James Gillespie Birney II (1792-1857)
One of the Founders of Bay City: Antislavery leader, twice
candidate for President of the United States and Governor of Michigan.
By Marvin Kusmierz - Jul., 2002 (Updated Feb., 2010)
Birth: February 4, 1792 in Danville, KY
Death: November 25, 1857 in Eagleswood, NJ
Burial: Williamsburg Cemetery, Groveland, Livingston Co., N.Y.
Spouse: Agatha McDowell, married 1816 in KY.
Spouse: Elizabeth Potts Fitzhugh, married Mar. 25, 1841
The Most Prominent Political Person in Bay City's History!
Few Citizens Are Aware of His Stature in American History!
James G. Birney was one of the most
outstanding and remarkable individuals of the 20th Century in American history. He was born into a family who were slave owners, and as a young adult, also was a slaveholder, until he had a change of mind, and then set them free. Afterwards he became an abolitionist, and eventually one of the most prominent national leaders of the anti-slavery movement. Considering slavery both moral wrong and constitutionally illegal, his called on the nation to to end this injustice that was inconsistent with our founding principles..
hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they
are endowed by their Creator with certain and unalienable Rights, that among these
are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
James Gillespie Birney II, was born into a wealthy
Irish family of slaveholders, and was raised to believe human bondage was not only
acceptable, but represented the epitome of success for a wealthy man. Such was the perspective
under which James was raised, who as an adult, would be a slaveholder. However, his
consciousness as a man of Christian faith awaken him to his sin, and from that point on he
dedicated the balance of his life crusading against this injustice to humanity.
JAMES' PARENTS & FAMILY. _______
James G. Birney I
James Gillespie Birney, I, the father
of our subject, was born at Cootehill, County Ireland in 1767. He was
raised on his father's farm, and when of age, he decided to leave Ireland for
America. Upon arriving in the United States in 1783, he made his way to
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he was able to find work as a clerk in a
merchandise store. After five years he had accumulated a savings, and was now looking at opportunities for opening his own small business. He concluded, the best opportunities were in the western frontier, leaving Philadelphia he headed for the Danville, a new settlement in the Virginia territory..
Kentucky was a part of Virginia until it became a state in June 1,
In 1878 he
At Danville, which had been laid out for a town only two years earlier by Walker Daniel, he established a provisions store. The settlement has a sparse number of families, but was growing, and the store flourish as the population grew. In 1786, the population was suffient to warrant it becoming an organized village. James was
enjoying great success, and by now he had expanded his business interests, owning
a large farm and a manufacturing company making ropes. By the time Kentucky
became the 15th State on June 1, 1792, James was well on his way to
becoming one of the most prosperous and prominent business men in the state.
On April, 5, 1791, James I married
Martha "Maria" Reed,, the lovely daughter of John Reed and
Littice Wilcox, a well to do family of stature. Her parents were not
Anna's choice, as they consider James less than a worthy mate for
her. However, this parental mind set was relieved when James obtained the
measure of wealth worth of being their son-in-law.
On February 5th, James Gillespie Birney,
II, was born, their first child, and four months later Kentucky joined the
union of states. Their second child, Anna Marie Reed, was born the
following year, on the 4th of July, 1793. Martha gave birth to the second
child, a daughter named Anna Marie Reed. (Anna married Judge
J. Marshall in 1809, and died in 1858, at Frankfort, Kentucky.)
In 1795, the young family was delivered a terrible and shocking blow with the death of Martha. James' was left without his love, and
two infant children to take care of. Not wanting his children raised by a nanny, he sent a letter off to his widowed sister in Ireland, asking if she would come to
American and care for James and Anna. His sister, Mrs.
Doyle agreed to do so. She remain a mother figure to the Birney children until her death in 1834)
According to old articles published in the Olive Branch of 1826, Jamesremained married twice after Martha's death. The first was to her younger sister, who died within a year of the marriage, and the second time was to a Miss Robertson. No dates were provided.
JAMES' EARLY LIFE. _______
1806 - Young James Schooling, Law Practice.
At the age of eleven, James was sent to the
Transylvania college in Lexington. Shortly after the new year in 1806, he
returned to home for the next two years, entering the seminary of Dr.
Priestly to prepare himself for a higher education at the College of New Jersey
Princeton). James II was a remarkable student throughout his
educational years, often finding himself in positions of student leadership, and
well respected for his high degree of learned, and seemingly, inherent
knowledge. -- A biography on James, by his son, William,
He was popular with his class-mates and fellow students. Some these
their indignation when it was announced that the first honor of the class
been given to another, but he calmed them by his declaration that the
had decided fairly, because he had always been inferior in mathematics to his
successful competitor. For the abstractions of science he had no taste and a
not more than respectable, but he greatly excelled in history, moral and
philosophy, general literature, and the classics. He was especially
Latin, and read it easily without a dictionary -- a practice he kept up
life. Much of his time in college was given to preparation for debates and to
studies in logic and moral and political philosophy, pursued under the
instruction of Samuel Stanhope, Doctor of Laws, Doctor of Divinity,
president of the college.
Book: The Life and Times of James G. Birney.
After completion of his formal education,
James returned to Danville where he practiced law for the next two years.
He then went to Philadelphia where he joined the law firm Alexander
J. Dallas, under an apprentice so he could hone his skills as a lawyer. After
three years, he return to Danville and set up his own law office.
JAMES' THE POLITICIAN. _______
1816/17 - Taste for Politics, New Bride and Home.
Young James took a fancy to Agatha
McDowell, whom he had known since childhood. Her father, William
McDowell, was a U.S. Circuit Court
Justice, and a highly esteemed member of one Kentucky's most influential
uncle, George McDowell, was a Governor of Kentucky.
bells rang for the young couple on February 1, 1816. Among the gifts they received
included several household slaves from Agatha's parents. The
gifting of slaves was quite common during this period, indeed, for a young married
couple, it was a major boost in getting their homestead established. --
(The rational for many who owned household slaves, was that their servants lived a
better life in bondage than they would be as impoverished free souls.) --
Agatha was not only a loving wife, best
friend and mother, but would be James staunches supporter during the
James got his first taste of politic that
Summer when he joined the campaign efforts of Henry Clay, who was seeking a
Congress, and for George Madison, a candidate for Governor. James
went on the road making stump speeches on their behalf, which contributed the
successful election of both candidates. The following year, James launched
his own successful campaign to become a member of the Lower House of the
General Assembly of Kentucky, being seated on December 2. James'
talent, as a forceful and convincing speaker, served his constituents well, as he
was one of the more active legislators during his term.
