Hidden History of Detroit

Hidden History of Detroit

by Amy Elliott Bragg


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Discover the Motor City before the motor: a muddy port town full of grog shops, horse races, haphazard cemeteries and enterprising bootstrappers from all over the world. Meet the argumentative French fugitive who founded the city, the tobacco magnate who haunts his shuttered factory, the gambler prankster millionaire who built a monument to himself, the governor who brought his scholarly library with him on canoe expeditions and the historians who helped create the story of Detroit as we know it: one of the oldest, rowdiest and most enigmatic cities in the Midwest.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609492694
Publisher: History Press, The
Publication date: 10/20/2011
Pages: 128
Sales rank: 609,586
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

A native Detroiter, Amy Elliott Bragg left home for a while to edit an arts and culture magazine in Milwaukee. She returned to Detroit in 2009 where she lives with her husband, freelances as a writer and editor, and works hard at old books.

Read an Excerpt



Before we get started, there are three people you need to meet.

Two of them created — through sweat, drudgery, obsession, near-pathological attention to detail and humorless dispositions — the definitive canon of Detroit history before 1900.

The third, my wild card pick, brings a needed dose of personality to any picture of the early city. And I like him. I kind of want to hug him.

I know it's a little funny to start a book with the bibliography, and of course there have been dozens of other history writers and hundreds of other books. But almost everyone who writes about early Detroit starts with the same basic sources: Silas Farmer's History of Detroit and Michigan and Clarence M. Burton's Alexandria-like archive of original documents at the Detroit Public Library.

I'll be quoting them so much that it just doesn't seem polite to invite them to the party without proper introduction. So, here they are.


When Silas Farmer died suddenly in 1902, one obituary eulogized him as a particular breed of genius — the kind of person born with "the infinite capacity for taking pains." It was a genius, the writer argued, that Silas Farmer had inherited from his father. But Silas's genius was not the only thing his father passed down to him.

There was the family business, for one. Though he had been a teacher in Albany, New York, John Farmer came to Detroit as an entrepreneur — he wanted to make maps. A skilled surveyor and draftsman, Farmer had done some work for another publisher on contract, sketching out maps of the Michigan Territory from surveyors' plats. But the subsequent pamphlets took forever to publish, and he didn't get credit for his work in the final product. So John Farmer decided to strike out on his own. In 1825, Farmer's own map of Michigan became the first published map of the territory.

John Farmer's maps were exacting and lavishly detailed, and new arrivals to Detroit and Michigan snapped them up by the score. Bookstores stocked thousands of his pocket guides, and they were still hard to come by; before traveling into the wilds of the territory, new settlers would go door to door, looking for someone to sell them a secondhand copy. Farmer eventually taught himself how to engrave, cutting out a middleman in the publishing process. He was also a keen marketer, conducting direct mail campaigns and soliciting celebrity testimonials from political luminaries such as Lewis Cass and William Woodbridge.

Silas, born in Detroit in 1839, took an early interest in the business and took over completely in 1859 when John Farmer died unexpectedly at age sixty-one — of overwork, most people assumed.

"It seemed to me that the steam engine within him must sooner or later wear him out," General Friend Palmer wrote of John Farmer. "And it did."

Silas inherited that steam engine heart from his father. Whether it was the ethic of a workhorse that doesn't quit until it drops dead or a genetic predisposition to heart problems, Silas died at nearly the same age, 63, and presumably of the same ailment.

In 1874, with business at the Farmer Company steady and successful, Silas decided to pursue a long-held curiosity. For the country's centennial celebration, he would publish a comprehensive history of the city of Detroit.

Almost immediately, Silas knew that he was in over his head. But like the hundreds of researchers, writers and hobbyists who came after him, he did not give up. Instead, he got swept away.

It's hard to express how grateful I feel for the work that Silas Farmer did. The nature of historical research was, obviously, completely different in Silas Farmer's time, and while it is nice to just pop open my laptop and start downloading PDFs of his delightful neighborhood souvenirs from the Internet Archive, I'm not even talking about computers.

Silas had no Burton Collection (more on that in a minute) from which to draw. He sent form letters to churches, newspapers, businesses and government agencies across the Midwest and from San Francisco to New York City, Dublin and Paris soliciting records, account books and registries. He called on small-town historical societies, archives and libraries. He met with institutional Detroiters to pick their brains and rifle through their papers.

