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1827 Palmer

Friend Palmer [1820-1906] came to Detroit as a child in 1827. He was a Quartermaster for the U.S. Army during the Mexican War. After the war he returned to Detroit where he was engaged in the book business. During the Civil War he was made Quartermaster-General of Michigan. He lived in Detroit most of his life. In 1906 he wrote a book of personal reminiscences about his life in Detroit: Early Days in Detroit: Papers Written by General Friend Palmer of Detroit: Being his Personal Reminiscences of Important Events and Descriptions of the City for over Eighty Years. (Detroit: Hunt & June, 1906)

[Wayne County Historical and Pioneer Society. Chronography of Notable Events in the History of the Northwest Territory and Wayne County. Compiled and arranged by Fred. Carlisle. Detroit: O.S. Gurley, Bornman & Co., 1890. Pp. 125-126.]

I came to Detroit in May, 1827, with my mother and two sisters, on the steamer "Henry Clay." We

were under the friendly guidance of Mr. Felix Hinchman (father of Guy Hinchman), who took charge of us at Canandaigua, N. Y.

My father, Friend Palmer, had proceeded us some two or three months, on account of urgent business matters connected with the firm of F. & T. Palmer, of Detroit, of which he was the senior partner.

Our trip trip through New York from Canandaigua to Buffalo was by stage and very rough, the roads having been rendered almost impassable by recent rains. It took us, I think, two days and two nights to reach Buffalo. We had to wait at that point two or three days for the steamboat "Henry Clay". We did not mind in the least, for we were quartered at the Old Eagle Hotel, kept by Benjamin Rathbun, a most sumptuous resting place, I thought it, and so it was for those days. Our trip up the lake to Detroit on the "Henry Clay" was uneventful. We had a pleasant passage that occupied, I think, two or three days. The "Henry Clay," commanded by Captain Norton, was a floating palace, we thought, and we greatly enjoyed the time spent on it. The Henry Clay had no cabin on the upper deck - they were all below. When you desired to retire for the night or for meals, or get out of the reach of rain and storms, downstairs or between decks you had to go.

The "Henry Clay" was one of the three steamers that composed the line from Buffalo to Detroit, viz: "Henry Clay," "Superior" and "Niagara." It was the only regular line between the above points. Now and then the steamers "William Penn" and "William Peacock" would put in an appearance. We could only count upon about one boat a week. The mails came by these boats during the season of navigation and the balance of the year by land through Ohio.

We landed at Jones' dock, between Griswold and Shelby streets, on a fine day, about ten o'clock in the morning and all walked up to the residence of my uncle, Thomas Palmer, corner of Jefferson avenue and Griswold street. There were no public conveyances in those days. Thomas Palmer lived over his store, as did many of the merchants doing business here at that time.

Let me refer once more to Captain Norton, one of the most conspicuous and popular captains on the lakes at that early day. The "Henry Clay" was a crack steamer and, of course, must have a corresponding chief officer. Of commanding presence, Captain Norton, of the "fastest steamboat 'Henry Clay,'" when he appeared on Jefferson avenue, clad in his blue swallowtail coat with brass buttons, nankeen pants and vest, and low shoes with white stockings, not forgetting the ruffled shirt and tall hat, was the observed of all observers. Steamboat captains were kings in those days. All were pleased and anxious to show them every attention. When the "Clay" rounded Sandwich point, Detroit lay before us and, though small, the city presented quite an attractive appearance. The most conspicuous object in the distance was the steeple or cupola of the statehouse or territorial capitol building, that pushed its head up among the surrounding trees, its tin covering glittering in the morning sun. This statehouse was located, where is now Capitol Square, and where the remains of Michigan's first governor, Stevens T. Mason, now repose.

The windmills along the river also attracted our wondering attention. Three were located on the Canadian side of the river, one on the point opposite the residence of the late Joseph Taylor and two just above the present site of Walkerville. The one on the American side was on the small point where Knagg's creek then entered the river and opposite the old Knagg's homestead, Hubbard's farm (since destroyed).