Near the end of 1817, James accompanied his
friend, Mr. Love, on prospecting trip into the Huntsville area of the Alabama
territory (Alabama didn't become a state until Dec. 14, 1819). Huntsville was one of the fastest growing towns at the time and James was interested what financial opportunities he might find there. He was impressed with the country side and found a cotton farm plantation a few miles out side of Hunstville that he ended up buying, and afterwards headed back home to break the news to Agatha, feeling certain that she would be pleased with their new homestead.
James M. III
On June 7, 1817 at Danville, Agatha gave birth to their
first child, James III, who lived to the age of seventy-one.
1818 Life in Huntsville.
In February, James and family departed
Kentucky for their new homestead in Alabama. After James was settled in at
the plantation, his attention returned to local politics. He made a success run for a seat in the Alabama legislature, and was a member when the new Alabama constitution was under approved in 1819.
In 1819, Agatha gave birth to their second child,
William who lived to the age of eighty-eight.
1820 - Huntsville, AL.
James end up selling his his plantation as it proved to be unprofitable, and then, the family moved into Huntsville, where he opened a law practice. The decision proved to be a timely one him. Shortly thereafter, he was appointment solicitor
of the northern circuit and this helped considerably in the growth of his law practice.
-- Two years later, in 1821, Agatha gave birth of a "daughter"
and their third child, Margaret who lived only one year.
-- Five years later (1823) their fourth child, Dion B., was
born. He lived to the age of thirty-nine.
-- The next year, 1825, their fifth child, David Bell was
He lived to the age of thirty nine.
JAMES' THE ABOLTIONIST. ______
1826 - Change of Faith.
Under gentle pressure from Agatha,
James decided to give up his Episcopalian church to join the
Presbyterian faith. During their years together they were active and
influential members in Presbyterian congregations wherever they lived.
Birney was a devout Christian and faithful
to its principles,
an example of this is found in local history. In 1848 Birney joined in
partnership James Fraser and Daniel H. Fitzhugh to purchased the
faltering Saginaw Bay Company, that had laid out the village of Lower Saginaw in
1838. The new owners had the property re-platted, and on Birney's
insistence, the new plat set aside "free
lots" on Washington Avenue, so new religious congregations would have property
available for erecting a church building.
1827 - Legislative Success.
James legislative persistence
was rewarded when the Alabama legislature finally passed the provision
that he had introduced eight years earlier, that "prohibited slaves being imported from other states to be sold in Alabama."
That year, Agatha rewarded his successes with the birth of their
sixth child, Arthur Hopkins who lived to the age of six.
1828 - Political Success.
By 1828, James had established himself
as a prominent person in Alabama politics. He was a candidate for presidential
elector on the Adares ticket, canvassing the state for the Adams
party. Locally, he was recognized as a leader in educational concerns and
other improvements to the Huntsville community.
In 1829, Agatha gave birth to their
seventh child, Martha Reed, who lived only to the age of four.
1830s - National Recognition
The 1830s saw James anti-slavery efforts
reached beyond local and state politics. He made an attempt to engage
Henry Clay, a
close friend of his father and a powerful political figure in Kentucky, to
lead an emancipation movement in Kentucky. However, Birney failed to
persuade Clay in that directory, and
their relationship became distant, but somewhat cordial. For several years during
this incident, James involved was an advisor to the Cherokee
nation. This experience expanded his interest, and strengthen his political
position towards support of not only blacks, but any group had been
wronged by existing laws. Laws he considered inconsistent with the principle
defined in the United States Constitution.
1831 - Tired of Alabama Politics.
Disgusted and frustrated by the evil influences of
slavery in Alabama, James decided it was time to leave the state. He moved
to Jackson, Illinois, where he believed he might have a better chance
of moving the thrust of anti-slavery movement forward. However, before departing
Alabama he was unexpectedly offered an appointment by the American
Colonization Society, who want Birney to work for them as an agent in
the southwest. Birney decided this was the best opportunity for advancing
his cause, and accepted the position. However, it became clear to him that that he
was waisting his time trying to influence Alabama's powerful politicians in his
direction, who were deeply entrenched in the economics of slavery. After only one
year he resigned.
In 1832, Agatha gave birth to their eighth child,
George who lived to the age of twenty-four.
1833 - Return to Kentucky Roots.
After resigning his position with the American
Colonization Society in 1833, James returned to his roots in Kentucky,
he thought a more favorable result might be achieved in moving anti-slavery
convictions. If he could influence Kentuckians to emancipate their slaves, it
act as a catalyst that could lead neighboring states, like
Virginia and Tennessee, to do the same. However, his efforts faltered as things
in Kentucky had changed considerable during his absence. Henry Clay and
individuals had strengthened their opposition to anti-slavery movements.
Undaunted, Jamesfreed the slaves he had inherited from his father after his death in 1834.
A year later, he formed the Kentucky Anti-slavery Society, which at the
time consisted of forty members.
May of that year, he went to New York to speak before the American
Anti-slavery Society, which had proclaimed him as the leading abolitionists in
north, associating him the likes of Judge William Jay, Theodore
Steward and Thomas Morris. The occasion proved to be regenerative
experience for Birney. Upon returning to Kentucky he was intent on
establishing a weekly anti-slavery newspaper. However, even this proved
discouraging as he could not find a publisher was willing to print the newspaper
him. It volatile time of conflicts among opposing interests, for and slavery.
advocating the end of slavery were confronted with serious threats of violence
endangering their lives. Even President Jackson took a negative stand
against the against abolitionist. He actively lobbied Congress and state
legislatures to enact laws that would prohibit "incendiary" (anti-slavery)
publications, and refuse use of the mail system for their distribution.
That year, Agatha gave birth to their ninth child, Florence.
year of her death is unknown.
1835/36 - Move to Cincinnati.
In spite of these obstacles and personal
to himself and family, Birney persisted. He moved his family to
Cincinnati, OH, where he hoped he would start his newspaper. While
conditions would be somewhat better here, Birney was well aware that it
not be without some difficulties. A concern he shared in a letter to his friend,
"The solicitations from various quarters that my paper should be published
have become so important that I have determined to go on with such resources
as I myself can command... I shall commence the paper in small village (New
Richmond) about twenty miles up the river from this place; or, if not there,
at one (Ripley) about fifty miles above, where I can print without being
mobbed, but with the expectation of making way for the introduction of the
press in a few months to this city... All I expect is to keep from losing
anything by the paper; but a paper out here we must have."
