1818 Darby

William Darby (1775-1854) was one of the surveyors engaged in running the boundary line between the United States and Canada after the War of 1812. Darby was one of the leading geographers of his day.

On the afternoon of the 11th, I arrived in the city of Detroit, considerably fatigued, and very willing to enjoy solid land, though so short a time in the vessel. You will hear of me again in a few days....

Letter XV

Detroit, August 14, 1818

Dear Sir,

MapI have now been three days in this city, which for many reasons has excited and continues to excite more attention than its apparent magnitude would seem to justify. The events of last war contributed to render both the city and country objects of great interest to the American people. Like most events that have taken place in the world, where so much passion was excited, I am convinced that those in this quarter, and the operations of affairs here, have never been given to the world in all the naked purity of truth. This much may be said, without once attempting to call in question the veracity of any individual. Much distortion of judgment may exist without a breach of rectitude. It would perhaps be dangerous to offer an opinion in mitigation of the conduct of General Hull, and yet if the expressions of those most concerned and best informed on this subject, that is the persons who were here before the war, and remained here to its termination, deserve any weight, that unfortunate officer was rather incapable than treacherous, rather borne down by the weight of the difficulties that environed him on all sides, than disposed to sacrifice either the interest or honor of a country, in whose service he had grown grey. And yet if these mitigating opinions be founded on reality, general Hull, if his days were not abridged, the remaining years of his life were doomed to be passed in bitterness and regret, for causes over which he had no control, for calamities in which he himself was a sufferer, and without the power to produce a preventive or remedy.

Detroit, politically and commercially, is separated by an expanse of water, and by an uncultivated waste, from the other parts of the United States, and remains, together with the little community in its environs, an isolated moral mass, having few sympathies in common, and but a slight tie of interest to unite it to the sovereignty of which it forms a part. Much of the association is formed with, and great part of the trade of Detroit is yet carried towards a foreign state. This separation of sentiment and action, is daily becoming less distant between the great body of the United States community, and a small but important member. The savage tribes are retiring, and civilized man extending his dwelling over the wide expanse, from Ohio river to lakes Michigan and Huron.

Many years past, when I resided in Louisiana, and when by a freak of folly so common with Spanish officers, the port of New Orleans was closed upon the interior commerce of the United States; I well remember that the two great political parties, into which our country was then divided, though discussing warmly the most proper means of procuring this commercial key, in one circumstance they were of accord, that was, that the surplus produce of all our states and territories, situated upon the tributary streams of the Mississippi, must find a vent by that great outlet; and politicians of all parties conceded that the power, whether that of Spain, France, Great Britain, or the United States, which possessed New Orleans, must, with that city, secure also the political and moral government of the inhabitants of countries, whose vital interests were there concentrated. I have heard and read many reasons given for and against the Grand Canal of New York, but the most potent incentive to its completion, that ought to influence those who are employed to carry that vast project into execution, has been generally overlooked. If such a channel of commerce was open, the consequence would be, not only to secure to the United States the benefits of the produce of its own industry, but also to secure the moral attachment of the inhabitants of some of its remote, and, as matters now stand, most detached parts. Above the falls of Niagara, Canadian commerce would also flow with the most open, unobstructed current, and give to the people of the United States an irresistible influence over the widest extent, and more fertile part of Upper Canada. Buffalo, Detroit, Michilimakinac, and Green bay, would form an immense chain of inter-communication, and by Fox and Ouisconsin rivers, the commercial rivalry of New York and New Orleans would come in contact in the heart of our country.

Detroit is now a place of extensive commerce, with all the attributes of a seaport; it forms the uniting link between a vast interior, inhabited yet, in a great part by savages, and the civilized Atlantic border. You here behold those ponderous packages of articles destined for Indian trade, and while viewing those bales of stroud and blankets, I could not avoid calling to recollection the time when I beheld the same objects upon the Ohio, at Pittsburg, Wheeling, Marietta, Cincinnati, and Louisville; places, where at this time, those rude articles are replaced by objects to satisfy the wants, or gratify the luxury of a polished people. The resident society of Detroit, has all the exterior features of a flourishing and cultivated community, as much so, equivalent to numbers, as any city of the United States. I particularly remarked the great resemblance between the current business and mixture of people here, and at Natchitoches on Red river, in Louisiana. Each place occupies the point of contact, between the aboriginal inhabitants of the wilderness, and the civilized people, who are pressing those natives of North America backwards, by the double force of physical and moral weight. In each place, you behold at one glance the extremes of human improvement, costume, and manners. You behold the inhabitants in habiliments that would suit the walks of New York, Philadelphia, London or Paris, and you also behold the bushy, bare-headed savage, almost in primaeval nudity. In the same store-house, you see placed upon the same shelf, objects to supply the first and last wants of human nature.