The four mills presented to us a wonderful sight on that bright May morning. They were in full operation; their four immense arms, covered with white sailcloth, were whirled through the air by the force of the wind, and, as said before, filled us with delighted amazement as all the New York state could not produce a scene to match it.

Two companies of British regulars in their red coats (they were stationed at Sandwich), were going through their drill on the green in front of the old Huron Catholic church, its decaying walls propped by poles, and on the open in front was planted a high wooden cross, (since destroyed). The parsonage or mission house was there, though I think it has since been destroyed, held up by its two enormous chimneys at either end. The contrast presented by the red of the soldiers' uniforms and the green sward will always remain a vivid picture in my memory, so new and so unique. The Indians in their canoes, to whom a boat propelled without aid of sails or oars was always an object of wonder, attracted our attention also, as did the horse-ferry boat, John Burtis, captain, that plied between Detroit and Windsor, as slow as "molasses in January." The description of the celebrated first steam Monitor of the civil war (Ericsson's) would aptly apply to this boat of Burtis', namely, "a cheese box on a raft."

It is needless to say that my father welcomed us gladly at the dock, and my uncle and aunt, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Palmer, greeted us with a genuine western hospitality that put us directly at our ease.

I will try to give my recollections of Detroit and vicinity, and the people at that early day. The outlook below the present site of Fort Wayne, was not quite so inviting as now. The country around the mouth of the River Rouge was low, flat and marshy, covered with a most luxuriant growth of wild grass (marsh hay), that any one could cut if he so desired. What was not cut was usually set on fire in the winter and would burn for days, giving the people of the city quite a scene, at night illuminating the sky above the marsh, and showing vividly the flames leaping through the dry grass. The same scene used to be repeated every winter on the Grande Marias, above the city, just beyond the water-works.

Where Fort Wayne now is, and extending a little this side, was an immense hill of yellow sand that always looked, from the city, like a yellow patch on the landscape. This sandhill, it is presumed, was used in the early days (the memory of man runneth not t the contrary), as a burial ground by the Indians, because in its slow demolition (the sand of which it was composed being used for many purposes by anyone who desired to take the trouble to get it), numerous remains of Indians were found who had evidently rested there before and since Cadillac's time.

The first residence, down that way, I do not know who occupied it at that time, was an old style French-built house, with huge chimneys at each end. There was an old orchard on the west side. At one time, 1808, I think, it was occupied by Judge James Witherell and family, who, coming here soon after the destruction of the town by fire in 1805, found suitable tenements exceedingly scarce, and had to accommodate themselves to circumstances. It was somewhat perilous at that time for people living so far from the fort, as the Indians were none too friendly. I have often heard Mrs. Thomas Palmer, Senator Palmer's mother, and daughter of Judge Witherell, relate how her father used to admonish the family to keep close indoors after dark for fear of being carried off by the redskins.

General J.E. Schwarz also lived down that way about 1830, in a cottage with a veranda in front. The cottage once belonged to Honorable Austin E. Wing, and was occupied as a residence by him. It stood on Bates, between Woodbridge and Atwater streets. The general had a raft constructed and floated the house down the river and anchored it on the bank where Baugh's iron foundry was built. The general, his wife, who was a highly refined lady, and his daughter, Emma, made it an ideal home, many a gay party from the city enjoying their hospitality.

The Knaggs' house (Hubbard farm), built about 1790 (long since destroyed), stood on the west side of Knaggs' creek, twenty feet back from the road, on what is now the corner of River street and Swain avenue. The mouth of Knagg's creek was said to be, in 1812, about 300 feet wide and came up to within a few yards of the Knaggs' house. At the mouth there were growing, in 1827, about three acres of wild rice that attracted vast multitudes of wild-duck and large numbers of blackbirds. In connection with this old house, I quote from remembrances of the late Colonel James Knaggs, son of Whitmore Knaggs, who was born in the house. It may be of interest to some to repeat it here.

