Potters Field (cemetery)
Columbus avenue and Saginaw street, Bay City, MI.
Above: Map of Pioneer Villages.
Potters field approximate location between the villages of Lower Saginaw and Portsmouth. Also shown are locations of Indian villages, burial grounds, and burial mounds identified by the Late George X. Allen, director of Bay County Historical Society. Note that Potters field was located roughly where the Indian burial ground existed between the two white settlements.
Right column: Newspaper articles.
Stories after Potters field has close and the excavating of coffins from the old cemetery to allow for community expansion.
The history of "Potters Field" is not well documented... no one knows with certainty when it got started, nor for sure when the last burial there took place. The graphic on the right is based on map of known Indian burial sites, showing Potters Field location between the villages of Lower Saginaw (Bay City) and Portsmouth, on or near what was once an Indian burial grounds.
Sketchy historical accounts describe its location as a high sandy area which is probably why someone decided to bury the first corpse there. Bay City at that time was known as Lower Saginaw and it only comprised the area of what is the present downtown area.
- Background History -
The Saginaw Treaty of 1819 secured this area and most of east Michigan for white development. The treaty made John Riley the largest private white landholder of this area second only to the government which held deed to the vast majority of land.
The first settlement on the Saginaw River was in Saginaw. The area north of this settlement to the mouth of the mouth of the Saginaw River was commonly referred to as Lower Saginaw.
The area at this time a wilderness. Nature and wild life thrived off the rich land nourished by the rivers and streams fed the bay. Dense forests ran up to the water's edge with only an occasional meadow or swamp area allowing sunlight beyond the shadow of the tall trees. The only sign of human presence were a few well worn and narrow Indian trails. It pretty much remained in this pristine condition even after the first pioneers settled here. That all began to change when the lumbering started to take off during the 1850s.
The first white settler in what was to become Bay City was Leon Trombley who settled here in 1832. His log-cabin was located along the river near Fourth Street. A number of others settlers arrived shortly thereafter, including his nephews, Joseph and Mador Trombley. In 1836 Albert Miller acquired property from Benoit Trombley and platted for the village of Portsmouth, the first formal community this side of Saginaw. A year later, the village of Lower Saginaw was platted by the Saginaw Bay Company just north of Portsmouth.
- Indian Burial Sites -
The Indians lived here for thousands of years and they have many burial sites which eventually disappeared after the white settlement expanded. It's possible that Potters Field may have begun as Indian burial site.
Geologist refer to the earliest Indians as mound builders because their burial sites where above ground and shaped like mounds. Signs of mound builders have been found throughout most the the U.S. The areas where these have been found in Bay County are shown in the map above.
- Potters Field -
In Leslie Arndt's book (1), he describes Potters field as follows, "The first burial in
Lower Saginaw occurred about 1840 in a sandy ridge near Washington Avenue and 11th Street. It was reported that a man named Bennett* from Pine River was the first burial. The site was chosen largely due to its elevation. The next death involved a Mrs. Fred Derr, who was remembered as the first bride in the settlement, and she was interned in the same place."
* Name was Nathaniel B. Burnet, Ref. 1867-68 Indian & Pioneer of Saginaw Valley.
What Mr. Arndt, describes as the first burial may simply have been the first one documented. It's quite possible that Indian burials on this location may have preceded that of Mr. Bennett. Its hard to imagine that the Indians would have not have used this ideal spot long before any white settlers set foot in this area. In fact, the Indians are identified in the map above as having a burial ground close to Potters field.
When the first burial was recorded at Potters field in 1840, some of the prominent pioneers living here at the time were James Fraser, Sidney Campbell, Albert Miller, Joseph Marsac, Capt. Pierson, Joseph Trombley and several more of his clan. That year, Dr. Daniel Fitzhugh, a transient speculator from New York at the time, purchased land across form Portsmouth that he later platted for the village of Salzburg. Two years later, his brother-in-law, James G. Birney moved here with his wife Elizabeth and family. James aggressively began purchasing land around the villages and on the west side of the river.
- Historical Accounts -
Much of the history of Potters Field is derived from directories and old newspaper articles from that time period. Early on pioneers were making plans cemeteries in additon or to replace Potter's Field.
Pioneer Directory of Saginaw Valley 1866-67.
History of Bay City.
A Catholic grave yard was donated by James Marsac; the deed executed by Capt. Joseph Marsac, heir of James, about 1840. This grave yard being in the center of the town was sold for the benefit of the Church. Mr. Michael Daily donated a five acre lot for a grave yard on the west side of the river. -- Mr. Wm. D. Fitzhugh of Mt. Morris, N. Y., donated five acres on the east side of the river for a Catholic grave yard.
The east side plot was just south of Potters Field. The planned cemetery never occured. The west side property reference is the abandoned St. Joseph located on east side of State street, south of Visitation church. which is now a parkinig lot.
The Fitzhugh property would be St. James cemetery along Ridge road. By 1868, Potters Field no longer exists, nor is mentioned the planned cemetery just south of it on property donated by James Marsac.
Pine Ridge cemetery, established in 1858 by Judge James Birney on the south east corner of Ridge and Tuscola roads has replaced Potters Field.
Bay City Directory 1868-69
There is no escape from the common end of all life. Man may flee into the woods, or seek the mid-ocean, far from the graves of his kindred, and forget the dread enemy of his race, but he follows the footsteps of humanity whenever they tread, and seizes his vitims however engaged; it may be while he is engaged in a crime, it may be while he is full of vigor, pursuing a useful career.
