The Erie Canal, new roads, and increased governmental organization allowed and encouraged migration westward beginning in the first decades of the 1800s.
This document, from a women who moved with her family from New York to Michigan, describes some of the trials and tribulations of frontier life.
Life on the Michigan Frontier
Harriet L. Noble, 1824
My husband was seized with the mania, and accordingly made preparation to start in January with his brother. They took the Ohio route, and were nearly a month in getting through; coming by way of Monroe, and thence to Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor. Mr. John Allen and Walter Rumsey with his wife and two men had been there some four or five weeks, had built a small house, moved into it the day my husband and his brother arrived, and were just preparing their first meal, which the newcomers had the pleasure of partaking. They spent a few days here, located a farm a little above the town on the river Huron, and returned through Canada. They had been so much pleased with the country, that they immediately commenced preparing to emigrate; and as near as I can recollect, we started about the 20th of September, 1824, for Michigan. We travelled from our house in Geneva to Buffalo in wagons. The roads were bad, and we were obliged to wait in Buffalo four days for a boat, as the steamboat “Michigan” was the only one on the lake. After waiting so long we found she had put into Erie for repairs, and had no prospect of being able to run again for some time. The next step was to take passage in a schooner, which was considered a terrible undertaking for so dangerous a voyage as it was then thought to be. At length we went on board “the Prudence,” of Cleveland, Capt. Johnson. A more inconvenient little hark could not well be imagined. We were seven days on Lake Erie, and so entirely prostrated with seasickness, as scarcely to be able to attend to the wants of our little ones. I had a little girl of three years, and a babe some months old, and Sister Noble had six children, one an infant. It was a tedious voyage; the lake was very rough most of the time, and I thought if we were only on land again, I should be satisfied, it was a wilderness. I could not then realize what it would be to live without a comfortable house through the winter, but sad experience afterwards taught me a lesson not to be forgotten.
We came into the Detroit river; it was beautiful then as now; on the Canada side, in particular, you will scarce perceive any change. As we approached Detroit, the “Cantonment” with the American flag floating on its walls, was decidedly the most interesting of any part of the town; for a city it was certainly the most filthy, irregular place I had ever seen; the streets were filled with Indians and low French, and at that time I could not tell the difference between them. We spent two days in making preparations for going out to Ann Arbor, and during that time I never saw a genteelly-dressed person in the streets. There were carriages; the most wealthy families rode in French carts, sitting on the bottom upon some kind of mat; and the streets were so muddy these were the only vehicles convenient for getting about. I said to myself, “if this be a Western city, give me a home in the woods.” I think it was on the 3d of October we started from Detroit, with a pair of oxen and a wagon, a few articles for cooking, and such necessaries as we could not do without. It was necessary that they should be few as possible, for our families were a full load for this mode of travelling. After travelling all day we found ourselves but ten miles from Detroit (at what is now Dearborn); here we spent the night at a kind of tavern, the only one west of the city. Our lodging was the floor, and the other entertainment was to match. The next day we set out as early as possible, in hopes to get through the woods before dark, but night found us about half way through, and there remained no other resource but to camp out, and make ourselves contented. The men built a large fire and prepared our supper. My sister and myself could assist but little, so fatigued were we with walking and carrying our infants. There were fifteen in our company. Two gentlemen going to Ypsilanti had travelled with us from Buffalo; the rest were our own families. We were all pretty cheerful, until we began to think of lying down for the night. The men did not seem to dread it, however, and were soon fast asleep, but sleep was not for me in such a wilderness. I could think of nothing but wild beasts, or something as bad; so that I had the pleasure of watching while the others slept. It seemed a long, long night, and never in my life did I feel more grateful for the blessing of returning day. We started again as early as possible, all who could walk moving on a little in advance of the wagon; the small children were the only ones who thought of riding. Every few rods it would take two or three men to pry the wagon out of the mud, while those who walked were obliged to force their way over fallen timber, brush, &c. Thus passed the day; at night we found ourselves on the plains, three miles from Ypsilanti. My feet were so swollen I could walk no further. We got into the wagon and rode as far as Woodruff’s grove, a little below Ypsilanti. There were some four or five families at this place. The next day we left for Ann Arbor. We were delighted with the country before us, it was beautiful in its natural state; and I have sometimes thought that cultivation has marred its loveliness. Where Ypsilanti now stands, there was but one building—an old trading-house on the west side of the river; the situation was fine— there were scattering oaks and no brushwood. Here we met a large number of Indians; and one old squaw followed us some distance with her papoose, determined to swap babies. At last she gave it up, and for one I felt relieved.
