St. Clair County During the Territorial Period, 1805-1837

Below you’ll find the exact text, including end notes (I couldn’t help but inject two paragraph breaks, however), of a portion of “The Eastern Shore,” in Economic and Social Beginnings of Michigan; a Study of the Settlement of the Lower Peninsula during the Territorial Period, 1805-1837 (by George N. Fuller; Lansing: State of Michigan, 1916; its copyright has expired).  As this book isn’t the most commonly found, this portion on the eastern side of St Clair County might be of use to someone out there.  Some of the more esoteric sources may be of interest to some of you.

[p 160] The oldest center of population in the region of the St. Clair River is St. Clair, which has a British military tradition that dates from 1765.  A small [p 161] colony of French-Canadians[240] which had survived the War of 1812 made their home there, and on one of the French farms [sic] parties from Detroit laid out in 1818 at the junction of the Pine and St. Clair rivers the “Town of St. Clair,” which was to become the county seat of St. Clair County.[241]  Its growth was very slow.  Blois mentions but three stores there in 1838.[242]  Its chief industry was lumbering; five saw mills were operating in its vicinity in that year and it had one steam flourmill [sic].  Blois mentions also a good harbor.[243]

Elsewhere along the St. Clair, principally at junctions with its branches, sufficient beginnings were made in this period to indicate centers of later growth.  At these points swift currents ran between high banks and the supporting industry was lumbering.  The future Marine City and Port Huron were then in embryo.  The former at the mouth of the Belle River, was laid out into village lots in 1831.[244]  In the period of greatest speculation, 1835-36, its site appears to have been brought by Ohio speculators and replatted as “New Port.”[245]  Except for the county buildings [p 162] it quite equalled [sic] in appearance the enterprise of St. Clair.[246]

Port Huron, laid out in 1835[247] at the junction of the Black River with the St. Clair, became the center of the lumbering industry in the St. Clair region.  A “thriving village,” says Blois, “and being the central point for the lumber business, it is considered the most flourishing of any in the county.”[248]  Measured by its twelve stores it had three or four times the trade of St. Clair and Marine City.  Its exports for 1837 amounted to about $150,000,[249] and its importance in contemporary opinion is shown by its selection in 1837 as the eastern terminal for the Northern Railroad.[250]  A fourth village was platted on the St. Clair in 1836 at Algonac, which Blois mentions as small but doing considerable business.[251]

To Harriet Martineau in 1836, “there seemed to be no intermission of settlers’ houses all at regular [p 163] distances along the bank,” and about the same time Mrs. Jameson was impressed with the contrast between the settlement of the American and British shores of the St. Clair River.  “As usual,” she says, “the British coast is here the most beautiful and fertile, and the American coast the best settled and cleared.  Along the former I see a few isolated log shanties, and groups of Indian lodges; along the latter several extensive clearings, and some hamlets and rising villages;”[252] she thought this might be due to the better accommodations for transportation on the American shore.

Aside from these four river centers of settlement and a narrow strip of open land along the banks threaded by the Fort Gratiot Road from one settlement to another, there was scarcely a settler in the region at the end of this period.  St. Clair County had then less population than any other county in the section.  Significant were the positions and areas of the four townships of the county in 1834, which changed but slightly from 1827 to that date.[253]  Their long axes, extending parallel from the St. Clair River to the western boundaries of the county, suggest that in relation to the settlers there was little choice of stopping places between the river and that boundary.  The gradually increasing width of the townships from south to north suggests the gradual thinning out of the population northward, and there is some significance [p 164] in the correspondence between their positions and the courses of the Belle, Pine and Black rivers.[254]

St. Clair County townships to 1837 (Fuller 1916, p xlv).

St. Clair County townships to 1837 (Fuller 1916, p xlv).

The relatively slow settlement of the St. Clair region was due partly to misrepresentations, partly to its dense forests, but mainly to its distance from the direct route of immigration which led settlers to the more open country in southwestern Michigan.  In 1836 the relative importance of the settlements along the St. Clair with those in the interior is shown by the inclusion of the whole of the northern part of the county in the large township of Clyde and the formation of the two narrow river townships of Sinclair and Desmond.[255]  But there was some inland settlement by 1837.  The census for that year shows some six hundred settlers in the area formerly covered by the township of Clyde as compared with over thirteen hundred in the two river townships immediately east of it.[256]

“The query may be suggested, Why has not this country been settled sooner?” says “Philo Veritas,”[257] and adds, “I will briefly answer; a detail of satisfactory reasons might be assigned, but the principal one is, that those who have given the chief direction to emigration have not deemed it consistent with their local interest to settle the county of St. Clair, and the reasons may be readily discovered by reflection on the relative situation St. Clair and Wayne county [p 165] hold to one another, and the other parts of the peninsula; consequently St. Clair has been represented a swamp, a sink of pestilential vapors breeding disease and death.”

