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Grand Rapids from its settlement is only fifty-six years old; but it is not much younger than are many western cities of larger proportions and pretensions. Detroit was the leading city of what was then called the West, in 1833. It has a history of nearly a century, since its growth from a mere military outpost began. In 1810 Wayne county had a population of 2,227; in 1830, 6,781; in 1840, 24,173. With these facts in view, bear it in mind that they active growth of Chicago, Milwaukee and Grand Rapids did not begin till about 1833, and then these three started very nearly together. Neither Cook county in Illinois, nor Milwaukee county in Wisconsin, nor Kent county in Michigan, appears in the census returns of 1830. In 1840 they had populations of: Cook county, 10,201; Milwaukee county, 5,605; Kent County, 2,587. Chicago, Milwaukee and Grand Rapids, therefore, were equally in the wilderness in 1833, when Chicago had only about one hundred inhabitants and five or six log houses outside its fort, and Milwaukee and Grand Rapids each only its trading post, near by which started the settlement in that year. There were Indians, and wild animals all about; and all pioneers doubtless have their hair-raising reminiscences.


While the pioneer colony were on their way here, Zenas G. Winsor and Consider Guild, two young men of the party, in pursuit of cattle that had strayed from their camp, lost their bearings, by which the whole party were delayed the greater part of a day in search of them. Later in the same season, Jacob W. Winsor, coming in with an Indian pony from Shiawassee, being belated in the woods east of Lyons, and the wolves being too numerous for his peace of mind, concluded to climb a tree, which he did and remained there through the night, and thus lost his pony.

In the spring of the same year, Barney Burton and three hired men came from Ypsilanti, with five yoke of oxen, a horse, a cow, and a wagon load of provisions. Before reaching the Thornapple River they stopped, pitched their camp for the night, spanceled the horse and turned him out to feed. In the morning the horse was missing, having somehow got loose from his shackles. Burton directed the men to go on with the teams, while he should find the horse and follow. This was easier said than done. He found the track of the horse, which he soon lost again, and shortly after became bewildered. Lost in the forest, he wandered three days and two nights. Coming to a small stream at length, he followed it to the Thornapple, and then went down that river, knowing it would eventually bring him to the Rapids. Coming out on the third day at Ada, where his wants were ministered to and his hunger appeased at Rix Robinson's, he found no further difficulty in reaching his home. Meantime, his companions had arrived with the teams, and reported his disappearance, over which the few people then here were much excited. Mr. Campau had sent several Indians, with a supply of food, to hunt him up; but as he came home in about two hours, it was found necessary to dispatch another party of Indians to bring back the first.

Similar instances of becoming confused and losing the way were frequent hereabout, and sometimes the adventures were spiced by the near approach of wild beasts, and occasionally intensified by the inclemency of the weather. A settler on the Thornapple river, William H. Brown, traveling on horseback, lost his way, and passed the night in deep snow in the woods. Having no means to light a fire, he made a circular path in the snow, about which he tramped to keep himself from freezing. The next day he came out at Green Lake, himself and horse nearly exhausted.

Late in the fall of 1837 Leonard Covell and Harvey K. Rose started into the woods one day, in what is now the town of Walker, to pre-empt some lands. Two others were to accompany them, but were not on had when they crossed the river. There was a light snow on the ground, and they went ahead, expecting that the others would overtake them. They began to look over the land. After walking some time, they came upon the tracks of two men going westward, and, thinking their companions were in the woods, turned and followed them. By and by they came upon four tracks, and then the truth began to dawn upon them that they had traveled in a circle and doubled upon their own tracks. They had lost their way, but this discovery set them right. They cleared a small spot of ground and put a pole and brush pre-emption shanty on the section line to serve for two claims. Upon returning, one of them entered his land, but the other was just in time to find that somebody was about two hours ahead of him in the land office.

Even as late as November 12, 1859, Aaron B. Turner, attempting to walk from the mouth of the Muskegon River to Grand Haven, through the woods, waded all one day in snow several inches deep, and often several inches of water under the snow, became lost, and, though extremely tired, resolutely walked all night in a circle to keep from freezing. After the daylight he came again upon the same track he had traveled, but, guided by the sound of a locomotive whistle, at length came out at Ferrysburg, pretty thoroughly exhausted from his severe exertion, having buffeted the storm for thirty-six hours, without food, and reached only twelve miles from his starting point.


