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1818 Evans

Estwick Evans (1787-1866) was a lawyer who walked, in the dead of an extreme winter, from his home in New Hampshire to Detroit dressed in buffalo skins. He wanted to experience the wilderness first hand. His comments on the men and conditions he observed at Detroit are shrewd, sane and practical. He offers an interesting picture of early Michigan Territory, the French inhabitants, and the influence of the fur-trade in the area.

Estwick EvansFrom Brownstown to Detroit the land is diversified with small meadows and fertile eminences. Here there is a beautiful view of the river Detroit. The rises of land consist of a rich black mould, upon a limestone bottom. At the foot of them there are fine springs, and on their summits a good growth of hard wood.

The day after leaving Magagua I arrived at Detroit, to which place I had long looked for that rest and those comforts, which would enable me to make new exertions. In marching to this place I was constantly employed, with the exception of one day, for seven weeks. The distance from New Hampshire to Detroit, by the rout which I took, is about one thousand miles. Ere I reached the city my clothes became much torn, and in going through the bushes my eyes were greatly injured. Within one hundred miles east of Detroit, I crossed upwards of thirty rivers and creeks.

The prospect in approaching this place is picturesque and interesting. At the distance of several miles, the traveller, in moving along the western bank of the river, sees several large buildings, and several wind-mills in the town of Sandwich. This place is very considerable, and is situated on the Canada side of the river, opposite Detroit. The general appearance of this part of the country is truly European.

The city of Detroit is very beautifully situated. Its principal street and buildings are upon a bend of the river, of a mile or two in length, and they occupy the whole extent of it. The bend forms a semi-circle, and the banks of it are gently sloping. The houses and stores are near the summit of the bank, and the slopes form pleasant grounds for gardening. The streets intersect each other at right angles, and the situation is calculated for a large and elegant city. The Fort and Cantonment lie about forty rods west of the main street. From this street a spacious gate opens to them, and at a little distance from it, the road forks and leads to them respectively. The contrast between the numerous white buildings in both of these places, and the green grass contiguous to and around them is very pleasant. A stranger, in visiting the Fort and Cantonment, is agreeably impressed with the neatness of their appearance, and with the order and discipline which are maintained there among the troops. The apartments of the officers too present a studious and scientific aspect; and seem to warrant the idea, that in the officers of our army are united the character of the well informed gentleman, and intrepid soldier. This military post is a very important and responsible station; and the government has made for it a very judicious selection of officers. Several of these officers are of the veteran 4th regiment; and others of them have seen the darkened sky red-hot with battle.

On the evening of my arrival at Detroit, I addressed the following note to Governor Cass: "A gentleman from New Hampshire wishes for the privilege of introducing himself to Governor Cass. He is upon a pedestrious tour, and therefore trusts, that the roughness of his garb will not preclude him from the honour of an interview. March 20th, 1818." The Governor replied with his compliments, and with the request that I would call upon him the next morning at 9 o'clock. At the time appointed I waited upon him, and was received with that unaffected friendliness and manner, which so well comports with the institutions of the country.

Governor Cass, who is the Supreme Executive magistrate of the Michigan Territory, resides just below the Cantonment; and General Macomb occupies an elegant brick house, erected by General Hull, situated at the upper end of the street. The former is remarkably well calculated for the Governor of a frontier Territory; in him are united the civilian and the warrior. Governor Cass lives in an unostentatious style; his aspect evinces benevolence; his disposition is social, and his manners are plain.

The style in which General Macomb lives is at once elegant and becoming. His military reputation is well known; and in private life he is conspicuous for affability, politeness and attention to strangers.

Soon after entering Detroit, I met with a trifling incident, which interested me by exciting my curiosity. Among a crowd of gazers here, I saw a face which I remembered to have known a great while before; but where, I could not tell. How astonishingly impressive is the expression of the human countenance! The next day the man passed the Hotel where I sojourned, and I took the liberty to invite him in. Twenty years had elapsed since I had last seen him; and then we were mere children, pronouncing in the same class our A, B, C.

A considerable part of the population of Detroit are French; but the number of Americans there, is daily increasing, and will soon become very numerous. The Government warehouse here is very large, and the Government wharf is long and commodious. There are several other wharves at Detroit, and the vessels lying at them make a pleasant appearance. From the lower part of the town the view, up the river, is remarkably fine. Here one may see, for the distance of four four miles, a beautiful expanse of water, several islands almost lost to vision, and near them, on a point of land, several large wind-mills. The river itself yields to none in point of utility and beauty. Opposite to Detroit it is about one mile wide, and its current moves about three miles an hour. The whole length of the river is thirty miles; and from Detroit to Lake St. Clair the distance is nine miles.