But apparently the St. Clair region felt with the rest of the Territory the common impulse to settlement that came with the first land sales, the opening of the Erie Canal, and the ear of speculation in the early thirties.  The platting of the “Town of St. Clair” in 1818 has been noted.  The first report in the Gazette of an exploration into the interior back from the St. Clair River, in 1822, was very favorable to settlement,[258] and just after the opening of the Erie Canal there appeared a second favorable description.[259]

Others followed in 1831-32.  These were written obviously by persons desiring to promote the settlement of the county, yet they did not overdraw its advantages.[260]  The advantages for shipbuilding and pine lumbering were specially dwelt upon.  The growth of lake commerce and the approaching completion of the Erie Canal stimulated interest in these industries.  As above noted, boats were being built at the sites of Marine City and St. Clair in the early twenties, as also at the upper end of the St. Clair near Lake Huron [so, Port Huron?].  “Boats, calculated to pass through the lakes St. Clair and Erie, and the New York Canal are now building [p 166] near the foot of Lake Huron,” says the Gazette[261] in 1824, “for the purpose of taking cargoes of produce to the city of New York.”  According to “Philo Veritas” above quoted, St. Clair County furnished by 1831 almost all the pine lumber (spars, boards, shingles, etc.) used in the eastern part of Michigan and in the northern part of Ohio.[262]  Settlement was somewhat aided by the Government’s interest in Fort Gratiot[263] at the upper end of the St. Clair River, which drew the military road northward from Detroit through the sites available for settlement along the river; but it was long before this route was much more than a rude wagon road.[264]  From 1834 to 1837 the population of the county grew from about two thousand to six thousand.[265]

[240] Mich. Hist. Colls., XXIX, 172; History of St. Clair County (1883), 254.

[241] Mich. Hist. Colls., IV, 356.  See advertisement of lots for sale, signed by C. McDougall, in the Gazette for August 1, 1818.  Emphasis is laid on the harbor, which “will admit the largest vessels at all seasons.”  The place was long known as Palmer.

[242] Gazetteer, 237, under “Palmer.”

[243] For the village of St. Clair see Jenks, History of St. Clair County, I, 137, 157, 251, 257, 281, 369.

[244] History of St. Clair County (1883).  There appears to have been some shipbuilding there as early as 1825.

[245] Mich. Hist. Colls., VI, 413; XXI, 339.

[246] Blois, Gazetteer, 332, credits it with four stores in 1838, and it appears to have had also a sawmill and a gristmill.  There had been some shipbuilding as early as 1825, when the place was known as Ward’s Landing.  Mich. Hist. Colls., VI, 413.  See for general discussion, Jenks, History of St. Clair County, I 144, 259.

[247] Lumbering in the Port Huron region seems to have started on the Black River about 1827.  The village was started first at the mill six miles from the St. Clair, but miscalculation of waterpower brought it down to the junction.  In 1833 there are said to have been some eighteen buildings there.  History of St. Clair County (1883), 496.

[248] Blois, Gazetteer, 346.

[249] Ibid., 240.

[250] See Michigan House Documents (1837), No 9, 13-14, for reasons favoring the mouth of the Black River as the terminal.  For Port Huron see Jenks, History of St. Clair County, I, 143, 153, 253, 366, 368.

[251] History of St. Clair County (1883), 256; Gazetteer, 317.  See also Jenks, History of St. Clair County, I, 264.

[252] Winter Studies and Summer Rambles, II, 107.  Lanman gives a picturesque description of settlement along the St. Clair River in his History of Michigan, 266.

[253] Territorial Laws, II, 478.

[254] Blois says the settlements in 1838 were mainly in the southern half of the county and on the St. Clair River.  Gazetteer, 241.

[255] Session Laws (1836), 80.

[256] Michigan Legislative Manual (1838), 73.

[257] Detroit Journal of Michigan Advertiser, May 4, 1831.

[258] Gazette, September 6, 1822.  It reports a rich soil, and undulating surface, pure streams of water, mill sites rich in timber, and less waste land than elsewhere.

[259] Ibid., July 18 and August 1.

[260] Detroit Journal and Michigan Advertiser, May 4, 1831.

[261] Gazette, July 16, 1824.  For early shipbuilding in St. Clair County see Jenks, History of St. Clair County, I, 403, et seq.

[262] Detroit Journal and Michigan Advertiser, May 4, 1831.  Nine sawmills were reported running on Black and Belle Rivers.

[263] See description of the advantage of Fort Gratiot for a military post in the Gazette for August 29, 1826.  Fort Gratiot was established near the close of the War of 1812 on the site of an early French fort.  (St. Joseph, abandoned 1688).  See also Jenks, History of St. Clair County, I, 95 and 262, et seq.

[264] See Jenks, History of St. Clair County, I, 384, et seq.

[265] Blois, Gazetteer, 151; Michigan Legislative Manual (1838), 73.  The effect of the panic of 1837 is seen in a decrease of population to 4,606 in 1840.  U. S. Census (1840), 447.


General Bibliography

[Not all of the sources in the endnotes have been found or deciphered in Fullers’ bibliography, which is provided by subject, not by chapter or simply in alphabetical order.  When he cites Gazette, for example, I don’t know if he’s referring to the Detroit Gazette, or possibly the Gazette of the United States or the National Gazette.  The Winter Studies . . . in note 252 doesn’t have an author and I have yet to find it.]

A.T. Andreas & Co. (1883). History of St. Clair County, Michigan. Chicago: A.T. Andreas & Co.

Blois, J. T. (1839). Gazetteer of the State of Michigan, in Three Parts . . . Detroit and New York: [not provided].

Jenks, W. L. (1912). St. Clair County, Michigan; Its History and Its People (Vol. II). Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company.

Lanman, J. H. (1839). History of Michigan, Civil and Topographical, in a Compendious Form; with a View of the Surrounding Lakes. New York: [not provided].



1 thought on “St. Clair County During the Territorial Period, 1805-1837

  1. Pingback: 1888 St. Clair County Histories: county, cities, towns | Port Huron Area History & Preservation Association

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