We passed two log houses between this and Ann Arbor. About the middle of the afternoon we found ourselves at our journey’s end—but what a prospect? There were some six or seven log huts occupied by as many inmates as could be crowded into them. It was too much to think of asking strangers to give us a place to stay in even for one night under such circumstances. Mr. John Allen himself made us the offer of sharing with him the comfort of a shelter from storm, if not from cold. His house was large for a log one, but quite unfinished; there was a ground floor and a small piece above. When we got our things stored in this place, we found the number sheltered to be twenty-one women and children, and fourteen men. There were but two bedsteads in the house, and those who could not occupy these, slept on feather beds upon the floor. When the children were put in bed you could not set a foot down without stepping on a foot or hand; the consequence was we had music most of the time.
We cooked our meals in the open air, there being no fire in the house but a small box-stove. The fall winds were not very favorable to such business; we would frequently find our clothes on fire, but fortunately we did not often get burned. When one meal was over, however, we dreaded preparing the next. We lived in this way until our husbands got a log house raised and the roof on; this took them about six weeks, at the end of which time we went into it, without door, floor, chimney, or anything but logs and roof. There were no means of getting boards for a floor, as everything must be brought from Detroit, and we could not think of drawing lumber over such a road. The only alternative was to split slabs of oak with an axe. My husband was not a mechanic, but he managed to make a floor in this way that kept us from the ground. I was most anxious for a door, as the wolves would come about in the evening, and sometimes stay all night and keep up a serenade that would almost chill the blood in my veins. Of all noises I think the howling of wolves and the yell of Indians the most fearful; at least it appeared so to me then, when I was not able to close the door against them. I had the greatest terror of Indians; for I had never seen any before I came to Michigan but Oneidas, and they were very different, being partially civilized.
We had our house comfortable as such a rude building could be, by the first of February. It was a mild winter; there was snow enough to cover the ground only four days, a fortunate circumstance for us. We enjoyed uninterrupted health, but in the spring the ague with its accompaniments gave us a call, and by the middle of August there were but four out of fourteen who could call themselves well. We then fancied we were too near the river for health. We sold out and bought again ten miles west of Ann Arbor, a place which suited us better; and just a year from the day we came to Ann Arbor, moved out of it to Dexter. There was one house here, Judge Dexter’s; he was building a sawmill, and had a number of men at work at the time; besides these there was not a white family west of Ann Arbor in Michigan territory. Our log house was just raised, forming only the square log pen. Of course it did not look very inviting, but it was our home, and we must make the best of it. I helped to raise the rafters and put on the roof, but it was the last of November before our roof was completed. We were obliged to wait for the mill to run in order to get boards for making it. The doorway I had no means of closing except by hanging up a blanket, and frequently when I would raise it to step out, there would he two or three of our dusky neighbors peeping in to see what was there. It would always give me such a start, I could not suppress a scream, to which they would reply with “Ugh!” and a hearty laugh. They knew I was afraid, and liked to torment me. Sometimes they would throng the house and stay two or three hours. If I was alone they would help themselves to what they liked. The only way in which I could restrain them at all, was to threaten that I would tell Cass; he was governor of the territory, and they stood in great fear of him. At last we got a door. The next thing wanted was a chimney; winter was close at hand and the stone was not drawn. I said to my husband, “I think I can drive the oxen and draw the stones, while you dig them from the ground and load them.” He thought I could not, but consented to let me try. He loaded them on a kind of sled; I drove to the house, rolled them off, and drove back for another load. I succeeded so well that we got enough in this way to build our chimney. My husband and myself were four days building it. I suppose most of my lady friends would think a woman quite out of “her legitimate sphere” in turning mason, but I was not at all particular what kind of labor I performed, so we were only comfortable and provided with the necessaries of life. Many times I had been obliged to take my children, put on their cloaks, and sit on the south side of the house in the sun to keep them warm; anything was preferable