Ypsilanti’s Woodward Street – just two blocks south of Michigan Avenue – is not often confused with Detroit’s Woodward Avenue, but they are named for the same person and for the same reason. Augustus Woodward left his mark on both cities.
Woodward had been appointed the first Chief Justice of the Michigan Territory where he played a vital role in the planning and reconstruction of Detroit following the great fire in 1805. He was also a key figure in the development of Ypsilanti. Although he never lived here, he owned land, succeeded in giving the community its present name, and had streets named for him.
Augustus Brevoort Woodward was born in Virginia in November of 1774 and died July 12, 1827. It is speculated he received his college education from William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Virginia. In his early life, Woodward devoted himself to literary pursuits and wrote and published several works.
Woodward never married; his personal style might not have been conducive to sharing quarters with other humans. His biographer, Arthur W. Woodford, describes Woodward as a prototype of Washington Irving’s Ichabod Crane, being “six feet, three or four inches tall, thin, sallow, and stooped,” notes Woodford. “His long, narrow face was dominated by a big nose. His only outward vestage (sic) of vanity was a generous crop of thick, black hair. His contemporaries commented on his slovenliness.”
Woodward was present at the official formation of the District of Columbia and witnessed the laying of the cornerstone for the District at Jones’ Point in 1792. He became the first attorney to establish a law practice in the nation’s new capital. At that time he was described as “a man of middle age, a hardened bachelor who wore nut-brown clothing…he slept in his office which was never swept…and was eccentric and erratic. His friends were few and his practice was so small that he hardly made a living.”
Sent to the Michigan Territory: On March 3, 1805, President Thomas Jefferson appointed Woodward as the first Chief Justice of the Michigan Territory. Woodward arrived in Detroit on June 30, 1805, two weeks after the great fire had destroyed most of the city. With Territorial Governor William Hull (the general who later surrendered Detroit to the British at the start of the War of 1812) and Associate Justices John Griffin and Frederick Bates, the quartet had all the legislative power in the Territory and the authority to oversee the rebuilding of the capital. They remained a powerful team from 1805 until the institution of a legislature in 1824; but it was not a pleasant undertaking. Over their years together, Woodward and Hull bickered with each other on nearly every issue.
Woodward took care of business with perspicacity, style and wit. In his 2005 story, “Broken, Obsolete and Wildcat Banknotes,” Fletcher-White Archives Director Gerry Pety pointed out “…in 1806 Judge Augustus B. Woodward of the village of Detroit, Michigan (population 600), organized the Bank of Detroit. He announced its capital at $1 million, ordered at least $3 million from the printer in notes of $1 to $10, signed them, or had them signed for him, and shipped them East. Smart Easterners can always take advantage of country folk, so they bought up the issue at discounts of 10 to 25 percent. When they tried to redeem the notes at face value in 1808, they found that the Bank of Detroit had closed its doors. Judge Woodward, a Cheshire cat smile on his face, had in the meantime put quite a bit of money in the form of hard coin in another honest bank.
As late as 1824, outraged citizens were still trying to prevent Judge Woodward’s continuing reappointment by the United States Senate to the local bench. Woodward’s Bank of Detroit notes are today the most common of all broken banknotes.”
In 1807, in his position as Territorial Justice, Woodward denied the return of two slaves owned by a man in Windsor, Upper Canada (present day Ontario). Woodward declared that any man “coming into this Territory is by law of the land a freeman.”
Penned a street plan, punned its motive: Justice Woodward and Governor Hull did agree on at least a few items. They drew up a plan for the streets of a new Detroit, the capital of the Territory. Basing their design on L’Enfant’s layout for Washington, D.C., Woodward’s version of the plan attempted to live up to the newly adopted city motto: Speramus Meliora, Resurgit Cineribus (We hope for better days, it will rise again from the ashes.)
For the first time in its history, Detroit’s attention shifted from the river to its roads. Woodward Avenue in Detroit, originally called Court House Avenue and other names, was popularly named for Woodward’s efforts in rebuilding the city.
He was known for his sarcasm and used it often in defense of his projects and proposals. In a story in the Detroit News, (Woodward Avenue, Detroit’s grand old ‘Main Street,’ June 13, 1999) Vivian M. Baulch notes “Judge Woodward was quite a character. Controversies about his judicial opinions caused one contemporary to describe him as “A wild theorist fit only to extract sunbeams from cucumbers.”
“He loved puns,” remembers Baulch. “Returning from an absence to find the street that would later permanently bear his name called Witherell, he said that it ‘withered all his plans.’”
According to Detroit historian George Catlin, “There was more or less disagreement over the naming of streets and some of the names were changed several times.” Judge Augustus B. Woodward was at times highly sarcastic and something of a ‘kidder.’ When some protested the naming of Woodward Avenue, he made the curious retort that Woodward Avenue was not named for him, but because it led wood-ward, toward the forested district north of town.
“Atwater Street,” the Judge said, was not named for Reuben Atwater, but because it was literally ‘at water,’ being on the riverfront; that Woodbridge Street was not named for William Woodbridge, but because it began at a wooden bridge across the little Savoyard River near the foot of First Street. Catlin says, “It was one of Judge Woodward’s efficient methods in debate to confuse his opponents by some ingenious ruse.”
