1828 Massey

Michigan was regarded at the East as being as much Indian territory as any portions of the country in the more remote West have since become. Detroit was the extreme limit of regular steamboat navigation westward upon the lakes; indeed, but few sailing vessels found inducement to proceed further. If there are few who are interested in the recital of the past, similar to those here named, there are fewer still whose personal knowledge dates back so far, and who are both able and willing to furnish the same for publication.

On Monday, the last day of August, 1828, the writer set out from his home in central New York in company with some friends who had decided to make their future home in Detroit, this new and beautiful city of the West. We left by stage at an early hour in the morning and, after a long and tiresome day's ride, reached what was then called "Salt Point," afterwards Syracuse. We here embarked the next morning on the canal for Buffalo, a method of travel but recently introduced but exceedingly popular on account of its freedom from fatigue and because of the greater social advantages, as well as being cheaper than by stage, the only other method of public conveyance in the direction we were going.

After journeying in this manner for three days and nights we reached Buffalo, then only a good sized village, in time to take passage Friday morning on the good steamer Niagara, whereof Pease was master, and bound for Detroit. We counted ourselves fortunate in having secured passage on this vessel, though the smallest on the line, yet first on account of her reliability as to time and ability to complete the round trip, Buffalo to Detroit, and return within a week. Of the six vessels comprising the line four are remembered (and the same number of Captains) ...The Henry Clay, Cuyahoga, William Penn, and Niagara. The captains were Norton, Blake, Milas, and Pease, the latter in the Niagara.

The second steamboat on Lake Erie was the Superior, built in 1822. This vessel, at the time of my journey, the fall of 1828, was lying partly sunk in Buffalo Creek, her engine removed, and otherwise thoroughly dismantled. I do not think she was ever in commission afterward, at least as a steamer.. . .

We reached Detroit on Sunday at noon. A gun was fired from on board the steamer, as was customary on all the boats of the line, when about a mile from the city. This usually brought to the landing a large portion of the population, composed at that time very largely of French with a free scattering of Indians.

I think all the other boats of the line made their landing at the up-town docks, mostly Newberry's, but the Niagara came to a new wharf which had recently been built about a mile further down the river, where extensive improvements were being made, among them a hotel more spacious and elegant than any previously existing in the city, known as the Mansion House, kept by a New York landlord by the name of Alman. A short distance below, fronting the river, was the pretty, home-like and unpretentious residence of Gov. Cass.

Later in the autumn Gov. Cass chartered the steamer Henry Clay for a month, going in her with his suite and Territorial officers to Green Bay, where he had arranged to meet the tribe of the Winnebago Indians, who were the owners and occupants of a large portion of the adjacent territory. The desire of the Governor was to treat with them for their possessions in exchange for lands farther west, and for other valuable considerations. After a session of two weeks he was successful in negotiating one of the most important and valuable treaties ever made between our government and the Indian tribes.

The steamer and party on their return ran down Lake Michigan to Fort Dearborn, an ancient stockade fort, which was all that existed in the way of improvement where the city of Chicago is now.

Some weeks after the return to Detroit of the Governor and party, on the afternoon of a beautiful, balmy Indian summer's day, there appeared on the broad river above the city, stretching away as far as the eye could reach toward Lake St. Clair, a vast flotilla of canoes, bringing as voyagers in this manner, all the way from Green Bay, many hundreds of the Governor's friends, the Winnebagoes. This trip was taken according to a promise that they would repay the visit he had made to them. Before evening all had arrived and landed upon the river's bank above the city, where they were welcomed by the Governor - and in fact by nearly the entire population of the city. There were about as many of one sex as of the other, and of all ages, dressed in their best apparel - doubtless to a large extent consisting of all blankets and other articles given or paid to them at the time the treaty was made.

The visit lasted two or three weeks, during which time they were the guests of the Governor, and were well provided for. The military and police force of the city were made particularly subservient to their protection and care.

This was to most of them their first introduction to civilized life, and it must be said that to their manners and deportment there was not at first any exceptions to be noted; but it must, also, with equal truth, be said that toward the last it became evident that they were not improving as a result of their intercourse with the whites.

Hundreds of them frequently assembled on the green in front of the Governor's residence, where they engaged for an hour or more at evening in the violent contortions they called dances, peculiar to the race, all of them sufficiently exciting, but the war dance most of all.

They finally embarked in the same manner in which they came, for a passage through the solitary lakes, several hundred miles to their homes.

From: TRAVELING ON THE GREAT LAKES WHEN DETROIT WAS YOUNG by H. Massey. Michigan Pioneer and Historical Collections. 7 (1886): 131-133.

See Also:

Moore, Anna S. Some Notes on the Argo: Detroit's First Steamboat. Inland Seas 1993 49 (4): 242-245.