In Detroit there is much good society; and hospitality is a conspicuous trait in the character of the people. The Lyceum established here is patronized by the principal men in the place; and those who take a part in its discussions display extensive information, much correct reasoning, and no little eloquence. There is also an Academy in this place; and it is superintended by the learned Mr. Monteith. In time, this city will become conspicuous for its literature, and for the propriety of its customs and manners. In relation to politics, it will take, in some respects, a new course; and in this particular be an example worthy of imitation. In point too of municipal regulation and statutory rule, the Michigan Territory will be eminently correct. There is no state or territory in the union, which merits so much attention on the part of the General Government as the Michigan Territory. In the vicinity of Detroit there is, for the distance of thirty miles, only the width of the river of this name between the United States and Upper Canada; and above Lake St. Clair, there is between the two countries only the width of the river St. Clair for the distance of forty miles. It will be of great consequence, in a national point of view, to have the systems of education, laws, customs, and manners, of the Territory such as to outweigh the counter influence of those of the British in its neighbourhood. As to the population of this territory, the General Government will do well to afford every facility and encouragement to its increase. By increasing the strength of our frontier settlements, we shall lessen the influence of the British Government over the savages of the west, and be able to meet their incursions more promptly, and with greater effect.

At Detroit there is a theatre; an it is under the exclusive management of the military officers stationed there. These gentlemen, actuated by liberal and polished views, have erected a stage for the gratuitous instruction and amusement of the public. The scenery of the stage is executed with an appropriate taste, the dramatic pieces are selected with judgment and delicacy, and the performances are quite equal to any in the country. Indeed the officers of our army, at Detroit, possess much genius and erudition; and the correctness of their conduct, in point of morals and manners, entitle them to much praise.

The state of agriculture in the Michigan Territory is far from flourishing. In the immediate vicinity of Detroit it is deplorable. The French have no ambition to excel in this honourable and profitable calling. There is here, however, every thing to encourage an active husbandman. The soil is fertile and the climate perfectly congenial to the growth of New England productions. A yankee farmer, carrying with him to this place his knowledge of agriculture, and his industry, might soon acquire a very handsome estate. The market for country produce in Detroit is always high; and large sums of money are annually paid there for provisions, which are transported across the lake from the upper parts of the states of New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

The inhabitants of Detroit, wishing to keep their money in circulation among themselves, and also wishing to see their own agriculture improving, would afford great encouragement to farmers who should settle in their vicinity. Here too all mechanical trades would be promptly patronized. Various articles of American manufacture are sent to this place from the city of New York, and meet here a market affording great profits. Joiners, brick makers, shoe makers, and almost all other mechanics would here find ample patronage. Day labourers too, would obtain here ready employment and good wages. I may add, that lumber and wood are remarkably high in this city; and that wood sellers and lumber dealers might here realize from these occupations very handsome profits.

I deem it my duty to express a high opinion of Michigan Territory, because facts warrant such a course, and it is important that those of my fellow citizens, who may be disposed to emigrate to the west, should possess every information upon the subject. No one need suppose my declarations to be those of a land speculator. I have not the most remote relation to such business, and never expect to have.

In travelling more than four thousand miles, in the western parts of the United States, I met with no tract of country which, upon the whole, impressed my mind so favourably as the Michigan Territory. Erroneous ideas have heretofore been entertained respecting this territory. Indeed it has, until lately, been viewed as scarcely within the jurisdiction of the United States. Even some late geographers seem to have collected no other information respecting it, than what had been written by their ancient predecessors. Some of this information, especially as it respects Detroit, does not apply to the present times.

The soil of this territory is generally fertile, and a considerable proportion of it is very rich. Its climate is delightful; and its situation novel and interesting. As to the former, it possesses a good medium between our extreme northern and southern latitudes; and with respect to the latter it is almost encircled by the Lakes Erie, St. Clair, Huron, and Michigan. New England fruits may here be produced in great perfection; and the territory is capable of being rendered a great cider country. In point of health too, this territory yields to no part of North America. There is no place in the world more healthy than the city of Detroit. Consumptions are never known there.

The situation of this city, although level, is very commanding. On the Ohio the view of the traveller is confined; but here one appears lifted above the adjacent country, and may survey it as from an eminence.

The Michigan Territory is generally level, but in many places gently diversified. The growth of timber here is principally black walnut, sugar maple, elm, sycamore, and pine. There is not, however, an abundance of the latter. The streams of this territory are very numerous, and well calculated for manufactories of every kind; and the fisheries here are exceedingly valuable. Besides vast quantities of many other kinds of fish, caught in the waters within and contiguous to this territory, during the spring and summer season, thousands of barrels of white fish are taken here in the fall, and prepared for the home and foreign markets. This species of fish is of the size, and appearance of the largest shad, but are far more valuable. Wild fowl of all kinds greatly abound here.

The trade of the Michigan Territory is already very considerable, and it is rapidly increasing. Besides the business transacted between different parts of the territory itself, and with the Indian tribes in the neighbourhood, it transacts considerable business with the upper parts of the state of New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio; and also with the inhabitants of Upper Canada. Its shipping is employed on Lake Erie, Huron, and Michigan, either in the fisheries, in freighting, or in trading along the coast. In the summer season there is in Detroit a considerable concourse of strangers, from the states by way of Buffalo, who furnish considerable sums as passage money to the ship owners on Lake Erie; and in the spring of the year the neighbouring Indians resort thither to dispose of their furs, and to purchase guns, ammunition, blankets, and other articles.

