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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!

    J ames 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..

    “We 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.”
    - {Read full document} - Declaration of Independence, 1777.

    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 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, 1792

    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 pleased with 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, James remained 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 (1810)

    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 (now 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 states:

    He was popular with his class-mates and fellow students. Some these expressed their indignation when it was announced that the first honor of the class had been given to another, but he calmed them by his declaration that the faculty 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 talent not more than respectable, but he greatly excelled in history, moral and political philosophy, general literature, and the classics. He was especially proficient in Latin, and read it easily without a dictionary -- a practice he kept up during his life. Much of his time in college was given to preparation for debates and to his studies in logic and moral and political philosophy, pursued under the direction and instruction of Samuel Stanhope, Doctor of Laws, Doctor of Divinity, and 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.


    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 families. Agatha's uncle, George McDowell, was a Governor of Kentucky.

    Wedding 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 troubling years ahead.

    James got his first taste of politic that Summer when he joined the campaign efforts of Henry Clay, who was seeking a seat in 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.

    David Bell

    -- 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 born. He lived to the age of thirty nine.


    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, where he thought a more favorable result might be achieved in moving anti-slavery convictions. If he could influence Kentuckians to emancipate their slaves, it could 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 other individuals had strengthened their opposition to anti-slavery movements. Undaunted, James freed 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.

    In 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 Weld, Alvan 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 for him. It volatile time of conflicts among opposing interests, for and slavery. Those 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. The year of her death is unknown.

    1835/36 - Move to Cincinnati.

    In spite of these obstacles and personal threats 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 would not be without some difficulties. A concern he shared in a letter to his friend, Gerrit Smith:

    The Philanthropist.
    "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 abolitionist paper gathered out in front of Birney's publishing business. Birney sought help from local law enforce, but they to no avail, stating they were without the means 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 and extensive knowledge of a subject, he presented his opinion in an confrontational manner that often won over those who held an opposing point of view.

    Much of his personal time was spent doing speaking engagements. 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 the unlawful methods used by those favoring slavery. Unless these methods are confronted 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 subject 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 permanently 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 eleventh 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, friend and 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 great 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 American citizen."
    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 year.

    In August death once again visited Birney's heart, with death of his father, whom he had a short time earlier. Equally as dis- concerning for Birney was his father's inheritance left him with twenty slaves. Reference from William Birney's book:

    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 James 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 thirty-nine.


    Abolitionist Political Party.

    Gerrit Smith

    Leaders in the abolitionist movement were divided on 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 changed.

    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.

    This 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.

    Elizabeth Cady

    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 later years she would recall a discussion she had with Birney aboard ship, in a book, "Eighty Years And More: Reminiscences 1815-1897," published in 1898. It gives another perspective on James, and also makes mention of Birney's love, "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 that he thought I needed considerable toning down before reaching England. I was quick to 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 intended I should discover, though he hoped I would profit by them. I was always grateful to 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, I felt complacent and would sometimes say:"
    [Continued...] (Full document at digital.libary.upenn.edu/women/stanton/years/years-v.html]

    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 Anti-Slavery Society:

    The Signal of Liberty – August 18, 1841
    From Gerrit Smith's Correspondent in Tennessee.

    Things of the South


    I am happy to hear that my friend Birney is married. On one of his friends 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 ahead 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 year 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. 2.


    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 25th, 1841:

    "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.


    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 very 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 Fitzhugh descendants were well-known not only locally, but also around the state.

    Dr. Fitzhugh was one of the largest land holders in the state. He had been coming to Michigan since it became a state in 1837, purchasing low cost investment properties from the 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 Bay 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 more convinced this is to be an important commercial point. The schooner Warren, showing nothing aboard except for our furniture -- all of which could 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 it 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 the vicinity of it our place of settlement, and this without any expectation of changing our location."

    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 years.

    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 house 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 son David B., and his son David B. sold to B. F. Partridge, who sold the same to James 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 Mr. 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:


    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 half hours.

