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Capt. John S. Wilson (1804-1879)
Native of New York, moved to Michigan in 1837.

1883 biography. (Added Oct., 2009)

History of Bay County, Michigan, 1883

Reminiscence of CAPTAIN WILSON.

Capt. John Wilson, one of the early pioneers of the Saginaw Valley, was born in Jefferson County, N. Y., September 30, 1804. In his younger days he followed the occupation of sailing and fishing. In 1837 he left his family for the season to engage in the fishing business at Thunder Bay Islands, in Lake Huron, where he removed the same year. While he was there he had occasion to visit Saginaw for supplies and was so well pleased with the country that he determined to make it his future home. He soon made preparations to remove his family to Lower Saginaw, as it was then called (now Bay City), which he did, November 16, 1840, after a cold and tempestuous voyage, none too soon, as the river froze over the next night after his arrival and remained frozen all Winter. He removed his family into a little log house on the river bank in Portsmouth near where Albert Miller's upper salt works now stand.

This Winter he spent in hunting and trapping, and was very successful, as game was very plentiful in those days. He continued to live in this little log house until he bought a piece of land of Capt. Joseph F. Marsac, lying between what is now Eighteenth and Twenty-first Streets, on the river, comprising twenty-seven acres, where he removed in the Spring of 1842, to make room for Mr. McCormick, who had purchased the property where he had lived. In the Winter of 1842-43 he superintended the rebuilding of the little schooner “Mary,” of forty tons burthen, at Saginaw, for Smith & Little, and the next Spring took command of her in trading between Detroit and Saginaw. This was the first regular trading vessel to the Saginaw Valley, and he continued in command of her until the Fall of 1844. When on his way from Detroit to Saginaw, late in the Fall, laden with goods for the few white settlers and Indian traders, he was caught off the mouth of Saginaw Bay in a terrible storm, and his little vessel was driven across Lake Huron to the Canada shore, and was wrecked. It being late in the season, snow falling heavily, and the vessel cover with ice, Capt. Wilson and his crew suffered untold hardships.

At Saginaw there was great excitement, for they knew that the little vessel could hardly withstand that terrible storm, and moreover all the provisions and goods for the few settlers for the Winter were lost, and there would be much suffering. Anxiously for weeks did the settlers watch for that little craft and her crew, until all hope failed, and Capt. Wilson and his crew were given up as lost. But fortunately this was not so. Capt. Wilson, seeing no other method of saving himself and crew, determined to beach her. She struck a rock, however, some distance from shore, and went to pieces, the captain and crew being washed ashore on part of the wreck on the Canada shore some eight miles north of Goderich.

They finally procured a fire and built a small hut but with such materials as they could get together from the wreck that has washed ashore, and commenced picking up such portions of the cargo as came ashore intact, especially the barrels of flour, in order to save as much as they could for the owners. When they had secured all they could, they left on of the crew in charge and started for Goderich on foot along the beach. They had saved a package of socks and they put on four or five pairs each., believing they could get through snow and water better, although the most of them had their feet frozen. After several weary days they reached Goderich, but being unable to procure conveyances, they started on foot for Detroit, which place they had left six weeks before. Here they received assistance, and again started on foot for Saginaw, as there were no conveyances in those days, and they were necessitated to travel very slow, as their feet were very sore. On reaching Saginaw they were received with great joy, as they had long been given up as lost. To add to Capt. Wilson's distress, his eldest daughter had died in his absence. He now settled down and commenced improving his land and set out a fine orchard, of which he took great care, little dreaming that in after years it would be cut down to make room for the buildings and streets that cover his old homestead at the present time. Capt. Wilson and his amiable wife were much respected by all old pioneers. He was very hospitable, and would never owe a man a dollar if it was in his power to pay it. His word was as good as his note. By his frugality and the advance of property he accumulated a competency for old age.

