Skip navigation

1833 Hoffman

Charles Fenno Hoffman (1806-1884) was an editor, poet and novelist. In October of 1833 he left New York City for a tour of the northwestern country on horseback. To defray the cost of the trip he wrote long letters to the American magazine descriptive of the country and his experiences.

Letter X

Detroit, Michigan, November 25 [1833]

Charles Fenno HoffmanI had just left the reading-room of the Franklin Hotel, in Cleaveland, and was making myself at home for the rest of the evening, in my own neat chamber, when the sound of the steamboat-bell, about nine o'clock, gave note that one of these vessels, which at this stormy season cannot navigate the lake with any regularity, had touched at Cleaveland on her way to this place. No time was to be lost, and huddling my clothes, &c. into my trunk as quickly as possible, I jumped into a vehicle, waiting at the tavern door, and in a few minutes was upon the quay. . . .

It was during a shower, shortly after noon, when some low wooded islands on the American side of the lake, with a tall flag-staff peering above the haze from the little town of Amherstburg on the British shore, indicated that we had entered the mouth of the Detroit River. The wind, which was now beginning to rise into a threatening tempest, compelled us to hug the Canadian shore so closely, that the red-coated sentinel pacing along the barracks above Fort Malden was plainly seen from the boat. The river soon after narrows sufficiently for one to mark with ease the general appearance of its banks, and the different settlements upon their course. Their appearance must be pretty in summer, when fields and woods show to the most advantage. But now, though slightly undulating, with a sudden rise from the river of some fifty to sixty feet, the adjacent country is too low to be strikingly beautiful. Those, however, who admire the Delaware below Trenton, if they can dispense with the handsome seats which ornament its not very clear waters, may find charm in the gentle banks and transparent tide of the Detroit River.

The city of Detroit itself stands upon an elevated piece of table-land, extending probably for some twenty miles back from the river, and being perfectly unbroken for at least two miles along its margin. Beneath the bluff - for the plain is so high as almost to deserve the name - is a narrow bustling street of about half a mile in length, with the wharves just beyond it; and fifty yards in-board runs a spacious street called Jefferson Avenue, parallel with the lower street and the river; the chief part of the town extends for a mile or two along the latter. The dwelling-houses are generally of wood, but there are a great many stores now building, or already erected, of brick, with stone basements. The brick is generally of an indifferent quality; but the stone, which is brought from Cleaveland, Ohio, is a remarkably fine material for building purposes. It is a kind of yellow freestone, which is easily worked when first taken from the quarry, and hardens subsequently upon exposure to the air. There are at this moment many four-story stores erecting, as well as other substantial buildings, which speak for the flourishing condition of the place.

The want of mechanics is so great, however, that it is difficult as yet to carry on these operations upon the scale common in our Atlantic cities, although the demand for houses in Detroit, it is said, would fully warrant similar outlays of capital. The public buildings are the territorial council-house, situated upon an open piece of ground, designated on an engraved plan of the city as "The Campus Martius," a court-house, academy, and two banks. There are also five churches, a Catholic, an Episcopal, a Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist. The Catholic congregation is the largest; their stone church, after remaining several years in an unfinished state, is soon, it is said, to be completed with funds derived from Rome; it will make an imposing appearance when finished. The population of Detroit is, I believe, between three and four thousand - it increases so rapidly, however, that it is difficult to form an estimate. The historical associations, the safety, and commodiousness of the harbour, with its extensive inland commercial advantages, must ever constitute this one of the most interesting and important points in the Union, although other causes may combine to make newer places in the territory equally as flourishing as Detroit.

The appearance of the place is any thing but what you would expect from a town founded in the same year as Philadelphia. The ancient houses, which formerly stood upon streets hardly ten feet wide, were all swept away in the great fire twenty years since, and the new white dwellings, standing upon broad avenues of twenty-five yards, make the town look like a place of yesterday.