"Whitmore Knaggs, my father, was born in Detroit in 1763, the same year Pontiac tried to carry out his famous plan of driving the English out of Detroit and the other forts on the western frontier. On July 31, 1763, a party of the Detroit garrison, under Captain Dalzell, made a sortie, and at Bloody Run were defeated by Pontiac with great loss. After his triumph, Pontiac invited the leading French residents, including Peter Descault Labadie, who afterwards became the father of my mother, to a grand feast in honor of the victory. There was plenty of fish, flesh and fowl, but no liquors." General Hull was a frequent visitor at the old house. Governor Cass and Governor Woodbridge also called frequently. Tecumseh, the celebrated Indian chief, with his brother were also common visitors. The Labadie house (still standing), was next above the Schwarz mansion. The Labadies were an old French family, here in Cadillac's time. Some of their descendants are with us now. The residence just above was commenced by Territorial Governor George B. Porter, but never finished by him. He was carried off by the cholera, in 1834. The house was of brick and was designed to be the finest in Michigan. It had reached only one story and a half at the time of the governor's death and there it stopped. It was roofed over in a sort of way to protect it from the weather and remained in this condition for many years until Colonel Larned took hold of it, put on a substantial roof, without increasing the height of the walls, and thus it is to this day. I remember Governor Porter very well. He was a Pennsylvanian, a fine looking gentleman and well liked here. He was exceedingly horsey and brought with him a fine stud of thoroughbreds. Mrs. Porter was a fine looking woman, but rather stout, whereas the governor was of slight build.

The Brevoort house, occupied by Commodore Brevort was built by Robert Navarre about the year 1740. That and the Ladadie house, built the same year, were standing in 1885. The Brevort house was just above Twenty-fourth street, on what was commonly known as the River road, but now River street. The Lafferty house, which was demolished some years ago, was built around 1750.

On the River road and in front of the old Lafferty homestead was the Lafferty elm, a conspicuous mark in the landscape. It is known to have been planted a few years before the close of 1700, and was a striking example of the period required by the elm to produce a respectable shade. In 1862 the trunk measured at four feet from the ground two feet in circumference, which dimensions it held to the limbs. At ten feet the stem parted into seven branches, each of which was in size a considerable tree. It stood within the fence, and its limbs extended exceeded 100 feet. One by one its seven limbs were ruthlessly cut away by the ax, and finally the main trunk succumbed to the iron march of improvement. The tree was then in the vigor of three score years and ten, and might have continued for centuries, with increasing honors and usefulness, the glory of the neighborhood. I myself have often rested under its shade, when a boy in the thirties and forties, and wondered at its giant proportions and vigorous aspect.

The Loranger house, part of which was standing in 1885, was built about 1730; the Lafontaine house was situated just below the Loranger farm, between the river and the road. It was occupied as a schoolhouse about 1835, the Lafontaines having moved to Monroe. This Lafontaine house, though seemingly strongly built, tumbled down of itself shortly after this, leaving its two stone chimneys standing bare and naked for some years after.

Peter Godfroy lived on the Godfroy farm, fronting on the River road. The house was of recent construction, compared to the others I have mentioned. Mr. Godfroy once lived on the corner of Woodward avenue and Woodbridge street, about 1827 and while living there he built the house I mention on his farm and occupied it about that time. This side of the Lafferty house, after a short distance, came May's creek, (now obliterated) where the Michigan Central Railroad tracks intersect the river front. Then came the residence of Hon. Robert Abbott, auditor-general, then the residence of Governor William Woodbridge (Woodbridge farm), then the residence of Colonel Baker, United State Army (the latter was the last commandant at Fort Shelby), then the residence of John Mullett, surveyor-general of the Northwest Territory, then the Kercheval residence, then that of Hon. Augustus S. Porter, United States senator, then the residence of DeGarmo Jones, then the Cass farm, with the residence of General Cass. On the river front of the Cass farm and inside its lower line, was the large brick brewery of Mr. Thomas Owen, who it was said, brewed fine ale, and was an exceedingly jolly, rotund Englishman.

