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Michigan's First Newspapers

In 1835, that most perceptive observer of American society, Alexis de Tocqueville,[1] wrote that Americans settled the wilderness with three things: their axe, their Bible and their newspaper. De Tocqueville’s view of newspapers on the frontier were hardly unique. Sandor Farkas, a Hungarian traveler who published his views about the United States in 1831 noted that: “the magic at work in America is the printing of newspapers. … No matter how remote from civilization or poor the settler may be, he reads the newspaper.”[2] In 1836 Harriett Martineau, A British traveler who visited the United States and whose published account of her journey was generally critical of America, wrote specifically of Michigan newspapers:

At Ypsilanti, I picked up an Ann Arbor newspaper. It was badly printed; but its content were pretty good; and it could happen nowhere out of America, that so raw a settlement as Ann Arbor, where there is difficulty in procuring decent accommodations, should have a newspaper.[3]

It is clear that nineteenth century America could do without many things, but one of them was not a newspaper.

To meet this need, Michigan’s first newspaper, The Michigan Essay: or the Impartial Observer, appeared on the streets of Detroit on August 31, 1809. A short-lived publication, like most western publications prior to the Civil war, was a small, handset, “scrubby” publication.[4] It would be many years before Michigan’s second newspaper was printed. In 1817 the Detroit Gazette appeared. Unlike the Essay the Gazette would have a much longer life, although like its predecessor it was partly printed in French.[5]

As the list below indicates, Michigan’s earliest newspapers followed Michigan’s first settlers. Thus, most of the state’s first papers appeared in the lower peninsula’s southern tier of counties. Prior to Michigan’s admission into the Union in 1837 newspapers were established in the following communities:

  • Detroit (1809)
  • Monroe (1825)
  • Ann Arbor (1829)
  • Pontiac (1830)
  • White Pigeon (1833)
  • Adrian(1834)
  • Tecumseh (1834)
  • St. Clair (1834)
  • Kalamazoo (1835)
  • Niles (1835)
  • Mount Clemens (1835)
  • Centreville (St. Joseph County, 1836)
  • Constantine (1836)
  • St. Joseph (1836)
  • Marshall (1836)[6]

In 1840 Michigan boasted thirty-two newspapers. By 1850 the number had grown to fifty-eight.[7] Most of these were “shoestring” operations. A young printer with little capital but considerable determination could usually purchase an old hand press for a low price and often with little cash and a promise to pay the balance later.