On January 22, 1836, an organized mob against his
gathered out in front of Birney's publishing business. Birney
help from local law enforce, but they to no avail, stating they were without the
to protect his property. Birney was left with little choice other than
his power of persuasion. He confronted the mob with calm and conviction, then
spoke to them about evils of slavery in such a manner they could understand how
corrupting slavery was to the soul of person. He convinced the majority with his
reasoning, and the mob disbanded.
That year Agatha gave birth to their tenth child,
Georgina who lived less than one year.
His publication the " Philanthropist"
gained in circulation -- Birney's oracle quality, writing expertise and
ability to master a subject served him well as an editor. Possessing intimate
extensive knowledge of a subject, he presented his opinion in an
confrontational manner that often won over those who held an opposing point of
Much of his personal time was spent doing speaking
He traveled to towns and cities in the free states, where he often addressed
legislative bodies and civic groups. The common theme of his lectures pointed to
unlawful methods used by those favoring slavery. Unless these methods are
they would eventually lead to erosion freedom of speech, press, trial by jury, and
expand the injustice of slave labor. He called on them to rally up against these
political encroachments being made by powerful pro-slavery factions of the south,
who seek to spread slavery to other states.
1837/38 - New York and the Supreme Court.
Times were about to change dramatically for
Birney, ending his period of struggle at Cincinnati. In September of 1837,
he received and offer to become Secretary of the American Slavery Society,
in New York, which he was delighted to accept. This was a major boost to Birney,
he knew this move would elevate his presence and influence on a national level.
Birney and family were once again on the move, but this time there was more
certainty they'd be staying longer.
1838 - U.S. Supreme Court and Mayor Lost.
Birney receives a request, the opportunity
to, appear before the Supreme Court of the United States to address the
of slavery. The following is an excerpt from his speech:
"Judging from the best and most authentic history of the Convention of
1787, it was well known then, that liberty and slavery could not
co-exist -- that if liberty got the upper hand, slavery, its everlasting
antagonist, in some form or other, must, in the same proportion, go down, and
vice versa. Being incongruous elements, they cannot dwell peaceably together
-- for incongruous they ever have been, and ever must be, as sin and holiness;
one must, in time, put the other down. But the ingenuity, or, rather, the
lubricity of the human mind is very great; men, without much difficulty, are
persuaded to think of themselves as belonging to a clique or section of
society, rather than to the race, and prone to interpret or construe matters
pertaining to that section according to the prepossessions, prejudices, or
passions which prevail among those who are looked on as composing it."
(A link to the full text is at the bottom of this page.)
-- That year Agatha, now 40 years old, gave birth to their
child, Ellen, who lived less than one year.
The happiness associated with having a new child
was sadly interrupted with the death of Agatha. by the death of Agatha,
only twenty-two years old. A loss greatly felt by James lost his love,
companion of thirty-three years. Agatha's passing left an
emptiness in Birney that could only be overcome by his deep faith in God.
In spite of his great loss, Birney carried on dealing with the issues of
importance in his life. The following year
he traveled to England where he gave frequent lectures. The following was
written by one of Birney's friends who was there and felt compelled to speak
openly about Birney's many virtues .
"It was truly refreshing to me while I was in Great Britain, amid the
many complaints against my countrymen to which I was obliged to listen, to
hear our excellent friend, James G. Birney so frequently spoken of, and
always in terms of unqualified approbation and respect. The mention of his
name in these circles in which he was known, and they were both numerous and
extensive, invariably imparted pleasure, and many were the inquiries which
were made in respect to his welfare. I could not but observe that intelligent
men both in England and Scotland very highly appreciated him for
that trait in his character, which I have always from my first acquaintance
with Mr. Birney, regarded as exhibited by him in a remarkable degree.
You will doubtless understand me as referring to his candor. He never deals in
exaggeration or sophistry. In his public addresses and discussions, which were
numerous, in that country, as well as in his private conversations, by the
sobriety of his own views, by the fairness and fullness with which he stated
the positions and arguments of his opponents, and by the manliness with which
he met and refuted them, he ever impressed his auditors with a conviction of
the soundness of his sentiments and of the perfect reliance which might be
placed upon his statements. The visits of such men to foreign lands, are an
honor to our country, and leave behind them a savor which is grateful to an
Source: Impressions of Mr. Birney expressed by Mr. Kellogg after his
return to Illinois from England.
1839 - Presidential Hopes.
The year start happily for James and Agatha
with the birth of new daughter, Ellen, however, she would died within a
In August death once again visited Birney's heart,
with death of his father, whom he had a short time earlier. Equally as dis-
for Birney was his father's inheritance left him with twenty slaves. Reference
William Birney's book:
KNOW ALL MEN BY THESE PRESENTS,
That, I, James G. Birney, late of Kentucky, but now having my residence
in the city of New York, believing that slave-holding is inconsistent with natural
justice, with the precepts and spirit of the Christian religion, and with the
Declaration of American Independence, and wishing to testify in favor of them all,
do hereby emancipate, and forever set free, the following named slaves which have
come into my possession, as one of the heirs of my father, the late
Birney, of Jefferson County, Kentucky, they being all the slaves held by said
James Birney, deceased at the time of his death.
Then follow their names and descriptions, and the deed concludes:
In testimony of the above, I have hereunto set my name and affixed my seal this
third day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and
JAMES G. BIRNEY.
Abolitionist Political Party.
Leaders in the abolitionist movement were divided
whether or not using a political approach was an effective means for promoting the
anti-slavery cause. However, opinions of many against the political position had
In December abolitionist gathered for a convention
in Warsaw, New York for the purpose of establishing an abolitionist political
party, which they called the Liberty Party. Candidates were chosen to run
the 1840 elections. Birney, nominated by his
friend Gerrit Smith, was elected to head the party's ticket as its
candidate for President of the United States, with Thomas Earle, of
Pennsylvania, as his running mate for Vice-President.
1840 - On the Campaign Trail.
Tis was a memorable year for Birney,
personally and politically. He was in full campaign mode, spending much of his
time campaigning for votes in his campaign the presidential election.
In November, with the elections still in progress,
James left for England to attend the World Anti-slavery Convention.
During the voyager there he met a friend, Henry B. Stanton and his wife,
Elizabeth Cady, who had just recently been married. They were also heading
for the convention. Elizabeth(prominent feminist advocate), in
years she would recall a discussion she had with Birney aboard ship, in a
"Eighty Years And More: Reminiscences 1815-1897," published in 1898. It
another perspective on James, and also makes mention of Birney's
"Miss Fitzhugh of Genesco."