I am surprised to find but few military remains in a frontier post so frequently fortified, and which has witnessed so many scenes of border war. A small stone arsenal, with a tall picket fence around it, is the only thing of the kind discoverable, and yet the place is thought by military men to have been sufficiently strong during the last war to have held out, if properly commanded, against twice the force which the brave General Brock brought against it. The lapse of twenty-two years has not yet cooled the indignation of the inhabitants at its dastardly surrender by Hull. It is necessary to see the ground to estimate properly that besotted act, at which his officers broke their swords, and his men nearly rose in open mutiny; while even the women of the fort shut the gates, and declared that their husbands and brothers should not abide by the disgraceful orders of their commander. It is astounding to think how slight an exertion of force might have annihilated the attacking party. They landed about two miles below the town, and advanced in solid column along a straight road, which runs parallel with the river, and is walled inland with a high picket fence, in front of the French farm-houses which line the way. At the entrance of the town, and nearly in front of the hotel where I am staying, were planted two pieces of cannon, loaded with grape and canister. A single discharge must have swept half of the British force into eternity, while the river on one side, and the high picket on the other, would have hedged the remainder in a spot where the destruction of the whole would have been inevitable. The artillerymen were standing with lighted portfires, when the order to retire within the fort caused them to fling their matches to the ground, and leave it with disgust. The memory of General Hull, which, with that love of glorification that constitutes the weakest point in our national character, was so hallowed in the Eastern newspapers when he died, a few years since, is here held in the contempt that was the due of a man who was sentenced to be shot to death for conduct entailing so much disgrace upon the nation.

I was not a little amused while talking over these events, with some gentlemen a few evenings since, upon the very scene of contention, to hear a person, whom I soon discovered to be an Englishman, sliding into the conversation, and taking his part of it with equal animation and good feeling; upholding, however, like a real and true Briton, the acts of his own nation. The conversation was frank on both sides, although, when he spoke of the Kentuckians flaying the body of Tecumseh after the battle of the Thames, I could not trust myself to retaliate by mentioning Proctor's massacre at Frenchtown of the flower of the youth of Kentucky, which, as you know, prompted this ferocious act of their countrymen, in relation to the fierce but noble savage. The ball of conversation, which had hitherto been thrown with equal temper and breeding by better and abler hands, fell into mine, just as "the delicate question of impressment" was suggested by the English stranger; and in begging him to dismiss a matter upon which our views could so little harmonize, I could not help adding the opinion you have often heard me express, though of course in a manner that conveyed nothing offensive, that my country should never notice the existence of that national difficulty except through the mouths of our cannon; that is, that we should regard and treat impressment like piracy or kidnapping on the highway. "Kidnapping!" exclaimed my well-bred antagonist, smiling jocosely at the word, and politely waiving the further discussion of the subject, "why, I, myself, sir, have been taken up for kidnapping within the very precincts of this town." He then went on to tell, in quite dramatic style, a series of whimsical adventures which he met with, when on a surveying party on the Lakes, just after the last war. ("Surveying on the Lakes twenty years ago!" exclaimed I to myself; "why, who can this man be? I have already travelled with him, since tea, over all Europe and a great part of Asia, not to mention the West Indies and South America, with the whole coast of Africa.") The lively and unaffected relation was every thing to the story, which at once enlisted the attention of all present, but the particulars were barely these: - The stranger, then a subaltern in the British service, was sent by his commanding officer to seize some deserters, who had escaped by night from the schooner in which the surveying -party were embarked, and which was anchored in the Detroit River. He landed on the American shore, and tracing one of the knaves to an inn hardby, he seized him near the door, handcuffed him, and handed him to his men to take off to their boat in waiting. Then entering the inn, the sight of a number of articles stolen by the runaways induced the young officer to search for the rest of their number. Provoked at his want of success, he very naturally exclaimed, while passing vainly from room to room, "Well, thank Heaven, I have one of the rascals in limbo." A stout-looking fellow present immediately slid out of the apartment. The young Englishman, tired at last with his search of the premises, determined to leave the house to look further elsewhere. His foot was on the threshold of the door. "Stop there, you mister," exclaimed a tall Yankee, bringing a bayonet to a charge at his breast, "you don't come here and kidnap our citizens at that rate, I guess."

"Kidnap your citizens! Why, my good fellow, that was a rascally deserter that I apprehended."

