How one bad review delayed the settlement of Michigan

By Bill Loomis / Special to The Detroit News

At the end of the War of 1812, Congress authorized bounty lands to be awarded to soldiers, to compensate them for their service. Each man would get 160 acres in the Old Northwest Territory, which included present day Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and a portion of Minnesota.

To do this, they first needed to survey the land to determine its agricultural qualities. In 1815, Ohio native Edward Tiffin, the U.S Surveyor General, visited the Michigan Territory and reported on November 30, 1816 to the Secretary of War that “there would not be more than one acre out of a hundred if there would be one out of a thousand would … admit of cultivation. … It was unsafe for men or pack mules, the ground sinking at every step and shaking for several feet around, having indications of being over a vast underground lake covered by a thin crust though which a man or mule might easily break and be lost.

“ … The intermediate space between the swamps and lakes, which is probably nearly one half of the country, is, with a very few exceptions, a poor, barren, sandy land, on which scarcely any vegetation grows, except very small scrubby oaks. … The abandonment of colonization is urged as being dangerous and unnecessary.”

It is likely that Tiffin and his team of surveyors saw very little of Michigan.

As a result of the Tiffin report, President Madison recommended to Congress that, since the lands in Michigan were covered with swamps and unfit for farming, only a small proportion could be applied to the intended grants, and that other lands should be designated to take the place of Michigan’s portion. Accordingly, three-fourths of that amount was ordered to be surveyed in Illinois.

School geographies and guide books reportedly contained maps with the words “Interminable Swamp” across the interior of Michigan.

Lewis Cass and the Americanization of Michigan

Lewis Cass was governor of the Michigan Territory at that time. He and many others wanted statehood for Michigan, but more than that, Cass was determined that Michigan become American. Following the War of 1812, Michigan — or more accurately Detroit, which was the populated portion of Michigan — was still French. The dominate language was French and the people were of French descent. Under this condition Cass and others were convinced Michigan would remain on the fringe of the U.S., separated much like Quebec was from English-speaking Canada.

Cass wanted immigrants from the eastern United States to settle in Michigan; he felt the French habitants were antiquated in their farming and generally too complacent. He himself was from New Hampshire, before immigrating to Marietta, Ohio, and then on to Detroit to fight in the War of 1812. He wanted ambitious, hardworking, serious Protestants taming the wilderness and starting farms. To become a state you needed 60,000 residents (defined as white males).

Cass immediately began sending reports that counteracted the Tiffin survey. He wrote that Tiffin “grossly misrepresented” the land, and in 1819 federal money was secured for new surveys based largely on his claim that for national security, the land between Detroit and Chicago needed to surveyed. His survey got a lot of attention in Congress and from the general public.

In addition, travelers of the day, such as Samuel R. Brown from New York, spoke very highly of the land. His letters published in New York in 1817 appeared three years later in London, England in an anonymous “Guide for English Emigrants to America.” The guide said the Michigan climate was described as “temperate and healthy” and the soil “generally rich and fertile.”

By about 1825 the effects of the Tiffin report in the East had begun to wane. That year was marked by the appearance of John Farmer’s maps and gazetteers of Michigan, published in Detroit. Farmer’s maps were considered essential tools for emigrants and by 1830 had reached a high demand in eastern cities.

Many articles on successful farming ran in the Detroit Gazette, an early newspaper founded in 1817, and were reprinted in New York papers. Other countering influences were letters from successful pioneers published in eastern papers, reports made by settlers revisiting their old homes in the East, and the circulars of land speculators.

By 1821 more than 2.25 million acres of Michigan had been surveyed, and a decade later about 10 million acres of the 17.5 million that had been ceded to the government had been surveyed.

The laws regulating the sales of land in Michigan before 1820 were not conducive to the best interests of settlement; they favored big investors who purchased large parcels of land, often on credit. The settler of small means was at a decided disadvantage. This changed in 1820 through an act of Congress, when lawmakers feared that huge land debt might cause western states to secede from the country; therefore, immediately land in Michigan was being offered in 80 acre parcels at $1.25 an acre. The price rose in the 1830s from $2 to $40 an acre.

