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Pioneer's Account Of Saginaw Valley 50 Years Ago. (1886)
The following article is believe to have been written by Albert Miller.
  • Transcribed January 2005.
  • Bay City Tribune - Sunday, May 16, 1886.


    Sketch of the Beginnings of the Saginaw Valley Settlement by One Who Was Here.

    Written for The Tribune:

    I was much interested in reading an account of the proceedings at the banquet reception given to Hon. S.O. Fisher at the Fraser house on the 7th inst. Especially that part that related to the future growth and properity of the cities of this part of the valley.

    For the encouragement of those who seem to have a correct idea of what the future may be, I will give a little sketch of what the location was fifty years ago, and let the imagination depict what it may be at the end of the next half century.

    The writer, coming to this Territory in 1830, seeing on the map of Michigan the Saginaw river portrayed like the trunk of a large tree with branches extending from it in every direction, concluded that somewhere on its banks there must eventually be a large commercial town, and reasoning from his limited observation, believed it would be at the head of loop and steamboat navigation. So when he came to locate at Saginaw in 1833 he purchased from the United States government the tract of land on the east side of the Saginaw river where it is formed by the junction of the Shiawassee and Tittabawassee.

    But he was soon convinced that he had made a mistake in locating so far up the river, so when an opportunity presented for the sale of his property in February, 1836, to a New Englander who entertained the same views that he first did, he availed himself of it, and soon afterwards purchased from the Trombleys the back of 256 acres upon which the village of Portsmouth was first laid out. The writer wintered stock of one hundred fifty head of cattle and fifty horses in 1835-6, on the rushes that grew on the east side of the Quanicassee river and in passing up and down the Saginaw on the canoe (which was the only road to the point where his stock was stationed) he had ample opportunity for observing all that was on the banks of the whole length of the river. From the writer’s home at the head of the river in passing down, there was nothing but a wilderness to be seen on the east side, till the north part of the present location of East Saginaw was reached, where a small clearing had been made on a tract of land owned by Messrs. G. D. & E. S. Williams. A small log house had been built which was then occupied by Enoch Olmstead and family. From there it was open prairie with no landmarks except the “lone tree” till the site of Myer’s mill was reached, where, in a small log house, Louis Major with his Indian wife and half-breed family resided.

    From Major’s to where Twenty-fourth street in Bay City is now located was a dense forest, the timber growing close to and the trees hanging over the bank, which was raised three or four feet above the surface of the river. At the point last named there was a little opening made by the Indians for a camping ground, upon which Joseph and Medor Trombley erected a trading house. From there north for some distance, including the high knoll near the brewery that the Indians had used as a camping ground, the timber was sparse near the river, presenting the appearance of openings. Near the point where the late James Watson built his residence between Eighteenth and Nineteenth streets John B. Trudell had erected a small log house in which he then resided with his family. From there north to its mouth there was no residence on the banks of the Saginaw except the small log house occupied by Leon Tromble, which was on Water street, near the present site of the Birney block. Passing up the river, all the land on the west side from the mouth of the Kawkawlin to Willow Island, above Bachelor’s mill, was included in the Chippeway reservation of 40,000 acres; large numbers of the tribe were residing in the vicinity and no prospect of their claim being extinguished in the near future. At the lower end of Carrollton there had been a blockhouse built of material removed from the fort at Saginaw, and was occupied by Seymour Ensign and his family: it was on the Mosely farm near where the old Indian apple trees grow.

    From that point there was nothing to be seen from the river till you arrived at the old Campau house at the north end of Saginaw City, which was a large two story block house sided up on the outside and well finished inside, built by Joseph Campau of Detroit, at the time the troops were stationed at Saginaw in 1822; there were two or three small block houses in the immediate vicinity and nothing more till the fort was reached, where there were four or five block houses that had been built for officers residences, all of which were occupied some by two or three families. At the foot of Mackinaw street there were two frame buildings, the old red store and the “mess” house built by Messrs. G. D. & E. S. Williams and used in their connection with trade of the American Fur Company. Back on the corner of Mackinaw and Washington streets the Messrs. G. D. and E. S. Williams each had a fine frame residence, and opposite the Green Point two miles above the writer and Judge Jewitt each had a frame house, those mentioned constituted all the frame buildings and all the residences that stood near the Saginaw river at the end of the year 1835.

