Beginnings: Michigan Territory and Early Ann Arbor

On a warm summer day in 1831, Lucy Morgan, a bit homesick for her native Connecticut, took time out from the daily chores of pioneer life to recount, in a letter to her family, the events of the ten months since she had last seen them. She and her husband Elijah had moved to the new frontier village of Ann Arbor right after their marriage. After nearly a year of residence, they were established citizens in a town only seven years old. At first they lived in a one and a half story, four-room house, a part of which they sublet to the village's leading doctor. In May of 1831 they moved to a new four-room house with a barn and a larger garden for which they paid fifty dollars a year rent--"the cheapest rent in the village"--and they sublet the barn for twelve and a half cents a week. Lucy complained that with all the new people coming to town, renters were being exploited. A neighbor had to pay seventy-five cents a week for a much smaller house than hers. Other prices were high too. "Every kind of provision is very high here," she wrote, "flour seven dollars an[d] a half a barrel and all other things in proportion. A farmer may grow rich as fast as he pleases."

The village had advantages, however. Since it "still [had] an abundance of old bachelors left," Mrs. Morgan could report that all the young ladies who had come visiting had found husbands. Other visitors to Ann Arbor were Native Americans who came almost daily to trade deerskins, venison, and berries. Mrs. Morgan had found buckskin moccasins more comfortable than shoes and wished her mother could have a pair.

Though a little lonely, Lucy Morgan was comfortably settled in the town and had become a staunch booster of the territory of Michigan and the village of Ann Arbor. "Indeed," she wrote, "it is the general opinion that there is no better land than is to be found in Michigan. I do not feel as if I should willingly return either to Ohio, New York or Connecticut to live. It is so much pleasanter here."

An Ann Arbor historian, writing ninety years later, claimed that the founders and first settlers of the village were an unusually energetic and talented group of people. Perhaps they were, but many other American towns make the same claim. The founding of the village of Ann Arbor was a part of an established American pattern and occurred at a time other towns were taking shape on the Michigan frontier.

By comparison to Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, Michigan was something of a "late bloomer" among the states of the Old Northwest. With premature optimism, some Michigan citizens had convinced Congress that the area should become a territory in 1805. Many confidently expected a substantial tide of settlers to follow. The movement failed to materialize.

The War of 1812 came along and Michigan found itself both a battlefield and an occupied territory. The future state emerged from the war with William Hull, the territorial governor, discredited and its primitive economy in disarray. Military outposts were scattered throughout the territory, but only Detroit, the capital, could call itself a village.

The conflict did produce one good result, however. Lewis Cass, a young Ohio attorney who had fought in Michigan during the war, was named the new governor. He held the post from 1813 to 1831, longer than any other territorial governor in American history. Lewis Cass, flaccid-jowled and potbellied, idealistic yet practical, enlightened yet narrowly chauvinistic, was a maker of modern America. He became Michigan's greatest booster. He never failed to promote the state and aggressively took steps to foster its settlement. He negotiated treaties with the Native Americans, explored the territory, opened land offices, and encouraged social and economic development.

Culture and education were not neglected. The Catholepistemiad, or University of Michigania, was established in Detroit in 1817. Presbyterian clergyman John Monteith was its first president and Father Gabriel Richard, later territorial delegate to Congress, its first vice-president. Little did they know that twenty years later the successor of their fledgling enterprise would be established in a village forty-five miles west and would play a major role in shaping its history.

The years 1817-18 were particularly important as the territory slowly emerged from the doldrums of the late war. In addition to the founding of the state's first university, the Detroit Gazette, Michigan's first newspaper, was founded. Motivated by self-interest as well as honest conviction, it became a strong booster of all things Michigan. One bright August day in 1818, the picturesque Walk in the Water, the first steamship on the Great Lakes, appeared in Detroit and ushered in a new and more reliable means of transportation. Wholesale settlement of the peninsula would soon begin.

Founding and Settlement

By the 1820 census, the territory had a population of 8,896, an increase of 4,134 over the previous decade. Though this growth could hardly be characterized as of major significance, it indicated that the long-expected tide of settlers was beginning and would make Michigan in the next three decades one of the fastest growing areas in the country.