In his foreword to the first edition of History of Detroit and Michigan — published ten years after his research began and at a personal cost of about $17,000 (more than $400,000 today, adjusted for inflation) — he wrote of his research:

The tracing of some facts has been like the tracking of a hare; again and again it has been necessary to go back on the path, and renew the search, and at times, while rummaging in the garrets of old French houses and later dwellings, amid the dust and must of a century, I have almost forgotten to what age I belonged, and have for a time lived in the midst of past regimes.

History of Detroit and Michigan is, first and foremost, exhaustive. It's about one thousand pages long and illustrated with hundreds of gorgeous Farmer Company engravings of houses, cityscapes, historic views and documents. It's not a chronological history of Detroit from 1701 onward; instead, it's a topical work, covering discrete subjects (military affairs, health systems, aldermanic wards and visits from famous people) in encyclopedic detail.

This is the history book of a mapmaker. The level of detail is painstaking — a list of public drinking fountains and the year they were erected, for instance, or a brief passage about "Old Joe," the fire department's Newfoundland dog — but every small, functional fact comes together to form a graceful picture of the whole. Silas wrote:

A good history is like a landscape, in that many things are brought at once within the range of vision; and it should resemble a photograph, preserving those minute points which give character to the subject ... Stars of the first magnitude are easily found: It is the little asteroids that escape observation, and as these are discovered various planetary disturbances are explained.

The book was a success, selling thousands of copies around the world. Silas revised and reissued it in 1889 and again in 1894.

He lived a quiet and strictly Christian life. A founding member of the Detroit Young Men's Christian Society and a board member at the Central Methodist Church for twenty-five years, Silas wrote poetry about temperance and living a morally upright life. And he worked and worked and worked, serving as city historiographer and writing pamphlets, gazetteers and street guides about Detroit, its surrounding communities and the state of Michigan. For An Illustrated History and Souvenir of Detroit, a little tour book, Silas counted the steps (two hundred of them) as he climbed to the top of Old City Hall to capture the breathtaking view.

Silas oversaw historical activities for the Detroit bicentennial festivities in 1901. A year later, he died in his sleep. His only child, Arthur, took over the Farmer Company, but he didn't have his father's gift for it, and he went out of business in a few years, granting all of the company's engraving plates to Clarence M. Burton.

My copy of History of Detroit is a faithful 1969 reissue from Gale Research Company. Time after time — especially when I feel lazy — I crack it open and sit for a while with Silas, wandering the endless alleys and byways of his Detroit. Stern, puritanical Silas still manages to slip in a joke (like when he calls early citizen Peter Audrain "clerk of everything from time immemorial") and a little romance ("The glory of the ancient market-days has departed. The black-eyed, olive-skinned maidens, in short petticoats, from the Canada shore, no longer bring 'garden-sauce and greens,' the French ponies amble not over our paved streets, and little brown- bodied carts no longer throng the marketplace").

Like John Farmer's maps before it, Silas's History gave Detroiters a new opportunity to get intimately acquainted with their city. Nothing like it had ever been attempted before in the city; nothing like it since has ever been accomplished.


Clarence Monroe Burton was born in Whiskey Diggings, a California gold rush town, in November 1853. His parents — Charles Seymour Burton, a doctor, and Annie Monroe Burton, a poet — had come to California in a wagon train from Battle Creek, Michigan, earlier that year. Whatever fortune they sought, they must not have found it, because they packed up and set out for home on the steamer Yankee Blade the following fall.

On October 1, lost in fog off the coast of Point Arguello, the Yankee Blade struck a rock. The boat broke in two. Annie Burton, with baby Clarence on her hip and pieces of gold sewn into her skirts, tried to jump from the ship into a waiting lifeboat. She missed her mark, and the two of them plunged into the rocky Pacific waters, but someone in the lifeboat grabbed Annie and pulled her and her son aboard.

Hundreds of passengers drowned when the Yankee Blade sank. All of the Burtons survived. By 1855, they were back in New York. These are auspicious beginnings for a man who would grow up to be — by most standards of polite society — kind of a bore.

The Burton family returned to Michigan, to the farm town of Hastings (where Charles Burton started a newspaper, the Hastings Banner — still published today). Clarence Burton grew up, went to the University of Michigan, got in trouble with the dean for letting some circus animals loose on campus and graduated — though he refused to pay extra for the actual diploma — with a law degree.

