A Journey through Ann Arbor, in 1835

Submitted by Wystan Stevens:

An amazing fact: they check your guns when you arrive in Ann Arbor!

The following report, which I have transcribed in its entirety, is a letter from a traveler in Michigan, first published in 1835 in a tabloid: the New-York Mirror, A Weekly Journal, Devoted to Literature and the Fine Arts. Vol. XIII, No. 4, Saturday, July 25, 1835.

[My copy was purchased on eBay, in September, 2007.]


IT is a marvelous country, this western world, and it is the only land under the sun that has not been too extravagantly spoken of by travellers. Yes, it keeps pace even with travellers' tales, and that is no small merit.

Mr. Hoffman's delightful volumes, and Washington Irving's "Tour," displayed to us a new world; the former spread before us a land shrouded in the mantle of winter, while the latter portrayed the "sere and yellow leaf" of autumn. But the spring and the summer are the boast of prairie land, and he that fails to see those seasons, loses half the pleasure of a trip to the west.

It was on a clear evening in "the leafy month of June," that I set forth from Detroit, late the outpost of civilization, but now called at the place whence I write, "down east." I had come from Buffalo to that city in company with a crowd of grave personages on a disinterested pilgrimage to Chicago, in search of the Golden Fleece, and was glad to take leave of these modern Jasons, and wish them a safe voyage on this new Argonautick expedition. For my own part, I found the steamboat intolerable, especially as a vehement sea-sickness prevented me from "getting my money's-worth" out of the worthy proprietors. I therefore provided myself with a little French pony, and resolved to set forth across the country in quest of adventures and pleasure. After riding nearly all the ponies in Detroit within an ace of their lives, by way of trying, (to the great perturbation of the several owners,) I finally pitched upon a little fellow that racked and paced and cantered to a charm. Having accoutered myself with a broad-brimmed straw hat, a pair of saddle-bags and a blanket, and slung my double-barrelled fowling-piece athwart my back, my pony soon ambled with me out of the busy town. How gloriously independent does a man feel at such a moment! In what supreme contempt does he hold the artificial life of a city, the cares, the bustle and the money-making of life! No matter who he be -- be he as poor as Job, ay, and as friendless too, his soul soars above the little world, he feels his value as a man, he recognises his personal sovereignty, his self-dependence, his native dignity, and with the poet he can feel that,

"Lord of himself, but not of lands,
He having nothing, yet hath all."

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I had been cautioned by our over-scrupulous friend against the night air of Michigan, and not caring to take a fever and ague before I had got cleverly through my journey, I drew up my friend Hal at a sorry-looking log tavern on the road-side, commanding a delightful view of an adjoining bog and frog-pond. A drunken subject of his majesty offered to take my horse; but I took the liberty to decline giving him that trouble, whereupon the Briton assured me that he was as good a man as I was, and walked off swearing that the horse would certainly die. Mr. Brown, the proprietor of these charming premises, was not long in making his appearance, and duly atoned for the insolence to his guest, by praising my pony to the skies. He ushered me into a sombre-looking bar-room, in full view of which was a small kitchen tenanted by Mrs. Brown and a couple of brawling babies, besides a young lady fashioned after the Cleopatra's needle. The night was damp and chilly, and I was fain to draw my blanket around me while I laboured at a most obstinate and execrable American cigar, dispensed from the bountiful bar of Mr. Brown. At length I was shown into a little box, which mine host facetiously denominated a "sleeping apartment," and throwing myself upon an undulating feather-bed, between sheets which might have served for topsails to a seventy-four, attempted to fall into a gentle slumber. But in vain did I close my heavy eye-lids, in vain did I attempt to persuade myself that I was going to sleep. The bull-frogs in front of my window began to "charm the listening shades," bellowing in full chorus with the force of so many calves; and those most active classes of western population, the fleas and mosquitoes, exerted their malice to the utmost, and with the air of the bull-frogs very effectively "murdered sleep." I tossed and tumbled about my bed until the wooden clock had stricken twelve, and then I fell into a broken slumber only to awake on the stroke of three, feverish, pettish and miserable. At the first gray streak of dawn I arose, dressed, threw open the window and read as well as I was able. The sun rose, and sick and dizzy I threw myself once more upon my couch of luxury, and slept three hours from very exhaustion. A good beginning of western life, thought I, as I paid my bill and departed. N'importe! Comfort does not take up its abode in the wilds. My philosophy, however, was put to a severe test when, after riding a few rods, I passed a commodious tavern, handsomely situated on the top of a hill, and which seemed a palace compared with the hovel where I had passed the night. I put spurs to my pony, and relieved myself of the sight of the tantalizing mansion.

I took the "old Territorial Road," as it is called in virtue of its great age, which is said to be four years. Mr. Hoffman's account of the Kalamazos country made me desirous of seeing that beautiful tract, and moreover by taking this roundabout way, I placed myself beyond the reach of those annoying harpies, the speculators. The country for forty or fifty miles is wretchedly wanting in interest; it is a mere succession of small farms opened to the east, and thus exposing the traveller to the scorching rays of the sun. The direction was southerly, and my quarters for the night were taken up at a very pretty village, called Ann Arbour. On alighting at this place, divers of the good democratick citizens thereof clustered around me, to admire my gun. One of these free republicans, without any "by your leave, sir," proceeded to examine my "stub and twist" barrels, and when his observations were completed, another "fellow-citizen" more polite than his brother, seized hold of my gun and begged me to "excuse his impudence," inasmuch as the said gun was "a great curiosity in these parts." By way of making myself popular, I immediately slipped the band over my head, and delivered over this "great curiosity" into the hands of "the people," who pored over it with huge delight, and made many pithy remarks concerning it, to my great amusement and satisfaction.

