Sunday, February 24, 2013

Ypsilanti, Michigan - The Frontier Years

Demetrius Ypsilanti
The Huron River Valley has been a thoroughfare for humans since ancient Native Americans used the river for their transportation and their village sites. A main trail from the big river to the east, which the French called “de troit” (the strait), led west along the Huron River where it crossed over at a narrows and led into the thick, game rich forests which the local Indians called home for many generations. The spot was the crossroads for several Indian tribes, primarily the Huron, the Ottawa, and the Pottawatomie.

Ypsilanti began its pioneering life in 1809 at the edge of the frontier known as The Michigan Territory. Three enterprising Frenchmen opened a trading post known as “Godfrey’s on the Pottawatomie Trail,” where the Indian trail crossed the narrows in the river. They traded gun power and other French goods to the local Indians for beaver pelts and other Indian products from the forest. When the Indians began to feel the squeeze of frontier civilization in the form of treaties pushing them westward, the traders followed them and left their trading post in ruins.

Ten years later in 1819, General Lewis Cass, the governor of the Michigan Territory, signed the Treaty of Saginaw. What was to become Washtenaw County passed out of the hands of the local tribes and into the hands of the Territory. In 1823, a full-fledged settlement called Woodruff’s Grove was established, and in 1825, the territorial government commissioned the surveying of a road linking Detroit and Chicago. 

The surveyor, Mr. Orange Risdon, found the job an easy one. Over many generations, the local Indians had blazed the most convenient trail west - the old Indian trail from Detroit.

Judge Woodward
Three Detroit businessmen, the most notable of whom was Federal Judge Augustus Brevoort Woodward, purchased the original French Claims from the families of the original deed holders and plotted out a village as soon as the Chicago Road, later known as Michigan Avenue, was surveyed. 

The judge loved history and anything Greek it was said. Americans of that era were interested reading in their newspapers about the War of Greek Independence, as the United States had only fifty years before gained its independence from England. 

A courageous Greek general, Demetrius Ypsilanti (1793-1832), held the Citadel of Argos with only 300 men against a Turkish army of 30,000 men. When their supplies ran out, General Demetrius Ypsilanti and his men escaped without losing a single man. He became an international figure of his time.

Woodward wanted to name this new town after his hero -Ypsilanti - much to the chagrin of his co-investors. They wanted the town’s name to reflect the area’s easy access to water power from the Huron River, so they proposed names like Waterville and Watertown.  

But Judge Woodward had a forceful, dominate personality, and he was the lead investor with the highest public profile, so he got his way. The town has been known as Ypsilanti ever since.

Next post: Ypsilanti, Michigan - Coming of Age