Who were these first settlers and why did they come? Many were born in America; others, immigrants who had lived some time in the United States. They came mostly from New England and particularly upstate New York, though there was a scattering of settlers from the South and nearby Ohio. Most of them came to better themselves economically, to find good farm land and business opportunities. Some aggressive entrepreneurs saw the frontier as an area in which to make a large amount of money quickly in land speculation.

One of these entrepreneurs was John Allen, a young man of twenty-eight who stood over six feet tall, was "well-proportioned" and  "physically a very grand specimen of a man." He and Elisha Walker Rumsey were to be Ann Arbor's founders. Allen was from an old, well-established, though not aristrocratic, Virginia family. He married well at age nineteen, but less than four years later found himself a widower with two children. Two years later he married a young widow, Ann Isabella McCue. John was cheerful, carefree, and adventuresome; Ann was religious, somewhat melancholy, and interested in security and the amenities of gracious living. John was ideally suited to be a pioneer; Ann was not. One other difference marked the couple: though both were native Virginians, Ann had great affection for the South and its values. John was not so inclined to cherish Virginia. Though a slave owner, he ultimately came to disapprove vigorously of this oppressive feature of southern society.

As was the case with so many pioneers, what persuaded Allen to seek a new future on the American frontier was largely economic necessity. Through faulty investment, his once prosperous father fell deeply into debt. John assumed much of the indebtedness but was unable to solve all the financial problems. In the fall of 1823, he left his home with a herd of cattle to sell in Baltimore. He never returned, and there is reason to believe he left unpaid debts. To recoup his losses, he hit upon the hardly novel scheme of using the cash he had on hand to found a town in the West and sell off lots for quick return. Success of such a scheme depended on the attractiveness of the site selected, its potential for future growth, and luck.

From Baltimore, John went to Buffalo, New York, a gateway town to the West. He stayed for two months looking for an associate before he moved on to Detroit in January 1824. Here he met Elisha Rumsey from Genesee County, New York. Though ten years older than Allen, he apparently was not the moving force behind the venture. Rumsey, from an old New England family, was on his second visit to Michigan when he met Allen. He, too, was escaping financial difficulties as well as gossip about his second wife, Mary Ann, with whom he lived before marriage.

After discussing prospects with Detroit leaders, Allen and Rumsey decided on the area west of Detroit. They took a one-horse sleigh and headed through February snow into the newly created county of Washtenaw. By the twelfth they had returned to Detroit to register their claims at the U. S. Land Office. Allen bought 480 acres for $600, Rumsey 160 acres for $200.

These speculators chose their site well, but what virtually assured the permanency of the town was a fortuitous political decision. The commissioners, appointed by Governor Cass to select a site for the county seat, chose Allen and Rumsey's tract, and Cass supported their decision.

By March the first structure had been erected in the new town--"a good framed house" at the present-day   site of Huron and First streets. The Rumseys lived there and entertained prospective land purchasers. The town plot was registered in Wayne County on May 25, 1824. The registration contains the earliest known use of the town's unique name--Annarbour." Much folklore has grown up about the name of the new town, but Russell Bidlack's account in Ann Arbor's First Lady (1999) makes clear that the "Ann" honors the wife of John Allen and "Arbor" refers to a grove of scattered oaks in an opening amid the heavily forestered woods along the Huron River.

Allen and Rumsey began to advertise their new town in the Detroit newspaper A contemporary account noted that about 100 lots had been sold, several houses were under construction, two saw mills were operating, and a grist mill was soon to be built. By fall "a number of new frame buildings" had been constructed. After a two-month journey, Ann Allen joined her husband on October 24, 1824, and occupied a small, two-room block house containing a fireplace and cooking stove.

As the town became known, and as transportation improved, Ann Arbor grew faster. A year after the founding Allen himself could report the settlement had between thirty and forty families; mills were started and farming was under way. A diarist passing through in the summer of 1827 noted that there were "three inns such as they are, four stores, two tanneries, two blacksmith shops, and about twenty dwelling houses." But there were losses too. Elisha Rumsey died in 1827. His widow later remarried and moved to Indiana.