A song popular in New England carried these lyrics:

“Come all you Yankee farmers who wish to change your lot,

“Who’ve spunk enough to trail beyond your native spot,

And leave behind the village where Pa and Ma do stay,

Come follow me, and settle in Michigania,

Yea, yea, yea, in Michigania — Detroit!”


The first step in the adventure began at the Erie Canal.

Traveling by canal
Travel by Erie Canal

Illustration of travel on the Erie Canal, a prime route for immigrants to Michigan.

The Erie Canal was 363 miles long from Albany, N.Y. on the Hudson River to Buffalo, with 36 locks to accommodate an elevation change of 555 feet. It opened on October 26, 1825, providing for the first time a navigable water route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes.

Boats were towed by teams of horses or mules that walked along the side of the canal. The boats were towed all day and all night. It was faster than wagons and cut freight transportation costs by 95 percent. The trip from beginning to end took about one week.

Henry Ormal Severance in his book “Michigan Trail Makers” wrote about pioneer families in 1836, such as Charles and Martha Lamb and their three children leaving Geneva, N.Y., to start a farm in Michigan.

Severance described: “The emigrants were not usually pressed for time but hard pressed for money which they knew they would need for the purchase of supplies and seed … Consequently they traveled the cheapest way. … There were two classes, the fast and the slow boats. … The slow boat, called the “line boat,” was the cheapest fare. It went three miles per hour. The fast boats, called ‘the express,’ went four miles per hour.”

But there were more differences than speed. The line boats were freight barges; passengers provided their own food and bedding on an exposed flat deck amid whiskey barrels and sacks of wheat. The express boats, also called packets, had accommodations for sleeping and meals provided. The packet boats were long and narrow, and brightly painted. They carried about 70 people, who spent days sitting on the deck or the roof enjoying the scenery or perhaps watching the people on the line boat enduring the baking sun or rain.

Charles Lamb opted to save some money and cruised on the line boat. While he called it “restful,” his wife, Martha, and other women complained of “the lack of privacy.”

Well-known author Nathanial Hawthorne wrote an article titled “The Canal Boat” about his travel on the Erie Canal for New England Magazine in 1835: “Behold us, then, fairly afloat, with three horses harnessed to our vessel, like the steeds of Neptune to a huge scallop-shell, in mythological pictures. Bound to a distant port, we had neither chart nor compass … in our adventurous navigation of an interminable mud-puddle — for a mud-puddle it seemed, and as dark and turbid as if every kennel in the land paid contribution to it …”

“The most frequent species of craft were the ‘line boats,’ which had a cabin at each end, and a great bulk of barrels, bales, and boxes in the midst; or light packets, like our own, decked all over, with a row of curtained windows from stem to stern, and a drowsy face at every one. Once, we encountered a boat, of rude construction, painted all in gloomy black, and manned by three Indians, who gazed at us in silence and with a singular fixedness of eye.

“Not long after, in the midst of a swamp and beneath a clouded sky, we overtook a vessel that seemed full of mirth and sunshine. It contained a little colony of Swiss, on their way to Michigan, clad in garments of strange fashion and gay colors, scarlet, yellow and bright blue, singing, laughing, and making merry, in odd tones and a babble of outlandish words.”

The boats changed horses at “port stops” and that allowed people to walk around and buy food or souvenirs. Hawthorne wrote: “A new passenger fell flat on his back, in attempting to step on deck, as the boat emerged from under a bridge. Another, in his Sunday clothes, as good luck would have it, being told to leap aboard from the bank, forthwith plunged up to his third waistcoat button in the canal, and was fished out in a very pitiable plight, not at all amended by our three rounds of applause.

“Anon, a Virginia schoolmaster, too intent on a pocket Virgil (a book) to heed the helmsman’s warning — ‘Bridge! bridge!’ — was saluted by the said bridge on his knowledge-box. … There was no harm done, except a large bump on the head, and probably a corresponding dent in the bridge, the rest of us exchanged glances and laughed quietly. Oh, how pitiless are idle people!”

For dinner, long tables that ran the length of the boat were set up and everyone dined together. At bed time, the cushioned benches that lined the interior walls of the boat were lowered and a red curtain was drawn half way across, to separate the men and women. From the walls, stewards drew out “beds,” three high. Hawthorne called them “shelves”: the top berth more like canvas hammock in a wooden frame whose one side was pinned to the wall, while the outer side was secured by two taught cords. It took a while to get used to.

