Michigan Historical Collections
Volume 1

State Pioneer Society 1874
Line Divider

First Social Reunion

June 24, 1874

In compliance with the invitation of the President, Hon. Albert Miller, and the recommendation of the Executive Committee, the State Pioneer Society met at Saginaw and proceeded down the river to Bay City, for a social reunion, on Wednesday, June 24th, 1874.

The steamer Dunlap was placed at the disposal of the pioneers, veterans, and their friends. About 170 persons embarked and glided down the river about 11 A. M. Appropriate music from Engles' band added materially to the trip to Bay City, where hospitality is never stilted.

The oldest person present was John Todd of Owosso, a hardy and honored pioneer of 80 years. The youngest was John R. Bodman of East Saginaw, 2 1/2 years old. May that "toddling wee thing," fifty years hence, is our rising capitol, tell the story of the first social reunion of Michigan Pioneers of 1874.

Moat of the officers of the society were present at this reunion. Letters of regret from several persons who had expected to be there were read by the President, Judge Miller. One from Governor Bagloy playfully alluded to his size. He pleaded a previous engagement to be present at Ann Arbor on that day. He said, "I know I am big enough to cut up and Bend half to each place, but I must object, and I feel that I must keep my engagement to the University, so that I can only be with you in spirit."

In a somewhat different vein is one from Mrs. Sophia A. Gotto Jenny of Flint:

Since we last had the pleasure of meeting, I have on several occasions attempted to write a chapter in the history of pioneer life and as often failed, not from want of interest or lack of incident, but my heart has so filled with the tender memories of the past that I could not proceed.

"My first reminiscences in this our adopted State are of a numerous family of immigrants, of which I was a member; all wore young, hopeful, and buoyant at the prospect of the future. The remembrances of to-day are of seeing them one by one waving their adieus and crossing the mystic river, until like the lone tree upon the prairie I am left, and like it must soon he drifted down the river of time to be seen —but what matter

"If shadows lie low on the hill.
If life's throbbing pulse has grown suddenly still?
What sweeter hath life than in dying to rest,
With calm poise of faith on Ills sheltering breast"

In the letter from Thomas A. Drake of Pontiac, and remarks by Edwin Jerome, are graphically portrayed some of the perilous incidents of pioneer life. These, with a sketch of the life of "Uncle Harvey Williams," read by Hon. C. V. Little of Saginaw, we give nearly entire. Mr. Drake's letter is as follows:

The celebration to which you so kindly invited me is one of no ordinary character.

"The early settlement of the Saginaw valley and the organization of our State government are subjects deeply interesting; and while I remember the one I cannot forget tho other. There are few events more deeply seated in memory than my first visit to Saginaw. Perhaps it is wisely ordered that we cannot review the past without commingled emotions of pain and pleasure; thus we are preserved from the evil effects of satiety and despondency. The incidents of that journey, though many and important, are known to but few, —my traveling companion and associate, Commissioner Frost, who alone knew what occurred to us on that journey, has passed away, and I alone am, left to relate our adventures. I trust, therefore, that you will forgive the egotism of this letter.

"On our way home the question of life and death was presented to us with little time for rejection.

