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The Days Before Godfrey

The Days Before Godfrey image The Days Before Godfrey image
James Mann
Rights Held By
Ypsilanti Historical Society
OCR Text

Just about every history of Ypsilanti and Washtenaw County states that the first permanent building in the region was Gabriel Godfroy’s fur trading post at present day Ypsilanti. These histories further state that the post was established in 1809. These histories are in error. The fact is, a trading post was founded at Ypsilanti long before 1809, and was here as early as 1790.

A trading post at present day Ypsilanti would, in the 1700s, make perfect sense. This was where the Sauk Trail crossed the Huron River and intersected the Pottawatomie Trail. Native-Americans had come to this site for generations to trade and conduct ceremonies. This site was a neutral zone for the tribes, a safe place to conduct their business. For this reason, the French fur traders would have seen the site as the logical place for a trading post.

“The first reference to the Ypsilanti location is a report of the route from Detroit to western Michigan and the Mississippi River by way of the Sauk Trail written in c1772 by an English officer,” wrote Karl Williams in Gabriel Godfrey Wasn’t the First, which appeared in the Summer 2008 GLEANINGS. Mr. Williams also notes: “In the report it is stated that 40 miles west of Detroit was the Huron River, Indian name Nandewine Sippy, at which six large cabins of ‘Puttawateamees’ were located. The river is described as being about fifty feet wide and the water generally from one and a half to two feet deep, ‘the road being very bad in this place.”

A French fur trading post was established at present day Ypsilanti by 1790, when Hugh Heward tried to find a water route across Lower Michigan by way of the Huron and Grand Rivers. In his journal, Heward wrote he arrived at Sanscrainte’s village on April 1. He noted the post “seems to furnish good small peltries.” He failed to find the right stream, and returned to Sanscrainte’s village on April 15, and “by the assistance of Mr. Godfroy, who seamed very obliging, engaged an Indian with two horses.” According to a number of sources, Jean Baptiste Sanscrainte had traveled from Quebec to this area in 1765 when he was 11 years old.

Some time during the 1790s––certainly before July 1, 1796––Gabriel Godfroy acquired the site from Sanscrainte. This was the date the United States assumed jurisdiction over this section of the Old Northwest. Before that date, what is now the State of Michigan, was under the control of the British.

Then why do all the histories of Ypsilanti and Washtenaw County state that Godfroy founded his trading post in 1809? The answer to this is: because this was the date, 1809, when the United States Government, granted land claims to Godfroy and his partners. “Gabriel Godfroy and his associates, Francis Pepin and Louis LaChambre, registered their claims with the American Government in 1808, following the Act of Congress on March 3, 1807, by which all titles to land acquired under the previous French or British rule, prior to July 1, 1796, would be honored if filed with the government and duly authenticated,” wrote Sister Marie Hayda in her dissertation The Urban Dimension and the Midwestern Frontier, A Study of Democracy at Ypsilanti, Michi- gan: 1825-1858. A copy of this dissertation is in the YHS Archives.

“The famous ‘French Claims’ of Ypsilanti Township were based on ‘possession, occupancy and improvements’ prior to 1796.”

Godfroy filed a claim for a tract of land on with the Land Office at Detroit for his children on December 31, 1808. This for “a tract of land, situated on River Huron, of Lake Erie; containing ten acres in front by sixty in depth, bounded in front by lands of Francois Pepin, and below by unconceded lands. I claim by virtue of possession, occupancy, and improvements made thereon.”

The board met to consider the claim on Saturday, February 17 1810. “Whereupon,” records The American State Papers, Public Lands, “Francis Regis was brought forward as a witness in behalf of the claimants, who, being duly sworn, deposed and said, that previous to the 1st of July, 1796, Gabriel Godfroy was in possession and occupancy of the premises, and had caused part of the said premises to be cultivated every year to this day; that a large orchard is planted thereon, and about ten arpens (formerly a measure of land in France) are under cultivation.”

In April of that year the commission considered the claims of Godfroy and Louis LaChambre. This time a Charles Chovin came forward as a witness to state each claim was in the possession and occupancy of Godfroy or LaChambre. For the claim of Godfroy, Chovin swore, “that he has always kept a tenant on the same, and has caused part of this tract to be cultivated every year. A house is erected on the premises, an orchard planted, and about fifteen arpens under cultivation.”

Then the commission considered the claim of LaChambre, and again Chovin came forward as a witness to state LaChambre had possession and occupancy of the claim. “Several buildings are erected on the premises, and part of the premises have been cultivated every year. About six or seven arpens are under cultivation,” added Chovin.

In each case the board decided the claimants were entitled to the property. The board ruled in each claim: "Thereupon it doth appear to the commissioners that the claimant is entitled to the above described tract of land, and that he have a certificate thereof, which certificate shall be (land claim number); and that he cause the same to be surveyed, and a plot of the survey, with the quantity of land there in contained, to be returned to the register of the land office at Detroit.”

(James Mann is a local author and historian, a regular contributor to the GLEANINGS, and a volunteer in the YHS Archives.)

...why do all the histories of Ypsilanti and Washtenaw County state that Godfroy founded his trading post in 1809?

[Photo caption from original print edition]: Don’t believe everything you read. Those signs should really say “Established 1790” Right: Godfroy established his trading post where the Sauk Trail crossed the Huron River and intersected the Pottawatomie Trail in the 1790s

[Photo caption from original print edition]: The French Claims of Ypsilanti Township were based on “possession, occupancy and improvements” made prior to 1796