"Mr. Birney was a polished gentleman of the old school, and was
excessively proper and punctilious in manner and conversation. I soon perceived
he thought I needed considerable toning down before reaching England. I was quick
see and understand that his criticisms of others in a general way and the drift of
his discourses on manners and conversation had a nearer application than he
I should discover, though he hoped I would profit by them. I was always grateful
anyone who took an interest in my improvement, so I laughingly told him, one day,
that he need not make his criticisms any longer in that roundabout way, but might
take me squarely in hand and polish me up as speedily as possible. Sitting in the
saloon at night after a game of chess, in which, perchance, I had been the victor,
felt complacent and would sometimes say:"
[Continued...] (Full document at
Upon returning from England in November,
James and his brother-in-law, Dr. Fitzhugh, made a
trip to the Saginaw Valley, in Michigan to purchase land. Birney bought a sizable
amount of property the Lower Saginaw area, the largest being on the west side of
the Saginaw River. However, it appears that Birney investments in property
was more than just a speculative investment.
Birney involvement in Michigan politics increased
considerably, his name often appearing in the newspaper of the Signal of
Liberty, published by the Michigan
The Signal of Liberty – August 18, 1841
From Gerrit Smith's Correspondent in Tennessee.
Things of the South
MR. BIRNEY'S CHARACTER AT THE SOUTH. _______
I am happy to hear that my friend Birney is married. On one of his
can more sincerely rejoice in his happiness. -- My acquaintance began with him in
Alabama. He was then in the front rank of his profession at the bar. The
highest honors of the state were within his reach if he would have accepted them.
next knew him while in Kentucky. While I was in the stage in company with
slaveholders between Maysville and Lexington they spoke of his paper intended to
published at Danville, and said he should not survive the second number if he did
the first. I thought it my duty to apprise him of his danger by letter – but I am
mortified to recollect that it contained a censure on abolitionists for going
of the public sentiment. I soon became convinced that Mr. Birney was right, and
have only regretted that I could not do more for a cause in which so much is
involved. I hope most sincerely that he may yet be President of the United States.
He had talents of the first order, firmness and independence, with all the
qualifications necessary for the Chief Magistracy of this great nation.
The results of the elections held the following
were quite dismal. The Birney-Earle ticket received only 7,369 votes.
However, Birney knew establishing a national party was an important first
step that would lead to greater success in time in forwarding the abolitionist
agenda. -- Note: Votes for the election were cast from Oct. 30 through Dec.
JAMES' IN MICHIGAN. ______
1841 - A New Wife and New Home.
Birney, who had known Dr. Daniel H.
Fitzhugh from their college days together at Princeton, developed an
intimate relationship with his sister, Elizabeth. They also shared another
family connection, Elizabeth's sister, Anne Carroll Fitzhugh was the
wife of Gerrit Smith, a longtime abolitionist friend of Birney.
These Fitzhughs were children of Col. William Fitzhugh, a descendant
of George Mason. Col. Fitzhugh was born in 1761 in Maryland,
and came to New York in 1815. He and his close friends Nathaniel
Rochester and Charles Carroll, were prominent and wealthy men in New
York history. When the Colonel died in 1939, he left his children a substantial
fortune. -- From the papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote on January
"To morrow morning we are going to Peterboro, where we shall probably meet
Mr. Birney. Cousin Gerrit is blowing a little flame between Mr.
Birney & cousin Nancy's sister, Elizabeth Fitzhugh. She is a
woman of years & fortune. I think it would be a very suitable match, & I do hope
his honour the 'Judge' may succeed."
On March 25th, Elizabeth Potts Fitzhugh,
became the second wife of James. A few months later Elizabeth
happily announced she was expecting their first baby. His friend Gerret Smith announced the news to Michiganders through in a letter to The Signal of Liberty newspaper:
The Signal of Liberty, Ann Arbor, Michigan
August 18, 1841
From Gerrit Smith's Correspondent in Tennessee.
MR. BIRNEY'S CHARACTER AT THE SOUTH.
I am happy to hear that my friend Birney is married.. No one of his friend can more sincerely rejoice in his happiness. -- My acquaintance began with him in Alabama. He was then in the front rank of his profession at the bar. The highest honors of the state were within his reach if he would have accepted them. I next knew him while in Kentucky. While I was in the stage in company with slaveholders between Maysville and Lexington they spoke of his paper intended to be published at Danville, and said he should not survive the second number if he did the first. I thought it my duty to apprise him of his danger by letter – but I am mortified to recollect that it contained a censure on abolitionists for going a head of public sentiment. I soon became convinced that Mr. Birney was right, and have only regretted that I could not do more for a cause in which so much is involved. I hope most sincerely that he may yet be President of the United States. He has talents of the first order, firmness and independence, with all the qualifications necessary for the Chief Magistracy of this great nation.
Birney and Dr.Fitzhugh were to play
significant roles, investing heavily in Bay City's early growth, which ultimately
lead to many of their children settling here in later years to handle their
parent's estate. These Birney and Fitzhughdescendants were
well-known not only locally, but also around the state.
Dr. Fitzhugh was one of the largest land
holders in the state. He been coming to Michigan for twos before it in 1837, to
buy investment properties from government. Dr. Fitzhugh, although he a
medical degree, he never practiced medicine except for a short stint as surgeon
for the fleet of
Commodore Perry during the battle of Lake Erie. While he never resided in
City, he was here often for many years looking after his properties, which include
the village of Salzburg, that he founded, platted, but never filed for its
organization. This would be today, the southern portion of Bay City's west side.
In November, Birney and Elizabeth,
with their youngest daughter, Florence left the comforts of New York,
headed for Michigan where they planned to settle in the wilderness of the
Saginaw Valley. They arrived at the village of Saginaw (Saginaw at that
time occupied only the west side of the river.), where they found accommodations
at the only plate available, the Wester house built in 1837. The hotel was
quite large for the small number travelers and boarders it was intended to serve.
Indeed the place was unoccupied. The owner must have been extremely ecstatic when
Birney offered to lease the whole building for his temporary for his
private residence. -- On November 19, 1841, Birney dispatched the following
letter to Dr. Fitzhugh:
"On Monday I went to Lower Saginaw, and made a rather extensive survey of both
sides of the river, more than was done when we were together. I am more and
convinced this is to be an important commercial point. The schooner
Warren, showing nothing aboard except for our furniture -- all of which
not have exceeded 10 tons -- was unable to make it over the bar (sand bars
between here and Saginaw). Vessels which can navigate the bay can always make
to Lower Saginaw."
"So well convinced am I that Lower Saginaw is to be a place of some
importance that I have made up my mind -- Elizabeth concurring -- to make
vicinity of it our place of settlement, and this without any expectation of
1842 - New Child and Move to Lower Saginaw.