Detroit is a central situation for the fur trade in the North-West; and there is considerable commercial connexion between this place and Chicago and Green Bay.

The establishment of a weighty fur company at Detroit, would result in much individual and public advantage. The English, by their extensive fur trade in the north and west, acquire an influence among the Indians, which similar establishments on our part would completely counteract. This influence renders the Indians hostile towards us, and in the event of a war between this country and Great Britain, would blend the prejudices of the Englishman with the ferocity of the savage.

The English derive immense profits from the North American fur trade. The North West company employ in this business, exclusive of savages, upwards of fifteen hundred men. The articles for the Indian market are cheap, and of course the requisite capital for this business is small.

It was my intention, after spending a few days at Detroit, to pursue my tour through the wilderness, between Lakes Huron and Michigan, as far as Michilimackinac; from thence across the North-West Territory to the Falls of St. Anthony, and then to trace the Mississippi to New Orleans. Whilst at Detroit, however, I concluded to change, in some measure, my course.

There was evidence of a hostile disposition on the part of the Indians situated on my proposed route; the season of the year rendered travelling in this direction almost impracticable; and my views and business would not permit the delay which the last mentioned circumstance would occasion.

Upon leaving Detroit I crossed Lake Erie in a small vessel, and arriving at Presque Isle, pursued my course to New Orleans, taking in my way all the states and territories of the west.

It may not be amiss, before I notice my trip across the Lake, to communicate some facts and reflections respecting the country above Detroit, many of which facts I was enabled to obtain by my residence there. Ere I speak upon this subject, however, I will, for a moment, prolong my stay at this city.

The sufferings of this place during the late war, are scarcely describable. The apprehension of death is far more terrible than actual dissolution. After the capitulation of General Hull, Detroit was thronged by Indians, and they were continually making the most aggravating requisitions. These they enforced by savage threats. There was not a moment of domestic peace for any one. The inhabitants did not dare to fasten their doors: for if they did the Indians would cut them to pieces with their tomahawks, and revenge the opposition upon the inmates of the house. When families were about to sit down to their tables, the Indians would come in, drive every one from the room, and feast themselves. Their constant demand, at every dwelling, was for whiskey; and to grant or refuse it was attended with great danger. If it were granted, intoxication and consequent bloodshed would be the effects; and upon a refusal, the Indians would present their long knives and threaten immediate death.

A lady, who resided in Detroit whilst it was in the possession of the British, and who is remarkable for her good sense and intrepidity, related to me the above and many other facts relative to this trying state of things. She said, that upon one occasion several Indians came to her house, and upon their approach it was thought advisable for her husband to conceal himself in the garret. The Indians demanded whiskey of her; and upon being told that there was none in the house, they presented several knives to her breast, and in their rude English called her a liar. Although in momentary expectation of death, she still denied her having whiskey. Her husband, hearing the bustle below came down, and with the assistance of two or three others, who accidentally came that way, drove the Indians from the house. Immediate revenge was anticipated. It was the practice of the Indians, particularly at this time, to resent the smallest opposition. Supported by their civilized patrons, they felt their consequence; and their pride was as easily touched as that of a savageized Englishman. The house of the lady was soon surrounded, and day after day the Indians came to search for her husband; but not being able to find him, the object was, apparently, abandoned.

Immediately after the massacre at the River Raisin, the inhabitants of Detroit were called upon to witness a heart-rending scene. The Indians from this field of carnage were continually arriving at the city, and passing through its streets, with poles laden with reeking scalps.

I am here disposed to make a few remarks relative to the late war. I know that in so doing I shall incur censure; but I write for those who are too noble to conceal their defeats, and too modest to proclaim their victories. The genius, and energy, and resources of the United States should have accomplished every thing.

I confess that I did not rejoice at the beams of peace. Premature peace does not promote the cause of humanity. We declared war for the defence of essential rights, which had, in the wantonness of power, been repeatedly invaded. In this war we sought indemnity for the past, and security for the future; - that security which punishment extorts from injustice: - that security which the fine and the lash guarantees to honest and peaceable communities. Did we effect our object? - Oh no! Whatever may have been our victories, our defeats were disgraceful. The administrators of the government were deficient in information, in system, and in energy. They sought an effect without an adequate cause; and the people sacrificed the glory of the country to the pride of political competition. As to the opposition, they pursued false morals until they lost sight of true patriotism. . . . .

It is the general opinion at Detroit, that Hull was prompted to surrender the place, not by bribery, but by cowardice. Could he have seen the dreadful and humiliating consequences which actually arose from this base and unpardonable step, the suggestions of conscience would have controuled his apprehensions, and his brave men would not have been deprived of their fame. Indescribable must be the feelings of patriotism and courage, when official cowardice yields them to a foe, whom their hearts have already conquered. . . .

I will now commence my proposed excursion above Detroit.


See Also:

Early Western Travels 8: 11-13.