Besides buildings, John Allen and the pioneer settlers of the village were constructing much more important things--the social, educational, religious, political, and economic foundations for the settlement. It is remarkable how soon the cultural institutions were established and how vigorous they proved to be.

Ann Arbor was scarcely a year old in September 1825 when a Miss Monroe opened a primary school in a log school house. Allen had erected the building on his property at the northwest corner of Main and Ann streets. It was just across from what would be court-house square, then serving as Allen's vegetable patch. It was a crude building with small glass windows and split log benches.

We know of little more than the existence of this first school. Miss Monroe, the first teacher, died in 1829. Her successor, Harriet G. Parsons, moved the school into a frame house on the corner of Washington Street and Fifth Avenue in 1829. Miss Parsons later married Lorrin Mills, a tailor who built the first brick house in town.

These pioneer schools were not supported by public funds but by rate bills and other assessments levied on the parents of the children. Public schools were not even authorized until 1830, and it was some years before tax money began to support education. Consequently, many of Ann Arbor's boys and girls did not attend school. In 1832, the average attendance was only 35 out of a possible 161 children five to fifteen years old.

For secondary education a whole variety of private schools were established beginning with the Merrill Brothers' school in 1829--"a select school...for teaching higher English and Latin and Greek." Some were more prosperous than others. One of the most successful, and the private school with the longest history, was the Misses Clark School for young ladies. It was established in 1839 by three well-educated sisters from New York. They operated the school until the death of Mary, the senior partner, in 1875.

A unified public school system emerged slowly. Those citizens who lived across the Huron River in "Lower Town," which existed until 1861 as a separate village, maintained their own school system up to that time. In Ann Arbor teachers in the "aristocratic" north district were paid $224 per year, those in the south $90 until the two districts agreed to build a union school. When the Union School opened in 1856, it was the finest building in the city with an assembly room which could hold 700. Moreover, it was the most expensive school in Michigan on one of the largest sites.

The Union School far outshone in grandeur and landscaping the campus of The University of Michigan, which by action of the legislature was permanently located in Ann Arbor in 1837. The coming of the University undoubtedly was the single most important event in Ann Arbor's development. Its founding determined much of the subsequent history of the community.

A land company of five leading citizens purchased 200 acres of farm land east of State Street and gave 40 acres of it as an inducement for the fledgling school to locate here. Its first buildings, imposing by frontier standards, were four professors' houses and University Building (later called Mason Hall), which opened in 1841. Its first class graduated in 1845. A medical department was added to the literary department in 1850; law followed in 1859. From 1837 onward, the history of the University and that of Ann Arbor have been inseparable and interdependent. There emerged a feeling of creative tension that usually was congenial, or at least tolerant, only occasionally slipping into hostility.

Ann Arbor's first residents were actively establishing other social foundations besides schools. A group of villagers began a library in 1827, which by 1830 had 100 volumes. In 1831, twenty-eight Ann Arborites joined the Lyceum, the purpose of which was "the cultivation of science and knowledge by members on subjects chosen by themselves, the collection of books and apparatus, and specimens of Natural History."

Churches, Theater and Newspapers

Drama was introduced in 1837 when the Ann Arbor Thespian Society presented "Pizarro or the Death of Rollo," a tragedy plus "a comic song" and a "laughable pantomime of the Sportsman." The first professional theatrical group came in January 1849 when the National Theatre of Detroit performed the "Lady of Lyons" and the musical farce, "A Loan of a Lover." Though many of these early cultural efforts survived for only a short period, they laid the foundations for later permanent institutions.

One of the first was the church. The initial clergymen were itinerants, like Methodist John H. Boughman to whom John Allen opened his home for services in the fall of 1825. In 1826 the Presbyterians met to form a congregation in the log school house Allen had built. The Episcopal congregation was organized in 1827. By 1831 Lucy Morgan could report in her letter home that the Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, and Baptists all held regular meetings "upon the Sabbath" and all had "very good preachers." She admitted, however, that frontier Ann Arbor was "like almost all places that grow up suddenly--not distinguished for morality."

