1815-18 Williams

Ephraim S.Williams [1802-1892] came to Detroit with his family to join his businessman father in 1815. He lived in Pontiac, Saginaw, and Flint after leaving Detroit. During his long career in Michigan he worked as a trader, lumberman, postmaster, and grocery store owner. He contributed many articles to the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Collections about his experiences in the state.


In the fall of 1815 he moved his family from Concord, Mass., to Detroit. Mother and eight children, myself the oldest, then about thirteen (born February 7, 1802), traveled with spring carriages, and their goods (what were necessary) in double covered wagons, to Buffalo, stopping at the Cold Spring Hotel, near Buffalo, stopping at the Cold Spring Hotel, near Buffalo, kept by one Col. Miller. Buffalo, we found in ruins, it having been burned by the British. We remained nearly three weeks before passage could be obtained to Detroit. At last, the small schooner, "Mink," owned by Messrs. Mack & Conant, of Detroit, was procured, and under the care and kind protection of the late Hon. Shubael Conant, a particular friend of my father, we embarked for Detroit, where we arrived, after the very short passage of nine days. Our vessel was becalmed about one mile below the city, than at or opposite the G. Godfroy's tannery. Father, seeing the vessel, expecting us aboard, and passing on the road just at evening, hailed us, and enquired if his friend Conant was on board, and his father's family; Mr. Conant answered: "Yes." Soon father came on board and requested the captain to set us on shore, which he declined; but two of the children being sick, Mr. Conant requested the captain to do so, he assuming all responsibility, and we landed, and, with Mr. Godroy's carriage and cart, we were conveyed to our house, on Jefferson avenue. We rode and walked up past the fort, whose frowning guns, pyramids of balls and strong stockade, with its heavy gates, were all new and strange to us. The people all turned out to see the Yankees, and as we passed along by the curious, one story and a half French houses, the women greeted us little ones with a kiss, saying: "ah, to mon petite Boslinien!" We found Detroit a very strange place, walled in with high pickets, with three large, very heavy gates, and two regiments of United States soldiers lying in tents outside the pickets, on the rise of ground about where now stands the Detroit Opera House, the Kirkwood, Market, etc. The old fort was also full of soldiers. At each gate of the city stood a United States soldier on guard, and no one passed in or out without a password. The city contained probably only about five or six hundred whites. Father opened a hotel and boarding hose, raised a large gold ball for a sign, and it was known as the Yankee hotel, with the sign of a pumpkin. His house was over-run with eastern people, as the troops were mostly eastern men, many of them from Massachusetts, and father and his family were great favorites. We had many eastern boarders, to-wit: Mr. Thomas Palmer, Calvin Baker, Paul Clapp, Wm. Brewster, Levi Cook, and Orville Cook and others. Levi Cook taught school in part of Mr. Thomas Palmer's store, which I and my brothers and sisters attended until he commenced other business.

As I have said, Detroit was a strange place. The old market stood in the centre of Woodward avenue, south of Jefferson avenue, with a whipping post at the northeast corner, where criminals were whipped for petty crimes, and sold for fines and costs to the one who would take them for the least number of days' work on the streets. I have often seen them whipped and gangs of men at work on the streets, often many with ball and chain, and made to work out their fines and costs of suits, instead of being a city or county charge. We boys had an old two-horse sleigh, with bar-iron shoes (no cast-iron shoes then), and a dozen would often get on and ride down hill in winter, going on to the river quite a distance. There was no Atwater street then; the river came up to the rear of Mr. James Abbott's storehouse deep enough for boats and canoes to unload furs, sugar etc., which was about half the length of what was then the Abbott block, where he lived and had the postoffice for many years. The old Frenchman used to run the ferry with a large canoe until Mr. Ezra Balding put on a scow and boats. There were only three brick buildings - the Governor Hull house, that stood where the Biddle House now stands, the Government store house, and the old bank on the Major Kearsley corner. I clerked it awhile in this building for Mr. Melvin Dorr, a dry goods merchant, who afterwards settled on a farm near Little Springs and was superintendent of the building of the United States turnpike to Saginaw, which built six miles north of Flint city, one hundred feet wide. Father purchased all the fruits on the orchards on either side of Detroit river and put up many winter apples and made a large quantity of cider - one year packing two thousand barrels of apples and making seven hundred barrels of cider. Apples sold for twenty shillings and twenty-four shillings per barrel, and cider ten dollars per barrel for all he could make, most of which went to Ohio. I recollect I took ten barrels in a boat to Mr. Henry I. Hunt, merchant, for his use and he paid me one hundred dollars, (ten dollars per barrel) everything in proportion. Potatoes were two and two and a half dollars. Whisky sold for two dollars per gallon by the barrel. Butter, fifty and seventy-five cents per pound; roasting pigs, two and three dollars each; turkeys, from twelve to twenty shillings. All these things were brought in from Ohio - little vessels plying all the time in this trade, buying our apples and cider.

