1816 : A Description of Frontier Detroit and the Birth of the City Library of Detroit

June 25, 2024 all-day

At 3 p.m. on June 25, 1816, John Montieth, a Presbyterian missionary, received his first glimpse of Detroit when he stepped ashore from his transport. the schooner he had boarded 40 hours earlier in Buffalo, New York.

Tradition has it that Father Gabriel Richard met his at the wharf and most certainly gave him a tour of the young town which had survived a cataclysmic fire in 1805 and English occupation during the War of 1812, when the British expelled anyone thought too vocal or supportive of the American nation.

Detroit in 1816 had about 900 residents, over half of which were still French Catholics.  It was already a prosperous trading town, with wide streets, with numerous stores where merchants enjoyed a brisk trade, both with the residents and with Indians who still visited bearing furs to trade or sell.  There were four taverns, four lawyers, and two doctors.

Most of the 250 or so buildings were quite new, since most of the town had burned down during the great fire of 1805.  Most were frame, although a few were still hewn log  and a few were constructed with brick and stone.  Many houses were painted, with picketed gardens in the rear.  Domestic animals such as cows and pigs roamed the streets at will.  A domestic ordinance preventing swine from running around at will was not passed until 1821.  An inhabitant remarked  in 1817 “When I find a resident of Detroit on the streets without a retinue of twenty or more dogs, I guess he don’t know the fashions.”

When it rained the streets became such a mire that Judge Sibley’s daughters were taken to school of horseback although the distance was a mere half block.  Mail was delivered once a week by horseback.   In the rear of the town (from the Detroit River) remained a fort, formerly called Fort Lernoult, but ever since the end of the War of 1812 Fort Shelby.  1500 soldiers resided there in 1816 in a cantonment of wooden log buildings.  Enclosing both town and fort was a log stockade erected by Governor Hall in 1807.  Although inadequate for practical defensive purposes, it was effective in keeping children and domestic livestock from wondering off  into the surrounding woods.  The gates were still guarded by sentries, who required all Indians to drop off their arms before entering the village.

Detroit had no newspaper in 1816, no church, no books, and of course no library.  Due to the ravages of the recent War of 1812, even the wealthy had no books.  When faced with the prospects of a long winter, John Montieth wrote to a friend at Princeton to forward a box of books he had left there before departing to Detroit.  He also sent word to a relative in Schenectady  to ship a private library which he had purchased from a cousin the previous year.  He also sent an order to a bookseller in Pittsburgh. It was not until the following June that the books arrived from Schenectady and Pittsburgh.  The box from Princeton did not arrive until the following spring and was in bad shape.  The vessel on which they were transported  apparently ran aground on the northern shore of Lake Erie and the books became soaked.  The paper was discolored and the bindings were coming apart.

If the books had arrived in a timely manner in the autumn of 1816 or if any of the residents had a private collection which he could have borrowed, the City Library of Detroit might not have ever happened.   In 1817, Detroit was ready for the establishment of a social library to be shared among the wealthy and middle class citizens of the town.  In 1817 the Detroit Gazette had been resurrected, a bookstore had been opened, and the Catholepistemiad or University of Michigania had been created.  An Agricultural Society of the City of Detroit was organized as well as the Detroit Lyceum, a debating and literary society.  Detroit seemed ripe for the birth of a social library, the typical form of libraries in that era.

Some of the leading citizens such as Solomon Sibley,  William Woodbridge, and Austin E. Wing met on March 10, 1817 and by March 24th a constitution had been put together calling for a social library and the sale of shares at $5/share to support the cause.  Although no list of shareholders survives, there is information that  the Territorial Governor Lewis Cass bought five shares,  Territorial Secretary and Collector of Customs bought four, and prominent lawyer and politician Solomon Sibley bought three.  John Montieth, who probably could least afford it, also bought three shares.  $450 was raised in the two weeks following the March 24th meeting.

Since Montieth was scheduled to visit Princeton in May of 1817, he was commissioned to purchase a collection for the library.  Traveling through Canada to New York and Princeton via horseback,  he arrived on May 1st in New York and by May 8th according to  a surviving letter in the Detroit Public Library Burton Historical Collection,  he had purchased roughly 300 volumes, including requested books and others.

The July 25, 1817 resurrection of the Detroit Gazette contains an article about the arrival of the books, including phrases such as “To live without reading is a step towards barbarity” and “There is no occupation, however humble, in which we may not be assisted by reading.  It makes us better acquainted with the follies and frailties, and deep corruption of human nature: and thus expands our conceptions and removes those narrow prejudices which perplex and sour and stupify the minds of ignorant people. In short, it contributes to the wealth,  prosperity and happiness of society, and without it no class of men can enjoy that happiness for which rational creatures  were formed.”

From the beginning the members of the Detroit Library Association thought of their “City Library” as a public library, available to one and all as long as they bought at least one share for $5!  On July 30, 1817 the stockholders met, drew up regulations, and a report survives signed J. Monteith, Librarian.

Russell E. Bidlack, The City Library of Detroit 1817-1837: Michigan’s First Public Library, University of Michigan Department of Library Science Studies No. 2, 1955.