In the early 1800's, no other town in Michigan approached Detroit in size or importance. In fact, it was the only incorporated city in Michigan when the state was admitted to the Union in 1837. Fifteen villages had been incorporated by 1837: Monroe(1827), Ypsilanti (1832), Ann Arbor (1833), Niles, Adrian, Pontiac, St. Joseph, Tecumseh, Centreville, Constantine, White Pigeon, New Buffalo, Marshall, Mount Clemens, and Coldwater (see map below).
early_cities.jpg (49700 bytes)

Source: Michigan State University, Department of Geography

The state census of 1837 lists the population of the townships in the various counties, but not the towns proper. Estimating the size of the towns from the number of inhabitants of the townships in which they were located, one may conclude that the ten largest towns in Michigan in 1837, in decreasing order of their size, were Detroit, Ann Arbor, Monroe, Tecumseh, Ypsilanti, Adrian, Marshall, Pontiac, Grand Rapids, and Niles (see map below).

early_lg_cities.jpg (47745 bytes)

Source: Michigan State University, Department of Geography

Town location factors
The location of towns was due to a variety of factors. Many grew up along the Chicago Road (Ypsilanti, Coldwater, Jonesville, White Pigeon) and the Territorial Road (Jackson, Marshall, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo). A town sometimes developed around a tavern on one of these highways (Clinton) or where a stream could be most easily forded (Kalamazoo). Marshall was located at the head of navigation on the Kalamazoo River. Towns often grew up around early forts (Saginaw, Niles) or trading posts (Ypsilanti). Some towns were the result of the work of promoters who hoped to profit from the sale of town lots (Ann Arbor, New buffalo, Albion). A town was apt to grow up at a promising mill site (Galesburg), or at a favorable point on an important river. Constantine was situated on the St. Joseph River and became an important shipping point for grain; Grand Rapids, as its name indicates, grew up at a point on the Grand River where rapids interrupted travel. The growth of some towns was promoted by the location of a land office (Monroe, White Pigeon, Kalamazoo, Ionia, Flint).
    When selecting a possible site for a city, from the vast wilderness that was Michigan Territory, the first question the "investor" would ask was, "What service will my proposed town supply that will attract farmers?" If the town could pull in the farmers, it would attract an urban population who would buy the town lots---and that was where the money was. On the Michigan frontier, the urban services most desired by the agricultural population were: 1) grinding grain and sawing timber, 2) governmental service, and 3) retailing. The second question, and most critical for the success of his venture, which the speculator had to ask was, "Where?" Most of the towns founded on the Michigan farming frontier were located in places perceived by their promoters to best supply one of these services: a water power site for a grist and saw mill, a central location within the county for the seat of government, or the center of a dense farming population for a shopping town.
    Among the first services desired by the agricultural settlers were the milling of grain and the sawing of lumber. Although those settlers on the American frontier who came from the south were apparently satisfied with eating corn bread, this was not the case in Michigan. Here the Yankee settlers wanted, as soon as possible, to exchange their "Johnnycake" for white (wheat) bread. The log cabin, so useful on the frontier, was also soon given up for one made from sawed lumber. These services, grinding wheat and sawing lumber, could most easily be supplied where the force of falling water could be harnessed to supply the power. Thus, a "water privilege", as such power sites were called, was one of the most important type of locations where towns were founded. A close examination of the sites of many of the interior towns in the southern four tiers of counties in Michigan will reveal the stream upon which they were formed.
    During these frontier years, Michigan was visited by many speculators spying out the valuable waterpower sites where towns might grow up. One, who visited Kalamazoo County even had a mathematical formula which he used to ascertain the power of a stream. That such sites were to be important in the formation of the towns in the interior was pointed out as early as 1819 by the editors of the Detroit Gazette when, in describing what was to become Oakland County, they remarked: "Mills, which may be considered as the buds which bloom into villages in new countries, can soon be erected...." And, in its continuing effort to publicize the advantages of the interior, the paper reported in 1826 that on the tributary streams of the "Canamazoo River" were many excellent mill-sites. Such a location was chosen for one of the county’s first towns.
    Although a large proportion of the towns founded in the agricultural interior were on waterpower sites, the most sought after location was that of the county seat. Here would be the political, economic, and social focus of the county.
    The other logical situation for a town-site speculation during the early years of settlement in Michigan was in the center of a dense agricultural population. This farming settlement, as it grew, would require the retail services that a village could supply. In Kalamazoo County, for example, Prairie Ronde was for many years the most densely settled area. It was the location of the county’s first settlers and by 1831 had several hundred people on its border. Such a situation called for and resulted in a village being founded at the "Big Island" in the center of that prairie.

Town characteristics
    By the close of the territorial period, those towns that had been incorporated as villages had local governing bodies to meet the needs of citizens for regulations to control livestock, to provide for the fighting of fires, and to maintain law and order. In the unincorporated towns, local government was in the hands of township officials.
    Most of the towns had one or more churches, a school, several general stores, a sawmill, and a gristmill. Streets were deep in mud during the spring season and dusty in summertime. Lawyers and doctors maintained offices, often serving the people of an extensive area. In some towns promoters set aside squares for public parks, and since the people who built the towns were largely Yankees, they tended to use the New England village as a model.

Town names
    The names of the towns were selected from many different sources. Indian names, such as Kalamazoo, Pontiac, Tecumseh, and Saginaw, were common. Some took their names from geographical features, for example Grand Rapids, Saline, and Coldwater. The founder’s name was often utilized, as was the case with Kalamazoo, originally named Bronson after its founder, Titus Bronson. The present Bronson in Branch County was named for its founder, Jobez Bronson. Dexter took its name from Samuel Dexter. New England names, such as Quincy, Vermontville, and Lawrence, were popular, and the New York influence was reflected in towns such as Utica and Rochester. Monroe and Jackson followed the practice of honoring presidents, while Marshall was named for Chief Justice John Marshall. Adrian, Constantine, and Homer derived their names from classical antiquity. Niles was named for the publisher of the popular eastern news publication, Nile’s Weekly. Among the more unusual name selections are those of the neighboring communities of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. The former derived its name, apparently, from the name of the wives of two founders, both named Ann, while the latter was named after Demetrius Ypsilanti, a hero of the Greek War of Independence, which had excited much interest in the United States at the time this town was laid out in 1823-24.

The following images provide a flavor of what early Traverse City was like.
traverse city-front street 1894.JPEG (95296 bytes)
Source:  Image Courtesy Michigan History Magazine
traverse city-boardman river electric 1893.JPEG (77624 bytes)
Source:  Image Courtesy Michigan History Magazine
traverse city-hannah park 1909.JPEG (115595 bytes)
Source:  Image Courtesy Michigan History Magazine

traverse city-union street bridge 1860.JPEG (109118 bytes)

Source:  Image Courtesy Michigan History Magazine

These and other towns were of great importance to early settlers. The story of their development is as significant as that of the pioneer farmers. In 1837 the majority of Michiganians lived on farms, but before the century ended, the number of city dwellers was rapidly approaching that of those living in rural surroundings.

Some of the text on this page was adapted from Dunbar and May's Michigan A History of the Wolverine State, and from a 1972 article on "Early Town-Site Speculation in Kalamazoo County" by B.C. Peters, in Michigan History magazine.

This material has been compiled for educational use only, and may not be reproduced without permission.  One copy may be printed for personal use.  Please contact Randall Schaetzl (soils@msu.edu) for more information or permissions.