There were no paved streets in Detroit and scarcely any sidewalks north of Jefferson avenue. There were no public conveyances, and I do not think there was a two-horse private carriage in the whole city except one owned by Ben Woodworth. The universal means of getting around was by that most handy vehicle the two-wheeled French cart; indeed none other would have been practicable, when mud prevailed, which it most always did, and to the fullest extent, particularly when wet weather set in. I have often seen in those days, the female portion of the families of General Cass, John Mullett, DeGarmo Jones, B.B. Kercheval, Judge James Witherell, Judge Moran, Colonel Brooks, etc., enjoying a ride in one to church, or on a shopping tour. How convenient they were, a buffalo robe, spread on the bottom, or a plentiful supply of hay or straw, two or three stools, or ottomans, and the thing was complete. They could be backed up anywhere to get out and in was too easy. It was quite a sight, when the streets were in bad condition to see the long line of carts backed up in front of the Presbyterian and Episcopal churches on Woodward avenue, between Larned and Congress streets, waiting for their owners. I know all about these carts, having when a boy driven them, off and on for years, until the necessity for them ceased to exist.

There were no business houses of any kind on any street north of Jefferson avenue, for many years after I came. The business was confined, entirely, to that portion of the city fronting on the river, between the Cass farm, Jefferson avenue and Hastings street. It was a pretty busy locality, then, between the points named, thronged as it was, with the French residents from up and down the river, and from Canada as well. The French voyageurs could always be seen there in great numbers, clad in their picturesque dress. The Indians (bucks, squaws and pappooses) were also largely in evidence, particularly at the time of the annual distribution of presents to them at Malden by the British government. On these occasions they always made this city a visit of many days (going and coming) filling the streets and camping around anywhere they liked. They were perfectly peaceable, creating no disturbance, although one might think so from the fact that they were all so addicted to the use of whiskey. They were all great friends of Mr. Joseph Campau and he of them, who had his store and dwellling on Jefferson avenue, east side, between Griswold and Selby streets. I have often seen the sidewalk in front of his place so crowded with them lying around that it was difficult for pedestrians to get along without stepping on a squaw or pappoose.

Randolph street was then a busy street from Jefferson avenue to the river, on it at the corner of Woodbridge street was situated Woodworth's Steamboat hotel, the most celebrated hostelry west of Buffalo. It was at this hotel, that all the stage lines centered, and it was here that all the gay balls and social functions were given. On this street was the Berthlet market, besides it was fully occupied by traders of all classes. Woodbridge street from the hotel down to Bates streets was a fashionable quarter, containing the residences of General John R. Williams, Doctor Marshall Chapin, Thomas Rowland, Knowles Hall, Mr. Sanderson (father of Mrs. George W. Bissell), etc. On one corner of Jefferson avenue (southeast) was the Governor Hull (now Biddle house), and on the other the Council house (where is now the water offices). On the opposite corner was the Kearsley residence (still standing), and on the other corner was the Judge Solomon Sibley house and grounds. In the same block with the Hull house were the residences of E. A. Brush and Major John Biddle. So it can readily be seen that, in and around this locality, ebbed and throbbed the life of the city, and it might with truth, be said, that of the Territory of Michigan, as well.