"It rained very heavily while we were at Saginaw, and when Frost and I were ready to return, we were ferried over the river at Green Point by Jewett. We moved rapidly to the usual crossing on Cass river, the increased velocity of the water plainly telling us we could not cross at that place in safety. It was raining hard and we made for the upper crossing, a mile or more up the river, where we found the river much narrower and the north bank quite elevated. There were a few deserted Indian cabins on the north bank, some of them made of logs split into halves or slabs. We unsaddled our horses and drove them into the river; they swam easily to the opposite shore, went out of the river and went to feeding. We hastily pulled down a cabin, took the timbers to the edge of the waters, and there formed a raft. We fastened the timbers as well as we could with our surcingles, laid timber and bark on top for a floor or platform, put our saddles, portmanteaus, and blankets on board, and having two of the poles we could find at any of the cabins, we shoved our frail craft into the surging water and both jumped on. The first push made carried us into water so deep we could not reach bottom with our poles, and down stream we went with the rapidity of a race-horse. Our poles were so slender they were of no use as oars. We applied all the energies we possessed, and so shaped the course of our raft that it came so near tho south shore in passing one of the bends that I caught hold of the tops of some willows standing on the bank. By holding fast our raft swung round and brought us so near that my companion got firm hold of the bushes and jumped on shore, neither frightened or hurt. Our horses were soon caught and saddled, our trappings secured, and upon full gallop for Flint river, which we reached a little after sunset. "Our business to Saginaw was to locate the scat of justice for that county. There we found Judge Dexter and Engineer and Surveyor Risdon platting the city of Saginaw. Dexter approached the commissioners with his skeleton map in hand; one of the lots he designated as court-house lot, and very abruptly informed then that if they located the site for the scat of justice on that lot he would donate it to the county, and would give to each of the commissioners one lot, perhaps two. Our other associate was satisfied with Dexter s proposition, and from that moment till we left I think he looked at nothing but the lots Dexter proposed to give him. I felt inclined to treat Dexters proposition with contempt, and for a time Frost agreed with me and we looked at other places. "There was then an uninhabited forest where East Saginaw now stands, and it was said that the whole country, after getting back from the river, was a morass and uninhabitable. However, we resolved to inspect it for ourselves. With Jewett for a guide we traversed the country up and down the river, and from the river back, until we were satisfied we had found the best place for a court-house. Besides Jewett, there was with us that day a man by the name of Joshua Torry of Pontiac. Frost and I fixed upon a site, and drove a stake to indicate the spot selected. We took measurements from different points on the river, with such bearings as would enable one to find the identical spot, and agreed to meet the next morning and make our report. I went to Jewett's shanty at Green Point, and Frost went to the fort, as it was called, where he would find our other associate. The next morning, to my surprise, I found that Frost had been overcome, demoralized, and had actually signed a report locating the site on the lot selected by Dexter. Through the love of whisky by Frost, and the love of gain by the other commissioner, the county-seat was located at Saginaw. I was then a member of the Legislative Council from Oakland county and all the lower peninsula north and west of it, and with pride I endeavored to extend and uphold the interests of my constituents, the pioneers of Oakland, as well as those of the beautiful valley of the land of Saco. I have with deep solicitude and great pleasure witnessed the untiring exertions of the pioneers, and the marvelous growth and prosperity of the country.

"Fifty years ago this vast country, of which the Saginaw valley may be considered the center, was the home of the deer and the red man; its deep forests were then unmarked by the steps of the paleface; most of it was beyond the pale of civilization. And what do we see now? Towns and cities adorn tho land; railroads traverse the country in every direction; its rivers are utilized for highways of commerce and travel, and as resistless motive powers for manufactures; its forests are receding before the blows of the axeman, and being converted into articles of commerce and wafted away thousands of miles for improvement or ornament in distant countries.

"Above all and beyond all, on the 24th of June, 1874, the pioneers of the State propose to inaugurate and to carry into execution a celebration of the anniversary of the organization of the State government. All hail, pioneers of Saginaw! Long have you suffered and gloriously have you conquered. May you long enjoy the rich reward with which your labors are crowned. Receive the congratulations of an old pioneer."

Another interesting reminiscence from Edwin Jerome was listened to with much pleasure. Mr. Jerome said:

Pioneers OF the State of Michigan:

I am happy to meet you on this our first social reunion in this flourishing Bay City, standing upon grounds sacred to memory, and on which forty-eight years ago your realtor camped and slept. In the latter part of the summer of 1833 I enlisted in the war department, commanded by Col. Anderson, then a resident of Detroit, to assist in a coast survey of Lake Huron, under the immediate direction of three cadets from West Point,—Lieut. Heiutzclman, since a general and distinguished soldier in our late fratricidal war, as our 1 coder; Lieut. Poole, second in command; Lieut. Lee, third or junior commander; commissary, George Moran of Grosse Point; government hunter, your venerable and much respected townsman, Capt. Francois Marsac, the crack of whoso rifle, aimed by his keen eye, fed the stomachs of the party with soma two hundred wild duck, four bears, several deer, a number of raccoons, etc. Yet the speed and hardy endurance of the captain's body and limbs were inadequate to the task of capturing a moose, whose keen eye, ear, scout, and fleet foot successfully evaded a hard day's chase. Among the privates in the Yankee mess were myself and six others, Henry Snelling, Mr. Cowles,—a nephew of Col. Anderson,—Mr. Jacobus, and three others whoso names I cannot recall. In the French mess were 14, making a total of 26 souls, counting Lieut. Poole, whoso whereabouts we never learned. Our field service commenced on the shores of Lake Huron, a few miles above Fort Gratiot, at the then northern terminus of the government land survey of Michigan. Speaking wholly from a forty-one years memory, I shall omit any attempt to describe minutely the majestic forests, romantic spots now dotted with cities, the marble rocks found on the beach, etc., but will note the fact that our pioneer party took the first survey of the pearly little stream, took the soundings of the noble harbor, and the beautiful site of the far-famed city of White Rock.

