1816 : Tiffin, U.S. Surveyor General, Reports That Michigan is “Interminable Swamp”

November 30, 2021 all-day

At the end of the War of 1812, Congress authorized bounty lands to be awarded to soldiers, to compensate them for their service. Each man would get 160 acres in the Old Northwest Territory, which included present day Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and a portion of Minnesota.

To do this, they first needed to survey the land to determine its agricultural qualities. In 1815, Ohio native Edward Tiffin, the U.S Surveyor General, visited the Michigan Territory and reported on November 30, 1816 to the Secretary of War that “there would not be more than one acre out of a hundred if there would be one out of a thousand would … admit of cultivation. … It was unsafe for men or pack mules, the ground sinking at every step and shaking for several feet around, having indications of being over a vast underground lake covered by a thin crust though which a man or mule might easily break and be lost.

“ … The intermediate space between the swamps and lakes, which is probably nearly one half of the country, is, with a very few exceptions, a poor, barren, sandy land, on which scarcely any vegetation grows, except very small scrubby oaks. … The abandonment of colonization is urged as being dangerous and unnecessary.”

It is likely that Tiffin and his team of surveyors saw very little of Michigan.

As a result of the Tiffin report, President Madison recommended to Congress that, since the lands in Michigan were covered with swamps and unfit for farming, only a small proportion could be applied to the intended grants, and that other lands should be designated to take the place of Michigan’s portion. Accordingly, three-fourths of that amount was ordered to be surveyed in Illinois.

School geographies and guide books reportedly contained maps with the words “Interminable Swamp” across the interior of Michigan.

As a result of Tiffin’s report, the settlement of Michigan was delayed for a number of years.

Territorial Governor Lewis Cass tried to counteract the bad publicity by saying that Tiffin’s report “grossly misrepresented” the territory’s land and lobbied Congress for a new survey of the land between Detroit and Chicago as a matter of national security.

Many articles on successful farming ran in the Detroit Gazette, an early newspaper founded in 1817, and were reprinted in New York papers. Other countering influences were letters from successful pioneers published in eastern papers, reports made by settlers revisiting their old homes in the East, and the circulars of land speculators.

By about 1825 the effects of the Tiffin report in the East began to wane. That year was marked by the appearance of John Farmer’s maps and gazetteers of Michigan, published in Detroit. Farmer’s maps were considered essential tools for emigrants and by 1830 had reached a high demand in eastern cities.

For the rest of the story, see Bill Loomis, “How one bad review delayed the settlement of Michigan“, Detroit News Blog, June 3, 2012.

John Farmer, Mapmaker, 1798-1859 courtesy of the Michigan State University Map Library.