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Name It What?

Name It What? image Name It What? image
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Ypsilanti Historical Society
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By James Mann

Every city, town, and village in the world has a name, to tell it apart from all the other places. In the State of Michigan, Ypsilanti, as a place name, stands alone. There is no other community in the state with a name anything like it. To add to the fun, the city is named in honor of a man, who had nothing to do with its founding, and never, in fact, visited North America.

What name the Native-Americans may have given this place, if any, is long forgotten, but in 1809 three fur traders, Gabriel Godfroy, Francois Pepin, and Romaine La Chambre, built a trading post on the site now occupied by the Detroit Edison Building on North Huron. The place was called “Godfroy's on the Pottawatomie Trail.” The three men in 1811 purchased large tracts of land along the Huron River, called the French Claims. The traders followed the Native Americas west, and the post was abandoned in about 1820.

“…the city is named in honor
of a man, who had nothing to
do with its founding, and
never, in fact, visited North

All was quiet here until 1823, when Benjamin Woodruff and his friends, made their way up the Huron River, and settled at a site just south of the present city. The little village needed an address for mail, and as leader of the community, Woodruff was the one who had to take action. One day Woodruff traveled to Detroit, the territorial capital, and met with the Governor Lewis Cass. As a result, the community was named Woodruff's Grove, and Woodruff was appointed post-master of the village, justice of the peace of the village, and sheriff of the newly formed Washtenaw County.

“In 1825,” wrote Harvey C. Colburn in The Story of Ypsilanti, published in 1923, “the territorial government commissioned a surveyor, one Orange Risdon, to lay out from Detroit a practicable rout through Southeast Michigan to Chicago. He found his task made easy by the existence of the old Indian trail from Detroit to the Huron Valley. Following this rout, he avoided such obstructions as bluffs and swamps and crossed the streams at the most advantageous points. On the first day of June the surveying party, passing Woodruff's Grove, which lay three-quarters of a mile south, reached the Huron Valley. The distance between the highway and the settlement was not great but sufficient to blast forever aspirations which The Grove may have entertained of becoming a pioneer metropolis. It was evident that the future center of things, the place of milling and merchandise, would lie very near the crossing of highway and river. A few rods north of this crossing had stood, a few years back, Godfroy's trading post on the Pottawatomie Trail.”

“Three shrewd and enterprising men,” continued Colburn, “Judge Augustus Brevoort Woodward of Detroit, John Stewart and William H. Harwood, with an eye to the future, had bought the land adjacent to the crossing and platted it for a village, almost as soon as the road was surveyed.” “An immediate desideratum for the nicely platted but still unbuilt metropolis,” noted Colburn “was a name.” Concerning this there was some discussion in which participated not only the three proprietors but also the people of Woodruff's Grove, who were evidently concerned with the new development. Stewart wished to call the town “Waterville.” Harwood suggested “Palmyra” and other names were purposed. The word of Judge Woodward, however, was of authority, a man of his position being naturally given deference.”

Woodward was the federal judge for the Michigan Territory, and has been rightly called a brilliant eccentric. His legal decisions are examples of judicious thinking, but this was a man, who took a bath by sitting in a chair in the rain. He was also a student of the ancient Greek language, and it was he who suggested the name Ypsilanti.

Footnotes in History VOLUME 1 By JAMES MANN

“Among the notable world events of the times,” wrote Colburn “was the Greek Revolution. In this splendid struggle of the Greek people against Turkish tyranny appeared an outstanding heroic figure, Demetrius Ypsilanti. With three hundred men he had held the Citadel of Argos for three days, against an army of thirty thousand. Then, having exhausted his provisions, he had escaped one night beyond the enemy lines, with his entire command, having lost not a single man. Such an exploit was calculated to touch the world's fancy, and in America the name of Demetrius Ypsilanti was lauded, while quantities of clothing and provisions were gathered for the destitute Greek people.”

So this is how the city of Ypsilanti came to have the most unpronounceable and most often misspelled name of any community in the state. It does, however, set us apart from the rest.

(Copies of Footnotes in History by James Mann, a collection of his columns published by The Ypsilanti Courier from April 1, 1999 through March 30, 2000, can be ordered from: James Mann, P. O. Box 980773, Ypsilanti, MI 48198. Here are the lives of some of the people for whom buildings at Eastern Michigan University are named; such as Estelle Downing, Carl Esak Pray and Charles Frederick Harrold, as well as William Sherzer. As well as the stories of the strange house of Charles Jarvis, and how Ypsilanti celebrated the end of the Civil War and mourned the passing of President Lincoln; and how the first blood spilled in combat during the Civil War ended up on a shelf in the Michigan State Normal School (now EMU) Science Museum. You can also read about Miss Mildred Young, whose life was saved by her corset; as well as the time a riot broke out at a meeting of the Salvation Army, and so much more. Copies are $19.99 plus $3.00 shipping and handling. Please add $1.00 shipping charge for each additional copy ordered.)