One night in 1833 Louis Campau's people were startled by a great commotion amongst their fowls. They made more noise than usual. He had near his log house, at the foot of Huron street, a hen house, made also of logs, and strongly built, in which he kept three or four dozen hens. Hearing the cackling, his men went out and closed and fastened the heavy door to that coop. Soon the noise ceased. On going out in the morning, they found plenty of feathers, but no hens. In their place a very active wolf showed his teeth, and snarled. They shot him, took off his pelt, and dragged his carcass up the Monroe street Indian trail, where for several days its location could easily be found, either by the sense of smell or by watching the buzzards.

Sometimes there were wolves, and sometimes bears. Joel Guild, in 1835, built him a small house a short distance northeast of the present city limits, on what he called his "marsh farm." Hearing a terrific squealing among his swine one night, he went out to investigate, and found in his hog sty a lusty shoat struggling between the paws of a much lustier bear, who was just about carrying his victim over the log wall. Mr. Bruin had not the courage of his convictions, and though the rescuing party had no weapon, dropped the lacerated porker and ambled away into the woods. Barney Burton was favored with a visit among his swine by a pack of wolves, which succeeded in getting away with some of his pigs, themselves unhurt, although closely pursued.


Early in the season after the pioneer settlers came in, Louis Campau, who kept a number of cows, missed a very fine one, the most valuable one of his herd. No trace of the animal could be found for several days, when, attracted by the action of crows or buzzards hovering about the spot, some citizens instituted search in a cedar swamp, on the side of the hill, north of Bridge and west of Ionia street. It was a thick jungle, near the center of which came out the very large spring since known as the Kusterer spring. In the mire, or quicksand, they found the cow, helpless and nearly exhausted, unable to get out. The crows or buzzards had nearly picked bare the bones of her back, feeding themselves from her live flesh. The cow was rescued, her wounds healed, and for some years again she was a valuable animal.


William Haldane, yet living, tells a good bear story. In 1837, while on his way from Ohio with a horse and buggy, on the trail between Yankee Springs and Ada, he saw what a first he thought was a dog, ambling toward him, in front and in the pathway. It was a welcome sight, as he as a little in doubt about his bearings, and hoped the dog's master might be near. On coming nearer the animal, instead of turning out, raised upon his haunches and seemed disposed to maintain his right of way; Mr. H. therefore reined to one side and passed at a respectful distance. Coming opposite, he stopped to look at the beast, which, though it sat facing him, did not seem aggressive. The animal, after a moment, took fright and ran to a tree, which it climbed. At once dawned upon Mr. Haldane's mind the fact that he had met a yearling bear, instead of a dog. After waiting a little, and no one coming along, he determined to try and capture the animal. He tried clubbing, but the bear only climbed higher. He then took a rein from his harness and followed. Making a slipnoose he succeeded in getting it about the bear's neck, and after much pulling and choking brought it to the ground, by that time quite exhausted by the strangling. He then lifted it into his buggy, where, by use of a hopple and halter and straps, he tied it securely. A little further along, on a piece of corduroy road, bruin was roused by the jolting and attempted to escape. But he only hung over by the wheel till the choking again disabled and subdued him, and this time Mr. Haldane drew over him a coffee sack, or feed bag. Arriving at the mouth of the Thornapple after nightfall, he found lodgings at the house of John W. Fisk. Mrs. Fisk objected to the company of a bear in her room, therefore she and her husband slept upstairs, Mr. Haldane sleeping below, with the bear under his bed. he had no difficulty in bringing the animal home, and it soon became tame and a pet in the neighborhood. But civilization proved too much for his bearship. With petting and high feeding he grew fat, but died, apparently, as has many a gourmand, a victim of gluttony.


Eliphalet H. Turner first settled just beyond that creek south of the fair grounds; and Cyrus Jones settled just north of the same creek, building himself a small log house. In the summer of 1836 a tornado or wind storm swept across that spot, toward the northeast, demolishing the log hut and scattering its contents far away. A barrel nearly filled with flour was carried many rods and set upon the ground with only part of the flour spilled. In the house were the family of nine persons, one of them an infant child. The mother with the beds, bedding and furniture were caught up and carried some distance, yet she was but slightly hurt. Only the floor and a few of the bottom logs were left to mark the spot where the house stood, and when the hurricane had passed the child was nowhere in sight. After a long search, some one lifted the trap door in the floor, and lo, in the little hole that had served for a temporary cellar, was the babe with its cradle and pillows, unhurt.


