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1823-25 Bronson

Electa Bronson Sheldon-Stewart (1817-1920) was the daughter of Ira Bronson, who brought his family to Detroit in 1824. The family lived in Detroit for three years before moving to a farm near Plymouth. Mrs. Sheldon-Stewart was for several years the editor of the Western Literary Cabinet. She also wrote several books.

Electa Bronson Sheldon-StewartI have indistinct recollections of our journey from Rochester to Buffalo; of meeting and parting with friends on the way; of a long night ride in the stage coach, and of our arrival in Buffalo before daybreak. But from the moment we set foot on the steamboat until pioneer life had lost its romance, almost every incident is vividly impressed on my memory.

The three days of our voyage were days of exquisite loveliness; not a cloud was borne on the wings of the wind; the sun looked down from a clear sky, while the distant shore was partially veiled

in the dreamy haze peculiar to the first days of autumn. Scarce a ripple disturbed the sleeping water beneath us, and I remember how ardently I wished for a "little bit" of a storm that I might see how "white caps" looked dancing along on the top of huge waves; but no storm came, nor any dreadful accident, to gratify my childish love of adventure.

The steamer did not stop at Malden, but from the deck we could plainly see the small, desolate-looking town, and grass-covered fort, while the only inhabitants seemed to be the red-coated soldiery who were roaming about, or gathered in groups stood idly gazing at the passing boat. A large, beautiful island, called by the French Grosse Ile, lay just above Malden on the American side of the river. Only two houses were visible, but the white, sandy beach and the green, sloping lawn that rose gradually from the shore, till lost in small cultivated fields or in the unsubdued forest, formed a most enchanting landscape. The head of the island called Manitou Point afforded an excellent fishing ground.

The shore above Grosse Ile to Spring Wells was level and sandy, and the large farms of the French inhabitants were bounded by the river. The farmhouses all fronted the river, built in French style, large on the ground, one story high, with very steep roofs, and dormer windows; a few of them were painted white, and all were hidden by tall lilac and rose bushes, almost the only flowers they cultivated.

I shall never forget the scenery about Spring Wells, three miles below the city. A windmill stood on the sandy beach just at the edge of the water. The body of the mill was painted a dark red and contrasted well with the white sails or wings. Above, for a little distance, and below as far the eye could see distinctly, the white, sandy beach looked like a line of light dividing the blue waters from the orchards and gardens that lay spread out so beautifully. Above Spring Wells the river bank began to rise till it became as steep as on the opposite shore. The farms were very narrow in front and extended back from the river a mile or more. Gardens in front of the houses ran down to the water's edge, steps were cut in the bank, a little gate opened upon a wharf formed of a single plank which extended out into the river, and a stake was driven beside the wharf to secure the canoe or sailboat. There was a sameness in arrangement but an air of quiet comfort about these strange-looking dwelling places.

"There is the Governor's house," when we were yet some distance from the city.

"What! that large, unpainted, Frenchified house whose moss-covered roof looks as if it had obtained a green old age, that house the Governor's? Governors don't live in such a house in Yankee land."

But the Governor of Michigan did live in such a house, and, as I afterwards learned, it was a most delightful place of residence, with its rich interior adornments, and tasteful surroundings, though the exterior was rather unprepossessing.

Above the Governor's dwelling, the houses were built farther from the river. There were no more riverside gardens, but the tableland along those steep banks formed a beautiful common, where the weary citizens might freely walk at eventide, and happy children play under the oaks that looked too diminutive to have always stood by such a mighty water course.

A cannon was fired from the bow of the steamer, and its booming thunder seemed to rouse the latent energies of the mighty power that was bearing us onward; like a war horse rushing to the battle, the steam spirit dashed through the waters, faster, still faster, as she neared the goal - a sudden pause, then a sound as of the labored breathing of fatigue - a sickening swaying to and fro - the boat was lashed, a plank thrown out, and we were in Detroit.

The firing of the cannon seemed to have called out the whole town. French women wearing large straw hats and carrying baskets of fruit were pressing their way through a crowd of men and boys. Carts drawn by diminutive ponies were backed up to the very edge of the wharf, their owners vociferating loudly, while a little in the background was a single coach waiting to convey passengers to the only hotel then in Detroit. Business men were threading their way among the crowd, intent only on the objects that brought them thither; the captain on board giving orders concerning the lading, passengers bustling about collecting their baggage, porters disputing in French and English reminded one of ancient Babel.

A few weeks after our arrival in Detroit found us comfortable settled in a house owned by B.F.H. Witherell, on an extensive common. Detroit in 1824, the time of which I am writing, was ancient and venerable in appearance. Its principal street, Jefferson Avenue, was lined on both sides with low, French-built houses whose unpainted fronts and moss-covered roofs looked as if they had braved the storms of a century, except here and there a smartly painted one-story shop or neat new dwelling house showed that emigrants from down east were in town. There were also two brick buildings on this street, one of which was occupied by General Hull during the war. The jail, the arsenal, and the French Catholic cathedral were the only stone buildings in the city. Not far from our house the foundation of the court house was laid and the building of brick was completed the following summer. The bounds of the corporation were extensive, but the buildings, except along Jefferson Avenue, were very scattering. There were but two church edifices in the city: the Roman Catholic cathedral, a massive stone structure with seven spires, and a small wooden church on Woodward Avenue, occupied by the Presbyterians. The Episcopalians worshiped in the Council House, and the Baptists and Methodists in rooms hired temporarily for that purpose.

