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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.