Woodward proposed a system of hexagonal street blocks, with the Grand Circus at its center, taking its name from ancient Rome. Wide avenues, alternatively 200 feet and 120 feet, radiated from large circular plazas like the spokes of a wheel. As the city grew, these would spread in all directions from the banks of the Detroit River.
When Woodward presented this proposal, Detroit had fewer than 1,000 residents. The plan was abandoned eleven years later, but not before some of its most significant elements had been implemented. Most prominent remnants of the original design are the six “spokes” of Woodward, Michigan, Grand River, Gratiot, and Jefferson Avenues together with Fort Street. The pattern would be underlined and repeated through the years from the patterns of the Interurban Railways to the radiation in Interstate Highways.
During the War of 1812, Governor (and later Brigadier General) Hull surrendered Detroit to the British without a shot being fired. While Hull and Justices Bates and Griffin left town, Woodward stayed and maintained his status in Detroit during the British occupation. The British offered him the office of Secretary of the Territory, but Woodward turned it down. Eventually, the British considered him a nuisance and asked him to leave the Territory with safe passage to New York.
Considered a hero upon his return to Washington D. C., Woodward soon focused on his lifelong interest in science and the establishment of educational programs along similar themes to the University of Virginia, founded by Woodward’s friend, Thomas Jefferson.
Meanwhile, back where the Sauk Trail crosses the Huron River: French fur trader Gabriel Godfroy had purchased several properties from French-Americans. In 1811 and 1812 Godfroy submitted claims to 19 parcels of land to the Private Claims Commission, mostly along the River Raisin or the Lower Rouge River in the Dearborn area, with all his sales approved.
In 1814, Godfroy acquired the French Claim of Romaine La Chambre that he had submitted earlier and, in 1817, sold his own claim at Ypsilanti to Augustus B. Woodward. Godfroy’s other claims were disposed of after Benjamin Woodruff arrived in 1823 to establish Woodruff’s Grove.
In “The Story of Ypsilanti” published in 1923, Harvey Colburn notes, “Three shrewd and enterprising men, Judge Augustus Brevoort Woodward of Detroit, John Stewart, and William H. Harwood, with an eye toward the future, had bought the land adjacent to the (Sauk Trail at Huron River) 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 proposed. The word of Judge Woodward, however, was of authority, a man of his position being naturally given deference.”
In a story on Woodward in an earlier issue of the GLEANINGS, James Mann observed, “Woodward…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.”
Claire Shefler, in a 2007 story in GLEANINGS, reminds us that, “In 1825, the area was platted by Judge Augustus Woodward, William Harwood and John Stewart. Judge Woodward named this community, Ypsilanti, in honor of General Demetrius Ypsilanti, a brave hero in the Greek War of Independence.”
Other notable projects: It has been said that Woodward was among the first to recognize the coming of the scientific age. In 1816, he published his seminal work, “A System of Universal Science.”
With Reverend John Montieth and Father Gabriel Richard, Woodward drafted a charter for an institution he called the Catholepistemiad or the University of Michigania. On August 26, 1817 the Governor and Judges of the Michigan Territory signed the University Act into law. This institution became the University of Michigan. It was ahead of its time. No mere charter, it was a detailed blueprint for the organization of a first class university.
One of Woodward’s legacies is the Woodward Code, a series of statutes serving as the basis of the Territorial Supreme Court legal procedures.
August 26, 1824 saw Woodward’s return to the judiciary, as President James Monroe appointed him to a judgeship in the new Territory of Florida. Woodward served in that capacity until his death on July 12, 1827 at the age of 52.
Ypsilanti names a street for its nominator: Even with his national, state, and territorial fame, Woodward was not forgotten in Ypsilanti. In her Master’s thesis on naming the city’s streets, Elizabeth Teabolt highlighted from the original plat of the Village of Ypsilanti (Registered April 21, 1826 in Detroit) several new street names: Steward, Huron, Hamilton, Adams, Washington, Pearl, Congress, Michigan and Woodward. Steward was actually named for Woodward and Harwood’s partner, John Stewart (“probably a mistake in spelling,” says Teabolt). Huron Street was named for the Native Americans, the others for Presidents, government and the state. Pearl’s name remains a mystery. “And Ypsilanti has its own Woodward Street (not Avenue),” Teabolt concluded, “…named for Judge Augustus Brevoort Woodward, one of the platters of the village.”
Some older readers may remember how the city sign-makers got that one wrong for a few generations, as well, calling it “Woodard,” but it stands corrected in this publication.
Woodward, first Chief Justice of the Michigan Territorial Court, is remembered in Detroit at a couple of locations. First, on May 3, 1988 his Detroit law office across the street from the Renaissance Center, was dedicated and placed inside the Millender Center Atrium of the Omni Hotel at the corner of Randolph and Jefferson Streets. Another dedication to Woodward’s leadership is the obelisk that stands at the southern-most corner of Grand Circus Park and Woodward Avenue, a space of his own design in the form of a “Milestone Marker.”
(At the time of his death on May 11, 2013 Tom Dodd had completed the above story for the GLEANINGS and was working on a three part PowerPoint show on Woodward covering, “The Man, The Streets, and All Those Classic Cars in the Annual Woodward Dream Cruise.” The show was scheduled to make its debut at Chautauqua at the Riverside, part of the 2013 Ypsilanti Heritage Festival which will be held in August.)