This account first appeared in the May, 1835 issue of
Amerikanishes Magazin. Neidhard wrote the account of his visit to the
German settlers in Michigan after a trip which took him by railroad from
Philadelphia to New York City, by steamer from there to Albany, along
the Erie Canal to Buffalo, and across Lake Erie by boat to Detroit.
At nine o'clock one evening I embarked at Buffalo on the six-hundred-ton, Detroit-bound steamer, North America. A smaller steamer, the Sheldon and Thompson,
left the docks at the same time. The evening was calm but the lake was
rippled by a slight breeze. Most of the passengers remained on deck in
order to watch the usual race in which the two vessels were sure to
engage. I must frankly admit that I didn't feel any too well about this
mad game in which there could hardly be any doubt as to the winner,
considering the difference in the two power plants. . . .
The town of Detroit is on a plain which extends twenty miles into
the interior and about two miles along the Detroit River, the connecting
link between Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie. Detroit, although founded in
the same year as Philadelphia, has grown but little in the course of a
century. Its old European-style houses and its narrow, ten-foot wide
streets, were obliterated about twenty years ago after a great fire. The
town has, therefore, quite a new look. Many of its houses are
constructed of yellow stone imported from Cleveland, and they all have a
friendly exterior. There are but two main thoroughfares, one on the
slope along the river, the other above, where the plateau begins. The
latter is the more tasteful, and contains most of the public buildings,
shops, churches, etc. It extends nearly four English miles along the
shores of the Detroit River. Houses cannot be built here as quickly as
in the eastern states because of a lack of skilled workers, especially
of bricklayers. A skilled workman, particularly a mason or carpenter,
earns $1.50 a day. The public buildings are a meeting house for the
Indians, a courthouse, an academy, and two banks. The Catholics,
Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists already have
fine-looking churches. The Germans, who number about a hundred families,
do not as yet have a regular pastor. However, the Lutheran preacher of
the German settlement in Washtenaw comes to Detroit and to Monroe from
time to time to hold divine services. The Catholic congregation is the
most important one. Their beautiful new church has been recently
completed with the help of contributions from Rome. The best tavern in
Detroit is the Mansion House, the tavern keeper of which is a
Pennsylvania German. Detroit has 4,973 inhabitants, including 4,448
whites, 138 negroes, and 387 transients. The number of children
attending schools is 448.
Detroit for a long time was considered a peripheral outpost
of civilization, and indeed, it has been that until recently. . . .
I searched in vain for remnants of these stormy days of old.
With the exception of a small stone fort, there is nothing to be seen. .
I took several trips to the Canadian shore across the river,
where one can get the best view of Detroit. The utter calm that reigns
on the English shore stands in sharp contrast to the busy life of the
American side. In the neighborhood of Niagara I had noted the same
difference in the relative activity of the two countries.
French Canadians still own most of the land on both shores.
They are undoubtedly a most polite and social people, but at the same
time they are the worst settlers in North America. Hunting, fishing,
skating, and feting each other are for them more pleasant occupations
than hard work. Their principal activity is the raising of small
Canadian horses. Some of them own more than a hundred of these animals.
The best racers, which are used for sleighing, cannot be bought for less
than $200 to $300. Others bring $25 to [ ]. A tough race of horses,
these nags! They often cover eighty English miles a day for three days
in succession. Since the Canadian farmers are so negligent in matters of
agriculture, the value of their holdings increases but little. To be
just, however, we must admit that they are good gardeners, and
everywhere they have planted beautiful orchards. Nowhere in America is
floriculture practiced as well.
To bring their dwellings as close together as possible, for
mutual protection against the Indians, this French Canadian colony was
laid out in the following manner. The individual farms are only one or
two acres wide and form long strips, which start at the river, where
their houses are, and extend as much as six miles inland. This clumsy
partition is a definite obstacle to good farming and is the reason why
they can use most of their holdings for pasture only. Speculating
Americans frequently offer them considerable sums for individual
sections of land, especially for those bordering the river, but they
cannot be persuaded to sell their paternal heritage and this attachment
to the land is the greatest hindrance to the growth of the city. They
still call Detroit the "fort." France, the country of their fathers, is
an unknown land to them. They speak French slowly and in a poor dialect.
They do not participate in politics or in any affairs that deal with
the common weal; therefore most of the public offices are occupied by
Americans who have moved in.
With the exception of the road which General Hull had built
for the passage of his army, there was twenty years ago, no road at all
which connected this area with another state. Excepting a few small
settlements at the outlets of rivers, Michigan was at that time just a
great wilderness, and according to the old maps, an absolutely
uninhabitable swampland.. . .Up to the time of the War of 1812, Michigan
and Detroit rarely enjoyed the arrival of a stranger. No steamboats
were to be seen on the lakes. The few other ships that reached the
district took as long on the trip as it now takes to travel to Europe.
The first steamboat, Walk on the Water, was built in 1819. Today there are twenty-four of them.
From: KARL NEIDHARD'S REISE NACH MICHIGAN, translated by
Frank X. Braun and Edited with an Introduction by Robert Benaway Brown. Michigan History 25 (1951): 36 - 43.