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Major John Gilbert - The Founder of Manchester (Part 1 of 2)

By dhowell - Posted on 11 July 2008

by Ray Berg

In other historical articles, we looked at some early settlers of the Manchester area, and what brought them here. In particular, we saw the importance of the Native American Sauk Trail, its survey and development as the Chicago Road by Orange Risdon in the 1820s, and the attraction of oak openings and mill water power locations in the area’s development.

In this first of two parts, we learn about Major John Gilbert, the founder of Manchester Village. How and why did Manchester end up where it is? And who was John Gilbert? And what was his connection to Orange Risdon, the founder of Saline, and to John Mack, the original surveyor of what became Manchester Township? It turns out Gilbert had one very long, interesting and productive life, yet he never actually lived in our town. The story follows…

The Early Years

John Gilbert was born in Lenox, Massachusetts on March 16, 1774, the son of Captain Job Gilbert and Zibiah Sweeting. Lenox is near Pittsfield, Massachusetts, then a hotbed of the burgeoning Industrial Revolution, and the site of large metal casting furnaces and water-powered mills. Job Gilbert, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, was trained in surveying, furnaces, water mills, and large civil engineering works. He passed these interests and skills onto his son John. In 1792, at age 18, John accompanied his father to western New York, to begin major surveying work on what was known as the Phelps-Gorham Tract. This led to the development of Rochester and the surrounding areas including Manchester, New York. By 1795, John is back east on Long Island, furthering his skills at mill operations and civil engineering.

In 1799, John, along with his parents, returned to western New York and settled in Onondaga County near present day Syracuse. In 1801-1802, John and Job were instrumental in building the Onondaga furnace, the first of its kind in western New York, which produced large amounts of military equipment. On May 4, 1803, John married Susan Ann Haskins (1784-1873), the daughter of Captain William Haskins, a prominent resident and Revolutionary War veteran who served with Job Gilbert. The new couple settled in Manlius, New York, and John began a prosperous career of surveying, civil engineering and land speculation, achieving considerable wealth. They had six children: Lavina, Harry, George, John Jr., Susan, and Emily.

John and his brother Thomas performed substantial work at the prosperous salt works of Salina, New York, north of Rochester, around 1804-1805. He served as a cavalry quartermaster in the War of 1812, achieving the rank of major. After the war, he relocated for a short time to Oswego, New York, where he accepted large commissions from Governor Clinton to survey and construct the Erie Canal. John, along with his father Job, were responsible for the completion of large sections of the Erie Canal in the Syracuse, Rochester and Lockport areas, a project which would lead to massive migration of settlers to Michigan. During this period of 1818-1823, he met and worked with Orange Risdon, who possessed similar skills and worked for Gilbert while surveying on the Canal. Both men speculated in land in the canal area, and both profited handsomely. But John and Orange were just beginning…

Gilbert helped build the Erie Canal (Click image to view larger version)

The Early Surveys in Washtenaw County

The United States General Land Office initiated the first township surveys and maps in the Michigan Territory in 1815. John Mack, coming from the Chillicothe, Ohio GLO office, completed the survey of what would become Manchester Township in July 1824.

John Mack’s 1824 Survey Map of Future Manchester Township (Click image to view larger version)

On the survey map, Mack noted by pen marks across the River Raisin and the words “a good mill seat”, a location in the extreme NE corner of Section 11 – where the southern mill pond is in downtown Manchester today. Hence Mack is responsible for first spotting where future Manchester would be located. The large elevation drop in the river and the surrounding topography clearly held potential at a time when milling was a major economic necessity.

An Enlargement Showing John Mack’s Notes on a Good Mill Seat (Click image to view larger version)

Meanwhile, in 1824, Congress passed the General Survey Act of 1824, authorizing, among other things, the survey and improvement of a military road from Detroit to Chicago. Expert civilian surveyors and engineers were commissioned by the Army Corps of Engineers to assist in the project. Since the Erie Canal was completed, the expertise of John Gilbert and Orange Risdon was well known and soon employed. Risdon was appointed the survey director. Both men relished the opportunity to come to the Michigan Territory to work on the survey, and, of course, to find the best land to speculate in!

The Chicago Road survey in our area was completed in the period 1824-1825, after which Risdon published his map. Gilbert was obviously a key part of the team, which first brought him to the Manchester area. Like Risdon, who patented prime land along the Chicago Road at the Saline River crossing and salt works, Gilbert looked about while on official duty for good investment opportunities. Thus, being a part of this survey team with Risdon, he got the “first shot” at the best properties about 6-7 years ahead of the general settlers and land speculators who followed.