“Forgetting that my berth was hardly so wide as a coffin,” Hawthorne wrote, “I turned suddenly over, and fell like an avalanche on the floor, to the disturbance of the whole community of sleepers.”

Beware of swindlers

When they reached Buffalo, travelers were hit by a barrage of conmen. Many were members of gangs, posing as representatives of the various hotels and steamers. A good proportion of emigrants came from Europe and spoke no English. They were easy prey for swindlers, as described in this Detroit Free Press article from August 6, 1851:

“Our readers have for several years past noticed the frequent reccurence (sic) of outrageous frauds, perpetuated by land sharks, on the ignorant and inoffensive strangers who have landed on our shores in search of liberty and equality … These ‘strangers in a strange land’ have been made victims by an organized band of swindlers, who under the guise as ‘passenger agents’ … have cruelly robbed them of their scanty pittance which remained after a long voyage.”

Charles Lamb booked a passage on the steamer Michigan, which was built by Oliver Newberry in 1833. The boat held 500 passengers along with their covered wagons and oxen or draft horses. It was 156 feet long with separated berths for men and women. In 1836 the price of passage from Buffalo to Detroit was six dollars. The voyage took about three days with brief stops.

Buffalo was ominously called “the jumping off place.” As the steamer left Buffalo for the open lake, author Severance wrote that Martha Lamb cried for the first time, realizing how far they would be from family and friends in Geneva, N.Y.; in their lives there would be little chance to return for even a visit.

Through their two boys mingling with other children, the Lambs began meeting people and making friends with other families on the steamer, most of whom were also heading to Michigan, some traveling farther west. At one point the passengers decided to sing songs about Michigan that were well known at that time in New York and New England:

“My eastern friends who wish to find,

A country that will suit your mind,

Where comforts all are near at hand

Had better come to Michigan.”


“Here is the place to live at ease,

To work or play, just as you please;

With little prudence any man

Can soon get rich in Michigan.”


Detroit riverfront, 1838

A busy Detroit riverfront is depicted in this 1838 etching from an original sketch by Fred K. Grain. It was used as a Christmas greeting card by the Eaton-Clark Company of Detroit and Windsor, which was founded in 1838. (Detroit News archives)

First impressions of Detroit

Travelers saw Detroit for the first time as the steamer chugged up the Detroit River. Orlando Wilcox, a Detroiter by birth who would become a highly decorated Civil War colonel and later a major general, described the view in his book “Shoepac Recollections,” published in 1856: “The traveller journeying at that period from New York westward, after leaving Albany, penetrated into regions where civilization grew dimmer and dimmer as he advanced … when he would stumble with astonishment on our little community. … He would see old-fashioned buildings, stores and dwellings forming a promiscuous row, with high gables and dormer windows, roofs peaked like Vandyke hats, with their edges notched and painted red, and doors paneled into four parts, opening by subdivisions, like modern window-shutters.”

Detroit Free Press columnist George C. Bates, 1812-86, wrote about his memory of arriving in Detroit and seeing pear trees planted by early French settlers on the grounds of what is now Water Works Park: “The pear trees, some of them one hundred and fifty years old, were covered with white blossoms … that scene of quiet beauty; the windmills fluttering in the wind, the French carts along the shore, the log houses all newly white washed, neat, tidy, and surrounded by cackling geese, chattering ducks, squealing pigs, and lowing cattle, all of which could be heard from our deck, presented a scene of exquisite beauty, and a land so quaint, so unique, so beautiful that at once I was in love with it all …”

Laconic New Yorker Charles Lamb described the Detroit riverfront as “queer, low French buildings.”

As the ship approached the Dorr and Jones dock at the foot of Shelby Street, it brought out crowds of people to the waterfront with things to sell, hotel hawkers, stage coach owners and land agents.

Lamb commented that Detroit was “a foreign port,” very different from New England and upstate New York. Indians and fur trappers were commonly seen, and French was the predominant language.

George Bates described the streets as he remembered them: “… Each day a new steamer arrived, sunk clear to its gunwales with freight, its decks literally black with human beings, men, women and children between decks, on decks, on the wheel houses, all over them. … It is mid-summer of 1835 and the streets of Detroit are all alive with covered wagons by the hundreds, laden with women and children, articles of household furniture packed all around, cows and sheep following … and away to the interior they form a long line to Oakland, Washtenaw, St. Clair, and Monroe.”

