The History of Genesee County, MI
Chapter I
Detroit in 1837

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Clayton

 

DETROIT IN 1837

At the same time Michigan was admitted to the Union, conditions of life in the new state were still very primitive. The French-Canadians were still an appreciable element in the population. French farms still clustered about the mouths of the rivers and along the shore north and south of Detroit. One of the strongest centers was still Detroit. "Detroit in this year 1837." Says Cooley, "had become a considerable town, having now perhaps eight thousand people. Old wind-mills, upon which the people formerly relied for the grinding of cereals, were coming not to be disused, though some were still standing. The noble river in front of the town offered, at all seasons of the year, many inducements to sports and festivities, of which all classes of the people were eager to avail themselves. In the winter, when frozen over, it became the principal highway and was gay with the swift-going vehicles. A narrow box upon runners, wide apart, made the common sleigh, and the ponies, sometimes driven tandem, seemed to enter into the spirit of racing almost as much as their masters. When there was no snow, the little cart was the common vehicle of land carriage for all classes of the people; ladies went in it to church and to parties, and made fashionable calls, being seated on a buffalo robe spread on the bottom, and they were backed up to the door at which they wished to alight and stepped upon the threshold from it. Now and then there was a family which had a caleche, a single carriage with the body hung upon heavy leathern straps, with a small, low seat in front for the driver, and with a folding top to be raised in sun or rain. But the cart was a convenience which all classes could enjoy and appreciate, and it was especially adapted to a town like Detroit, which was built upon a clay bank and had as yet neither sidewalk nor pavement.

"Many Scotch, with a fondness for making money, were among the business men of Detroit, and they had a shrewd knack at doing so. There were also some Irish and some English, but the major part of the people who were not French were of American birth. Among those were now being established--what in fact had existed before, though not in much strength--societies for literary culture and enjoyment. One of them was the Detroit Young men's Society, which for twenty years was to be an important institution in the town and the training school of governors, senators and judges. At the barrack, though there was none now, there would shortly be a small military force to preserve peace on the frontier, and the officers and their families would constitute an important and valuable addition tot he society of the place at all times."

Such was Detroit when Michigan was admitted to the Union. These conditions throw some light upon what may be expected for other parts of the new state. Outside of Detroit, the largest centers of population were Monroe, An Arbor, Marshall, Tecumseh, Pontiac and Adrian, all on the eastern part of the state and all mere villages of very primitive life. Most of the people were small farmers, of new England descent, but immediately from New York and Ohio. Life was hard. Rude cabins, hard labor and chills and fever were the common lot of all. Of meats, salt pork was the staple but all had wheat or corn bread and potatoes. Wild fruits and wild game were abundant and wild honey and maple sugar were much prized. Clothing was made of coarse home-made cloth. One of the great inconveniences was the lack of mills. Primitive grist-mills and saw-mills began to make their appearances about this time. The saw-mill contributed to the clearing of the forests and to better homes. Framed houses gradually superseded the log cabins. Among the people the domestic virtues were strong, and churches and schools were among the first institutions. The churches were of all denominations. In southeastern Michigan there were many Quakers, a sober, industrious, stead and thrifty people. Of this sect was one of Michigan's first poets, Elizabeth Margaret Chandler, whose antislavery poems were once widely read. Of lawyers, Michigan has its full share, and doctors were plentiful, who rose the country on horseback, with medicines in saddlebags. Roads were few and postal facilities were meager. The railroad was gaining ground. The prisoners were nor without their amusements, though the sports and pastimes were crude enough. Among these, the hunt, the husking-bee, the raising-bee, sleighing parties, dancing and the spelling bee held first place. On the whole, the pioneers of this period, while suffering many privations, were contended, happy and free from many of the ills that a more advanced civilization has brought to the people of our own day.

AN ERA OF SPECULATION.

Up to the summer of 1837 prosperity in Michigan, considering pioneer conditions, were quite general. The recent immigrations were unparalleled in the history of the West. Michigan was the land of promise. All were producers. The newly elected legislature reflected the new impulse. From 1835 to 1837, fifty-seven new townships were provided for and sixty-six state roads; eleven railroads and nine banks were chartered. Speculation was rife. To the imagination, nothing seemed impossible. The wildest schemes found ready backers. Land was bought in great quantities, at inflated prices, with even being seen. Fortunes were expected to be made by rise in prices. Everybody seemed about to grow rich.

A most interesting phase of this mania was the condition of the currency. The first bank established in Michigan, at Detroit in 1806, had not been successful. Various devices for currency were subsequently resorted to. In 1817 another Detroit bank was founded; fifteen banks were in existence with the limits of the state when Michigan was formally admitted to the Union. A disastrous step was taken when, on march 15, 1837, the Legislature passed a general banking law, by which any association of persons might by voluntary action assume banking powers. This law was a response to the popular cry against "special privileges.' Enjoyed apparently by a few corporations who desired a monopoly of this profitable line of business. It was supposed that proper safeguards were made, in the various provisions in the law, protecting the public. Along in the spring, it happened that owing to financial pressure, business houses in leading Eastern cities failed, which, starting a panic, resulted in a run upon the banks of New York. Banks began to fail in New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Baltimore,. To adds to the embarrassment in Michigan, the same legislature which had authorized the general banking law, has authorized Governor Mason to borrow five millions of dollars for the building of railroads, canals and other improvements. The legislature now authorized Michigan banks to suspend specie payments, with the general banking laws still in force; which, of course, left to the people authority to organize banks and issue bills while in a state of suspension. As a result, the state was soon flooded with an irredeemable currency. Issues were secured on wild land at values limited only the consciences of the owners, and on city lots which surveyors afterwards located well out in Lake Michigan. Banks were located with a special design not be to found. In 1838 the bank commissioners reported: "The singular spectacle was presented of the officers of the state seeking for banks in situations the most inaccessible and remote from trade, and finding at every step an increase of labor by the discover of new and unknown organizations. Before they could be arrested, the mischief was done; large issues were in circulation and no adequate remedy for the evil." It is said that every village plat, if it had a hollow stump to serve as a vault, was the site of a bank. The bank inspectors were deceived in many ways. It is said that in some cases what appeared to the inspectors to be kegs of specie were in reality kegs of mails, with a few coins on top. Adjacent banks kept each other informed of the movements of the inspectors; as soon as the inspectors got through at one place, the specie inspected would be sent on by special messenger to the next bank, to be there again inspected. New banks were formed faster then the inspectors could close up the "rotten" ones. When a bank failed it was, of course, the laborers and the small farmers who suffered most, for they had no means of keeping informed as to what banks were unsound, nor of getting rid of doubtful bills. By 1840 only about a half dozen of this brood of 'wild cat" banks were still considered sound. The paper of the others was, of course, absolutely worthless. It is reported of one of the Campaus at Grand Rapids, that in grim irony he papered the walls of his room with them, saying, "If you will not circulate, you shall stay still." Land was a drug on the market. Distrust in business was universal. This situation was not peculiar to Michigan. Other states had similar experiences and it was natural that these results should be followed by a political revolution;. The Whigs swept into power, making William Henry Harrison, President of the United States, and William Woodbridge, Governor of Michigan.

 

History of Genesee County, Michigan, Her People, Industries and Institutions
by Edwin O. Wood, LL.D, President Michigan Historical Commission, 1916

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

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