1818 Watson

Elkanah Watson (1758 -1802) was a merchant, canal promoter, and agriculturist. He traveled widely and his personal fortunes went through several cycles of extreme wealth and poverty.


Elkanah WatsonSunday, July 2d. - As the curtain of this blessed morning began to rise, we found ourselves at the spacious entrance of the Detroit River, sailing north in the direction of the city. We took the channel on the east side of Grosse Island, pressing close into the British shore. I have never seen a nobler river, and I was truly astonished at the evidences of an old country on its margin upon each shore. I was pleased with the sight of old orchards and farms on both shores as we approached Detroit, which presented itself at the distance of about three miles. It appeared, from its imposing position, like a considerable city, and very similiar to Philadelphia as you approach by the Delaware. The wind failing, we dropped anchor, and landed on the Canadian shore. We were obliged to walk two miles, and then be ferried over to the city.

The memorable 4th was celebrated in a field, in the rear of the residence of Governor Cass, where I dined with a large collection of gentlemen, and officers of the army. The occasion could not be resisted, although I had no desire for society. My heart and mind were hovering about the grave of my departed child.

Here I am, at the age of sixty, in Detroit, seven hundred miles west of Albany. I little dreamed, thirty years ago, that I should ever tread upon this territory. It is now time that I should pause and review the ground I have passed over, in a journey of exactly one month's duration, and contemplate this wonderful country, and plunge into the arcana of futurity.

Erie may be considered the only harbor formed by nature on this important lake, and that is materially obstructed by a sand-bar at its entrance. Measures are now in progress, to construct a harbor at Dunkirk. The mouths of all the rivers are choked by an accumulation of sand. These are all susceptible of removal. The events of the late war have brought Lake Erie into prominence before the public mind. The want of harbors upon one of the most boisterous lakes on the globe, was severely felt in our recent naval operations. This fact, and the rapid progress of population in Ohio and Michigan, must demonstrate to the nation, the paramount public policy which demands the construction of artificial harbors. This necessity will be greatly enhanced, when the completion of the New York canals shall have opened a new avenue for the outpouring of the illimitable resources of Erie, and the vast region which envelops the upper lakes. The importance of these improvements will be enforced, with still greater emphasis, when steamboats shall, the next year, appear upon these waters. Within ten years, I confidently predict, the obstructions referred to will be removed, and appropriate light-houses will illuminate this lake.

When these results are consummated, a new era will dawn upon the West, and a fresh impulse be extended to every department of enterprise and industry. Canals will be extended laterally, and tributary streams be opened, which will pour into this great reservoir the diversified products of these broad and fertile regions, which, before the close of the present century, will be overspread with a dense population of independent, intelligent, and industrious freemen.

The distance by these facilities will be practically reduced ten-fold, on all the great arteries leading from the Atlantic to the West. Lake Erie is remarkably exempt from shoals, but is still the most shallow of all the lakes. This peculiarity produces here waves, of a different character, and more dangerous than upon the other lakes, which are more like those of the ocean, whilst upon Erie they are short and broken, in nautical language, chopping seas.

The northern shore of Lake Erie is equally destitute of safe harbors. Within Point Ebino, about fifty miles from Buffalo, a deep bay running west, called Prince Edward's, affords a fine shelter from westerly storms. Secure harbors may be constructed at Buffalo, Erie, Dunkirk, Grand River, Cleaveland, and Sandusky.

The location of Detroit is very pleasant, being somewhat elevated, and boldly fronting its beautiful river. The old town has been burnt, which was a cluster of miserable structures picketed in and occupied by the descendants of Frenchmen, who pitched their tents here early in the seventeenth century, in prosecution of the fur trade.

The city is now laid out upon a large scale, the streets spacious, and crossing at right angles. The main street is called Jefferson Avenue, and stretches the whole length of the city. Detroit must always be the emporium of a vast and fertile interior.

By the existing estimation of the value of real estate here, it has, I think, been greatly overrated. Commerce is languishing, and agriculture is at its lowest degradation. In proof of this, I saw at the Grand Marie, four miles north of the city, a large, clumsy, wooden plough, such as doubtless were in use in France, at the period of the emigration from that country by the ancestors of this people. It was drawn by two yoke of oxen and two horses, and was conducted by three men, who were making as much noise as if they were moving a barn.