Bates street from Jefferson avenue to Atwater was a residence street. Hon. Austin E. Wing lived on this street, as did Mr. H.H. LeRoy. On this street at the corner of Atwater (northeast) was the Detroit Garden, quite a resort in those days, and the only one of the kind here. It also had a small theatre attached to it. Woodbridge and Atwater streets from Randolph down were occupied by business houses exclusively, and traffic on them was always lively. None of the Buffalo steamboats tied up at any point above Woodward avenue for some years. Their principal docks were those of DeGarmo Jones just below the foot of Griswold street, and the dock, just below Cass street and in front of the old Mansion house. Warehouses were at the foot of Randolph street, foot of Woodward avenue, and further down were the warehouses of DeGarmo Jones, Oliver Newberry, Shadrich Gillett, etc. The Mansion house, on Jefferson avenue, just about where Cass street is now, was a first class hotel, but not quite as popular as uncle Ben Woodworth's. A little above it, on the same side, was the government arsenal, and opposite was the postoffice, although it was not in this locality when I came, but was located on Woodward avenue, and Judge James Abbott was the postmaster. John Norvell succeeded him, and when he came he moved the office to the above locality. From this up, there were not any buildings or points of special importance except, perhaps, the Wendell & Whiting house (still standing) nearly opposite the old Michigan Exchange site. In the early days it was occupied by Tunis S. Wendell and Major Whiting, the former and extensive merchant here, and the latter was the United States quartermaster at this post. This old house has witnessed within its walls, many gay and festive scenes. It was built in 1821 by Benjamin Stead, an Englishman, and said to be the second brick residence ever built in Detroit, that of Governor Hull being the first. On Smart's corner was a brick store (where is now the Merrill block). The old market was in the center of Woodward avenue, a short distance below Jefferson. Close by, at what was King's corner, was located the whipping-post, at which the deserving received their portions. It was not used in my time, although it stood there until about 1830.

General Cass lived in his quaint old dwelling down the river, said to have been built in Cadillac's time, with the high bank in its front, that has since been tumbled into the river. His ample orchard, through which coursed the Savoyard creek, stretched out in the rear. There were a large number of the old French pear trees in his vicinity then, not many down, but quite plentiful up the river. There was a row of them in front of the Beaubien homestead on Woodbridge street, a short distance above Beaubien, about in the rear of the Vondotega Club, also on the river front of the old Moran homestead on Woodbridge street, also in rear of Chancellor Farnsworth's house, where is now the Lovett residence. The latter consisted of twelve fine trees, all in a bunch, and were called the "Twelve Apostles." By whom they were planted is not known. It is to be regretted that they were not permitted to remain. Also in front of Riopelle, Dequindre and Witherell residences, on the river, the latter had six on the Dequindre side of his house and three in the rear, between the house and the apple orchard. Above Judge Witherell's nearly every French resident, clear to Milk river point had two or more on his premises. Many of these same trees are standing yet, and quite vigorous. Long may they wave.

There were but few churches here then. The Presbyterian congregation had a small wooden church with steeple and bell, on the corner of Woodward and Larned. Reverend Noah M. Well, pastor. The Catholic persuasion had Ste. Anne's stone church, on corner of Bates and Larned streets; most all are familiar with this church, although demolished. This had four or five steeples and bells, then, but they found they could get along with two and so did. Father Gabriel Richard had charge. The Methodists and Baptists had a sort of an apology for meetinghouses, not churches, for quite a while after this.

There was not much settlement out Woodward avenue beyond the campus. Cliff's yellow tavern was just this side of West Grand Circus Park, on quite a little knoll, and the park itself was a pond of water. The present capital square contained the territorial capitol building. Most of the people of any note, doing business here lived on Woodbridge, Griswold, Congress and Larned streets, and a few on Fort. I do not remember any on Lafayette or Michigan avenue, except on the latter and the corner of First street was the dwelling of Charles M. Bull. Fort Shelby was in the process of demolition when I came, all the embankment had been leveled, and the earth used to fill in the river front. Most of the cantonnement buildings were standing, but not for long, as they were sold at auction, and speedily disappeared or were moved elsewhere. There were no up river steamboats until the little "Argo" was built by Captain John Burtis, proprietor of the horse-ferry boat. The steamers "Clay" and "Superior" used at long intervals to venture on a trip to Mackinac and Green bay. These voyages were heralded weeks before the time, in the "Detroit Gazette," the Buffalo paper, and also in the New York journals. The steamboat "Walk-in-the-Water" when she was alive, advertised a pleasure trip to Mackinac, Green bay and Detroit, from Buffalo in the "Detroit Gazette" and in the New York papers. The latter compared it to the voyage of the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece.