Other Protestant denominations came into the village reflecting new doctrinal contributions or new ethnic settlements. The first Catholics settled in Northfield Township, Washtenaw County, in 1831. Not until 1835 did they hold regular services in Ann Arbor and it was another decade before a church building, a brick structure and the largest in town, was erected. Though a few Jews appeared in the 1840's, they were too few in number to form a congregation until the twentieth century.

The churches, too, served the purpose of providing places for public events. The Presbyterian Church, for example, was the site on November 10-11, 1836, of the founding meeting of the Michigan State Anti-Slavery Society. Seventy-five delegates representing Oakland, Wayne, Washtenaw, Lenawee, Livingston, Kalamazoo, and St. Joseph counties plus four visiting delegates from Ohio met, elected officers, adopted a constitution, and passed resolutions espousing the cause of abolition and supporting the free African-Americans in their drive to win the ballot in Michigan and to gain improved educational opportunities. The meeting also called forthe creation of an abolitionist press in Michigan. This sentiment led directly to the establishment of the Michigan Freeman in Jackson, which in 1841 moved to Ann Arbor and became the famous Signal of Liberty, edited by Guy Beckley and Theodore Foster.

The Signal was not the first newspaper in Ann Arbor. The village was scarcely five years old when theWestern Emigrant began publishing under the editorship of Thomas Simpson. After only five issues, he was bought out by Samuel W. Dexter and John Allen, who made the paper a strong opponent of Masonry, a controversial issue of the time. The paper had no competition until the Michigan Argus was established in February 1835. Other papers followed, often printed to reflect the feelings of various political parties. But there were also attempts to publish humor and satire, such as B'hoy's Eagle published in 1849.

The newspapers were a major factor in all phases of the community, but especially in the business and professional life of Ann Arbor. From the first issue, physicians and lawyers placed their notices in the paper. As the town grew, they were joined by other professionals. In 1836, an itinerant named G. W. Smith, probably the town's first dentist, told all citizens that he would "remove diseased teeth and fangs with the greatest possible ease, and insert Silicious, Metalic [sic] and other artificial teeth in the most durable manner."

Business and Commerce

The first businesses naturally were those that met the immediate needs of a frontier settlement. In the early 1830's there was S. Cook's saddlery, which noted that hides and deerskins were as good as cash. Barter was common on the frontier where money was scarce. Brown and Co. Flour Mill operated on the Huron. George Prussia advertised his tannery and his availability as a shoe and boot maker. Three general stores offered groceries, hardware, crockery, medicines, and "buffalo robes." Detroit and Ypsilanti firms also advertised in Ann Arbor papers.

By the middle '30's business was expanding, the economic outlook was bright, and citizens were talking of bringing the railroad into town. Also, the business community became more diverse and the available goods more sophisticated. To be sure, firms like Dennis and Goodspeed still sold nails, scythes, spades, shovels, saws, gates, and general hardware; and there was John White's rifle shop. But, now there was also Mills and Irish clothing store offering "ready made clothes." McKinney and Davidson had opened a brick kiln and Reuben Moore in Lower Ann Arbor offered luxury items like "Boston style Hats." D. W. and C. Bliss opened a jewelry store in 1837 and E. P. Dwight started a book store. There was an Ann Arbor brewery operated by Bandwell and Brown. The Bank of Ann Arbor and the Bank of Washtenaw were chartered. Typical of frontier financial institutions, the Bank of Washtenaw issued its own beautifully engraved notes to reduce the currency shortage. Like most Michigan banks, it failed in the years following the Panic of 1837. Undoubtedly, the climax of business activity in the '30's came on October 17, 1839, when to the accompaniment of fanfare and speeches, the first train steamed into town and linked Ann Arbor with Ypsilanti and Detroit.