--- On January 2nd, Elizabeth gave birth to their first child
(Birney's twelfth), son named Fitzhugh who lived to the age of twenty-two
In the Spring of 1842, James and the family
made the move up river to Lower Saginaw (Bay City). Accommodations here were even
more limited than at Saginaw. The village, laid out in 1837, by Saginaw Bay
Company, was now struggling for financially survival. The population was quite
sparse,less that a hundred scattered around Lower Saginaw in log-cabin homesteads.
The only few framed structures present at that time were those erected by the
Saginaw Bay Company and the dwelling of Judge Sidney Campbell. The Birney family
set up their residence in the warehouse building of the Saginaw Bay Company.
James a consider amount the wild land surrounding Lower Saginaw, the
largest being on the west side of the river.
Birney had to quickly make the adjustment
to his required of his new environs, which was devoid any of the amenities the
family had been accustom to. If you want to eat, you had to go get it yourself. If
you wanted heat you had get the wood for a fire and chop it up yourself. This had
to be a difficult transition for the Birney's who were accustomed to the
amenities associated with their wealth. For the first time in their life they
forced to deal with the impositions demanded of pioneers in order to survive. It
was long before a garden was started, and a herd of cattle were brought north by
his to graze on his west side property.
Amazingly, Birney quickly jumped into the
abolitionist activities in Michigan, to which, he was no stranger, having met many
of the key individuals during earlier trips in the state. They were more than
pleased to have a man of his national stature operating as a part of their group.
The Hon. James G. Birney, who was in 1844 the Abolition candidate for
president, came to Lower Saginaw with his family in 1842. Mr. Birney's
was built on the corner of Fourth and Water streets, where he lived for
several years, when he sold these eight lots and house to his sonDavid B., and his son David B. sold toB. F. Partridge, who
sold the same toJames Fraser, where he lived several years. That
house was moved to the corner of Saginaw and Fourth streets, and
changed into a hotel known as the Moulton house. While Mr. Birney
lived here he imported some very fine Durham stock, and for many years he and
Fitzhugh bred fine stock.
(Source: History of Bay City, Mich., by B. F. Partridge, 1887)
The conditions were very primitive to say the
least, it was a true pioneer setting with log cabins scattered among the forest
that surrounded the village. There substantial more native Indians populating this
region than white settlers. -- In July James dispatched a another letter
off to Dr. Daniel Fitzhugh in New York:
"The mass of our neighbors are Indians -- drunken Indians -- made drunk by
white men. I'm raising my voice in protesting the inequity of making Indians
drunk and cheating them."
This was typical of James, he would rise up
against an injustice whenever or wherever he encountered it.
James in the meantime was traveling to
various communities around the state making speeches on behalf of the abolition
movements, including a trip the village of Flint, in August:
GENESEE COUNTY LIBERTY CONVENTION.
Agreeably to previous notice the friends of Equal Rights met at the Court House
in the village of Flint, August 22nd, 1842: previous to business Mr. J. G.
Birney, of Saginaw, gave a very able and spirited address to the citizens who
had assembled from different parts of the County. The House was filled to
overflowing with the most virtuous and intelligent part of our community.
The profound stillness which prevailed and the deep interest with which the
audience listened to the speaker, betrayed the effect of Mr. B's just and very
appropriate remarks, which riveted the attention of the assemblage for two and a
(Source: Signal of Liberty, Sept. 26, 1842.)
1843 - Michigan Politics and Another Child.
From the wilderness environment of his homestead
along the Saginaw River, Birney remained in touch with his abolitionist
friends, often writing, and occasionally getting together during trips he took
back in East. His involvement in Michigan politics increased considerably, to the
point where he had put his hat in the ring as the Free Soil party candidate
for governor of Michigan.
John S. Barry
Birney stumped around state whenever
possible to gain votes, and he was also a frequent writer to the abolitionist
newspaper in Ann Arbor, the Signal of Liberty, published by the Michigan Anti-
Slavery Society. This paper acted like forum where people would exchange articles
on a given subject.
Because of Birney's national notoriety, the
paper drew in articles from some of the prominent abolitionist from outside of
Michigan. Regardless of Birney's efforts, he was soundly defeated at the
poll for governor. John S. Barry, was the winner, tallying 23,123 votes to
--- On November 27th, Elizabeth gave birth to their second child
and James' thirteenth, a daughter named Anna Hughs, she lived to the age
two years, two months old, dying from measles.
1844 - Second Attempt at Presidency
In 1844, Birney made a second
attempt at the presidency while a resident of Bay City. Guy
Beckley, another local resident, is believed to have written the platform for
the Liberty (Freedom) Party on which Birney ran. Guy
was a former Methodist paster in Vermont where two first met each
other. Both were long-time activist in the anti-slavery movement, and he traveled
around the country campaigning on Birney's behalf. Abolitionist newspapers
were providing their full support for their ticket.
Remember if you vote for Birney, you vote for the liberation of 3,000,000
of your countrymen who are in bondage for no crime whatever; if you vote for
Polk or Clay you vote for the continuance of their bondage.
-- Signal of Liberty, Ann Arbor, Mich., Aug. 26, 1844.
The elections results this time around improved
dramatically for the abolitionist party. They might have been considerably higher
if it had not been for a political shenanigan played on the part of the Whig
party for the benefit of candidate Henry Clay. Three days before the
election they circulated a forged letter stating that Birney had
withdrawn from the race. This letter, known as the "Garland forgery", was
widely circulated in Ohio and New York. The timing of it didn't give Birney a
chance to debunk its falsehood. Nonetheless, Birney made a good showing this time
around receiving 62,263 votes, enough to tip the scale in favor of James
Poke, who has been in in a tight race with Clay.
During research on this history, I came across an interesting tid-bit relating to Polk's connection to Danville during his early life, associated with Dr. Ephraim McDowell, a nephew of ...
It was these very instruments that he (Dr. McDowell) operated upon President James K. Polk, who came to Danville, Kentucky, and placed himself under McDowell's care in 1812. He was then 17 years of age, and had suffered from stone in the bladder, and many years afterwards, while President, wrote Dr. McDowell a beautiful letter thanking him for restoring his health.
-- Surgery, Gynecology, Obstetrics, Vol. 15, F.H. Martin Memorial Foundation. (1912)
1845 – Tragedies and Another Political Loss.
Early that year their two year old daughter,
Anna came down with a severe case of measles, and her health continue to
decline, until on March 8th, she died. One only imagine the pain they must have
endured in this lost, and in being so isolated from their family members and old
friends. Anna's body was transported back to Groveland, New York for burial
at the family's plot in Williamsburg Cemetery.