Woodward Avenue, 1854

A view of Woodward Avenue from Campus Martius in 1854 from “Gleason’s Pictorial,” an illustrated periodical published in Boston. (Detroit News archives)

Steamers and hotels

Walking off the steamer, travelers would immediately spot a large, white omnibus — the first mass transportation vehicle in America. It looked like a long stagecoach pulled by a team of horses. Emblazoned in big gold letters over the white doors was “Woodworth’s Steamboat Hotel.” Travelers were welcomed by a polite, stout young man with red hair and blue eyes, wearing a tightly buttoned green frock-coat and dazzling striped pantaloons. He was Sam Woodworth, the owner’s son, who accompanied the omnibus to the dock. Woodworth’s was the premier hotel in Detroit until it was destroyed by fire in 1847.

Another Detroit character many new arrivals would see on the street was old Monsieur Joseph Campau, the namesake of Detroit’s street and at the time the wealthiest man in Michigan, chatting and greeting friends in French. George Bates described the striking man:

“The old gentleman … was clad in a black full dress suit, white cravat, rolling shirt collar, clean and white as snow, moving along with his long white hair, large grey eyes, and steady sturdy step, he was a man to arrest the attention and curiosity of all travelers on the streets of Detroit. ‘Bonjour! Bonjour! Monsieur Bates. Comment se tu, Mon Ami? Il fait beau temp, monsieur.’ ”

By 1836, 90 steamers a month were arriving, each one jammed with settlers. As a result of so much travel the steamboat owners made enormous profits. In 1837 three steamers arrived in Detroit a day. They grew bigger, carrying 700 passengers, then more than 1,000.

Settlers such as the Lambs stayed in hotels, inns and boarding houses. J.A.S. Busby from London, England opened the Eagle Tavern in 1831 at Grand Circus and Woodward Avenue. He offered travelers the following rates (the “s” stands for shilling, the “d” for penny, an abbreviation that comes from the roman coin “denarius”):

Eagle Tavern

Good Accommodations for Travelers

Rates as follows

Boarding for the week ………………………….. 18s 0d

Ditto by the day with lodging …………………..…4s 6d

Cold meals…………………………………………1s 6d

Span of horses to hay one night……………………3s 6d

Lodging…………………………………………… 1s 0d

Good pasture for cattle

One yoke cattle [oxen] per night ……………….…2s 0d


Picking a plot of land

The first task for new settlers was to visit the Detroit Land Office, established by an Act of Congress and opened in March 26, 1804. It listed and sold surveyed government-owned land. In 1818 President James Monroe authorized the first sale of public lands. Interested parties entered the building and saw a large map on the wall noting available acreage and acreage already sold.

Farmers such as Charles Lamb would review the board for potential open land, then ride or walk out to the property to check it out first hand.

Farmers knew that the relationship of trees to soil was a fairly reliable index on the quality of the land. For instance if a farmer saw burr oaks he knew the land was one of the best soils for wheat. Yellow loam soil in open land with hickory trees was also considered good for wheat. In general, heavily timbered land was held not to be so congenial to wheat, and was not warm enough for corn, but was known to produce excellent crops of hay, oats and potatoes. The good soils were supposed to lie under a covering of black walnut, ash, buckeye, and sugar maple, while the poorer land sprouted soft maples and beech.

As settlers continued to pour in, Michigan’s land quickly changed from public to private hands. The book “Economic and Social Beginnings of Michigan” by George Newman Fuller tells us that:

“… in 1820 there were sold at the Detroit Land Office 2,860 acres; … sales ran rapidly up to 20,068 in 1822; the increase continued until in 1825 they reached 92,332 acres. From this point there was a steady falling off until 1830, when 70,441 acres were sold. But with a sudden impulse sales mounted in the following year to 217,943 acres. Then, probably under the influence of the Black Hawk war and the epidemics of cholera in 1832 and 1834, there was a gradual decline. But again, in 1835 sales suddenly leaped to 405,331 acres and in 1836 to nearly one and a half million acres.”