    In July, 1836, the writer accompanied by the late James Fraser and Judge Jewitt, who was the only surveyor at that time, started early one morning from Saginaw in a canoe and came down the river to the tract of land the writer had purchased from TrombleyMr. Fraser hoping to meet a vessel that had on board some seed buckwheat for him, and the writer and Jewitt to make a preliminary survey for a plat of the village of Portsmouth. After surveying the lines from which to make a plat, which was the first move ever made towards making a town at this end of the river, the parties all got on board their canoe and paddled down to Leon Trombley’s to procure something for the comfort of the inner man, and while they were partaking of a lunch, Louis Tromble, then a boy ten or eleven years old, now a grey haired man residing somewhere in the south part of the city, ran into the house much excited announcing the appearance of a steamboat. The parties left their unfinished meal, and ran out to see what had deceived the boy, when sure enough they saw a steamboat making headway up the stream against the current and a south wind which had formerly been formidable obstacles against the progress of water craft. The boat was hailed from the shore and the parties pushed out in their canon to board her. In the excitement of getting on board there was some danger of some one getting a ducking in the river but all got safely on board and no accident occurred except the loss of Mr. Jewett’s compass staff in the river.

    The steamboat proved to be the Governor Marcy, chartered by the late Norman Little, for Mackie, Oakland and Jennison to take passengers and supplies to Saginaw City, the site of which had been purchased by the parties last named and they were actively engaged in building up the town. Mr. Jennison named above was the father of our fellow citizen, Charles E. Jennison. That date may be considered as an important epoch in the history of the valley. A steamboat had entered the Saginaw river and a move made towards building a town near its mouth. At that time what was afterwards Lower Saginaw and Bay City proper, was John Riley’s reserve, the owner who resided near Port Huron having obstinately refused to see on any terms.

    After a plat of Portsmouth was made the writer took up his quarters at the Michigan Exchange at Detroit, with a view of selling lots or interests in the track in order to obtain capital and to interest parties possessed of it, with which to commence improvements at Portsmouth, but he found he stood on the same footing with a hundred others having paper towns in Michigan and that it was necessary to do something to show that he had built in the project himself. So in the fall of 1836, he entered into partnership with B. K. Hall and Cromwell Barney for the purpose of building a steam saw mill at Portsmouth, but it was so late in the season that the vessel that he bought to bring the engine, boilers and machinery for the mill from Detroit was laid up and froze in at Port Huron, so that every pound of iron that was used in constructing the mill was brought from Port Huron on sleighs through St. Clair, Macomb, Oakland, Genesee and Saginaw counties to Portsmouth, and the mill, which was the second one put in operation on the Saginaw river, was started in April, 1837, soon after the great financial crash came on that put an end to nearly all outlays for improvements in the Saginaw valley. In the meantime the Riley reservation had been purchased Lower Saginaw laid and active operations commenced in building up a town, but like all other enterprises of the day it had to be discontinued. It would require a volume to trace the history of the growth of, and improvements in our cities from the time the business began to revive in 1845 to the present time, but suffice it to say that they have attained godly proportions without drawing on the resources that usually build up cities. We have yet to draw upon, for our growth and improvement, the trade of a vast agricultural region with a soil of inexhaustible fertility, we have the manufacturing interests (aside from that of salt and lumber) which always center at points which have the facilities for cheap living and cheap transportation that Bay Cities have.


    Bay City, May 1886.

    Related Pages & Notes

    1918 Map
    Area where Riley Reserve was located. The map link below shows river from Saginaw Bay to city of Saginaw.
    {1918 Saginaw River Map}
    People Referenced
    Barney, Cromwell
    Campau, Joseph
    Ensign, Seymour
    Fisher, S.O. (Hon.)
    Fraser, James
    Gov. Marcy (steamboat)
    Hall, B.K.
    Jennison, Charles E.
    Jewitt, (Judge)
    Little, Norman
    Major, Louis
    Olmstead, Enoch
    Riley, John
    Tromble, Leon
    Tromble, Louis
    Trombley, Joseph
    Trombley, Medor
    Trudell, John B.
    Watson, James
    Williams, G.D.
    Williams, E.S.
    Subjects Referenced
    American Fur Co.
    Bay City, MI
    Bachelor's mill
    Birney block
    Campau house
    Carrollton, MI
    Detroit, MI
    Fort Saginaw
    Fraser house
    Genesee Co., MI
    Green Point
    Riley rereservation
    Kawkawlin river
    Lower Saginaw, MI
    Mackie, Oakland & Jennsion
    Macomb Co., MI
    Mess house
    Michigan Exchange
    Mosely farm
    Myer's mill
    Oakland Co., MI
    Old red store
    Port Huron, MI
    Portsmouth (vil.), MI
    Quanicassee rive
    Saginaw City, MI
    Saginaw Co., MI
    Saginaw river
    Saginaw Valley
    Shiawasee river
    St. Clair Co., MI
    Titabawassee river
    Trading house
    Willow Island
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    WRITINGS: History As It Was Written Then.