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


By dhowell - Posted on 12 February 2008

by Ray Berg

In [Part 1], I wrote of a Native American trail that branched off from the Sauk Trail/Chicago Road (now US-12) in Pittsfield Township, and led into Freedom Township, providing an early route for the first settlers looking to purchase land and homestead in the early 1830s. This article continues with that story, through some elaboration on how settlers found land, and a first hand account of what it was like to travel in those early days. We also detail the settlement of two of Freedom Township's earliest settlers, who most likely utilized this trail.

An 1825 map prepared by Orange Risdon, surveyor of the Chicago Road, founder of Saline, and all-around entrepreneur and go-getter in the early history of Washtenaw County. The map provided the first details to would-be settlers of the terrain and settlements. (Click image to view larger version)

The previous article referenced the "Raisin Road" in Freedom Township, an extension of what was sometimes called the Huron or Pottawatomie Trail, which came up the Huron River from its mouth at Lake Erie to Portage Lake at the Livingston-Washtenaw county border. This trail is well documented as a pioneer path connecting Lake Erie with the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti area. The trail followed the high bank along the river, and, in those days, poling of large flatboats carrying pioneers and their belongings was also possible to within four miles of Ypsilanti.

At Ypsilanti, pioneers could move from the Pottawatomie Trail onto the Sauk Trail (later the Chicago Road), which followed the high ridge separating the former Lake Erie lakebed flatlands from the remaining upland terrain of Washtenaw County. These early Native American trails followed the ridge line, in search of good hunting and crop lands. Quite often, these trails and their branches led to what were called "oak openings"—gently rolling land, with scattered clumps of oak, and very little undergrowth other than grass. Similarly, "burr-oak openings" were flat plains with clumps of evenly spaced burr oaks. Both of these types of openings were considered barometers of good farming land. Newly arriving settlers saw these lands as easily cleared and cultivated fields, and therefore oak openings (particularly with river frontage) were the first claimed parcels of land besides parcels along the main territorial roads.

The first surveys of what would become Washtenaw County were completed in 1819, and the boundaries of Washtenaw County were established in 1822. What drove the development of the county was the Land Act of 1820, which made land parcels available in smaller lots and at a lower price than before. This finally made land available to ordinary people with average income, rather than only the rich or the speculators. Owning land represented power and a chance to improve one's life. When the Erie Canal opened in 1825, dramatically lowering the cost and time of travel, settlers from the East could now easily explore cheap land possibilities in Washtenaw County, select the desired land, and then return for their families and belongings. In addition, in 1825 funds were authorized for the Chicago Road, an improvement of the Sauk Trail which would greatly facilitate movement into the area.

The combination of existing Native American trails, the Chicago Road, and the 1820 Land Act, caused a huge swell of development in Washtenaw County beginning in 1822. Pamphlets were printed and sent east extolling the virtues of the land, enticing settlers to come to Washtenaw County (a sample of a pamphlet is in the Michigan Archives). Pamphlets were also prepared in German and sent overseas, swelling the ranks of German immigrants. Also in 1825, Orange Risdon, surveyor of the Chicago Road and founder of Saline, published a comprehensive map of the area, showing various natural features, settlements, rivers and other information which guided potential settlers to the area. Figure 1 shows the map, a full version of which is available in the Archives.

The 1839 Sylvester Higgins map from Douglass Houghton's surveys, shown in ["Manchester and.....Lexington?"], is another example which portrays these oak openings and other natural features, from which settlers could make predeterminations of where good farming and mill power locations could be found.

James W. Hill and Jason C. Gillette are historically viewed as the first two settlers in Freedom Township, both choosing land at the end of the "Raisin Road" trail in Section 32 of Freedom Township, but they came here in slightly different ways. We don't know specifically how James Hill chose his route, although anecdotal records say he came via an "Indian trail" from the southeast. Since later records show him to have been a well-educated man, he likely had access to the promotion pamphlets and Risdon's map, and could determine where the oak openings and other desirable features were. We don't have Hill's account of his journey, but presume he followed the Pottawatomie Trail and the "Raisin Road" trail into Freedom Township where he settled on his desired parcel. Most likely, after making his claim, he went back to New York, and returned with his family in spring 1832 via Detroit (where he completed his land purchase at the Detroit Land Office and probably purchased animals and supplies). He then returned from Detroit to Washtenaw County by way of the newly completed Chicago Road.