    (Source: Signal of Liberty, Sept. 26, 1842.)

    1843 - Michigan Politics and Another Child.

    By now Birney had settled into a more permanent homestead along the east bank of the Saginaw River. His house marked the northend of the village along what is now Water Street, His dwelling and most of the other settlements were south of his home.

    Mr. James G. Birney was the a resident of the place, and occupied a pretty vine-clad cottage. A broad stretch of river was his foreground, and a beautify flower garden almost surrounded his house. The latter was Mr. Birney's especial are and delight. Pictures upon the walls and well stored library spoke to elegance and refinements within. Mr. Birney's farm one-half mile below the schoolhouse was the limit of civilization in the direction. The only steet in the town followed the river not far from the Birney cottage. The river was the only avenue and egress to and from the town. (History of Bay City, Michigan - 1883)

    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 Birney's 2,776.

    --- 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

    James (1844)

    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.

    Henry Clay

    James Polk

    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 book...

    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 complaint.
    -- 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 Cincinnati:

      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 Eagleswood.

    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 beside him.

    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 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 credentials:
  • Lawyer -- Member Alabama Legislature -- Newspaper publisher -- Abolitionist leader -- twice a Presidential candidate -- twice candidate for Governor of Michigan -- 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 follows:

    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 Society.

    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.

    An excellent account of the life of James G. Birney was written by his son, William, in 1890 and is made available on the internet by Google:
    [James G. Birney and His Times: The Genesis of the Republican Party.]

    James G. Birney II

    James G. Birney II

    Related Pages:
    {Birney: Liberty Party}
    {Birney: Michigan Politics}
    {Birney: Final Years}
    {Birney: Obituary}
    Other Pages...
    Fraser, James
    {Fitzhugh, Daniel H. Dr.}
    {Jennison, Charles}
    Birney Family Menu
    Family Genealogy
    Family Pictorial
    1893 KY Newspaper Articles
    * {1948 Saginaw News (pdf)}
    * J.G.Birney Letter to George
    First family:
    Agatha (McDowell), spouse
    James Birney, 1st child
    William Birney, 2nd child
    David Bell Birney, 5th child
    James G. Birney IV, grandson
    Second family:
    Elizabeth (Fitzhugh), spouse
    Fitzhugh Birney, 1st child
    Names Referenced
    Barry, John S.
    Beckley, Guy
    - 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.
    Campbell, Sidney
    Carroll, Charles
    Clay, Henry
    Dallas, Alexander J.
    Earle, Thomas
    Felch, Alpheus
    Fitzhugh, Anne C.
    Fitzhugh, Daniel H. Dr.
    Fitzhugh, Elizabeth P. (2-wife)
    Fitzhugh, William (f-inlaw)
    Fraser, James
    Glazier, Sidney
    Jackson (General)
    Jay, William (Judge)
    Kellogg, (IL)
    Marshall, Joh J.
    Mason, George
    McDowell, Agatha (1-wife)
    McDowell, George (Ky Gov.)
    McDowell, William
    McGraw, John
    Morris, Thomas
    Partridge, B.J.
    Poke, James (Pres.)
    Reed, John
    Reed, Mary
    Rochester, Nathaniel
    Sage, Henry
    Slaughter, Gabriel (Gov.)
    Smith, Gerrit
    Stanton, Elizabeth Cady
    Stanton, Henry B.
    Steward, Alvan
    Weld, Theodore
    Wilcox, Lettice
    Subjects Referenced
    Abolitionist movement
    Adams Party
    Adares ticket (AL)
    Alabama State Legislator
    Alabama's Constitution (1819)
    American Antislavery Society
    American Colonization Society
    Banks village
    Cattle drive
    Cherokee Nation
    Cincinnati, OH
    Civil War
    College of NJ (Princeton)
    Danville, KY
    Engleswood, NJ
    Espicopalian faith
    Freedom Party
    Garland foregery letter
    Great Britain
    Groveland, Livingston Co., NY
    Hampton twsp.
    Huntsville, AL
    Jackson, IL
    Kentucky Anitslavery Society
    Kentucky State Legislator
    Liberty Party
    Lower Saginaw (Bay City)
    Madison City, AL
    Methodist pastor
    New York City
    Philadelphia, PA
    Philanthropist (publication)
    Polk, James (Pres.)
    Presbyterian faith
    Presidential candidate
    Saginaw Bay Co.
    Salzburg village
    Schooner Warren
    Secty., American Anitislavery Soc.
    Supreme Court, U.S.
    Transylvania College, Lexington, KY br>Virginia
    Wayne State University
    Webster House (Saginaw)
    Wenona village
    West Bay City
    Whig Party
    Williamsburg Cemetery
    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.