The city of Detroit is situated upon the right bank of the strait of the same, which unites lakes Erie and Huron; N. lat 42 15 36 - W. long. from Washington city, 5 36 - or 82 36 west from London. The strait (Detroit) is of very unequal breadth, its narrowest part is immediately opposite the city of Detroit. . . . .

Approaching the mouth of Detroit river, the shores on all sides are low, no land is seen that rises to any considerable elevation above the water. The ship channel being on the Canada side, vessels pass close upon the cape below Amerstburg; the shores rise here very gently from the lake, soil sandy, but appear well settled and cultivated. Huron river of lake Erie enters from Michigan Territory, where the lake is so contracted as to render it a suitable point to commence the name of the strait, though no perceptible current appears below the bottom of Bois Blanc island. A group of small islands encircle the lower end of Gros isle, of which Celeron, Hickory, Sugar, Fox, and particularly Bois Blanc, are the principal. The latter is indeed of great consequence. It is high, dry, and fit for culture, covered with timber, soil extremely fertile; but what renders it a particular object of interest, is the circumstance of its completely commanding the main ship channel to Detroit. A much wider expanse of water lies between Bois Blanc and Gros isle, and between Gros isle and the continent of Michigan Territory, than flows between Bois Blanc and the Canada shore, but the latter, though not above one quarter of a mile wide, is deep enough for the largest vessel, whilst the others are shallow, and perplexed with small islands and sunken bars.

During the last war, a small battery was erected on the lower point of Bois Blanc, which is now deserted, and the island serves as a camping ground for the savages who visit Amherstburg. This island will be one of the most important points which the commissioners, under the treaty of Ghent, will have to determine. At Amherstburg the banks have gradually risen to fifteen or twenty feet above the water, sloping by very gentle acclivity. The town contains from 250 to 300 houses, mostly of wood, and perhaps twelve hundred people. The harbor is excellent, the water continuing deep to very near the shore. Some fine ware-houses line the banks, and with the shipping give a commercial air to the place. The adjacent farms have an elegant appearance, and follow each other without much interval of uncleared land.

Fort Malden, by which name Amherstburg was formerly known, stands above the town, but is now in ruins, only some dilapidated breast works and barracks remain, to be perhaps never repaired.

Gros isle is a fine body of land, eight miles long by a medial width of one and a half miles, contains about twelve sections of a mile square, or 7,680 acres of excellent land. Several farms have been opened on this island, but the greatest part of its surface continues under a heavy forest. From the upper point of Bois Blanc island, the ship channel gradually leaves the Canada shore, and passes between Gros and Grand Turkey island, the main channel about two miles wide. Turkey island is about seven miles in length and one mile medial breadth, much of its surface marshy. The riviere aux Canards or Duck river, falls into the strait from the Canada side, one mile below the lower point of Grand Turkey island; the riviere aux Ecorces or Bark river from Michigan Territory, enters something above its middle, or two miles above the higher point of Gros isle; riviere Rouge or Red river, falls into the strait, also from Michigan Territory, four miles above the riviere aux Ecorces, and one mile above the higher extremity of Grand Turkey island. Above the latter island, the strait suddenly contracts from four to one a quarter wide, and continues becoming narrower to the city of Detroit, where its width falls short of a mile.

In coming up the strait, when the woods of Gros isle are cleared, both shores exhibit lines of farm houses, interspersed with orchards and gardens. The settlements on the United States side, continue up the rivieres Ecorces and Rouge, which, together with those along the shore of that strait, present a country in a high state of culture. The Canada shore is not less improved than that of the United States; farm follows farm upon both banks, which, with the houses, wind-mills, and vessels on the strait, afford a fine picture of agricultural and commercial prosperity.

The banks upon the United States shore, rise from the water less abruptly than those of Canada, except at the spring mill, three miles below the city of Detroit, where the former rises to the height of twenty or thirty feet, appearing as a comparative hill as seen from the strait. All the rivers and creeks enter from both sides, through low, swampy land covered with folle avoine, or wild oats. This aquatic grain, though thus named; is nevertheless essentially different from either oats or rice; no vegetable that I have ever seen, has a more beautiful appearance than is exhibited by the immense marshes, covered with the folle avoine; it is now in blossom, exhaling a peculiarly pleasing fragrance.