The first melacholy occasion on which the pioneers here were called upon to bury their dead, was when Mr. N. B. Bennett died, a gentleman from Pine River. He was buried without funeral ceremonies, in what has been known since that time, as the Potter's field. The next funeral was that of Mrs. Derr, who was buried in the same place and these were the only deaths in the settlement for a number of years. Potter's Field still contains a few graves, and a few marble slabs still standing, attest to the unwillingness of mourners to disturb the resting place of those whom they gently lowered to a long repose; but the most of the coffins have been taken up and buried in Pine Ridge Cemtery.
Those who feel curious about Potter's Field, will find it (not very attractive) at the southeast corner of Eleventh and Washington streets.
While burials at Potter Field came to end when Pine Ridge Cemetery opened in 1858, where many graves at Potter's Field were reburied, a number of graves remain in the old burial grounds, as evidenced by the folloing old newspaper articles.
Bay City Daily Journal - December 14, 1871
On the site of the old graveyard on 12th street between Washington and Saginaw street may yet be seen scattered graves with headstones mixed in with the houses erected last summer.
Bay City Tribune - July 22, 1900
AN OLD GRAVEYARD
WORKMEN UNCOVER IT DURING PAST TWO YEARS.
A reminder of the early days of Bay City was brought to light during the past week by the uncovering of the old graveyard at the corner of Columbus avenue and Saginaw Street. Friday afternoon the workmen engaged in excavating for Henry Williamsonís new machine shop unearthed a couple of former residents of the city, and yesterday three other coffins were brought to view, two being very small. There was nothing by which the remains could be identified, so they were thrown upon the ground, to be picked over and carried away by the curious. One of the coffins was made of black walnut.
Bay City Tribune - July 25, 1900
WAS WELL PRESERVED.
BODY OF WOMAN FOUND IN OLD GRAVEYARD.
Half a dozen bodies have been uncovered during the past few days on the site of Williamsonís machine shop, Columbus avenue and Saginaw street. Late yesterday afternoon one coffin was brought to light which was in remarkable state of preservation. The body enclosed with that of a woman, apparently petrified, and the form was so complete that there was no difficulty in distinguishing the sex. The attention of Captain Wyman was called to the matter and on investigation he found a large number of people standing around the excavation. He at once notified Health Officer Ruggles and the latter called Coroner Hyatt to the scene and directed him to take charge of the remains, which were subsequently interred in the county farm. Other coffins were brought to view before the workmen quit last evening and it is thought the authorities will take some steps toward having the bodies reinterred.
Bay City Tribune - July 29, 1900
MORE BODIES UNCOVERED.
OLD CEMETERY IS STILL YIELDING ITS DEAD.
More bodies have been brought to light in the old cemetery at Columbus avenue and Saginaw street. A morbid crowd surrounds the place and, watches the workmen as they remove tthe sand, occasionally bringing up pieces of a coffin or uncovering the remains of some person who died long ago. A number of men stood about the place yesterday afternoon when one body was brought out . It was not on the most excellent state of preservation and a few of the onlookers gazed at the remains of what had once been a human being. There was a hasty exodus from the place and at least one of the curious crowd will never go there again.
Bay City Tribune - Oct. 20, 1900.
MORE BODIES FOUND.
WORKMEN UNCOVER ANOTHER PART OF OLD CEMETERY.
Workmen were engaged yesterday in excavating for a sewer in the rear of the police patrol barn on Saginaw street. This property was a part of the old cemetery formerly located in that part of the city and yesterday the workers discovered evidence of this fact in the unearthing of several coffins containing the remains of human beings. One coffin was of unusual size, indicating that the occupant was a large man. The boxes and bones are thrown in a heap at one side of the excavation will probably be remove by the coroner.
- Pine Ridge Replaces Potters Field -
When the lumber boom began taking off in the middle 1850s, Potters field was still the only cemetery on the east side of the river until about 1859 when the Pine Ridge cemetery was established by Judge James Birney, son of James G. and Elizabeth Birney. This led to Potters Field eventually being abandoned. The Pine Ridge cemetery covered five acres on the south east corner of Ridge and Tuscola roads.
Pine Ridge itself ended up being abandoned in 1931, after the death of George W. Ames, who was owneer the cemetery. The rightful owners, his inheritors appear to not have claimed the property. The cemetery continued to be operated by the sexton, Charles Cuthbert until his death in 1952. Since the several volunteer groups has sustained the presence of Pine Ridge cemetery.
Unlike the Potters Field which disappeared because its property was in the way of expansion, the Pine Ridge cemetery is located in area containing the largest concentration of cemeteries in Bay County. These cemeteries are run along the east side of Ridge Road from Trumbull to Scheurmann.
- Oak Ridge Cemetery -
Worth mentioning from a historical perspective is Oak Ridge cemetery located on the west side of the river on the east side of Henry Street. It's the oldest burial grounds on the west side dating back to 1851-52. It was established by the Drake brothers on the property of their large mill operation. They set aside 20 acres for this burial site which they named Oak Ridge in reference to the many oaks trees growing there. Later it was taken over by the village of Bangor until 1877, when West Bay City was organized.
While the Indians established the earliest burial grounds here, it's clear that Potters Field by all accounts was the first burial grounds east of the Saginaw used by the villages of Bay City and Portsmouth.