to smoke. When we had a chimney and floor, and a door to close up our little log cabin, I have often thought it the most comfortable little place that could possibly be built in so new a country; and but for the want of provisions of almost every kind, we should have enjoyed it much. The roads had been so bad all the fall that we had waited until this time, and I think it was December when my husband went to Detroit for supplies. Fifteen days were consumed in going and coming. We had been without flour for three weeks or more, and it was hard to manage with young children thus. After being without bread three or four days, my little boy, two years old, looked me in the face and said, “Ma, why don’t you make bread; don’t you like it? I do.” His innocent complaint brought forth the first tears I had shed in Michigan on account of any privations I had to suffer, and they were about the last. I am not of a desponding disposition, nor often low-spirited, and having left New York to make Michigan my home, I had no idea of going back , or being very unhappy. Yet the want of society, of church privileges, and in fact almost every thing that makes life desirable, would often make me sad in spite of all effort to the contrary. I had no ladies’ society for one year after coming to Dexter, except that of sister Noble and a Mrs. Taylor, and was more lonely than either of them, my family being so small.
The winter passed rather gloomily, but when spring came, everything looked delightful. We thought our hardships nearly at an end, when early in the summer my husband was taken sick with the ague. He had not been sick at all the first year; of course he must be acclimated. He had never suffered from ague or fever of any kind before, and it was a severe trial for him, with so much to do and no help to be had. He would break the ague and work for a few days, when it would return. In this way he made his garden, planted his corn, and thought he was quite well. About August he harvested his wheat and cut his hay, but could get no help to draw it, and was again taken with ague. I had it myself, and both my children. Sometimes we would all be ill at a time. Mr. Noble and I had it every other day. He was almost discouraged, and said he should have to sell his cattle or let them starve. I said to him, “to-morrow we shall neither of us have the ague, and I believe I can load and stack the hay, if my strength permits.” As soon as breakfast was over, I prepared to go into the meadow, where I loaded and stacked seven loads that day. The next day my husband had the ague more severely than common, but not so with me; the exercise broke the chills, and I was able to assist him whenever he was well enough, until our hay was all secured. In the fall we had several added to our circle. We were more healthy then, and began to flatter ourselves that we could live very comfortably through the winter of 1826; but we were not destined to enjoy that blessing, for in November my husband had his left hand blown to pieces by the accidental discharge of a gun, which confined him to the house until April. The hay I had stacked during the summer I had to feed out to the cattle with my own hands in the winter, and often cut the wood for three days at a time. The logs which I alone rolled in, would surprise any one who has never been put to the test of necessity, which compels people to do what under other circumstances they would not have thought possible. This third winter in Michigan was decidedly the hardest I had yet encountered. In the spring, Mr. Noble could go out by carrying his hand in a sling. He commenced ploughing to prepare for planting his corn. Being weak from his wound, the ague returned again, but he worked every other day until his corn was planted. He then went to New York, came back in July, and brought a nephew with him, who relieved me from helping him in the work out of doors. Although I was obliged to stack the hay this third fall, I believe it was the last labor of the kind I ever performed. At this time we began to have quite a little society; we were fortunate in having good neighbors, and for some years were almost like one family, our interests being the same, and envy, jealousy, and all bitter feelings unknown among us. We cannot speak so favorably of the present time.
When I look back upon my life, and see the ups and downs, the hardships and privations I have been called upon to endure, I feel no wish to be young again. I was in the prime of life when I came to Michigan—only twenty-one, and my husband was thirty-three. Neither of us knew the reality of hardship. Could we have known what it was to be pioneers in a new country, we should never come, but I am satisfied that with all the disadvantages of raising a family in a new country, there is a consolation in knowing that our children are prepared to brave the ills of life, I believe, far better than they would have been had we never left New York.
Source: Elizabeth F. Ellet, Pioneer Women of the West. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1852, pp. 388–395