Well, the land boom stuck Michigan in 1837, changed very much the aspect of things. Steamboats and sailing crafts got to be quite plentiful; thousands of people came from New York and the New England States, and Detroit awoke from its lethargy, cast aside its swaddling clothes, and became slowly the almost giant that she now is. When St. Anne's was building it was thought the grounds adjoining the church, devoted to cemetery purposes, would be ample for all time, or nearly so, and it was the same with the builders of the church, corner of Woodward avenue and Larned street. It is presumed they judged from the aspect of things here at that early day, that the question of being compelled to select ampler grounds, and beyond the possibility of being encroached upon, would stand small change of coming up. Yet less than one month after we came, both the congregations I have named purchased land adjoining each other, way out on the Beaubien farm for cemetery purposes, finding that their supposed ample grounds were inadequate. I do not know the number of acres that each bought, but I do know that at that time it was thought beyond all question, that the locality selected was far beyond the fear of ever being endangered. My father was the first buried in that locality, in the protestant ground. When the funeral cortege passing up Jefferson avenue, came to where Beaubien street now is, the bars to the lane running to the rear of the Beaubien farm and to the cemetery had to be taken down to allow the procession to pass through. There was not a house in all that section of the city. It was all farming land. The present generation has seen how these grounds have been abandoned, and others selected in their stead, have now, in their turn met the same fate, the fear of, they know not what, staring them in the face.

Woodward avenue from Jefferson to the river, contained as said the old city market, in its center. The New York and Ohio house was opposite this market, on the west side, between Jefferson avenue and Woodbridge street, adjoining was the residence of Colonel Anderson, United States Army, where is now the Mariner's church, across Woodbridge street, on the same side as the residence of Judge James Abbott, adjoing was the postoffice, (he being postmaster), adjoining was his store and warehouse. The judge owned the entire block bounded by Woodward avenue, Woodbridge, Atwater and Griswold streets. The balance of the block was devoted to garden purposes and cultivation of fruit trees. There was a warehouse on the dock at the foot of the street. Alvah Brunson had a tavern (Brunson's tavern) opposite the postoffice on the southeast corner of Woodbridge street. The Godfroy house, was on the other corner, and in front of where is now the police-station. Jefferson avenue, was almost entirely devoted to private residences, very few business places, the desire seemed to be to get near or in the vicinity of the river.

The first steamboats to visit Chicago, were those conveying the troops under command of General Winfield Scott in 1832 (cholera year) whose mission was to put an end to the Black Hawk war. Chicago before this did not attract scarcely any attention, being only an outlaying military post, on the very borders of civilization. The troops of General Scott on reaching Detroit, were attacked by the cholera, they suffered severely here, as also on the route to Chicago, and after their arrival at the latter post. The campaign of Gen. Scott is a matter of history.

The Savoyard river, or creek which had its headquarters out on the Brush farm somewhere, came down through the rear of Cadillac square, into Congress street, down the latter street across Woodward avenue, to Griswold street diagonally across the latter street to the alley, adjoining the old post-office building, and thence down through this alley to the Cass farm, across it in the rear of the Cass mansion, it found its way to the river, across Larned street, under a stone culvert. In 1825 or 1826, the city put an end to this Savoyard creek, within its limits, by building a large oaken box drain or sewer in its bed from Griswold street, down to the line of the Cass farm, which of course killed it for all time. I have been told, that it was quite a formidable stream at times, but it did not have that appearance when I knew it or the part of it wending its way through the Cass orchard. When I came here, all that remained of this stream or creek, was its well defined banks across Griswold street, which were soon after leveled. It was said that this creek, derived its name from an old French citizen, Mr. P. Berthlet, builder and owner of the Berthlet market, that was once on the northwest corner of Randolph and Woodbridge streets. He always bore the nick-name of "Savoyard."

From: DETROIT IN 1827 AND LATER ON by General Friend Palmer. Michigan Pioneer and Historical Collections 35, (1907): 272-283.

See Also:

Palmer, Friend. Early Days in Detroit: Papers written by General Friend Palmer of Detroit. Being His Personal Reminiscences of Important Events and Descriptions of the City for over Eighty Years. Detroit: Hunt & June, 1906.