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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.