Leaving this capacious harbor, so well stocked with defensive boulders, we soon arrived at and successfully doubled that rough, rocky, small-caverned cape, Pointe au Barques. Leaving the broad expanse of Lake Huron we entered the extensive bay of Saginaw, whoso dangerously rough seas have been recently brought to mind by the perilous voyages of fishermen, and the sacrifice of those six noble-hearted men from Alabaster who sacrificed their lives in the attempt to rescue those fishermen. This brought to mind with singular clearness one of the most perilous scenes of my life. On our arrival at Pigeon river we crossed over to and made a survey of Charity Island, but unfortunately left a small cur dog in the woods, belonging to Lieut. Poole. The next day I was detailed with four others, and with two days' provisions, in a yawl boat to rescue the dog. We proceeded about fifteen miles, propelled by our muscles applied to oars, under a clear calm sky and placid waters. On approaching the cove-sided island we were reminded of our errand of mercy by the dog leaping in tho air, running and capering; with joyous yelping's he leaped into the boat. Just at this moment a light vaporing shadow flitted away from the spot the dog left, and it has been a matter of serious speculation whether it was the shadow of Lieut. Poole's soul flitting off. We immediately set out on our return with the brightest prospects and a full spread of canvas; when about eight rods from shore we suddenly encountered a southwesterly gale, and twice attempted and failed to come in stays with a view to regain the island. On the third endeavor our mast cracked about half off near tho foot, and the sail dipped water, bringing us in stays double quick with an ominous sheet of water pouring over the side. By a great and despairing effort with our weight on the upper edge, our sail lifted from the water and our craft righted. Hats and shoes wore vigorously plied in bailing, and as soon as possible our oars were put in motion and the boat headed for the island a quarter of a mile distant, and we in a direct line into Lake Huron; after an hour of tho hardest struggle for life we found ourselves soaring the island, on which we were glad to encamp for the night. The next day we placed our little craft before the gale, and one hour and ten minutes sped us safely into camp. I can bear ample testimony to the turbulence of the waves of Saginaw bay in rough weather, While on this passage I stood holding on to the mast, while in tho trough of tho sea nothing but tho sky could be seen to the front or roar at an angle of forty-five degrees. On looking at the white-caps chasing in rear apparently to engulf me fifteen or twenty feet beneath its crest, my hair pulled fearfully and my heart seemed leaping from my body.

Passing over the minor incidents in the progress of our work, from the encampment at Pigeon river to the Saginaw river, we finally pitched our tents on or near tho site of your enterprising city, and took observations for nine successive days of the sun crossing the meridian to determine the latitude and longitude of the month of this capacious river, your relator each time noting the exact second from an excellent chronometer.

Now, when I ride into the cities of tho Saginaw valley in palace cars on first-class, well-stocked railroads, or ride up and down this river in a noble steamer, beautifully furnished, viewing is surprise the almost continuous line of cities along its banks, the immense lumber yards and saltworks, the memory of 1833 and 1836 leaps forth and asks, did all this spring from chaos? Then forbidding sterility, extensive marshes, deep bayous, and sturdy forests prevailed to discourage a settler. In those early years your water-lines of river, bay, or lake were familiar: I traversed tho Tittabawassee and its branches, Chippewa and Pine, Bad river, Cass, Flint, and Mishtegayoe, exploring their forests, selecting their choicest timber and finest lauds. And now, my old co-laborers in the woods and fields of Michigan, wishing you a long life and joyous end, 1 say adieu.