Once again Birney was called upon by the
Free Soil party to be their candidate for governor of Michigan, which
Birney was more than willing to do.
That August, James' son, William
came to visit his father and step-mother. On the way, he stopped at Detroit to
pick up his sister, Florence, who was attending school there. James
and Elizabeth were excited, and looking forward to seeing William.
The intervals between family visits were quite lengthy, as travel to and from
Lower Saginaw required a very long and time consuming trip.
William and his father used the occasion to
spend time together hunting for game, fishing on the Saginaw River, and horse back
riding around the country side. The elder Birney had serious fall during their
last time out riding, the incident was recaptured in later in when William's
A favorite amusement of his was riding on horseback. He owned a pair of jet-
black Canadian ponies. They were swift and moved well under the saddle.
Mounted on these we galloped over the prairies, enjoying the bracing air of early
morning or the breezes of the evening. On our last ride we were moving rapidly,
side by side. My father, with extended hand, was pointing out to me a vessel in
the distant horizon making her way under full sail when a prairie chicken
rose with a whir from under the feet of his pony. The animal shied, springing
to one side, and my father was thrown heavily to the ground. I dismounted
and ran to him. He was already on his feet. To my inquiries he answered, "It was a
bad jolt, my son, but no bones are broken." He held my bridle while I caught his
pony. Declining my assistance he remounted. The place of the accident was about
two miles from home. We rode back at an easy gallop, my father making no
-- James G. Birney and His Time, Wm. Birney.
The next day, James, was feeling the
soreness from his fall, but that was expected that it would go away in a matter of
a week or two. William left shortly thereafter left heading for home.
James' injury would turn for the worse later on.
With the leaving of his son, James' focus
returned politics, and began stumping around the state in his quest once again to
become the Governor of Michigan. However, the election results, even they were
much better, Birney still fell way short of the mark. Alpheus Felch,
the democrat candidate won soundly with 20,123 votes to Birney's 3,023.
Factors that most likely affected Birney's efforts were he was still not well
known outside of the politic circles in the state, and his political position on
slavery was not most voters, who were looking to a Governor that focus on their
local and regional needs.
1850 - James Captured On Two Censuses.
Interestingly, James was recorded on the
census taken at his residence in Lower Saginaw and at his son's residence in
Lower Saginaw, Saginaw, Mich.
Birney, James G. - age 58, farmer, born in Ky.
Elizabeth P. - wife, age 47, born in N.Y.
Florence - daughter, age 15, born in Ky.
Fitzhugh - son, age 8mos, born in Mich.
Cincinnati, Hamilton, Ohio.
BIRNEY, James - age 32, lawyer, born Ky.
Amanda - wife, age 30
James G. - son, age 7
Sophia H - daughter, age 3, bor Ky.
Arthur M. - son, sage 1
BIRNEY, James G. - father, age 58, lawyer
1853 - Health Declining, Heads East.
The fall that Birney took from is horse in
1845, was more serious than thought at the time. In the years that followed his
health slowly declined, and was experiencing ineterment boughts with paralysis,
that progressive got worse. By now, it his health kept him pretty much home bound,
and his failing voice was becoming unmanageable. The matter has become so serious
he decided to move back east where he might get better treatment. Birney and his
family left for Eagleswood, New Jersey, where the son, Fitzhugh, was
attending school. There he would once again be near some of his closest friends
such as Henry B. Stanton, and Gerrit Smith, and Theodore Weld, who lived in
1856 - Another Loss, Family Affairs.
James' degrading health signaled the end of his life was near, and family members were preparing for the handling of thier father's affairs. The eldest son, James, was making plans for moving his family Lower Saginaw to assist his mother in this regard. As timing would have, Birney lost another son, George, who was living with his mother in Lower Saginw when he died on November 13th. Shortly thereafter,
Birney received the followingletter from his son David Bell:
Phila'. November 18, 1856.
My Dear Father,
Dion informs me that poor George died of congestion of lungs on the 13th instant. I was prepared to hear of it and altho death is not to me a terrible thing yet I am very sad at our brothers untimely end. When with us last his constant cough, hacking & agitating him made him rather unpleasant in his manner but I have always found his heart susceptible of the most loving emotions. Poor fellow, I am glad that he leaves no family behind him dependent.
I will try and see you & hope that you will bear this blow calmly and that your views of the goodness & forgiving disposition of our God will reconcile you – James has returned to Saginaw.
I send you a short note from Dion. I will accept his proposition so that you can make out the deeds to my wife. If you prefer at the same time to give the other deed with the understanding or agreement on my part do so, but my dear father use your own pleasure in the matter.
With my love to mother & Fitzhugh,
Yours mo. Affy.
D. B. Birney.
I have directed Ferris to pay Dion the money & transfer the stock to him or Mr. Crawford if Dion prefers.
Contributed by Alan Food.
Note: Reference in David's letter are: George Birney, Robert Dion, and James M. Birney, his brothers; and, Fitzhugh, was a step-brother. David's wife reference was either Anna Case or Maria Jennison. The Ferris mentioned is unknown.
1857 - The Crusade Ends.
Birney's health never improved, and on
November 25, 1857 his crusade to free men from human bondage came to an end. His
body was taken to New York, for burial in the family plat in Williamsburg Cemetery
at Groveland, Livingston County. In later years Fitzhugh and Elizabeth would rest
Early that year, Bay County was organized,
and his eldest son, James III, played a prominent role in making it
possible. He had come to Lower Saginaw early to handle his father's affairs in his
absence. One of the first actions taken by the newly formed county, was to rename
Lower Saginaw to Bay City, giving it an identify that at last disassociated it
from its larger neighbor up river.
JAMES G. BIRNEY'S LEGACY. _______
James G. Birney's legacy is quite unique to Bay City. I am not aware of any
community in the history of the United States that can claim a founder with these
Lawyer -- Member Alabama Legislature -- Newspaper publisher -- Abolitionist
leader -- twice a Presidential candidate -- twice candidate for Governor of
-- help establish the First Antislavery Political Party.
In 1963, Sidney Glazier, professor of
history at Wayne State University, concluded that, "James G.
Birney was one of twenty-two "most outstanding citizens" in Michigan history."
There are many document records of Birney's
role in Michigan politics. Birney was stumping around in the state for several
prior moving here. He was a strong and encouraging voice the anti-slavery
political efforst in Michigan. After his move to Lower Saginaw, his efforts
increased substantial and quickly became the most respected and recognized leader
of the abolitionist polical movement.