The following is Mrs. Wm. Almy Richmond's story of the breaking up of the ice in Grand River in 1838, and the rescue of the persons surrounded by the flood at the old fur trading station:

It was on a bright spring-like day early in February. Suddenly, without warning, while we were at dinner, the waters began to rise about the little knoll on which our log house and the block house adjoining stood. The cracking, jamming ice arose in threatening, jagged masses, all about us, and forced the water of the river into a new channel to the east, cutting us off entirely from the main land. My father, Major Abel Page, was absent from home, as was also Mr. John Almy (afterward Judge), who lived in the next house. Mrs. Almy (sister of John W. and Peter R. L. Pierce), and her friend, Miss Harriet Fisk,of Geneseo, N.Y., were in their house; and my mother, the three children, Harriet, Abel and Aaron, my husband Wm. A. Richmond), and myself, were in our house. The alarm spread on shore, of course, but for some reason, no boat was available. The water rose so that we were driven to the roof, and the case looked very desperate, when away above was discovered a boat on the ice, which had been brought down by the flood. The brave, warm-hearted Jacob W. Winsor, at great peril to himself, finally reached that boat, and brought it to our rescue, amid the huzzas of the people on the shore. When the first load reached the shore, some of the excited young men waded out and carried the living freight bodily to terra firma.


Henry and Joseph Genia (brothers) came here in 1834 and went into the employ of Louis Campau. There were carpenters by trade. Henry was the elder of the two, and the stronger; both were muscular, though not very large men. It is related that on a certain occasion, when Jefferson Morrison had procured a stock of several barrels of pork, which were ranged along the platform in front of his store, Henry Genia remarked: "I wish the Judge would give me a barrel of that pork; I would shoulder it and carry it home." To do that he must wade the river at the ford, near where Fulton street bridge now crosses. Morrison instantly said: "I will give you a barrel if you will back it home, and you may have one chance to rest, when you reach the other bank of the river; if you put it down more than once I shall charge you the full price." Genia shouldered it, waded the river, backed up to a fence which stood there, on the top of which he placed it and rested a few moments; then shouldered it again and made no further stop until he unloaded it at the door of his dwelling, nearly fifty rods beyond. It was an extraordinary feat, not solely on account of the great weight of the load, but of its form also, making it one difficult to handle and carry in that manner. He lived near the little Catholic Church that was built for the Indians there.


At a meeting of the Detroit Pioneer Society, some sixteen years ago, J. C. Holmes read a paper descriptive of an early journey through the woods from Detroit to Grand Rapids and back. Following is in substance the more interesting part of his narrative:

In the autumn of 1835, Mr. Hutchinson called on me and said his firm had purchased the plat of the village of Saranac, said village being located on the Grand River, a short distance above the Rapids, and destined to become a large city. Before offering the lots for sale, he wished to visit the place, and see what it was so that in selling he might act understandingly as to location, prices and relative values of lots. He invited me to go with him. The trip was to be made on horseback, the most expeditious and comfortable way at that time of reaching that out-of-the-way place----Grand Rapids. We started early one morning, and after riding all day over a very bad road, reached Ypsilanti. Next day we proceeded to Ann Arbor, and reached Jackson in the evening. The third day we rode to Marshall, the fourth to Gull Prairie. On the morning of the fifth day we rode to Kalamazoo. On the sixth day we rode to Louis Moran's, a very comfortable log hotel with a large chimney in the center; a ladder up against the chimney for ascending to the lodging apartment, which was the attic of the building. The floor boards of the attic were few and far between, the beds were filled with the coarsest of prairie grass, familiarly known as prairie feathers. The meals furnished us at that house were excellent.

The seventh day we started early for Grand Rapids, thirty miles distant, where we hoped to arrive before dark. But the road for the whole distance was little better than an Indian trail. Soon after leaving Moran's we forded the Thornapple River, which was about two and a half feet deep, and went north on the east side of the stream. The day was cold, and in the latter part of the afternoon snow began to fall. About four o'clock having traveled all day without seeing a habitation of any kind, we again reached the Thornapple near its mouth. Here we must recross the river. It was usually two to three feet deep at this point, and this was the fording place but ice had formed in the Grand River, and in the Thornapple, which caused the water to rise several feet; and the ice was so thick we could not swim our horses across but not strong enough to bear us up. Here was a dilemma but we must go forward for there was no house on the back track between ourselves and Moran's, thirty miles----a day's ride.