"Deserter or no deserter, we don't want no such doings on our side; and you don't budge from here, my hearty, except to go before Governor Cass."

"Governor Cass! Why, my dear sir, I have a letter here for Governor Cass, and am anxious to find him out in person."

It was "no go," however, as the sturdy yeoman said, and he and his comrades at once led our young and hasty adventurer to the residence of the governor. Detroit was then a military post of the first distinction. The town was crowded with officers and their families, and on that very day there was a levee, at which three general officers with their respective suites received company at the governor's. The culprit was politely received by the governor, and being soon drawn within a group of officers, they all heartily sympathized with him, and agreed that they might, without thinking, have acted similarly in violating a foreign territory when sent after "a scoundrel of a deserter." It was, in short, a mere matter of moonshine, and the young offender need give himself no concern about it, but fill his glass, and let the hour bring forth what it might. To make a long story short, however, our subaltern was soon ordered before the governor, who in a totally altered manner explained the grave nature of his offence to him, and told him he must be handed over to the civil authority; adding, that if he did not like to go to jail, he might take up his residence in the fort, under the care of Captain O'Fallon, whose politeness the English gentleman had already experienced, and under whose custody he was glad to place himself. His stay there he found far from disagreeable, and he spoke with warmth of the courtesy of the officers in walking out with him every day, and keeping up their necessary surveillance over his person in a manner that made it not at all unpleasant. The grand jury soon after found a bill against him for "the crime of kidnapping an American citizen, name unknown;" and he was held to bail in the sum of $2,000, which was at once forthcoming from a gentleman on the Canadian side. The result of the trial was against the prisoner, but a higher tribunal subsequently quashed the proceedings of the court, and set the culprit at liberty.

This relation, the particulars of which I have since found are familiar to older residents of Detroit, seemed, from the unaffected yet animated manner in which it was made, to strike every one present; and, as you can imagine, our interest in the party chiefly concerned was not a little heightened by our discovering the next morning, that the individual who had made himself so agreeable the evening before was Captain V- of the British Navy, whose enviable reputation, as the companion of Captain Owen in his recent arduous voyage of discovery along the coast of Africa, gives one the privilege of mentioning his name as that of a public man. Captain V- has just settled on a farm on the Canada side, but so near to Detroit that his society will be an acquisition to a neighbourhood remarkable for its agreeableness and elegant hospitality.

I have made several excursions to different places in the vicinity of Detroit. The pleasantest ride, perhaps, is one along the river on the Canada side; from which Detroit appears to great advantage. Every thing looks dead, however, in William IV's dominions, after coming from the bustling American town. The French there insist upon holding on to their acres, and being unwilling to improve their property, its value remains stationary. These French tenures have had their effect, too, in retarding the growth of Detroit, and they still check in no slight degree its advances in prosperity. The French farms are laid out along the river on both sides, with a front of only two or three acres on its bank, while they extend back into the country for half a dozen miles; a disposition of property very unfavourable to agriculture, and only adopted originally to bring the colonists as near together as possible, for the sake of mutual protection against the Indians. Many of these farms now cross the main street of Detroit at right angles at the upper end of town, and, of course, offer on either side a dozen building lots of great value. The original owners, however, persist in occupying them with their frail wooden tenements and almost valueless improvements, notwithstanding large sums are continually offered for the merest slice in the world off the end of their long-tailed patrimonies. They are a singular race of beings altogether. Mild and amiable, with all that politeness of manner which distinguishes every class of the courteous nation from which they derived their origin - they are still said to be profoundly ignorant. They call Detroit "the Fort" to this day, and yet few of them know any thing of the country whose soldiers first held it. They are good gardeners, but very indifferent farmers; and their highest ambition is to turn out the fastest trotting pony when the carriole races commence on the ice in mid-winter. Some of them will own a hundred of these ponies, which, in defiance of snow and sun, run in the woods from one end of the year to the other. The fastest of the herd, which is generally a three-minute horse, the owner will keep for himself, or, if he parts with him, asks the purchaser two or three hundred dollars for the animal, while from the rest, for twenty-five or thirty, he may select at pleasure. They are very easy-gaited animals, carrying astonishing weights with ease; but their shoulders are so low it is difficult to keep an ordinary saddle on their backs with any comfort. But though generally rough mishappen creatures, some are very elegantly formed, and remind me often - while neither resembling the Arabian nor the English horse - of some French drawings I have seen of the spirited steeds of the Balkan, or the rushing coursers of the Ukraine. I am informed that they are known to perform journeys under the saddle of sixty miles a day for ten days in succession, without being at all injured by it. They are thought to have a different origin from the Canadian horse, to which the best of them bears no particular resemblance except in size.