Oliver Williams was born in Concord, Mass., in 1774. In 1808 he visited Detroit, and after prospecting for a time returned to Concord. He visited Detroit again in 1809 and remained until 1811, when he concluded to engage in the mercantile trade. He proceeded to Boston and procured a general assortment of merchandise of the value of ten thousand dollars. Alpheus Williams, a brother-in-law of Oliver, became his endorser for the purchase at Boston. I mention this incident as the connecting inducement which at a later period was the means of bringing Alpheus Williams to the territory of Michigan. While these goods were being transported from Buffalo to Detroit they were seized by the British government, Mr. Williams made a prisoner, and conveyed to Halifax. After being confined a prisoner at Halifax for a number of months he was released, and returned to Detroit. Oliver Williams did not remove his family—which consisted of four sous and four daughters—until the year 1815.

Oliver Williams, being a man of strict integrity, determined that his brother- in-law should lose nothing by his endorsement for him, and though he had lost everything, he told Alpheus he could and would, if life and health were spared for a few years, accumulate enough to pay every dollar of the ten thousand. With this honest purpose in view, in a new country, he commenced the herculean task of raising ten thousand dollars. This, with a largo family to support, the oldest only thirteen years of age, would have disheartened most men, but not Mr. Williams. By strict economy and untiring zeal he succeeded, and in a few years paid every dollar.

The sons and daughters of this man are well remembered by the old settlers of Northern Michigan, and have been prominently instrumental in developing in resources. Ephraim S., better known as Major Williams, is now a resident of Flint; Gardner D. became a resident of Saginaw City, and died in 1858; Alfred and Benjamin 0. are residents of Owosso; Mary Ann who married Schuyler Hodges, is now a resident of Pontiac, while Alpheus and Harriet— now Mrs. Rogers—are residing in California.

In 1815 Oliver induced Alpheus to remove from Concord to Detroit, and this brings me to the subject of this sketch, Harvey Williams, oldest son of Alpheus Williams, better known throughout the Saginaw valley as Uncle Harvey. He was one of the oldest, if not the oldest, of the Yankee pioneers to Detroit now living; he came with his mother to that city in 1815.

From Concord, Mass., to Buffalo, N. Y., the journey was accomplished by wagon; from Buffalo to the mouth of Detroit river on it schooner of 40 tons burthen, called the "Salem Packet;" the master or captain was Eber Ward, father of Captain Eber Ward, now of Detroit. It required thirteen days to accomplish the trip from Buffalo to Detroit river. At this point the packet was detained by contrary winds, and Mr. Williams' father chartered a cart and had his goods carted to Windsor, opposite Detroit, from which point they were ferried over in a " dug-out." Moving in those days was a rough expertise. Mr. Williams paid fifteen dollars each for passage to Detroit, and five dollars per barrel—bulk—for goods.

At this time Benjamin Woodworth kept the aristocratic tavern in Detroit. It was not a very extensive establishment, but was enlarged from time to time until, under the good management of "Uncle Ben," it obtained a wide reputation as " Uncle Ben Wood worth's Steamboat Hotel," and for years was the headquarters of steamboat men after steamers commenced running on the lakes. It was located on Woodbridge street, immediately in the rear of whore the Fireman's Hall now stands. Oliver Williams kept a tavern of less pretensions on Jefferson avenue, under "the old elm tree," and another tavern was kept by the father of the late Judge G. W. Whipple down near tho Cass farm. Those were tho hotel accommodations of that period of the village of Detroit, then containing about one thousand inhabitants. "Emerson, Mack & Conant" were the leading mercantile house in Detroit at that time; the firm was composed of Thomas Emerson, father of Curtis Emerson, Esq., of East Saginaw, Stephen Mack, and Shubaol Conant; they kept a general assortment of dry goods, groceries, crockery, and hardware. Henry I. Hunt, Abel May, Edward and John S. Krebel were also selling goods, but did not carry as heavy stocks as Emerson, Mack & Conant. All of these merchants were in the habit of issuing what were called "shinplastors," and they passed it as the "legal tender" of the country.

James Abbott was the agent of the American Fur Company, who had their "headquarters" for the west at Detroit; Abbott was also postmaster. The mails from the east were very irregular and arrived only semi-occasionally. It often required four weeks or more for a letter from New England to reach Detroit, and the postage thereon was twenty-five cents.

