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James Fraser (1803-1866)
Historical biographies.

No. 1 - 1905 biography by Capt. August H. Gansser.

History of Bay County, Michigan and Representative Citizens
by Capt. Augustus H. Gansser (1905)



JAMES FRASER, deceased, one of the original proprietors of Lower Saginaw, Michigan, and one of the original promoters of Bay City, was born in Iverness, Scotland, February 5, 1803. His father was a British soldier in early life and participated in the war against the French in 1796. He lost his leg at the Island of St. Luce, and thereafter received a pension from the British government. His wife survived him some years, and spent the last year of her life with her son at Saginaw and her daughter at Lower Saginaw, dying in 1850.

When James Fraser was quite young, he engaged in business for himself, early showing those qualities which enabled him in later years to overcome successive reverses and rise triumphant to a station among the foremost financiers of his section of the State. He had no early educational advantages and frequently in the days of his youth waded barelegged through snow to carry a message to earn his ha’ penny, and daily took a brick of turf under his arm to the village school as fuel for the fire. He achieved some success in his native country and upon coming to America in 1829 was possessed of several thousand dollars. His first business venture, however, was not a success. In company with two or three Scotchmen, he attempted to build a sawmill in Rochester, Oakland County, Michigan. He spent his first winter in this country making preparations. They paid exhorbitant prices for materials and supplies and in the spring found their funds about exhausted., necessitating the abandonment of their enterprise. Mr. Fraser’s experience proved costly though valuable in the lessons it taught, for he had only $100 left of the money he brought to this country. With this sum he went to Detroit, established a small grocery and made money rapidly. In the fall of 1833, he moved to the vicinity of Saginaw and occupied a piece of land along the Tittabawassee River, which he had previously purchased. At this time there was only an Indian trail between Flint and Saginaw, and the trip had to be made on horseback or on foot. He took his family with him; his wife, being then but 17 years old and having an infant in her arms, was pulled along on a sort of sled, although it was not winter time and there was no snow on the ground. After seeing his family well-located, he returned to Detroit to purchase cattle for his farm. While driving the cattle on foot, between Flint and Saginaw they became wild and left the trail. He ran after them until he was tired out and heated, when he took off his coat and carried it. Finding what he thought to be the trail, he hung his coat on a shrub, while he ran to head off the cattle from again going astray. But when he returned to get his coat, he could not find it, although he searched for it several hours. After he had become a very wealthy man he used to tell that that was his severest lost, as the pocket of that coat contained $500, all the money he had in the world. He cleared some land and planted an orchard, which became the most flourishing in this section of the State. In the division of his estate after his death, this farm went to his daughter, – Mrs. A.B. Paine, of Saginaw. He found locating and dealing in government lands more profitable than farming, and devoted his energies to that end, removing with his family to Saginaw in 1836. In 1835 and 1836 land in good locations brought big prices, and his keen foresight and good judgment enabled him to multiply his fortune. In 1836, he was one of the promoters of the Saginaw Bay Company, which purchased the site of Bay City, but the panic of 1837 wrecked the company and most of the stockholders.

His remarkable record in business from 1835 to 1838 and the fact that he withstood the panic, which carried nearly all down to ruin, marks him as a master of finance. He bought lands when they were cheap and held them until they greatly increased in value. After the failure of the Saginaw Bay Company, in association with several others he purchased considerable scrip and beacme one of the proprietors of Lower Saginaw. In 1845, he built a water-mill on the Kawkawlin River and began the manufacture of lumber. During the next three years he was interested in in building and operating two team sawmills on the Kawkawlin River. He succeeded Judge Riggs as Indian farmer, the only office he ever held for which he received pay.

About 1857 he and his family removed to Lower Saginaw (now Bay City) and here in a commodious mansion was dispensed a most liberal hospitality. In this city his energies were devoted to public improvements as well. The church edifice on Washington street, in which the Baptist worship, was almost wholly a gift from him. About the last of his business enterprises was the erection of the Fraser House at the corner of Center and Water streets, which he did not live to see completed. In 1864, feeling the necessity of rest and quiet after so many years of activity, he retired with his family to Brooklyn, New York, where they resided a few months, then removed to Westport, Connecticut, where he reside until his death on January 28, 1866. His last sickness came on as an ordinary cold and developed into typhoid pneumonia from which he never recovered. His death was sadly mourned in Bay City, where the impress of his deeds and accomplishments stand as a monument to his memory. His remains were buried at Westport, Connecticut, but were afterward removed to Elm Lawn Cemetery, Bay City.