Capt. Wilson had fourteen children, of which seven are living, viz: Mrs. J. A. Wansey, of Marine City; Mrs. G. L. Howard, of West Bay City; Mrs. H. Laraway, Mrs. Wm. Gordon, James D. Wilson, Mrs. F. T. Bennett, of Bay City, and George B. Wilson, of Chicago. Capt. Wilson died at the old homestead in Bay City, August 21, 1879, and his amiable wife soon followed him.

Their remains lie in Pine Ridge Cemetery, and a suitable monument has been erected to their memory.

1918 biography. (Added Jun., 2009)

Bay County Past and Present, by George Butterfield, 1918


Captain Wilson was born in New York. In his younger days he liked sailing and fishing. In 1837 he left his family for the season to engage in the fishing business in Thunder Bay, Lake Huron. When he was there he went to Saginaw for some supplies. He liked the land so well he and his family moved to Bay City. They arrived after a cold and tempestuous voyage, none too soon, as the river froze over the next night after their arrival and remained frozen all winter. He moved into a log house near what is now Thirty-second and Water streets. In the winter he spent the time in hunting and trapping, which were important occupations in those days. In the winter of 1842 and 1843 he superintended the building of the ship “Mary,” and in the spring took command of it, making trips between Bay City and Detroit. In the fall of 1843 he went to Detroit for food and winter supplies for the Saginaw Valley. When he was coming back a storm arose and his ship was blown across Lake Huron and wrecked on the shore of Canada. For weeks the people looked for Captain Wilson and his crew, and finally all were given up as lost, but it was not so. The ship struck a rock and went to pieces, and the crew was washed ashore. Captain Wilson and his crew suffered terribly. They build a log house and a fire to keep from freezing to death. They started to walk to Goderich, which was eighty miles away. In order to save themselves they each put on four or five pairs of stockings. When they reached Goderich they started for Detroit, where they had been a few weeks before. When they got there they started for the Saginaw Valley. You may be sure that the people were glad to see Captain Wilson and his crew come back. Captain Wilson died at his homestead, leaving his wife and 14 children.

  • Above history was researched and written by students of Kolb school, Bay City, MI.

    Additional Notes.

      1850 - Census: Hampton Twp., Saginaw Co., Mich.
      Before Bay Co. was organized in 1857.
    • Wilson, John S. - age 44, b. NY, boat builder
    • Emeline - age 33, b. NY
    • Walter - age 14, b. NY
    • Melissa - age 12, Mich.
    • Elizabeth - age 9, Mich.
    • Ann - age 3, Mich.
    • Mary J- age 6 mos, Mich.
  • Related Note & Pages

    Related Pages:
    Marsac, Joseph F.
    Pine Ridge Cemetery
    People Referenced
    Bennett, F.T. Mrs.(dau.)
    Gordon, Wm. Mrs. (dau.)
    Howard, G.L. Mrs. (dua.)
    Laraway, H. Mrs (dau.)
    Marsac, Joseph F.
    McCormick, Mr.
    Miller, Albert
    Wansey, J.A. Mrs. (dau.)
    Wilson, Ann (dau)
    Wilson, Elizabeth (dua)
    Wilson, Emeline (dau)
    Wilson, George B. (son)
    Wilson, James D. (son)
    Wilson, John S. (subject)
    Wilson, Mary J. (dau)
    Wilson, Melissa (dau)
    Wilson, Walter (son)
    Subjects Referenced
    Bay City, MI
    Bay Co., MI
    Chicago, IL
    Detroit, MI
    Goderich, Canada
    Jefferson Co., NY
    Kolb School
    Lake Huron, MI
    Lower Saginaw, MI
    Marine City, MI
    New York
    Pine Ridge Cemetery
    Portsmouth, MI
    Saginaw, MI
    Saginaw Valley, MI
    Smith & Little
    Thunder Bay Islands
    West Bay City, MI
    WRITINGS: History As It Was Written Then.