It was snowing fast, and the temperature of the atmosphere was falling rapidly. Seeing a small log house on the opposite side of the Thornapple, we called until we aroused the inmates. We found they were two men who were clearing a place at the junction of the Thornapple with the Grand River whereon to build a city. We asked them to assist us in crossing. To this they gave their assent. They cut two long saplings with pretty heavy butts, then laid some boards on the ice to stand upon, while with the saplings they broke a passage in the ice wide enough to take our horses through. One of the men fell through the ice two or three times; then gave up the job in disgust. The other continued the work until he reached us. He rode one of our horses and led the other, and succeeded in swimming them across the river, while we with our saddles upon our backs, lay down on the boards and by dint of crawling, and as we passed over the boards, throwing the last one forward, soon gained the west side, much to our satisfaction.

After paying our deliverers, we saddled our shivering horses, mounted and rode as rapidly as the rough road would permit, to a log tavern a mile or two distant kept by Rix Robinson. Here we found good accommodations for man and beast. We cared for our horses, then partook of an excellent supper and retired to our lodging room, which was a portion of the attic. We were shown to a portion of the floor where was spread a praire feather bed, and told we could occupy that. The rest of the floor was occupied by white men and Indians. Upon conversing with one of the white men, we found he was a Methodist minister who had been located near the Rapids as a preacher. he said he had tried it, but could not get anybody to hear him preach, so he had to give it up and take a contract to build a mill dam at some point further up the Grand River. He had his men, tools and provisions along, and was on his way to fulfill his contract. We thought if this man was going up the river to build a mill dam, he could direct us to the village of Saranac. Upon questioning him, he informed us that he knew at what point on the river the said city had been laid out. He also knew we could not reach it with our horses if we should try, for there was no road, not even a trail through the dense forest. The only way of getting there was by boat when the river was navigable, but at that time it was very much swollen and covered with thin ice, of course not navigable. This was not very pleasant news for us who had traveled so many days for the purpose of finding the city of Saranac.

Notwithstanding the disappointment we had a good night's rest and the next morning after breakfast we rode to Grand Rapids. Upon our arrival our fist wish was to find a hotel, but there was none in the place. We then inquired for our friend N. O. Sargeant, a gentleman in the boot and shoe business in Detroit. He had purchased a large interest in the village plat of Grand Rapids, and was then at work building a mill-race, expecting to realize an immense fortune out of his speculation. We soon found him, and he very kindly directed us to the only place he knew of where we would be likely to find lodgings. In this he was not mistaken, but the house was a new one, and the doors not yet hung. Notwithstanding this, there was a very pleasant family residing there, who took us in and took very good care of us. We also found a shed in which to place our horses, but there seemed to be a scarcity of horse feed in the place. Mr. Sargeant was running short of feed and was unable to supply us. Mr. Morrison, then and now of Grand Rapids, went with us to Mr. Louis Campau the only man who could spare hay and oats, but upon application to him he refused to furnish our horses with feed, because he said, a few days previous, he had permitted some Yankees to put their horses in his barn and he had furnished hay and grain for them. The men had not only left without paying him, but they stole his halters. Therefore he would not have anything more to do with the Yankees. However, his good nature soon got the better of all that and he sold us all the hay and grain we wanted.

After spending a day and night there and finding it would be impossible to visit Saranac, we left Grand Rapids over an Indian trail through a dense forest on the west side of the Thornapple and late in the afternoon arrived at Moran's house in the wilderness, where we had been so well cared for a few days previous. We engaged supper and lodging and spent a very pleasant evening with the guests of the house, several having arrived soon after ourselves. After supper, a young man started up the ladder that led to the attic. The landlord, noticing him, told him to come down. He said he was sick and wished to go to bed. Mr. Moran said: "There is no bed for you. They are all engaged. If you are sick, the place for you is on the floor with your feet to the fire." The young man remonstrated, the landlord insisted and said: "You can lie here on the floor---if you do not like my accomodations, you can go to the next house." Rather than go to the next house, which was thirty miles away, he took his place on the floor with his feet to the fire. In due course of time we arrived at our home in Detroit, having been absent about two weeks on our trip to Grand Rapids and back. A large portion of the food for man and beast had to be transported in wagons from Detroit or some other place to the Rapids. This was tedious and expensive. As Mr. Sargeant was employing a great many men, horses and cattle in building the mill race at Grand Rapids, he required a large amount of supplies. In order to facilitate transportation, he had some flat boats built at Jackson, loaded them with such provisions as he needed and sent them down the Grand River to the Rapids.