The pattern of business set in the 1830's continued in the 1840's and '50's with minor modification reflecting better transportation, more affluence and greater demand for luxury goods. Bach and Abel's offered not only school books, but "classical works" as well. H. Schlack advertised a confectionery store in 1845 and D. Tyler announced in 1845 that he had been appointed Ann Arbor agent for "Beal's Hair Restorative which will effectually restore a luxuriant growth of Hair to Bald Heads..." Music was sold by 1843, and Mrs. E. S. Rawson advertised "fancy goods" from New York and "hesitates not to say that her hats, flowers and ribbons surpass anything heretofore offered in this vicinity, both in newness of style and richness of materials."

In 1843 Christian Eberbach "thoroughly educated as a chemist and apothecary in Germany" opened his own drug business. A confidential credit rating for 1845 noted that he was "a very prudent, economical and industrious man...who lives very economically and will continue to save after the true German fashion."

The '40's saw the beginning of another traditional Ann Arbor business, the boarding house catering to students. A. Hickcox told Ann Arborites that "he has taken the house on Huron Street, recently occupied by John Allen, Esq., which he opened as a Boarding House... Students at the University will be accommodated with board at his house upon as reasonable terms as elsewhere."

Government and Growth

Besides starting businesses, building schools, and erecting churches, Ann Arborites also established the political and governmental foundation for the future. The cornerstone for the courthouse was laid June 19, 1833, and the next month the village was organized with John Allen as president. Problems of government were relatively simple. The necessary ordinances were passed opposing "games of chance" and pigs in the streets.

But there were momentous events, too. In September 1836 the little courthouse served as the site of an abortive convention which rejected the United States Congress' proposal that Michigan give up Toledo in exchange for the Upper Peninsula in order to win statehood. The same building served as the site for another group of delegates in "the Frostbitten Convention" which in December 1836 reversed the decision of the first convention and paved the way for Michigan's admission to the Union in January 1837.

In 1851 Ann Arbor was incorporated as a city with its first charter and an elected mayor. These first decades had seen both a steady growth of population and changes in its composition. The first census of 1830 showed 973 persons in the six-year-old village. Most of the settlers were of British ancestry and, like most of the newcomers flowing into the territory, came from New England and New York. Ann Arbor had a very youthful population. There were only twenty-six persons fifty years of age or older. Among these pioneer Ann Arborites was the five-member Jacob Hardy family, probably the town's first African-American family.

Settlers continued to come into Ann Arbor in the 1840's and 1850's. The population in 1845 reached 3,030. Ann Arbor was becoming more diversified. The 1845 census showed a liberal sprinkling of German names and a few Irish. And the African-American community grew, too, but slowly. By 1845 it consisted of thirty-nine persons--twenty-three males and sixteen females.

Not all Ann Arborites welcomed the newcomers. The 1840's and '50's saw a flourishing of anti-immigration and anti-Catholic sentiments in the county. Some of the town's citizens formed the "Native American Association of Ann Arbor" advocating a tax on incoming foreigners, a twenty-one-year residence requirement for naturalization, and a "certificate of good moral character" for entering aliens.

By the time of the state census of 1854, Ann Arbor could no longer be classed as a frontier settlement. It was a flourishing community of 3,339 people with a well established University that had graduated a dozen classes. The school had 244 students and a faculty of 17, led by a new and energetic president, Henry P. Tappan, who came to town in 1852 intent on transforming the provincial college into a national leader in higher education. The town still sported a youthful population. There were 1,437 males under forty-five years of age; 1,440 of the females were under forty years of age. Of these two groups, 724 were children under ten. The African-American community had decreased slightly and now numbered thirty-four. There were no blind persons, only one deaf-mute, and three insane persons in the village. The town still had a rural air about it; Ann Arbor town dwellers raised 1,805 bushels of corn, owned 198 horses, 277 cattle, 4 oxen, 371 sheep, and 62 pigs. Capital in the amount of $97,000 was invested in the city's manufacturing establishment which employed 349 workers.

Still living in the town was Lucy Morgan, now in the prime of life. Her husband had become one of the town's leading citizens. But of greater significance, Mrs. Morgan was well on her way to earning a modest personal fortune in real estate. Her success paralleled the city's in its first three decades.