|Whitetail deer in the North Woods marking his territory.|
The land along the Huron River which became Ypsilanti, Michigan was surrounded by a vast stretch of primeval forest broken only by lakes, marshland, and occasional open tracts of land early settlers called “oak openings.” The ground cover was a tangle of rugged shrubbery blanketed by a deep carpet of fallen leaves decomposing into rich soil the region became known for. Herds of deer and solitary black bears roamed the countryside while smaller game lived in the treetops and along the river banks. Fish, crawdads, and snapping turtles plied the river currents.
The open area where the Huron River bends and narrows at the shallows was a crossroad and neutral ground for the Chippewa, Pottawatomie, Ottawa, and Wyandot (Huron) Native Americans. The area was not a permanent home of any particular tribe, but the Hurons--as the French dubbed them--were known to have a burial ground on the west side of the Huron River.
|Birch bark canoe|
There were only two ways to enter the area: by river in a canoe or by foot on the Pottawatomie Trail, which followed the Huron River Valley from the headwaters of Lake Erie. This ancient Indian pathway led to the heartland avoiding most terrain and water impediments.
In 1809, three French pioneers Gabriel Godfroy, Francois Pepin, and Romaine La Cambre built and operated an Indian trading post named Godfroy’s on the Pottawatomie. Various tribes traveled east and west at the Huron River crossing. The trading post bartered gaudy trinkets, steel knives, hand-held farm implements, and small kegs of whiskey for beaver, muskrat, bear, deer, fox, and otter pelts. Native American handicrafts were also traded for American goods brought in from Detroit by pack horse on the Pottawatomie Trail.
Two years later, the three Frenchmen, and Godfroy's adult children were issued four tracts of land under the seal of President James Madison known as the original French Claims. Each claim was approximately a half mile wide and two miles long with the Huron River as its eastern boundary. The four claims included two square miles or about 2,500 acres. The trading post burned down in 1815 but was quickly rebuilt. In 1819, Native Americans began moving westward as European civilization encroached. With the conclusion of the Treaty of Paris, Lower Michigan fell out of Native American hands forever. By 1820, the trading post was abandoned and left in ruins.
Meanwhile in Sandusky, Ohio, Benjamin Woodruff’s wife Ella inherited several hundred dollars from her grandfather’s estate. She and her husband decided to invest the windfall where land was cheap--that was Michigan Territory. In the spring of 1823, Benjamin Woodruff, his brother-in-law William Eiclor, Oronte Grant, and Hiram Tuttle decided to improve their lot and set out on the old Indian trail at Lake Erie in search of land to homestead. The group was outfitted with a wagon loaded with provisions and a large number of cattle belonging to Grant and Tuttle. Each of the men had a stake in the success of this venture.
The group lodged with former neighbors from Sandusky, who then lived in Monroe, Michigan. They were familiar with the countryside of Southern Michigan and suggested a clearing near the ruins of Godfroy’s on the Pottawatomie as a favorable location for a settlement. The pioneers sold much of their cattle to finance their enterprise but retained enough livestock for their new farms. They headed into the interior of Michigan Territory, first on a flat-bottomed boat powered by poles the men used to power their cargo upstream.
Where the waterway narrowed and the current was too strong, the men offloaded their wagon, repacked their supplies, and continued west on foot. A couple of days later, the party came upon a suitable stretch of land southeast of the old trading post. The open plain there would be easy to cultivate. The men staked their claims which would soon become their homes hewed out from trees cleared from the land.
Benjamin Woodruff left Hiram Tuttle in charge of the settlement while he returned to Ohio to bring his family and more supplies to their new home. Woodruff with his wife and six children arrived back on July 6th. When news of the new settlement reached Detroit, other people ventured west and were welcomed by the original settlers who envisioned a pioneer metropolis. The newcomers built log cabin frontier homes and cleared and fenced off more farmland. The settlement became known as Woodruff’s Grove.
The first crisis hit the new community in August of 1824. Malaria struck many of the settlers. If it wasn’t for the efforts of Ella Woodruff and Elona Rogers making hot porridge every day and taking it to the afflicted, many settlers would have perished. All but one settler survived.
Fall and winter were times of hardship for the settlement. Supplies had all but run out and money was scarce. But the first corn harvest was good and household gardens yielded plenty of turnips, beans, and potatoes. Venison, small game, and fish provided protein to round out their diet that winter.
The spring of 1825 brought more settlers who cleared and fenced off more land. Wildlife began avoiding the area. That same year, the Territorial Government of Michigan proposed a road be cut through the wilderness to link Detroit and Chicago—the two emerging centers of Great Lakes trade. It was argued that building the road would create a commercial and real estate boom along the road stretching the width of the Michigan territory. The road would also allow the Michigan militia to move supplies and manpower quickly to Chicago if necessary.
Surveyor Orange Risdon was commissioned to lay out a practical route in 1825 and was surprised to find how easy the task was by following the well-worn Pottawatomie Trail through the Huron Valley to the old Sauk Trail west. Much to the dismay of the settlers, the survey team bypassed Woodruff’s Grove by three-quarters of a mile north. The distance was not much as the crow flies, but it was enough to destroy the dream of a pioneer metropolis. The small settlement was abandoned and fell into ruin.
|Greek General Demetrios Ypsilanti|
Soon after the new Chicago Road was surveyed, land developers arrived. Judge Augustus Woodward and his business partners—John Stewart and William Harwood—bought the original French Claims on the Huron River. They platted the land into affordable real estate parcels. They christened their new town Ypsilanti after a Greek general prominent in the news of the day. Shortly after, a frontier town developed. In 1830, Ypsilanti’s first post office was constructed with regular stage and mail service to Detroit instituted. In 1832, the Michigan legislature officially recognized the frontier town as the Village of Ypsilanti. The wilderness had been tamed.