-- In the words of A. D. P. Van Buren, Birney's state as
Thus James G. Birney became the leader who mustered, drilled and trained
the abolitionist forces in Michigan politics for still larger and more important
field – that of our national politics, and there, in two presidential contests he
led them against their old foes, and although not gaining the victory, yet he
handed them over to other leaders with whom, increased the numbers and discipline,
they constituted the “old guard” that turned the tide of battle in favor of the
Republicans in the presidential contest of 1860.
-- Paper, 1890 Annual Meeting, Michigan Pioneer and Historical
Closing Comments. -- I encourage you to learn more not only about
the members of the Birney family, but also, the many other prominent and
interesting people that contributed to the rich history of our Community.
Barry, John S.
Birney: - Anna Hughs
- Anna Marie
- Arthur H. (son)
- David Bell (son)
- Dion B. (son)
- Ellen (dau.)
- Fitzhugh (son)
- Florence (dau.)
- George (bro.)
- George (son)
- Georgina (dau.)
- James (son)
- James G. (Subject)
- James G. Sr.(father)
- Margaret (dau.)
- Martha R. (dau.)
- William (son)
Browne, Daniel E. Rev.
Dallas, Alexander J.
Fitzhugh, Anne C.
Fitzhugh, Daniel H. Dr.
Fitzhugh, Elizabeth P. (2-wife)
Fitzhugh, William (f-inlaw)
Jay, William (Judge)
Marshall, Joh J.
McDowell, Agatha (1-wife)
McDowell, George (Ky Gov.)
Poke, James (Pres.)
Slaughter, Gabriel (Gov.)
Stanton, Elizabeth Cady
Stanton, Henry B.
Adares ticket (AL)
Alabama State Legislator
Alabama's Constitution (1819)
American Antislavery Society
American Colonization Society
College of NJ (Princeton)
Garland foregery letter
Groveland, Livingston Co., NY
Kentucky Anitslavery Society
Kentucky State Legislator
Lower Saginaw (Bay City)
Madison City, AL
New York City
Polk, James (Pres.)
Saginaw Bay Co.
Secty., American Anitislavery Soc.
Supreme Court, U.S.
Transylvania College, Lexington, KY
Wayne State University
Webster House (Saginaw)
West Bay City
World Anti-slavery Convention
Birney Announces Candidacy
Excerpt of letter Jan. 10, 1941, letter postmarked Saginaw, MI, by James G. Birney acknowledging his nomination as presidential candidate for the Libery Party of New York:
"What is our object? Liberty -- the liberty that is twin born with justice -- the liberty that respects and protects the rights, not of the weak only, or of the strong only, but of the weak and the strong, and simply because they are humans rights.
"We contend for liberty as she presents herself in the Declaration of Independence -- asserting that all men are created equal, that they are entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and treating these as rights of the Creator to man as man -- therefore inalienable.
"... We long to see the first of her reign -- the abolition of slavery, and the protection of every human being in the land by just and impartial laws.
"... Will the friends of liberty succeed? I have but faint hope that they will, to set off against strong fears that they will not. If we look for success to the generous love of liberty now existing. In our country, the cause is lost.
"... The principles we as a nation profess other nations are beginning to put into practice..... It may be, the bright examples of other nations, older and more influential will arouse in us the honorable ambition not to be left quite behind in the race of civilization."
The Signal of Liberty newspaper
The [Signal of Liberty] was a abolitionist newspaper published in Ann Arbor during the 1840s, by the Michigan Anti-Slavery Society.
Annexed is the official census of the several counties of the state in 1837 and 1840.
White males, 113,104; white females, 97,897 -- black males, 384 -- black females, 319 -- deaf and dumb, 46 -- blind, 32 -- idiots and insane, 69 -- agriculturalists, 57,793 -- trades and manufacterers, 7640 -- commerce, 993 -- navigation, 217 -- learned professions, 983.
The only counties that have fallen off in population are Monroe and Saginaw, the form 898, the latter 28. The greatest increase is in Jackson, being 4,433.
Oct. 30, 1843 --
JAMES G. BIRNEY -----
We learn from the Boston Emancipator, that Mr. Birney is now on a visit to
Massachusetts, where he will address a considerable number of County meetings before the
election on the fifth of November. He will be received with that regard and esteem which
his mental and moral qualifications secure to him wherever he is known. We presume the following
manly statements from the pen of Elizur Wright Jr. nearly express the feelings of
Liberty men generally in reference to the course they would wished pursued by him whom
they have selected for the highest office which the people can bestow.
"The voice of the largest Convention ever assembled in behalf of the slave, has put forward
Mr. Birney, as a fit representative of anti-slavery principles, and a leader worthy of
the glorious struggle in which we are engaged. They put him forward, not as a man of straw, or a
dead man, or an abstraction, but as a living hero, who has done much, and can do more, to
overthrow the slave power -- who, to do the work of a second Washington, has all the
courage, generalship, dignity, patriotism, and self-devotion of the first. He has been raised up
and qualified by Divine Providence, for this great work, in a most marvelous manner --
posterity will see it, whether the bat-eyed of this generation do or not -- for in the first
place, one of the most extraordinary men of the age, (the author of "Slavery as it is,")
was commissioned to pour the truth into his ears, when a slave-holder in Alabama. By this truth
he was arrested in the full tide of a most lucrative profession and the most seducing prospects
of political elevation. He honored the truth, and not set free his slaves, but devoted his life
to the overthrow of American slavery. In the prosecution of his angelic enterprise, he has
broken the ties that bound him to an immense circle of slave-holding relatives and friends, has
endured reproach, toil, loss of goods, has face furious and murderous mobs, has been dogged for
weeks, by threats of assassination, and have never flinched from duty one hair. Of Henry
Clay's $1,200,000,000, he has said to $20,000, "Ye dollars, coined such by iniquitous and
piratical legislation, stand up in the shape of immoral men and seek your happiness in that
inalienable liberty for which God designed you;" and this he made himself poor. Pressed by this
poverty, and with some natural shrinking of the spirit, perhaps from that backguard cry of the
office-seeker, office seeker, which was sure to be poured out upon him from a million of pro-
slavery throats, after his nomination by the little "forlorn hope" Liberty party of 1840,
he retired to labor with his own hand upon a wild farm inMichigan -- but not to
idleness or insulation in the great cause, as the Legislature of that State can testify. I, for
one, rejoice that he will not let the nomination seal his lips. Abolitionists too pure to do
anything practical, or rather too feeble-hearted to suffer reproach, may unite with the
blacklegs of Southern-trade gambling, or the still meaner panders of a pro-slavery gospel, and
say what they please. Grant all they say -- grant Birney to be mercenary and ambitious,
and electioneering for himself, if he has FAITH to regard a conquest over slavery, and the
establishment of justice, as the preferable road to wealth and glory, I, for one, plant myself
by his side. I pledge my life and sacred honor, and I would my fortune if I had one, to stand by
him and act by him as long as he continues to aim at glory in that way. As to men's motives, I
am not clear-sighted; I only inquire which way their tracks tend. Do they act right principles,
as well as profess them? If they do, their hearts may well enough be left to the Great Searcher.