Gen. Lewis Cass, Messrs. Larned, Ten Eyck, Wetherell, Forsyth, John and Thomas Palmer, and Judge Woodward, who afterwards made the plat of the city, were among the then prominent men of the territory.

In the same year—1815—Uncle Harvey commenced blacksmithing on the ground where the Russell house now stands, making steel traps, axes, and doing irregular custom work for the inhabitants; there was but one other shop of the kind in Detroit, which was owned by a Frenchman named Pelky.

Uncle Harvey's business increased rapidly; he soon added a small furnace to his shop and commenced casting plows; when his business increased so that he cast three plows a day, the fact was published as an evidence of the "great progress Detroit was making in her manufactures."

the coal used for melting the iron was charcoal, and the blowing was done by a single horse. Mr. Williams business grew from year to year, until it attained to $100,000 annually, he purchased, set up, and used the first stationary steam engine ever used in the Territory of Michigan; he built for J. K. Dow and G. C. Trowbridge the first steam engine for the first steam mill in Michigan, and his last work in his shop in Detroit was the building of the two steam engines for the old steamboat Michigan.

Mr. Williams changed his location twice while in Detroit. He removed from the Russell house lot to the grounds now occupied by the D. & M. R. R. Co., and from that point to the triangular lot on Cass street, Jefferson avenue, and Woodbridge; here he purchased one hundred and five feet front for one hundred and five dollars. Mr. Williams informs me that the first circus performance ever given in Michigan, and which he considers the best, was in the middle of the street between where the Riddle house now stands and the old jail that stood on the north side of Jefferson avenue, opposite the Biddle house.

Mr. Williams furnished all the iron work for the first substantial jail that was built in Michigan, and has now in his possession tho contract by which was furnished to him the iron—forty tons, at seventeen cents per pound. He did the iron work on the first Presbyterian church, erected on the comer of Woodward avenue and Larned street in 1818, and also the French Catholic church, which was commenced the same year. With his stationary engine he pumped the water for the citizens of Detroit. The reservoir was located on Fort street west, between tho former residence of Gov. Baldwin and the City Hall; and it is a fact worthy of note that a three-inch pipe was of sufficient capacity to furnish all the water used at the time. The city paid Mr. Williams 9500 per annum for the pumping.

Late in the fall of 1842, Major Whiting was desirous of getting supplies through to the troops then stationed at Saginaw City. Knowing the determination and indefatigable perseverance of Uncle Harvey, he approached him on the subject. With reluctance, after much persuasion, he consented to make the trial. Calling to his assistance tho late John Hamilton of Genesee county, the journey was undertaken and accomplished. With eight days' labor they succeeded in carrying four tons of supplies from Detroit to Saginaw. In performing this they were obliged to ford tho Clinton river five times; the Thread, Cass, and Flint rivers, as well as the Pine and the Elm, had to be forded. Fortunate was it for the poor soldiers that they were successful, for when the supplies arrived they were almost famished, having been without rations for two days previous to Uncle Harvey's arrival. I have mentioned this incident for the reason that it was from conversations with tho officers at this time that he formed the opinion that at some future time Saginaw would become one of the important points in Michigan. For twelve succeeding years Mr. Williams. thought much of Saginaw; but not till 1834 did he see his way clear or the inducements sufficient to tempt him, with all his courage, to try living in a wilderness forty miles from civilization. On arrival at Saginaw his first labor was the erection of a steam saw-mill, which was located at the back of Merrimac street in Saginaw City, and will be remembered as the G. D. & E. F. Williams' mill, and was the first steam mill erected in the Saginaw valley. Afterward a run of stone was added to the mill, and used for grinding corn. In 1836 and '37, Mr. Williams built the steam saw-mill which for a number of years was called the Emerson mill, and stood on the grounds now occupied by the East Saginaw gas company. This was the mill of its day. This mill was run by H. Williams till the disastrous crash of 1837. Those of the Saginaw pioneers still living remember the result of that crash. The panic of last September pales into insignificant in comparison with it. Hundreds of mechanics and laboring men, who had all the work they could do at the highest wages ever paid, were suddenly thrown out of employment; employers who considered themselves millionaires were reduced to laboring men, and paper currency which was up to this time considered us "good as gold," became worthless and could not be sold for a dollar a bushel in specie. The result was that those who could "went through the woods"—a familiar expression used in taking the Indian trail to Flint, which was the only road out of Saginaw at that time. The place became almost depopulated. This was a time that "tried men's souls," but Uncle Harvey's faith in the ultimate prosperity of Saginaw was not shaken, and though he went down in the general crash he did not become dishonored, but with that heroism and stamina still characteristic of him, determined "never to give up" till be had realized the fruition of his hopes in seeing the Saginaw valley what it now is, one of tho most populous and prosperous portions of Michigan.