A contemporary account of a similar journey is available from L. D. Watkins of Manchester, who in 1894 wrote a paper describing his arrival in the Manchester area in May, 1834. A partial quote follows:

"We left Keene, New Hampshire on April 9, 1834, hired teams to convey us to Albany, NY, where we embarked on the Erie Canal for Buffalo. Thence by steamboat to Detroit, where two days were spent in procuring our outfit and supplies, a 'breaking-up' team of four yoke of oxen, a 'breaking-up' plow, and two wagons, on which we loaded our belongings. Two yokes of oxen were hitched to each wagon and with these, together with a horse and light wagon brought from New Hampshire, we started for our unknown home in the wilderness. We were six days on the road from Detroit to what is now Fairview Farm, a distance of 59 miles. Total travel time was 29 days."

James W. Hill was typical of New Yorkers who came to the Manchester area. He was born in 1791 in Rhode Island, but by 1820 is in Grafton, Renssellaer County, New York on the far east side of the state. By 1830, he is in Orangeville, Genesee County, New York, on the west side of the state, where he is married with three sons and four daughters. In the summer of 1831, he filed a patent for the SE quarter of Section 32 of Freedom Township (160 acres), in what was then a part of Dexter Township. It is today generally bounded on the west by Eisman Road, and runs along Pfaus Road. It is still considered excellent farming land, and a small part of it is now owned by the author.

An 1856 map of Freedom Township, noting in the southwest corner the location of land purchased by James W. Hill and Jason C. Gillett in Section 32, near the end of the "Raisin Road" trail recorded by C. S. Woodard in 1893. (Click image to view larger version)

The 1856 map of Freedom Township (left) locates the land purchased by Hill, as well as that of Jason Gillett discussed below. Although the map states James Hill (J. W. Hill) owns the land, he actually sold it in 1855.

Hill was a versatile and well-educated man. He served as a Democratic representative in the Michigan Territorial Legislature in 1835–1836, as well as being credited with the first house, barn, school, and religious service in Freedom Township. He served as director of the Miller's Bank of Washtenaw, and taught school for several years. In 1844, he transferred operation of his farm property to his son Hanson, and moved to Manchester Village, where in 1850 the census finds him 58 years old, practicing law, and living with his wife Esther, 42, a son Lodmua, 8, a ward Francis Walrow, 11, Phebe Ockrow, a 28 year old black female, and James Swesay, a 22 year-old student.

In 1855, he and his wife Esther, and Hanson and Amanda Hill, sold the original Freedom Township farm to Michael Alber, and by 1860, James Hill is 69, living in Prescott, Pierce County, Wisconsin, on the far western end of Wisconsin, near St. Paul, MN—maybe to be near one of his children? By 1864, he is back in Lenawee County, where he died in 1864 in Clinton. His wife Esther died in 1878 in Tecumseh. Hanson Hill and his wife Amanda relocated to Manchester Township by 1860 and thence to Columbia Township, Jackson County, by 1870.

Our other early Freedom Township settler, Jason C. Gillett, was part of a very large family group from Seneca County, New York who spread out across Freedom, Sharon and Saline Townships. Jason Gillett was in the county by the late 1820s, and lived in the Saline area when he married Emma Maria Fellows on October 17, 1829. In October 1831, Jason Gillett applied for a patent on the E half of the NW quarter, and the W half of the NE quarter of Section 32 in Freedom Township, consisting of 160 acres, bridging the south side of current Bethel Church Road at Eisman Road. This location is near the end of the trail discussed by C. S. Woodard in [Part 1]. This property is now the location of the Alber Orchard and Cider Mill, owned and operated by Therese and Mike Bossory.

So while not coming directly to Freedom from New York like his immediate neighbor to the southeast, James Hill, Jason Gillett picked prime land and had the advantage of published information in his search for property.

In the 1850 Freedom Township census, Jason Gillett is shown as 45, born about 1805 in New York, and married to Emma, 34 years old, with eight children, the oldest, Cordelia (19), being the first child born in Freedom Township. So it appears he married Emma when she was about 15, given some leeway for census data inaccuracies. A young start for her...

Gillett farmed, operated a blacksmith shop, and donated land for the first school, as well as serving on the school board. On March 6, 1860, they sold the land to Philip Schenk. The Gilletts' whereabouts after this sale have not been determined.

In the next [article], we'll look at Major John Gilbert, the "founder of Manchester." We'll provide his life story and answer the question: Why is Manchester Village located exactly where it is? We'll learn about the prodigious career Gilbert had before he even came to Michigan, how he first located the Manchester site, and the varied other interests he had in an 86-year productive life. We'll see how he used his "connections" to get the best land possible for the Manchester site and make good money in the process, and why he never actually lived in Manchester. Quite a story...

[Previously published in M, Manchester's Magazine, Vol. 4, 1 September 2007. Presented here by permission.]