The exposure of his plot on the previous day caused the defeat of his plans and gave the English the supremacy in this region until the close of the Revolutionary War."

3)The Post-office on Fort Street, which occupies a portion of the site of this fort, displays at its southerly entrance a tablet erected in 1896 which bears the following inscription:

This Tablet designates the site of an
English Fort erected, in 1778 by
Major K. B. Lernoult as a defense
against the Americans. It was
subse­quently called Fort Shelby, in honor
of Gov. Isaac Shelby of Kentucky,
and was demolished in 1826.
The evacuation of this Fort by the
British at 12 o'clock noon, July 11th,
1796, was the closing act of the War
of Independence.

On that day the American Flag was
for the first time raised over this
soil, all of what was then known
as the Western Territory becoming
at that time part of the Federal Union."

[Also see the Early Michigan Biographies.]

Historic towns of the Western States

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