The "little steam saw mill" at the foot of Mackinaw street did all that was required of it in its day. The big mill at East Saginaw, the model mill of 1837, when finished was supposed to be equal to, aye, and beyond, any future requirements. Could those wise ones, who thought Mr. Williams foolish in building so large a mill, look at the mills on the Saginaw river to-day, and the hundreds of millions of feet of lumber manufactured by them, they would acknowledge their own short-sightedness and the superior judgment manifested by Uncle Harvey in his prophesies of the future of the Saginaws.

Mr. Williams removed to the Kawkawlin river in 1844 and remained there till 1864. During the twenty years he resided there he was extensively engaged him the fisheries at the mouth of tho river to the spring mouths, and in the summer and fall months his operations were extended down the bay and Lake Huron. During tho winter his business relations with the Chippewa Indians were extensive, amounting in the aggregate to hundreds of thousands of dollars. No man has ever possessed the confidence of those Chippewa Indians that Uncle Harvey has had, and certainly no man could be kinder and more generous to them than he.

Fifty-nine years in Michigan! Few, but very few men can with Uncle Harvey say that they have seen the infant in the cradle grow up to the full statue of manhood as he has seen "our beautiful Peninsula State" grow. How little was known in 1815 of tho vast mines of wealth that lay buried beneath her surface! Who then dreamed that Michigan would furnish successful competition against tho whole world in copper and iron? Who then imagined that tho Saginaw valley mills would manufacture more lumber than any other point on the globe? Who ever conjectured that in little moor than half a century Michigan would stand preeminent for its mineral wealth, for its lumber, for its agricultural products, for its fruits, its stock, and for the provision it has made for tho education of its sons and daughters? Nevertheless, Uncle Harvey has lived to see all this, and well might he say, "Now let the aged servant depart in peace;" but he is not yet willing to depart, for his ambition has not been destroyed by the frosts of more than eighty winters. His energy is manifested in all that he does, and he bids fair to outrun many men whose years do not number one-half of his.

Mr. Williams was married to Miss Julia Tourniaid in 1819. Mrs. Williams is still living, a well preserved woman; one of the "mothers in Israel," from whose door the poor and needy have never been turned away empty. Fifty-five years of wedded life! How seldom it is chronicled! In the great majority of families the "silver cord " is snapped, and alas! how few to whom the "golden bowl" is preserved.

It would have been gratifying to the pioneers of Saginaw valley to have had Mr. and Mrs. Williams with us to-day, as no doubt it would have been to yon, the pioneers of the State, who are our guests; but no persuasion would induce them to leave the quiet of their home, notwithstanding they are "living epistles" of what well-ordered and temperate lives can elect Mr. Williams informs me that there are but eight persons of American descent now living who were residents of Detroit in 1815: Ephraim S. Williams, now of Genesee county; Benj. 0. and Alfred Williams of Shiawassee county; Mrs. Schuyler of Oakland county; Benj. Wood worth of St. Clair county; Alpheus Williams and Harriet Rogers of California; and Harvey Williams of Saginaw county. Uncle Harvey is the pioneer blacksmith, the pioneer manufacturer of agricultural implements, the pioneer engine builder, and tho pioneer lumberman of the Saginaw valley. I have hastily compiled these incidents in his life, deeming it but just and proper that one so long—for over half a century—identified with the interests of Michigan, should be honored at this meeting of the State pioneers.

0. C. Comstock, Mr. Farnsworth, Col. E. H. Thomson, A. T. Draper, and James V. Campbell, contributed letters of which we have no copies. Several members wore added to tho association on this occasion. These reunions, divested of all formalities, should be frequent, so that the kindly memories of "the laud we left and the laud we live in" may continue to form the strongest link that binds the grand old past to the hurried and ever-living present.

More to come.....