Gilbert clearly had Mack’s 1824 survey map, and noted the map location of the good mill seat in Section 11. He quickly filed for this land patent along the River Raisin (80 acres) in what is now the south end of Manchester Village and the mill pond, and in Section 27 along Iron Creek (80 acres), viewing both as good water-powered mill locations. Both locations were patented at the U. S. Land Office in Monroe on May 10, 1826. He augmented this with a purchase of 80 acres in Section 2 on December 1, 1831, 80 more acres in Section 2 on October 1, 1835, and 320 acres in Section 1 on October 9, 1835. These purchases ultimately comprised most of the downtown residential and commercial areas of Manchester. He also purchased large holdings in the downtown Ypsilanti area and in future Pittsfield Township along the Chicago Road – a total of 2480 acres in all, just in Washtenaw County. He also purchased extensive holdings in Lenawee, Jackson and Hillsdale counties. It was location on or near the Chicago Road, good mill water power availability, and oak openings that drove his selection of these lands.

After the survey work was done in 1826, Gilbert and Risdon both returned to their homes in the Rochester, New York area, waiting to see how things developed, and to continue their prosperous work there. But as it turned out, events which they didn’t anticipate caused them to return to Michigan for good. Both were devoted Masons, and rising anti-Masonic feelings in upper New York led them both to migrate permanently to Michigan by 1830.

John Gilbert in Michigan

John, his wife Susan, their six children, and his father Job migrated in December 1830 to Ypsilanti. Their decision to leave in winter reveals the severity of the anti-Masonic pressure they were feeling in Rochester, New York. They traveled through Canada in their own conveyance over roads blocked with snow, and crossed the Detroit River in a birch bark canoe, leaving their horses to come on afterwards by ferry. They stayed and recuperated at the famous Ben Woodworth’s Hotel in Detroit, and then arrived in Ypsilanti in January 1831. Job Gilbert died shortly after reaching Ypsilanti, and John and family began settlement on their large holdings on the east side of the Huron River (an area roughly bounded today by Michigan Avenue and Cross Street, including a part of modern-day Depot Town).

In Part 2 of this article, we’ll learn more about Gilbert’s rapid rise in Ypsilanti society, his many political activities and business ventures, and his ultimate troubles, fall from power, and eventual recovery. For now, we’ll focus on his initial founding of Manchester Village.

The Platting Of Manchester Village

By spring 1832, John Gilbert had built up his initial Ypsilanti homestead and business operations. He now turned his attention to the River Raisin lands he had acquired in 1826 and 1831, in what was by 1832 a part of Hixon Township (eventually split into Bridgewater and Manchester Townships). He viewed the location just north of the border of Sections 2 and 11, which straddled his land holdings, as the ideal location for a village, being in a large burr oak plain, with excellent river elevation drop and steep surrounding topography. He commissioned the construction of a grist mill by engaging Emanuel Case as a general contractor and mill operator, and William S. Carr and Elijah Carr, patent land holders west of him, to fell and shape timber for the mill. He also sent in his son Harry H. Gilbert as overseer and carpenter, who eventually purchased adjoining lands in Sections 10 and 11 south and west of his father’s land in March 1839.

In 1833, Gilbert commissioned a survey and plat for the future village, which was prepared by Hiram Burnham, and is shown as Figure 1. This original plat consisted of 14 blocks, with some street names assigned. It is noted that Manchester in 1833 consisted of two mills (saw and grist), one house, one barn, one store, one dam and one bridge, all clustered at the river. This is also the first recorded use of the name “Manchester”. While platted in 1833, the survey was not formally filed with the county until March 25, 1835.

Figure 1 - The original plat of Manchester Village, prepared by surveyor Hiram Burnham for John Gilbert, dated 1833, and filed with Washtenaw County on March 25, 1835. In 1833, our village was two mill structures, one house, one barn, one store, one dam and the bridge. (Click image to view larger version)

In speculating as to what the name “Manchester” meant to Gilbert emotionally, we review his earlier travels. First, the current Town of Manchester in New York State, which includes the Village of Manchester, is on the Erie Canal, on a portion where Gilbert was performing civil engineering in the 1820s. This New York Manchester adopted its name in 1822, in admiration and emulation of Manchester, England, then one of the premier manufacturing and mill towns in Britain. There is also evidence that Job Gilbert lived there in early times during the prior surveying of the Phelps-Gorham Tract. Another John Gilbert living in Manchester, New York, was the first publisher of the Book of Mormon in 1830, although the family connection has not been proven. It seems certain that our John Gilbert had spent time in that area, had an emotional connection to it and the name “Manchester” based on his previous work and family connections, and hence assigned it to our village.

There is no evidence that John Gilbert ever planned to live in our Manchester Village. As we’ll see in Part 2, he was mighty busy back in Ypsilanti, where he made his permanent home. Manchester was apparently just an investment opportunity. In Part 2, we’ll also look at the second plat of Manchester, wherein Gilbert expanded upon his holdings to create the full downtown residential and commercial area we know today, then sold it all at a very handsome profit!

[Previously published in M, Manchester's Magazine, Vol. 5, 1 Nov 2007. Presented here by permission.]