In 1832, Mr. Fraser was united in marriage with Elizabeth Busby, a young English woman of more than ordinary attractions who came to this country with her parents in 1831. She was born in London, England, March 23, 1817, and was a daughter of James and Ann (Perry) Busby. James Busby was a native of Somersetshire, and was reared on a farm. He came to this country with his family and first settled in Detroit, then removed to Saginaw in 1833, he and James Fraser taking up farms on opposite sides of the river. He died at Saginaw in 1840. He married Ann Perry, also a native of England and a daughter of Joseph and Sarah (Brittain) Perry. To this union came the following offspring: Joseph, who died at De Land, Florida, January 29, 1905, aged 92 years; James; Elizabeth, wife of James Fraser; Thomas, of Ypsilanti, Michigan; Lucy, deceased, who first married Ebenezer W. Perry, and, after the latter’s death, married a Mr. Shaw; and Edward, who lives in New York City. Mrs. Fraser was a devout Christian and a member of St. Paul’s Protestant Episcopal Church of Detroit. She died in 1848, aged 31 years to the day. James Fraser and his wife became the parents of the following children: Alexander D., born October 6, 1833, deceased in 1850; Annie, born July 30, 1836, who is the widow of William McEwan, a record of whose life appears elsewhere in this work; Elizabeth, born August 31, 1838, who is the wife of Elias B..Dennison, of Mobile, Alabama; Jennie, born October 11, 1842, and deceased in 1900, who was the wife of Alderman B. Paine, who died in 1904; John J., born December 4, 1844, deceased in 1866; and William Wallace, born March 14, 1848, deceased in 1862.

On October 28, 1850, Mr. Fraser formed a second marriage, with Susan Moulton, of Westport, Connecticut, a woman of beautiful character and during his life she continued his faithful helmeet. The life and character of Mr. Fraser were above reproach. He was a man of untiring engergy and perseverance, and once having determined upon a policy he fought his way to the end, overcoming obstacle after obstacle. Few are possessed of the hardihood and courage required by the kind of life he led. The volume of his business would be considered enormous even at the present day, when we have modern facilities such as railroads and telegraphs. He had a retentive memory and although for years his head was his ledger, he transacted his affairs with the utmost exactness as to details. In his intercourse with men he was most genial and pleasant, and enjoyed the friendship of everyone.

No. 2 - 1875 biography by Henry S. Dow.

The History, Commercial Advantages and Future Propects of Bay City, Michigan.
Published 1875 by Henry S. Dow.



The late James Fraser, who was an early settler of the Saginaw Valley, and of whom an interesting volume might be written, was virtually the father of Bay City. It was at his instigation that the purchase of the tract was made from John Reilly. He was a large stockholder in and principal manager of the Saginaw Bay Company, and after the disastrous financial crash of 1837, which affected Mr. Fraser less than any other man in Michigan who was doing the same amount of business, he and Dr. Fitzhugh and Mr. Birney purchased the whole stock of the company as has been mentioned before. The reason that Mr. Fraser was not involved in the disasters that overwhelmed all other dealers in real estate at that time, was the fact that he was during all the year I836 selling lands at an enormous advance over their cost. Many of the stockholders of the Saginaw Bay Company became bankrupt, and a large share of the stock of the company was purchased at a nominal price, and the parties, having no financial embarrassments, were enabled to manage the property as they pleased.

The property was not held long in common by the three parties, a division being made and each party managing his own possessions. During the later years of Mr. Fraser's life, which terminated in I865, he did much to promote the growth of Bay City, and erected the walls of the large and elegant hotel which bears his name, but was not permitted to see it finished and occupied.

No. 3 - 1892 Fraser's remains returning to Bay City. (Contributed by Jim Petrimoulx - Mar. 2008)

Saginaw Courier Herald - May 6,1892 (Page 1)

Brought Home For Burial

The Remains of James Fraser, Who Built Bay City’s Hotel
Removed from Connecticut To the Valley

The remains of James Fraser, who died in 1866, were taken to Bay City from Westport, Conn. Tuesday for interment. He was one of the founders of Bay City and one of the earliest residents of the valley.

James Fraser was born in Inverness, Scotland, February 15,1803. His father in early life was a soldier in a British regiment and in 1796 in the war with the French lost a leg at the island of St. Luce and was afterwards a pensioner of the government. His mother spent the last year of her life in the family of her son James, and with her daughter at Lower Saginaw, as Bay City was then called. Her death occurred in 1850. Mr. Fraser emigrated to America in 1829, bringing with him a few thousand dollars which he had made in business. His money did not last him very long, however, for soon after his arrival he lost nearly every dollar in a sawmill near Rochester, this state. From Rochester he went to Detroit. There he established a grocery and made money rapidly. In 1832 he married Miss Elizabeth Busby, a young English lady. In the autumn of 1833 he removed with his wife and baby to Saginaw, and settled upon a tract of land he had previously purchased on the Tittabawassee. At that time there was only an Indian trail between Flint and Saginaw, and the journey had to made on horseback.