The season at the west is far ahead of the east. Last evening I had the pleasure of eating some wild strawberries gathered in the "marshes," wherein this territory seems especially to abound. I am told that the season is uncommonly backward. I was rather glad to escape from the pleasant village of Ann Arbour, for this being court week, the taverns were crowded with the learned profession, who had assembled, from all parts of the country, to murder Murray in the neat brick court-house, which is the pride of Ann Arbour. I was a good deal amused to find a young gentleman, who had been my fellow "student" (lucus a non lucendo) in a law-office in New-York, invested with the dignity of "Judge," and the amiable manner with which he bore the infliction of that grave title almost set me in a roar.

I forgot to mention in my first letter that I dined, between Detroit and Ann Arbour, at a place called Plymouth Four Corners, rendered remarkable by a great tame bear that is kept there, who, if I remember rightly, has been christened by the name of "Bill." I was a good deal puzzled, while luxuriating over my bacon and greens at dinner, to hear a fellow at table deploring, with no small pathos, the sad condition of poor Bill. "The poor fellow pants like a steamboat," quoth he, "and I guess I had better take him down to the creek and let him cool himself." I was not long a stranger to Bill. My horse had taken but a few steps from Plymouth Four Corners, when he gave a sudden start that nearly threw me over his head -- I looked for the cause, and truly it was sufficiently ludicrous. There was old Bill, wallowing up to his neck in mud and water by the side of the road, and looking so miserable, that, for the soul of you, it was impossible to avoid laughing in his face.

But to return to Ann Arbour -- I had proceeded but a few miles before I was overtaken by a horseman in a thunder-and-lightning riding-coat and blue pantaloons. He was a middle-sized, red faced person, with very sharp and knowing features, and his whole air was queerly set off by a bit of crape which was tied round his hat. Prima facie, I should have supposed him a tailor, but he spoke so mightily of land speculations that I was soon driven from that opinion. He accosted me with great civility, and said that he had hurried on to overtake me. My wherefrom and whereto were soon extracted from me, and finding to his credit that he was in good company, he proceeded to impart his woes without mercy. He deplored his happy home in "York state;" expatiated feelingly on the inconveniences of riding on horseback for the first time, and in the course of the day ejaculated several times most devoutly, "I wish I was to hum." But I should abuse the sacredness of personal intercourse should I lay before the world the manifold griefs wherewithal this worthy individual was afflicted. Any man may wear a thunder-and-lightning coat, and wish himself to "hum" into the bargain -- but ah! how few could in other particulars resemble poor _________!

When about twenty miles from Ann Arbour we met the wretched remnant of a tribe of Indians. They were very fantastically dressed -- some in gaudy calicoes, with a bright red, or yellow handkerchief about their heads, and some with the old-fashioned blanket wrapped about them, while several of the children were nearly naked; the girls being dressed in calico frocks, reaching within a few inches of the knee. The Indians here seem to wear no particular costume, and greedily pick up the more showy odds and ends of civilized garbs. I shall never forget the grotesque and ludicrous appearance of an old chieftain whom I saw at Detroit. He wore a white blanket and red leggins, and his head was surmounted by a dragoon's helmet and feathers! It was a curious blending of arma and toga, and the old savage strutted about with the air of a peacock, conscious of the magnificence of his plumage. The group that I now fell in with reminded me of the ancient gipsies. The same swarthy complexions and raven hair, the same patched and tattered garments, and the same apparent wretchedness. The women and children were all mounted on little shaggy Indian ponies, guiltless of the currycomb. It was seldom that the poor animal was freighted with a single burden -- two and three and even four clustered together on the back of the miserable beast. On one sat a tall, masculine-looking squaw, and behind her were stowed, in the order of primogeniture, her "young barbarians," three in number, who clung together like a cluster of green grapes just forming on the parent stem. The chieftain of this squalid band walked erect at their head -- he was an aged man, and had doubtless lived to see his once-powerful and warlike tribe dwindle into the wretched squad which he now conducted. I saluted him, and he approached me. The whole cavalcade stood still while the old warriour spoke. He wished to learn the distance to the next tavern -- but he had forgotten the word. "How many," said he, counting his fingers, "whiskey, whiskey." The gesticuation and expression with which these few words were accompanied, rendered them quite as intelligible as if he had asked "how many miles to the next tavern?" I raised one finger, the chief did the same to assure himself of the distance, and on my nodding affirmatively, he made a loud exclamation of joy, and passed on with his sorry followers. The passion of these people for strong drink, is very remarkable -- if they once taste the intoxicating draught, it is ever after the first desire of their souls, and they will seek after it with the utmost avidity. A sober Indian in these days, and within the borders of civilization, is as harmless as a white man -- but when his brain becomes fired with strong liquor, he is a madman, a very bedlamite! and ripe for the commission of any atrocity. The laws of Michigan are very severe on the subject of selling drink to the Indians -- but those "strict statutes and most biting laws" are broken without scruple, as is the case with many other rigorous enactments of that ill-governed territory. The Indian statute, however, cannot long be broken -- perhaps another year will not find a solitary tribe on this side of the Mississippi. The cruel, but necessary policy of our government, has already stripped them of their broad lands, and curtailed their liberties -- nay, it has even bargained for the removal of their persons, and the poor Indian cannot resist, and he must wander far away, a hapless outcast from the home of his fathers!