1804 : Detroit Land Office Opens, Settlers Pour Into Michigan

March 26, 2018 all-day

The Detroit Land Office, established by an Act of Congress, opened in March 26, 1804.  It listed and sold surveyed government-owned land.  Interested parties entered the building and saw a large map on the wall noting available acreage and acreage already sold. In 1817 land sold for a dollar an acre; after 1817 the price rose to $1.25 an acre.

Farmers would review the board for potential open land, then ride or walk out to the property to check it out first hand.  Farmers knew that the relationship of trees to soil was a fairly reliable index on the quality of the land. For instance if a farmer saw burr oaks he knew the land was one of the best soils for wheat. Yellow loam soil in open land with hickory trees was also considered good for wheat. In general, heavily timbered land was held not to be so congenial to wheat, and was not warm enough for corn, but was known to produce excellent crops of hay, oats and potatoes. The good soils were supposed to lie under a covering of black walnut, ash, buckeye, and sugar maple, while the poorer land sprouted soft maples and beech.

As settlers continued to pour in, Michigan’s land quickly changed from public to private hands. The book “Economic and Social Beginnings of Michigan” by George Newman Fuller tells us that:

“… in 1820 there were sold at the Detroit Land Office 2,860 acres; … sales ran rapidly up to 20,068 in 1822; the increase continued until in 1825 they reached 92,332 acres. From this point there was a steady falling off until 1830, when 70,441 acres were sold. But with a sudden impulse sales mounted in the following year to 217,943 acres. Then, probably under the influence of the Black Hawk war and the epidemics of cholera in 1832 and 1834, there was a gradual decline. But again, in 1835 sales suddenly leaped to 405,331 acres and in 1836 to nearly one and a half million acres.”

In May of 1836 public lands were in such demand that the office had to close its doors and receive payment through a window, because too many tried to squeeze into the building. Charles Lamb had to move fast; in 1836 he liked what he saw, so bought his land.

On the road to the wilderness

With land secured, the settler then repacked the wagon and headed out. In preparation for their departure, families packed the wagon with clothing, cooking utensils, firearms, bedding and tools. The women prepared a complete medicine chest to take along. They also packed hand-sewn sacks with flour, cornmeal, dried fruits and other foodstuff; assembled dishes and cooking utensils; made candles and assembled workbaskets of various sewing tools, thread and other accessories, all of which were packed into the wagon.

Farm implements and some cherished furniture were added to the loads. On the outside of the wagon they hung a bucket of grease for the axles, a barrel of water for humans and stock, and spare parts for the wagons.

The women rode on the seats in front of the wagons. Here they were sometimes joined by the man or some of the children, but men generally strode ahead of their wagon. The smaller children rode at the back on the extensions built over the back wheels and the feed boxes attached to the back of the wagon. It was not unusual for a child to become drowsy and tragically fall off the wagon, to be crushed under the hooves of draft animals or the wheels of the wagon.

The older children trudged along behind, prodding and pushing the sheep, cow or hogs that constantly tried to wander off into the woods or fields on either side of the road or trail.

Pioneering families made about nine miles a day. Some reported wagons sunk to the hubs in sticky mud for mile after mile. There are many accounts in the letters or diaries of pioneers struggling down the Old Chicago Road (Michigan Avenue). It was a mud-clogged quagmire, especially in spring when the River Rouge would overflow its banks.

One experience was related by the Mills Family in 1836:

“It was a beautiful day in mid October that our party left Detroit. … We advanced with our slow paced oxen team … If the land was timbered, the road was proverbial bad. … We found scattered along the road here and there poles and rails, used as levers, broken tongues, pieces of felloes [the outer circle of a wheel to which the spokes are fitted], an old wagon wheel, or an entire wagon, or sometimes an old abandoned stage coach laid careened and moldering by the roadside; each fragment or hulk telling a tale of adventure or mishap — mute reminders of the trials of those emigrants who had gone before.”

First, clear the land

Reaching their acreage in West Bloomfield in early spring, the Lamb family decided the importance of clearing land and planting early potatoes and corn superseded building a cabin. He chopped trees from dawn to dusk: shagbark hickory, red oak, butternut, basswood and chestnut. He left the sugar maples and black walnuts.

They chose a site for the house and barn — a rise of ground facing the trail on the east. Lamb needed logs 22 feet long for the sides and 18 feet for the ends. Trunks of red oak were cut into six-foot lengths, and then split thin and flat for “shakes” to cover the roof. He made hundreds of wooden pegs in different sizes from the red oak which, when wet, would swell and hold the cabin together as tightly as iron spikes or nails.

When ready to build, he walked the “neighborhood” sometimes 20 miles to invite neighbors to help in raising the house. He was pleased to hear “I’ll be there” over and over as he finally returned near midnight.

The neighbors came early and in a day had the walls up; they used oxen and ramps to stack the logs. On the second day Lamb laid the shakes overlapping to finish the roof and cut out the large hearth fireplace. The logs were “chinked” with mud to keep out the cold. Later he built a barn to protect the milk cow and livestock from wolves and bears.

With the structures up, the routine of farm work and life began early in the year. In March he tapped the sugar maples and boiled sap to make maple syrup. In April the family sheered sheep while his wife prepared the wool and spun yarn. In May he planted his fields: “part to potatoes, part to cabbages, and part to turnips.” Elsewhere he sowed oats and later, “When the red oak leaves were the size of a squirrel’s ear,” he planted corn.

An early American writer, Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur, wrote of his similar experiences in Letters from an American Farmer published around 1800:

“Often when I plough my low ground, I place my little boy on a chair which screws to the beam of the plough — its motion and that of the horses pleases him; he is perfectly happy and begins to chat. As I lean over the handle various are the thoughts that crowd into my mind. I am now doing for him, I say, what my father formerly did for me. … Can more pleasure, more dignity, be added to that primary occupation?”


Bill Loomis, “How one bad review delayed the settlement of Michigan“, Detroit News, June 3, 2012.

Henry Ormal Severance, Michigan Trailmakers,  Ann Arbor, G. Wahr, 1930.    Describes the life of  pioneer families in 1836, such as Charles and Martha Lamb and their three children leaving Geneva, N.Y., to start a farm in Michigan.  The MSU community has free online access via the Hathitrust.  Other may have to request it through interlibrary loan (available from the Library of Michigan for example)