In these days of rapid railroad communication cases of positive suffering for want of wholesome food are very rare, and the needed relief is quickly supplied when they become known. But in the early settlements and far away from the sources of supply and when days and even weeks were necessary for transit over the long and rough roads of the wilderness, it sometimes happened that a scarcity of provisions would occasion protracted suffering in some cases bordering close upon actual starvation. Yet in this valley there were not many which went to the extreme. Old pioneers can remember instances when there was no flour or meal to be had, or when there were no potatoes or pork within reach. In such times they would be forced to practice the most rigid economy and frugality, which, happily, they survived, sound and hearty, as a rule, with the remembrance of their severe experience to add zest to the better times that followed. Few at the present day can realize, except in imagination, the actual state of being compelled to live for weeks at a time upon potatoes and salt, or codfish and potatoes, or rice and milk only, as the chief table supply and sometimes not even a sufficiency of such homely fare. Yet there were such instances among the pioneer inhabitants. In the adjoining town of Paris, during a portion of one summer, until garden vegetables could be grown, they had little but a meager supply of flour or corn meal. And in after years the members of one family often recounted their experiences with mingled jokes and laughter, though sometimes they were really "no joke." Visiting parties from the village would go out there, on seeing whom, the girls would run into the house, calling: "Mother! Mother! there are a lot of folks coming from town; what shall we get for them? Bread and butter and onions?" And indeed, for the chief part, the best meal they could serve would be "bread, butter and onions," with perhaps a little milk. But such days were speedily passed, and they left no sting. One can scarcely comprehend it now. In the fall of 1837 a company of immigrants coming by way of Green Lake could only procure at the tavern there a supply of potatoes and onions, with a scant trimming of bread and a little venison which one of the travelers had. In the spring of the same year there was a scarcity of flour, and sturgeon was the principal meat with many for several weeks. In the following winter and spring was also much scarcity and provisions were very high. Feed for cattle and horses was also short, and several of the settlers cut down trees to furnish browse for their animals. Such were among the many and various experiences of the hardy pioneers---toils and privations most of the present generation would not think they could endure. If now called to the test they would be apt to strike for higher wages and less hours of labor.

In the early part of 1838 the Rev. Andreas Viszoczky was sent for to administer the consolations of his ministerial office to a dying Indian at or near Black Lake or Port Sheldon. The snow was deep, but, with an Indian guide, he started off on foot, and after passing Grandville, through thick and trackless woods. As they proceeded they encountered deeper snow, the weather grew piercing cold and darkness overtook them while in the forest. There they were obliged to stop and pass the night, on their feet and vigorously exercising themselves by constant tramping about within a small circle of beaten snow to avoid freezing. They were without food but reached Port Sheldon early in the following day and with a frugal breakfast were quickly over their fatigue. Father Viszoczky never dodged hardship or peril when he felt that duty called him, and he made many similar journeys to minister to sick or suffering Indians within his charge. It was to such an exposure that his final illness was attributed. His persistence was such that on the morning of his death he rose from his bed and rang the bell which summoned those of his household and the Acolytes of his church about him.

In some of the early years of the settlements about the Rapids wolves were plenty. But those animals seemed to have something of the Indian migratory habit or instinct---when their game became scarce they would move off. At one time in the dense woods in the south part of Kent county the wolves were so plenty as to be very annoying, and often the settlers would be summarily robbed by those night prowlers of sheep, calves, hogs and domestic fowls. A few instances of close fights with wolves by persons wandering alone are on record; but no fatalities, except on the part of the beasts. When the wolves emigrated, the deer increased rapidly and the settlers had a great abundance of venison for a few years. about 1854 it became almost a drug in the market. The first twenty years covered the period of greatest sport near home for the hunters of this valley.

Document Source: Baxter, Albert, History of the City of Grand Rapids, New York and Grand Rapids: Munsell & Company, Publishers, 1891. (Name Index)
Location of Original: Various.
Transcriber: Ronnie Aungst
URL: http://kent.migenweb.net/baxter1891/5reminiscences.html
Created: 21 February 2000[an error occurred while processing this directive]