Sandwich is a small town, though the seat of justice in Essex county, Upper Canada; it stands upon the banks of the strait, one and a half mile below Detroit. I walked down yesterday to the ferry opposite, and crossed over to Sandwich, and returned to this city in the evening. I found it a village built principally of wood, composing a single street running parallel to the strait, with about as many stores and taverns as would be found in a place of similar size in the United States. The banks slope gradually from the water, though immediately above the town, they rise abrupt, and appear considerably higher than those opposite, upon which the city of Detroit is built. The shores of the strait on both sides are cleared of timber from one and a half to three miles from the water, giving the country in the rear of the front farm houses a naked appearance. The woods, where not cut down, is excessively dense, and the timber large. The soil, if any judgment can be formed by the aspect of the crops, is very productive. The bank of the strait has been vaunted, I believe correctly, for its fine orchards; fruit trees, apples, pears, peaches, and plumbs, have a very healthy appearance.

The city of Detroit is exceedingly well situated for a commercial port; the banks rise gently from the water, affording an easy communication with the store-houses in the city. Several wharves have been extended to considerable distance into the stream, the largest and best of which was made by the officers of the United States troops, for the use of, and in front of the garrison. The streets are laid out at right angles to each other, but are all inclining from the banks of the strait. The main street leaves the strait in front of the garrison, but at the upper end of the city has two other parallel streets between it and the wharves. The cross streets are not of much consequence at present, having but few houses built upon them, except near the main street. Leaving the lower end of the city, it is difficult to know where it terminates, as the farm houses are so closely united to each other. Above the city, though the margin of the strait is well cultivated, the farm houses do not stand as compact as they do below.

I have found two men here, from whom I have received much useful information and polite treatment, governor Cass and judge May, the latter of whom has resided at Detroit forty years, and possesses, perhaps, more correct knowledge of its history, than any man living. Gov. Cass resides on the banks of the strait below the garrison. To these two excellent men I am under very great obligations. The governor leaves this city on the 16th to meet the governor of Ohio, in order to hold a treaty with the Putawattammies, Wyandots, Senecas, Weas, and other nations of Indians.

Respecting the present state of the population of the Territory of Michigan, I do not expect to receive much positive information, not contained in the census of 1810. Of the position of the settlements, and the quantity, quality and locality of the cultivatible soil, I have procured considerable document not hitherto made public. . . .

...For upwards of a month that I have been travelling between this city and Geneva, in the state of New York, I have seen hundreds removing to the west, and not one in fifty with an intention to settle in Michigan Territory. By the census of 1810, the inhabitants then were 4, 762, falling short of 5,000. I cannot be led to consider this enumeration correct, there were in all reasonable modes of calculation, more than 6,000 people in this territory at that period. I cannot consider the present number short of 10,000, though since 1810, no increment has been added of consequence to the mass, except that of natural increase. The city of Detroit contains at least 1,200 people, and it does not include more than one eighth of the whole body. . . .

The climate, at least as far north as Fort Gratiot, is as temperate as that of the western parts of the state of New York, and perhaps more healthy. It is conceded that the seasons are much more mild at Detroit, than at Buffalo, the difference is greater than could be expected from the small difference in latitude, less than one degree. The phenomenon may be, and I believe it is produced by the prevalence of westerly winds, which crowd the ice continually into the N.E. angle of lake Erie. . . . .

I am now upon the eve of returning to the city of New York, of retracing my steps, and of bidding, perhaps an eternal adieu in a few days to a country, where the pain, anxiety, and vicissitudes of travelling, did not prevent me from beholding and admiring the face of nature in her richest garb. I have endeavored to convey to the friend of my heart the impressions I have received. You know how far I have succeeded. I now turn "a longing lingering look" towards home, and the dearest associations of life; I hope in less than one month to again embrace those friends, whom, amid even the wonders of Niagara, or the storms of Erie I could not forget. I hope to leave this city to-morrow, in the mean time, Adieu,

From: A TOUR FROM THE CITY OF NEW YORK TO DETROIT IN THE MICHIGAN TERRITORY, MADE BETWEEN 2D OF MAY AND 22D OF SEPTEMBER, 1818... by William Darby. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1962.[First edition, New York, 1819.]: 187 - 206.

See Also:

Kennedy, J. Gerald. The Astonished Traveler: William Darby, Frontier Geographer and Man of Letters. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.