Many families who left Detroit during the war, returned in 1816. Governor L. Cass brought his family to reside there. The currency was mostly shinplasters and what was called "cut money" - that is, a Spanish dollar, for instance, cut into halves, quarters and eights, which passed current for small change, and many times it was cut into nine shilling pieces, from one dollar. The troops were paid off for long back pay, and money flowed like water- everybody had plenty. Many of the troops were discharged (times expiring) in Detroit and settled on farms in Oakland and many other counties in the State. Being first-class eastern men, they made many of our best citizens. Lieutenant Blake resigned in Detroit, and afterwards became the noted Captain Blake, of the lakes, and finally settled on a farm in Oakland County. Colonel John Hamilton, of Flint, was discharged a sergeant in Detroit. I have seen all these men march Detroit streets, and lived by them in after years. Mr. Samuel Munson, father of Mr. Henry Munson, of Detroit, is now living at East Saginaw. He came to Detroit in 1816 or 1817, and tended bar for my father. Being about my age, we used to slide down hill together, on Woodward avenue. We boys had a large skating park, of several acres, the water in the fall coming from the upper part of the city and flowing the low grounds in the rear of old Ste. Anne's Catholic Church. This water ran out across Woodward avenue on Congress street, making its way to the river down that low ground, or valley. It crossed on Woodward avenue by a bridge, perhaps three or four rods long, made of round poles and pole railing - the same as we were glad to make over streams and mud holes in the country, in the settlement of the same. These places have been filled up by the improvements of the city, and splendid business buildings erected thereon. I have lived in the State ever since those days, and am astonished when I look in vain for our old play grounds. About where the old Michigan bank stands, there was in that hill a small fort open then to the river, where stood one or more guns and mortars, used for throwing shot and shell across the river during the war of 1812; there being the foundation of an old church and a burying ground in Jefferson avenue, we had to crook around to the south side of the street to get down the street. I remember seeing this foundation and those bodies removed and the street improved. On the 14th day of August, 1817, President James Monroe visited Detroit and was received with public honors. My father was then city marshal, and was conducting the procession through the city. Passing his residence on Jefferson avenue, mother beckoned him, when he dismounted, went into the house, called Dr. Brown, next door to us, and in a short time a son was born to him, which was named James Monroe Williams. . . .

The first steamboat upon Lake Erie, the "Walk-in-the-Water," visited Detroit in the summer of 1818. She was a great wonder to the French and Indians, in fact us all, being the first I or any of our family had seen. I recollect one circumstance which I never shall forget. The steamer landed at what was then "Wing's wharf," at the foot of Bates street, originally built by Henry Hudson and called "Hudson's wharf." It was built on bents and planked over, about ten feet wide, running to the channel; at the end was a large pier, with an ice-break, laid of square timber and filled with stone, also a pier built in the same way about half way, and carts could drive out there, turn round, fill their barrels with pure water and water the city. I have described the wharf; now for what took place. On the deck of the old "Walk-in-the-Water" stood Lord Selkirk, with cocked hat, English coat and breeches and buckles, talking with some gentlemen, when Hon. Austin E. Wing, United States marshall, walked up and arrested the lord for crimes committed against the Hudson Bay Fur Co., in the Hudson Bay country years before, and the lord and Marshal Wing walked up town together.

In the fall of 1818, my father, Calvin Baker, Jacob Elliott, my uncle Alpheus Williams, and others, made a journey to Oakland county, on horseback. They had a French guide. Following the Indian trail towards Saginaw, they crossed the Clinton River at Pontiac. After exploring the surrounding country, my father selected three hundred and twenty acres of land in the vicinity, or upon a beautiful lake, which he afterwards named Silver Lake. After an absence of three or four days, the party returned. Their report electrified the staid, quiet inhabitants of Detroit, among whom the belief was general that the interior of Michigan was a vast impenetrable and uninhabitable wilderness and morass. . . .

From: PERSONAL REMINISCENCES by Ephraim S. Williams. Michigan Pioneer and Historical Collections 8 ( 1886): 234-238.

See Also:

Michigan Pioneer and Historical Collections 18 (1892): 147-148.