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A Pioneers' Trail to Freedom Township and Manchester (Part 1 of 2)

By dhowell - Posted on 08 February 2008

by Ray Berg

In "Manchester and.....Lexington?" I wrote of Douglass Houghton's survey team and their visits to the Manchester area. One result of this survey in 1839 was the first published map to show individual township level details for Washtenaw County, which was published in 1844. It was surprising to see by looking at the map that many of the area roads we know today were already platted by 1839, only 13 years after John Gilbert first staked his claim to the original Manchester plat in 1826. There were a few differences though, and it was particularly interesting to note roads in 1839 which did not follow the rectilinear section, half-section and quarter-section lines which were laid out by the early surveyors.

The government surveyors in the 1820s had defined section lines for each of the townships, wherein a section is usually one square mile. Government land sales to pioneers were then platted relative to these section lines, so that land parcels generally had a rectangular component to their shape, and the boundaries were placed along these section lines or fractions thereof. Subsequently, roads were surveyed and platted along these whole or fractional section lines so that they ran along the borders of property. Thus, many of our roads follow straight section lines, or as close to them as possible where natural features prevent a straight line.

Prior to the platting of these roads, Native American trails criss-crossed the area, following the highest, driest ground and providing the best fording of rivers and streams. These trails were the natural conduit to bringing our first settlers into the area, as well as government surveyors whose duty it was to further develop the road system. The current US-12, also known as the Chicago Road and the Sauk Trail, is the best example of an original Native American trail in our area.

The Chicago Road was one route bringing settlers towards Manchester, although it runs well south of the village. A more likely native trail is the so-called "Raisin Road," which ultimately began near Flat Rock and Monroe on Lake Erie, and through a series of splits and turns, ended up in Freedom Township. This trail is believed to be the route by which James W. Hill, Jason Gillette and other early settlers made their way to Freedom Township, and is likely a route by which other settlers came to the Manchester area.

Our story focuses on the discovery of a letter and marked-up map found in the Michigan Historical Center Archives in Lansing. On December 20, 1893, Charles S. Woodard, the Washtenaw County Surveyor (an appointed position at that time), wrote to L. D. Watkins, Esq., of Manchester, a lengthy letter recalling his time spent working with Orange Risdon, founder of Saline and the chief territorial surveyor, performing the original survey of the Chicago Road. In this letter, small portions of which are excerpted below, Woodard recalls and maps out the portion of an original Native American trail which included segments of the Chicago Road and a branch which led off into Lodi and Freedom Townships, providing a more direct access to these areas.

Ypsilanti, Dec 20th 1893
L. D. Watkins Esq.

Dear Sir-

It is now over sixty three years since I came into Washtenaw County. It was then nearly an unbroken wilderness... At the time of the Black-Hawk War (1832), the few scattered settlements were naturally a little alarmed at the apparent activity among the Indians. At times, hundreds of them might be seen camped on the banks of the then beautiful Huron near where is now the east public square in Ypsilanti, or on the Gilbert Farm in the town of Pittsfield, and near the northwest corner of Section 27... Soon after the close of the last war with Great Britain, say about 1815, the government lands of this state—then territory—were being surveyed, and the surveyors were all acquainted with the Indian trails, as most of their provisions were packed in on the backs of men or horses along these trails—then Indians knowing well the dryest best ground, and the best fords of streams.

The surveyor was instructed, among other things, to note the point of crossing of these trails by the Section lines, so that they might be laid down on the government plats... By the help of such of these notes as I can command, and by own knowledge, I have made a rough sketch of the main trail, nearly through Washtenaw County, and a small portion of Wayne... It has always been understood, that the old Chicago Road was located on the general line of the main trail, thus admitting the Indians skill in that part of civil engineering—selecting the best ground on which to locate high-ways.

...Going west from this place (Ypsilanti), the main trail is correctly located as far as the town(ship) of Lodi, at any rate, to my certain knowledge for it was more or less used down to as late as 1834. The camping grounds were plainly marked by the ashes of the camp fire, and the then standing poles of the wigwams. A branch of this trail seems to have turned off on the north line of Section 26 in the town of Pittsfield...

Very Truly Yours,

C. S. Woodard

Working with Woodard's description and map, this trail left the Chicago Road (current US-12) in Pittsfield Township at the Textile Road junction (a Native American campground was located in the triangle of land at this junction, now a used car lot). It passed generally west along current Textile Road, through the Lodi Corners junction (Ann Arbor-Saline and Textile Roads), and merged into current Weber Road and Bethel Church Roads in Freedom Township. A rough illustration is shown here. Early settlers moving into Lodi, Freedom, Bridgewater and points west most likely followed this trail to claim their land grants.

The solid line is the approximate route of the Native American trail as recorded by Charles Woodard in field notes from the 1820s, and reproduced on an 1893 map in the Michigan Archives. The trail as observed by Woodard ended near Section 32 in Freedom Township. (Click to view larger image)

In 2001, John Miller, son of current Freedom Township Historian Bob Miller, utilized the original Freedom Township minutes books (1834 forward) to map out the original township road system described therein, including the existing Native American trails which were now named township roads. A segment of his work is shown below. Note the "Raisin Road" on this map, which aligns roughly with current Weber and Bethel Church Roads, and is the trail defined by Woodard in his 1893 letter and map. This trail, in Woodard's descriptions, eventually tied back to Flat Rock, Monroe and over water to the Canadian village of Malden. On both Miller's map, and the Houghton survey map, "Raisin Road" was following the original native trail contour west of the intersection with current Steinbach Road, which was subsequently abandoned after what is now Bethel Church Road was constructed along the section line. This caused Weber Road to tie into Bethel Church Road in a different manner than today. The route of the original trail can still be ascertained by looking southwest at the intersection of Steinbach and Weber.

An excerpt from a map prepared by John Miller in 2001, showing the location of roads described in the Freedom Township minutes beginning 1834. This excerpt shows the southeast corner of Freedom Township, where "Raisin Road" is roughly the current Weber and Bethel Church Roads, and which aligns with Woodard's 1893 route shown in the map above. (Click to view larger image)

In Part 2 [originally published in the September M issue], we look at how this route may have influenced settlement by James Hill and others into the area.

[Previously published in M, Manchester's Magazine, Vol. 3, 1 Jul 2007. Presented here by permission.]