Yankees in Michigan

Susan E. Gray
The Yankee West: Community Life on the Michigan Frontier

Gray’s story of three townships in the neighborhood of Kalamazoo Michigan could have been told as “the mundane march of the farm boy who collects the herd in the back forty and drives it resolutely toward the barn,” she says, except that “the circumstances under which the townships were settled were by no means mundane, and the settlers saw themselves as anything but plodders.” (1) Gray draws on many of the texts I’ve read lately that describe the market transition and migration, as well as important old regional sources like the many memorial atlases and
Lois K. Mathews’ 1909 Expansion of New England. The historiography of the Yankee migrations, she says, is complicated by the story they created for themselves “coeval” with settlement, and “an interpretation that reigned from the 1890s to about 1950, to which the works of Frederick Jackson Turner are central.” (3) Even early accounts like James Lanman’s 1839 History of Michigan, Gray says, struggle to define the “third New England’s” response to the “two congeries of Yankee cultural markers: the market and morality.” (5)

Gray describes the typical “Yankee migration” pattern as “chain migration, usually, but not always, in family groups.” (11) The two important elements of this type of migration are that there are familiar faces waiting for immigrants, after the first settlers arrive; and that there are family members still back in the old New England and New York communities, who are a source of not only ongoing migrants, but ongoing access to eastern capital. This is why both migration and “capitalism for Yankees seemed to promise not the destruction but the intensification of familial and community ties.” (12) The primary sources I’ve been reading (especially letters from migrants to siblings “back home”) seem to support Gray’s argument.

Although she spends quite a lot of time on the religious conflicts of these frontier communities, Gray acknowledges that although “organized settlements in Michigan, such as the one at Vermontville, near Lansing, involved relocations of entire congregations...they were not usual. Most settlements--no less Yankee--were founded by groups of families.” (18) In fact, Richland township’s largest landholder, John F. Gilkey, was “‘Behind none’ in contributing barrels of flour to the poor, he was known for his benevolence, but he belonged to no church.” (176) Gray reminds us there were “two New Englands--one coastal, commercial, and Congregational; the other, agrarian, democratic, and pluralistic.” (8) I might amend that statement in two ways, to suggest that western Massachusetts and Vermont were also quite commercial, and to suggest that many Vermont deists and New York/New England freethinkers were still alive and well in the 1830s, when southern Michigan was first settled.

MIchigan’s growth in the 1830s was driven in part by land sales at the Kalamazoo District Land Office. Although “open only 169 days in 1836...it took in $2,043,866.87.” (44) Michigan’s “General Banking Law of March 15, 1837, enabled any twelve landowners to form a banking association on application to the county treasurer or clerk.” (45) The Specie Circular slowed but did not stop land sales, Gray says, but the Panic of 1837-9 crushed the bankers, ruined rail and canal companies, and slowed population growth for decades. “The legislature stopped construction of the southern [rail] line at Hillsdale in 1843 and funded the central line only to Kalamazoo, which the line reached in 1846.” The “panic and ensuing years of depression--was to arrest Michigan’s economic development until the Civil War.” (47)

Gray’s discussion of Kalamazoo politics seems to draw heavily on Formisano, which she seems to think provides a fairly accurate description of conditions around Kalamazoo. She observes that “although Kalamazoo was an intensely anti-Democratic county, it supported continuously only a Democratic paper, the
Kalamazoo Gazette.” (152) In 1849, she says, “Democrats simply gave up the fight,” allowing the Whigs to “elect unanimously Uriah Upjohn...as supervisor.” (154) Upjohn was a British-born Doctor, and father of W.E. Upjohn. Gray calls him “the sole known antislavery man who compiled a winning record in township elections... [as] a Whig who ran as a Free-Soil candidate for state senator in 1848.” (157) “The formation of rural elites,” Gray suggests, “is a relatively understudied aspect of the transition to capitalism in the countryside.” (159) The politics of Kalamazoo’s civic leaders is also problematic, since Gray suggests it represents ethnic, religious, and social antagonisms from the home regions of these immigrant elites. (167-8)

Two families that it might be useful for me to follow up on are the Mays and the Wells. Richland settler Rockwell May (b. 1799) and his son, General Dwight May, seem interesting. And the family of Judge Hezekiah G. Wells might just figure into
my story. (170-1) I should look into H.G. Wells in Michigan Historical Collections, vol. 2, and also Ronald P. Formisano, The Birth of Mass Political Parties: Michigan, 1827-1861, 1971 esp. 16-20.

Michigan Copper

Apparently the story-telling pretty much begins with Angus Murdoch’s 1943 epic, Boom Copper. Later retellings, even if they only deal with a narrow topic like Calumet and Hecla, refer to Murdoch as the source of much of the color and legend associated with the region. The book is divided between the historical narrative of the copper industry in the region, and the stories of the communities and personalities of the region.

Interesting that the UP was the scene of North America’s first mineral “rush,” complete with Deadwood-esque boomtowns and characters. Pure metal deposits were unknown to science, and scientists had trouble believing that commercial quantities of copper could be brought up that would require no smelting to remove impurities. What were the implications for the overall US copper industry? Compared to foreign competitors who had to smelt their ore (until Coro Coro, Bolivia)?

“Three quarters of all the metal taken from the Cliff came out in the form of masses weighing anywhere from a ton to a hundred tons…Nowhere in the world had so much copper ever been taken from so small an area of mineral land.” (54, 56) Sam Knapp’s “Minesota” mine holds the record for the size of a single chunk: either 420 or 564 tons, depending on 1856 reports. Murdoch says the Minesota is also distinguished as the most productive copper mine in history, “in proportion to the amount of labor and capital expended.” From 1852-1856 (after four years of development beginning in 1848), “the stockholders’ investment in the mine had doubled itself, and by 1876 they had received thirty dollars in dividends for every dollar invested. At one time in the fifties, more than 2,000,000 pounds of mass copper was in sight, much of it all ready for cutting up...Probably nowhere else on earth has there been a mine whose skips ran up and down through a solid copper shaft.” (92-3)

Murdoch’s economic analysis of Michigan copper is a little sketchier than his setting and character descriptions. He notes that 1870 was the first time in history copper went below twenty cents per pound (95), and that “fissure mining” was only successful three times (the Central, the Cliff, and the Minesota), but spurred a generation of mining ventures. “Of the 112 discoverable mining corporations which have operated in Ontonagon County,” he says, “only the Minesota has paid more in dividends than it collected in assessments” (97). The story of silver (especially on Silver Islet in Thunder Bay) provides an interesting contrast between the economics of precious metals and copper.

Several of the characters like Sam Hill, Alexander Agassiz, and Sam Knapp would probably make interesting subjects. Murdoch’s treatment of the Secrétan scandal, the paternalism of C & H, and the relationship between organized labor and the mining companies, is suggestive but short on detail. He mentions that copper demand is relatively inelastic, but follows economic trends due to its use in infrastructure. This is probably more true since the maturity of the electronics industry than it was during most of the Michigan heyday. But it’s interesting that he distinguishes between copper and other minerals from a demand perspective.