In May of 1836 public lands were in such demand that the office had to close its doors and receive payment through a window, because too many tried to squeeze into the building. Charles Lamb had to move fast; in 1836 he liked what he saw, so bought his land.

On the road to the wilderness

With land secured, the settler then repacked the wagon and headed out. In preparation for their departure, families packed the wagon with clothing, cooking utensils, firearms, bedding and tools. The women prepared a complete medicine chest to take along. They also packed hand-sewn sacks with flour, cornmeal, dried fruits and other foodstuff; assembled dishes and cooking utensils; made candles and assembled workbaskets of various sewing tools, thread and other accessories, all of which were packed into the wagon.

Farm implements and some cherished furniture were added to the loads. On the outside of the wagon they hung a bucket of grease for the axles, a barrel of water for humans and stock, and spare parts for the wagons.

The women rode on the seats in front of the wagons. Here they were sometimes joined by the man or some of the children, but men generally strode ahead of their wagon. The smaller children rode at the back on the extensions built over the back wheels and the feed boxes attached to the back of the wagon. It was not unusual for a child to become drowsy and tragically fall off the wagon, to be crushed under the hooves of draft animals or the wheels of the wagon.

The older children trudged along behind, prodding and pushing the sheep, cow or hogs that constantly tried to wander off into the woods or fields on either side of the road or trail.

Pioneering families made about nine miles a day. Some reported wagons sunk to the hubs in sticky mud for mile after mile. There are many accounts in the letters or diaries of pioneers struggling down the Old Chicago Road (Michigan Avenue). It was a mud-clogged quagmire, especially in spring when the River Rouge would overflow its banks.

One experience was related by the Mills Family in 1836:

“It was a beautiful day in mid October that our party left Detroit. … We advanced with our slow paced oxen team … If the land was timbered, the road was proverbial bad. … We found scattered along the road here and there poles and rails, used as levers, broken tongues, pieces of felloes [the outer circle of a wheel to which the spokes are fitted], an old wagon wheel, or an entire wagon, or sometimes an old abandoned stage coach laid careened and moldering by the roadside; each fragment or hulk telling a tale of adventure or mishap — mute reminders of the trials of those emigrants who had gone before.”

First, clear the land

Reaching their acreage in West Bloomfield in early spring, the Lamb family decided the importance of clearing land and planting early potatoes and corn superseded building a cabin. He chopped trees from dawn to dusk: shagbark hickory, red oak, butternut, basswood and chestnut. He left the sugar maples and black walnuts.

They chose a site for the house and barn — a rise of ground facing the trail on the east. Lamb needed logs 22 feet long for the sides and 18 feet for the ends. Trunks of red oak were cut into six-foot lengths, and then split thin and flat for “shakes” to cover the roof. He made hundreds of wooden pegs in different sizes from the red oak which, when wet, would swell and hold the cabin together as tightly as iron spikes or nails.

When ready to build, he walked the “neighborhood” sometimes 20 miles to invite neighbors to help in raising the house. He was pleased to hear “I’ll be there” over and over as he finally returned near midnight.

The neighbors came early and in a day had the walls up; they used oxen and ramps to stack the logs. On the second day Lamb laid the shakes overlapping to finish the roof and cut out the large hearth fireplace. The logs were “chinked” with mud to keep out the cold. Later he built a barn to protect the milk cow and livestock from wolves and bears.

With the structures up, the routine of farm work and life began early in the year. In March he tapped the sugar maples and boiled sap to make maple syrup. In April the family sheered sheep while his wife prepared the wool and spun yarn. In May he planted his fields: “part to potatoes, part to cabbages, and part to turnips.” Elsewhere he sowed oats and later, “When the red oak leaves were the size of a squirrel’s ear,” he planted corn.

An early American writer, Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur, wrote of his similar experiences in Letters from an American Farmer published around 1800:

“Often when I plough my low ground, I place my little boy on a chair which screws to the beam of the plough — its motion and that of the horses pleases him; he is perfectly happy and begins to chat. As I lean over the handle various are the thoughts that crowd into my mind. I am now doing for him, I say, what my father formerly did for me. … Can more pleasure, more dignity, be added to that primary occupation?”

Michigan became the 26th state on January 26, 1837, just two decades after Lewis Cass invited settlers to check out Michigan. It had doubled the population required for statehood.