Mr. Fraser cleared the land and after farming for a short time he embarked in the land business. In this he was very successful. He was the leading spirit in the organization , in 1839, of the Saginaw Bay company, which purchased the present site of Bay City. He was one of the few that survived the great panic of 1837. After the Saginaw Bay company went down he associated with him James G. Birney and Dr. Daniel H. Fitzhugh and they became the proprietors of Lower Saginaw. In 1845 he built a lumber mill at Kawkawlin and during the next three years he lumbered on an extensive scale. He succeeded Judge Riggs as Indian agent and that was the only office with any emolument that he was ever induced to take. In 1848 Mrs. Fraser leaving a family of three sons and three daughters. Two years later he married Miss Susan Moulton of Westport, Conn. The fruit of this marriage was one daughter. In 1857 they removed to Lower Saginaw, and here in his commodious mansion was dispensed a most liberal hospitality. Here his great energies were directed not alone to his private enterprises, but to public improvements. About the last enterprise of his life was the erection of the Fraser house, but did not live to see completed or occupied. The church edifice in which the Baptist society first worshipped was almost entirely a gift from him.

In 1864 he went with his family to Brooklyn for a few months and thence to Westport, Conn., where he continued to reside until his death, Jan. 28,1866. His remains were buried in Westport. Four of Mr. Fraser’s children are now living . They are Mrs. William McEwan of Bay City, Mrs. A. B. Paine of Saginaw, Mrs. E.B. Dennison of Mobile, Ala., and Mrs. George T. Blackstock, of Toronto, Can.

Additional Notes:

1850 Census, Saginaw township:

  • Fraser, James - age 46, m, Scotland
  • Elizabeth - age 12, f, Michigan (Note: She married E.B. Denison in 1864)
  • Jane - age 8, f, Michigan
  • John - age 3, m, Michigan
  • Willaim - age 2, m, Michigan
  • Busby, Ann, age 58, f, England
  • Maleolen McDonald, age 20, m, laborer, Scotland
  • Anna Rouse, age 21, f, Germany
    - Daughter Elizabeth F. married Elias B. Denison on March 17, 1864, and they had five children (see Elias Denison).

1860 Census, Bay City, Bay, Mich.

  • Fraser, James - age 55, b. Scotland, gentleman
  • Susan, wife, age 39, b. Conn.
  • Elizabeth, dau., age 20, b. Mich.
  • Jenny, dau., age 16, b. Mich.
  • John, son, age 15, b. Mich.
  • William, son, age 15, b. Mich.
  • Emeline, dau, age 5 months, b. Mich
Related Note & Pages

James Fraser

Elizabeth Busby
Elizabeth's parents emigrated from England to Detriot in 1830. The following year her father, James Busby, opened a tavern called the Eagle Tavern, which included boarding rooms and was located on Woodward Ave. (Source: Early Days in Detroit, 1906)

Fraser House
Erected by James Fraser 1864, it was the city's finest hotel. In 1906 the hotel was destroyed by fire, and a few years later the Wenonah Hotel was built on the same property. Today, the Delta College Planetarium is located here.
Related Pages:
Birney, James
Campbell, George
Catlin, Israel
Denision, Elias B.
Fitzhugh, D.H. Dr.
Gillette, Edwin L.
McEwan, Wm.
McKay, Alexander s-inlaw
Pomeroy, Charles H.,
-- Businesses:
Catlin & Fraser Mill
Fraser House
Hopkins, Pomeroy & Fraser Mill
People Referenced
Birney, James G.
Blackstock, Geo. T.
Busby, Ann (Perry)
Busby, James
Dennison, Elias B.
Fitzhugh, Daniel (Dr.)
Alexander D. (son)
Annie (dau.)
Elizabeth (dau.)
Elizabeth (Busby, 1st wife)
Emeline (dau.)
James (subject)
Jennie (dau.)
John J. (son)
Susan, (Moulton, 2nd wife)
Wm. Wallace (son)

McEwan, Wm.
Paine, A.B.
Perry, Ebenezer
Perry, Edward
Perry, Elizabeth
Perry, James
Perry, Joseph
Perry, Lucy
Perry, Sarah (Brittain)
Perry, Thomas
Riggs, (Judge)
Subjects Referenced
3rd District
Baptist church
Bay City Tribune
Bay City, MI
Bay Co., MI
British regiment
Brooklyn, NY
Center Ave.
De Land, FL
Detroit, MI
Elm Lawn cemetery
Fraser House
Flint, MI
Indian farmer
Island of St. Luce
Iverness, Scotland
Kawkawlin River
London, Ont. Can.
Lower Saginaw, MI
Mobile, AL
New York, NY
Oakland County, MI
Pinconning Press
Rochester, MI
Saginaw Bay Company
Saginaw, MI
St. Luce
St. Paul's Prot. Epis. Ch.
Tittabawassee River
Toronto, Can.
Water St.
Westport, CT
Ypsilanti, MI
Internet References
  • None at this time.
  • WRITINGS: History As It Was Written Then.