The greatest inconvenience experienced by the inhabitants was the want of water; the river was the only supply, and all the water must be brought from the river in barrels by carmen, at an exorbitant price. Just think of drinking water that had stood twenty-four hours in a barrel during the summer months! We could testify to the truth of the French woman's assertion that was "almost starved for want of water."

Most of the inhabitants of Detroit were French; a quiet, peaceable, inoffensive people, clinging with great tenacity to their original ownership of the land on which the city was built, but willing to give long-time rentals.

About three hundred Indians, the remnants of two or three tribes, were about town during the day, trading away baskets and moccasins of their own manufacture, and even parting with their blankets for the baneful fire-water, and then, when hunger pressed, begging food at the houses of the inhabitants. Toward evening they would begin to return to their wigwams in the forest, or "bush," as it was termed, all more or less intoxicated. Since they had to pass the dwellings on the common, it was not unusual for us to be disturbed by their whoops and yells till a late hour at night.

The poor Indians must have often suffered for want of food. Too much fascinated by the white man's whisky to go far from the city in pursuit of game, and too indolent to work, they were a band of beggars dependent on public charity for daily food. Families who gave them food were so constantly annoyed by a crowd of Indian visitors that there seemed no way but to harden their hearts and drive these suffering forest children from their doors.

My good mother found it difficult to treat suffering humanity with that harshness which seemed really necessary, so she adopted the expedient of keeping the front windows' curtains closed and the doors locked; this answered very well for a while, but could not long baffle Indian cunning. One day we heard some one trying to open the door. We knew it as an Indian for his footfall gave no sound and we kept very quiet, but in a few moments the back window was darkened by some object and looking up we saw an Indian youth seventeen or eighteen years old looking in upon us. Bowing his head and smiling as if to disarm our fears he begged for a piece of bread. Mother by signs bade him "begone," but the poor fellow took from his shirt collar the only brooch he had and with a most piteous, pleading look offered it in exchange for a piece of bread, so large, marking the size of his hand. Tears filled my mother's eyes and the poor half-starved youth was bountifully fed. When he found my mother would not take the brooch his expression of thanks were so grotesque that from tears we were convulsed with laughter.

The fort and its environs were objects of greater interest to me than even the Indians. Old Fort Shelby was still occupied by a small detachment of troops, and the morning and evening gun and the cheerful reveille were enough to invest the place with peculiar charms to the mind of an enthusiastic child. Our house was but a short distance outside the picketed fields that surrounded the fort, and the fort's green banks, the neat white cantonment, the parading soldiers marching to strains of martial music was very exhilarating.

In the summer of 1825 the troops were removed to Green Bay, and the fort and its adjoining grounds were immediately invaded by the children of the neighborhood, affording them a most delightful playground. Often have my companions and myself climbed up the steps made in the embankment at one corner of the fort, or pulled ourselves up by the long grass, and enjoyed a romp around the top, or, descending a few feet on the inside, we would run in the path of the sentinels, stop at every stand of the dismantled cannon and wonder how many Indians each gun had killed. Silly children! We knew nothing of the horrors of war, nothing of the anguish these cannon had caused, even to savages!

There were two or three small log-houses within the fort, built for an emergency of war, and I imagined the occupants must have felt as if they could not breathe, shut up between those high green walls.

On Woodward Avenue the River Xavier - or Savoyard - was spanned by a bridge which I crossed in going to school, and I would often stop to watch the minnows in the water. On the west side of the bridge and close to the water was a small house painted a dark red, with a dark green door, occupied by a man named Petite. I used to wonder if his name was Petite because he was so small.

The market was a long shed-like building in the center of Woodward Avenue and extending from Jefferson Avenue to the river. Immense sturgeon were caught in the river below the city, and were often landed on the sand at the foot of Woodward Avenue. I saw one so large that it was towed through the water, and the strength of several men was required to drag it on shore. I thought surely such a very large fish must be a whale! Very few of the Yankees had then learned to use the sturgeon for food.

The first Sunday school I attended in Detroit was held in the old Council House, corner of Jefferson Avenue and Randolph Street, where the Episcopalians worshiped. The rector was Rev. Mr. Cadle. On the removal of the troops from Detroit he was appointed chaplain and left the city. My sister and myself then commenced attending the Presbyterian Sunday school, held in their small church on Woodward Avenue, corner of Larned, and continued there until our removal from the city.

The wife of Governor Cass was a devoted Christian and a member of the Presbyterian Church, and every Sunday Governor Cass, not himself a church-goer, would bring his family to church in a cart, back the cart up to the church steps, unload the family and drive away, coming for them when church and Sunday school were over. The calm, sweet face of Mrs. Cass, and her gentle manner gave me my first abiding impression of the surpassing beauty of Christianity, for my parents, through strictly moral, did not become Christians till some years later.

After residing three years in Detroit my father, at my mother's request, moved his family to the wilderness farm in Plymouth to try another phase of pioneer life.

From: ELECTA BRONSON SHELDON-STEWART'S STORY. Burton Historical Collection Leaflet, May 1930. 7 (5): 74- 80.