I would have stood by Cromwell, I would stand by O'Connell, were I in Ireland --
and I am a Repealer here. Some heroic man, and I think "it will be James Gillespie
Birney, will take his place in history, as reviled and hated by the lordlings, underrated
and suspected by the poor miserable shrink-aways of his generation, who has yet to lead his
country to a victory over despotism, which will be brilliant through time. Such a man, I say,
Will be written down, or our country will rot. I go for that man. Don't you, free citizens of
Massachusetts? If you to, come up from the your dells, and down from you hill-tops, and hear
Mrs. Birney's Bequest
The New York Times, February 7, 1869 -----
Bequest by the Widow of James G. Birney. -----
From the Rochester Chronicle, Feb. 5.
The following are among the bequests made in the will of Mrs. Elizabeth P. Birney: To the Rochester Orpan Asylum, $1,000; to Frederick Douglass, S. D. Porter and T. C. Montgomery, trustees, $1,000 for the education of the colored children in Rochester; to John A. Needles, of Baltimore, trustee, $2,000 for the education of the colored children in that city; to Elizabeth Blackwell and others, of New-York, trustees, $2,000 for the Women's Hospital of that city; to the American Bible Society, $2,000; to the Episcopal Church (Trinity) in Bay City, Mich., $2,000; to Harriet Tubman (a colored woman now living in Auburn, N.Y.),kl “the Moses of her people, whom she has delivered from American slavery by hundreds,” a life annuity of $50. The legacies are payable three years after Mrs. Birney's decease.
Note: Elizabeth died Jan. 12, 1869, at the age of 66 years.
Birneys Legacy to Bay City
James G. Birney lived here only for a decade, but during that time he set
in motion a lineage of historical significance through his survivors, who remained
citizens of Bay City for decades afterwards.
It was "pure luck" that brought James to this area, which wasn't even on the
map at the time. Bay City can thank another prominent figure its history, Dr.
Daniel Fitzugh, who was a successful speculator in real estate, and the brother
Elizabeth, Birney's wife. James also speculated in real estate, and
Fitzhugh suggested he take a look at the Saginaw Valley in Michigan.
Birney, visited the area, liked what he saw, and bought large tracks of
land in the Lower Saginaw area (Bay City). On returning to New York, he talked
Elizabeth into leaving the refinements of their homestead, to move the family to
In November, 1841 they arrived in the village of Saginaw, where they remained
until the Spring of 1842, when they moved to Lower Saginaw taking up residence in
the Campbell House. Shortly thereafter, he had his eldest son, David, to
his farm in Ohio to bring back 300 head of Durham cattle to graze on land
he owned on the west side of the Saginaw River. David's task was a challenging,
but he successfully completed his task, and in doing probably accomplished the
first cattle drive made this far north in Michigan.
Some twenty years later, Henry Sage, a lumber baron from New York
purchased part of this property Birney's widow, Elizabeth (Fitzhugh). In
partnership with John McGraw, another New York lumbering man, Sage erected
the world's largest sawmill at the river's edge just south of the what is now
Midland street. The mill became a company town known as Wenona, which became a
village, and ultimately a part of West Bay City along with the villages of
Salzburg and Banks.
Birney's youngest son, Fitzhugh, was the first to have a ceremonial
baptism in this young community of pioneers. The Rev. Daniel E. Browne
traveled all the way from Flint on horse back for the baptism.
No force was more important in Birney's life than his faith. This fact, is
well documented in written history, and establishing means for common worship was
paramount in his activities of the settlement. He opened his home for regular
religious services led by him that include Sunday school for educating children in
disciplines of the Christian faith. As a partner with his friend, James Fraser and
others in the Saginaw Bay Company which was formed to plat Lower Saginaw,
it was Birney who insisted on setting aside lots where new churches could be built
(most of these were located on Washington ave.). mainly on Washington Ave.).
When Birney made his second attempt at the presidency in 1844 as the Liberty
party candidate, he was a resident of Lower Saginaw. James Polk of the Democratic
part won, defeating Whig candidate Henry Clay with Birney a distant third. However,
Birney might claim a defeat over his fellow Kentuckian Henry Clay by claiming
enough votes to deny Clay the presidency.
It is this community's good fortune that Birney didn't become President of the
U.S., as had hw done so, early development of Bay City may have been quite
different without his presence. Birney was able to take on the role of being a
"good politician" on behalf of his chosen community.
Birney knew that growth in Lower Saginaw would be stymied unless Lower Saginaw
was able to get local representation on the Saginaw County Board of Supervisors.
He was able to successfully petition the board to created Hampton township which
covered the areas north of Saginaw. The name was chosen by Birney which came from
the Hampton-on-the-Hudson, NY where his wife, Elizabeth, was born.
Next he set about laying the grown work for creating a new county which was
carried on by his son, James after he had left Lower Saginaw to go east and tend
to a nagging injury. After a long battle, Michigan approved the organization of
Bay County in 1857. That year the village of Lower Saginaw was renamed Bay City
breaking any reference to Saginaw.
Perhaps the life influence of James and Elizabeth Birney is best exemplified
by the outstanding character of their children, and in particular their four sons
that voluntarily participated in the Civil War, three of which died as a result:
Died during war: - Dion, Lieutenant (1823-1862)
- Fitzhugh, Major (1842-1864)
- David B., Major-General (1825-1864)
Survived war: - William, Brigadier General (1819-1907)
Grandson: - James G., Lieutenant (1844-1870)
In 2004, the grandson, James IV, drew considerable attention from many in Bay
City, after his Cival War sword was found. The sword had been given to him by Gen.
Custer for his gallant service. It was purchased by a local group and given to the
What appears on this page barely touches on the extensive history of James G.
Birney. One has only do an internet search on his name....
Google Books: 1,186 results.
One can only wonder why James G. Birney, a man of national historic
importances, remains unrecognized as one of the important founders of the Bay
City community. But, he has plenty of company in this regard. Other prominent
pioneers like Fraser, Fitzhugh, Campbell, Miller, and host of others as well
remain anonymous to the public at large.
The richness of Bay City's history will not become apparent until its
citizens are made aware of people in the city's passed that deserve recognition
for thier important contributions.