    1841: Birney moves to Michigan

    1844: Ad selling Birney Portraits.

    1845: Ad for Birney Gov. Michigan.

    May 5, 1841 --
    Census of Michigan
    Annexed is the official census of the several counties of the state in 1837 and 1840.
    St Joseph6,3377,055
    St. Clair3,6734,265
    Van Buren1,2621,910
    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 --
    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 in Michigan -- 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 Birney."
    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 Lower Saginaw.

    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)
    - 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 historical society.

    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: 30,400 results;
  • 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.
  • Sources
    [Sketches of the Life and Writings of James Gillespie Birney]
    - 1844, by Beriah Green
    (Google Books)
    [James Birney and His Times:]
    The Genesis of the Republican Party with Some Account of Abolition Movements in the South before 1828.
    - 1890, by son, William Birney.
    (Google Books)
    [The Signal Of Liberty]
    Copies of newspaper published by Michigan Anti-Slavery Society (1840s). Many articles associated with J.G. Birney.
    [Letters - Birney & Hon. F.H. Elmore]
    Publ. 1838. Birney responds to Elmore's concerns over the abolitionist societies.
    (Gooble Books)
    [From Slavery to Freedom, 1824-1909] Correspondence between F.H. Elmore of SC & James G. Birney on Slavery
    - 1838, American Antislavery Soc.
    (Library of Congress)
    [1840: Presidential Election]
    [1844: Presidential Election]
    [Examination of Supreme Court Decision]
    - 1800, by James G. Birney
    (Library of Congress)
    [Birney - Lincoln Connections]
    Article by Dave Rogers explains the connections that exist between Birney and Lincoln, include a family relationship.
    ["Philanthropist (pdf file)"]
    - From writing of H.E. Stowe
    (Case Western Reserve Univ.)
    [Williamsburg Cemetery Photo]
    Groveland, Livingston Co., N.Y. - Birney's family grave markers and others.
    [Williamsburg Cemetery Listing]
    The Birneys, Carrolls & Fitzhughs, etc.
    [The American Churches, the Bulwarks of American Slavery]
    1842, by James G. Birney
    (Google Books)
    [James G. Birney's Anti-slavery References]
    (www.medicolegal.tripod.com/ bulwarks)
    [Birney & McDowell History]
    - 1847, History of Kentucky]
    [Birney Genealogy Pages]
    By Ken Birney.
    [Ashland - The Henry Clay Estate]
    [Birney Articles]
    - by Dave Rogers
    Collection of Valuable Documents]
    - 1836, by Isaac Knapp,
    (Harvard University)
    [John Hopkins University]
    Holds over 1,000 over 1,000 books and pamphlets of James G. Birney. donated by son, William Birney in 1891.
    Other Sources:
  • "The Saginaw News", Oct 31, 1948, page 27.
  • "The Bay County Story -- Footpaths to Freeways" by Leslie E. Arndt. Library of Congress online documents.
  • "James G. Birney and His Times" by Wm. Birney.
  • Historical Collections, MIchigan Pioneer and Hstorical Society, 1892
  • Contact Bay-Journal if you would like to add an article on this subject or another one.