The most attractive objects I have seen on this beautiful river, are its innumerable and lovely islands, most of which are cultivated. The dense forest approaches in close proximity to the city, and spreads over a level surface quite into the interior. From the highest point of elevation I could attain, I discerned no uplands: all was a dead plain. The land belongs to the government, and is of the richest quality, but has hitherto been represented as unhealthy. The Territory of Michigan has not been adequately explored; but, while I was at Detroit, several parties of enterprising and energetic young men penetrated into the woods, with packs on their shoulders, to investigate, and returned with the most glowing and flattering accounts of a country of the choicest land, generally undulating, and requiring nothing but the vigorous arm of industry to convert it into the granary of America.

The near approach of the wilderness to Detroit, brings the howling wolves within a short distance of the city; and I was frequently called on, to listen to their shrill cries, in the calm, hot nights. The numerous and large old orchards of the finest apples, originally imported from France, and the extensive fisheries of white fish in the vicinity, greatly increase the wealth and comfort of the people. Although possessing the most fertile soil, such is the wretched character of their agriculture, that the inhabitants are mainly dependent upon the young and thriving State of Ohio, for their supplies of port, beef, breadstuffs, and even of potatoes.

I daily notice squaws, fighting in the streets like wildcats, and in conditions too revolting to describe. They lie about the city like swine, begging for cats and dogs, which they devour at the river side, half-cooked. The most disgusting and loathsome sight I ever witnessed, was that of a coarse, fat, half-naked Indian, as filthy as a beast, under a tree immediately in front of my son's residence, filling his mouth with whiskey, until his cheeks were completely distended, and then two or three squaws, in succession, sucking out of the corners. I called my daughter-in-law to see the revolting sight; but she assured me, that it was nothing unusual, and that the practice was common with this tribe of Indians. I often visited the fort which my old friend Hull so fatally and ignominiously surrendered. Colonel Myers, who was in command of Fort George at its capture, informed me while a prisoner at Pittsfield, that half of Brock's army, at the surrender of Detroit, were Canadian militia dressed in British red coats.

Having completed all the purposes of my journey, I took passage on board of a British ship, commanded by Captain McIntosh. . . .

It is impossible for an old traveller to look upon the existing condition of Michigan, and not be impressed with a conviction of the great and rapid changes which await the territory. It is destined soon to emerge from its present social and agricultural depression, into a great State, rich, populous and progressive, and enjoying all the refinements and elegancies of civilized society. Detroit will rank among the great cities of America. Agriculture, the basis of all public prosperity, is now lamentable debased in general, scarcely advanced from the point it occupied centuries ago. The depression of Agriculture necessarily bears down the interests of commerce; for, in a country like this, where is commerce with agriculture?

Blessed with a luxuriant soil and with the greatest conveniences of water intercourse, and occupying a central position upon the most extensive internal navigation, by inland seas, on earth, what may not Michigan aspire to? Agricultural societies would shed a most powerful and benign influence upon the progress and development of this region. The presence of a new and different class of farmers, more enlightened, more industrious and progressive, would at once give to it a new aspect.

I found my confident anticipations of the future and immediate advance of this territory, in addition to is inherent elements of prosperity, upon the following considerations:

First, The sale of the public lands, now first about to be opened. This measure will give new wings to the progress and population of the country.

Second, The introduction of steamboats, the ensuing year, on Lake Erie, with Detroit for the ultimate point of destination.

Third, The erection of light-houses, to facilitate the navigation.

Fourth, The construction of harbors now in contemplation at various points.

Fifth, and above all these, the rapid advance of the Erie Canal towards Buffalo.

These great facilities to commerce and trade, will not only reduce immensely the expenses of transportation, but will virtually lessen the distance, by the economy in time they will effect between Detroit and the eastern markets. Soon, the decks of steamers will be thronged with passengers of a new character, attracted by curiosity and purposes of business to this remote region, who will scatter their funds with a lavish hand. The future of Michigan seems to be certain, defined, full of promise and expansion.

From: MEN AND TIMES OF THE REVOLUTION; OR, MEMOIRS OF ELKANAH WATSON, INCLUDING HIS JOURNALS OF TRAVEL IN EUROPE AND AMERICA, FROM THE YEAR 1777 TO 1842, AND HIS CORRESPONDENCE WITH PUBLIC MEN, AND REMINISCENCES AND INCIDENTS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION. Edited by his son, Winslow C. Watson. New York: Dana and Company, 1857: 490 - 496.

See Also:

Carstensen, Vernon. Meet me at the Fair. American West 1980 17 (5): 6 -19. (Watson is credited with starting the agricultural fair movement.)

Ellis, David. Elkanah Watson, Pioneer. York State Tradition 1971 25 (4): 21-26.