With judicious crossing, a most valuable race of horses might be produced from this hardy stock, which, for their vigour and endurance, I can only compare to the tough wild thorn of the country; an unpromising shrub, which, when grafted upon, produces the most flourishing fruit-trees I have ever seen.

The drive to Lake St. Clair must be very pleasant in summer, judging from what I saw of it during a raw snowy day. The banks of this river are indeed rather low for beauty, and the lake itself, when you arrive at it, is only a large black sheet of clear water; but the thick-set orchards of the French farmers, coming quite down to the shore of the river, are pleasing objects in themselves, and with the green islands in the strait, the decaying windmills so frequently recurring along its shores, and the groups of shaggy ponies almost invariably grouped around their base, would enable a painter to eke out a very pretty landscape.

About ten miles from Detroit, a United States arsenal is now erecting, under the superintendence of Lieutenant Howard, of the army; for an introduction to whom I was indebted to two young officers, who rode out with me to visit the place. The day was cold and cloudy, like most it has been my lot to describe to you of late; but my companions were intelligent and agreeable, my horse free and sufficiently fast, and my reception at the end so satisfactory, that I still think of my rode along the lazy banks of the bilious-looking River Rouge with pleasure. The arsenal, though of brick, is by far the best specimen of masonry I have yet seen here. It is to be regretted, however, that for such a national work, the appropriation by government for its erection had not been large enough to have permitted the beautiful Cleaveland stone, which form the lintels of its doors and windows, to be substituted for the perishable-looking material of which the building is now constructed. The taste of Lieutenant H., which is already evinced by some arrangements in the vicinity, will no doubt induce him to preserve some hoary and fantastic-looking oaks, which fling their gnarled branches within a few yards of the walls, and which even now, stripped as they are of their foliage, are worth a whole forest of common ornamental shrubbery. The trees I have generally seen around our military posts, look all as straight and martinet-like as if planted by a drill-sergeant. These veteran oaks stand upon a sloping bank, and as they are too crooked ever to catch the eye of the utilitarian, and be sawed up into boards, they may, if not now molested, wave yet for a century above these ingenious idlers who delight to -

"----under the shade of melancholy boughs,

Lose and neglect the creeping hours of time."

Too much praise can hardly be accorded to the activity of the officer, who, in five months, has reared such a building, and created the village which is already growing up around it in the midst of an unbroken forest. There is a capital inn, a store, and two or three dwellings in the new town of "Dearbornville," all built since last July. I sat down to dine on a fine haunch of venison, with the veteran General B- and his young aid, who were together on a hunting expedition in the vicinity. Nothing could have impressed a stranger more favourably with military breeding, than the bland, paternal manner of the gentleman-like old officer to his four juniors present. The deer yet abound within a morning's walk of Detroit; the primitive forest standing untouched within a few hundred yards of the town, immediately in its rear. They are hunted daily at this season, and no slight sensation was made here a day or two since, by the prolonged absence of the general, who had been benighted and lost his way, upon one of these short excursions. The town was about to turn out en masse, when the reappearance of the hunter, after two days absence, relieved a very general anxiety.

The tedious length of this letter is sufficient apology for the abruptness with which I must break off.

From: A Winter in the West by a New Yorker. NY: Harper & Brothers, 1835. 2 volumes. 1:103-125.

See Also:

Barnes, Homes Francis. Charles Fenno Hoffman. NY: Columbia University Press, 1930.

Woodford, Frank B. Lewis Cass - Frontier Diplomat. Detroit Historical Society Bulletin 1950 6 (6): 4 -8. For information about the Vidal incident.