Burton moved to Detroit in 1874 to clerk for a law firm. His wife, Harriet, and their firstborn, Agnes, stayed behind while he worked side jobs and slept in the office — he was only making about $100 a year. Still, he found spare change to snap up a book or two.

I'm not sure when Burton's part-time history habit became a driving force in his life, but I imagine it happened slowly, book by book, document by document, mystery by slow-burning mystery. It's a rewarding pursuit that way.

In 1885, Clarence, Harriet and their (now five) children moved from a small house in the neighborhood of Corktown to a slightly bigger house on Brainard Street off Cass Avenue, about a mile from the center of the city. The Burtons needed room for their growing brood, of course, and when Clarence Burton added a third story to the house, it was partly to gain a few more bedrooms for the children. But it also gave Burton a large study to call his own, as well as a space to store his growing collection of books.

His son Frank's earliest memories were of the study and of his father's exacting and methodical way of cultivating his library:

Up at a good hour in the morning, he ate a hearty breakfast and left at once for the office ... Back for dinner at six after a good day's work, he ate leisurely, talking with mother and the children about the happenings of the day and joining in with our jokes and guessing riddles. Dinner over, he spent a half hour idly over his coffee and then his rest period was done. He retired at once to his study and stayed until long after we children were in bed. Twelve to thirteen hours of hard, confining work each day, but it seemed to agree with him ...

He never drank any liquor, and he spent no time in idle talk with companions. He never smoked, and neither drinking nor smoking were permitted in his house. He rarely visited others and very few visited him, because, I think, they realized that they were not welcome unless they came for a serious purpose and left when their errand was accomplished ... He never played cards or other games except an occasional game of checkers with one of his sons, which he always won.

Everywhere, Clarence Burton's life grew. His business grew: in 1891, he bought out the other partners at his law firm and organized the Burton Abstract and Title Company. He and Harriet had three more children. In 1892, he added a new wing to the house and hired a secretary to accommodate his books.

"It would seem now that he had room enough for any man's books," Frank Burton wrote, "but day by day boxes of books and manuscripts arrived, some from local sources, others from the East or from London." A few years later, Burton built an addition to the addition to keep pace with his stuff.

Burton scoured rare book auction catalogues, corresponded with collections all over the world and trawled for the missing pieces of history that would fill in the gaps in his library. He found the papers of John Askin — a British merchant who came to Detroit in the 1760s — in an abandoned chicken coop and rode home sitting on top of them in the back of a horse cart. When he learned about a document with Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac's signature on it, he signed a blank check and sent it to Montreal. He tracked down and interviewed elderly Detroiters, old-time residents and relatives of famous citizens, sometimes asking whether they had any musty old trunks of family papers in their cellars, attics or sheds.

He traveled when he could. In 1898, he made a cross-country trek "in the footsteps of Cadillac" — his singular biographical obsession — from Quebec City and Montreal to Bar Harbor and Nova Scotia. In 1904, he re-created a portion of Cadillac's voyage on the French River in authentic birch-bark canoes. (Reportedly, Burton was not well suited to eating out of tins and sleeping on the ground.) And in 1907, he finally visited France as part of a grand tour of Europe, western Asia and North Africa. At St. Nicolas de la Grave — Cadillac's reputed birthplace — the local archaeological society regaled Burton with tales from its sleepy medieval past.

When he couldn't travel, he sent away for documents (such as the St. Nicolas de la Grave parish records) and had them transcribed and translated.

Personal tragedy only made him burrow deeper into the past. His wife, Harriet, died suddenly in 1896, leaving him to raise eight children alone. He remarried in 1897, but his second wife, Lina Shoemaker Grant, died less than a year later after contracting an infection during routine surgery. (This sad streak ended when he married his cousin, Anne Monroe Knox, in 1900. She brought four children from a previous marriage into the family, and they had one more child together.)

In 1913, Burton built a new house in Boston-Edison, leaving the Brainard Street house — and the colossal library inside of it — to the Detroit Public Library. Over the course of forty years, Burton had amassed thirty thousand books, forty thousand pamphlets and fifty thousand unpublished papers relating to Detroit, the Michigan Territory, the old Northwest, Canada and New France.

He continued to visit his library every day to research books, papers and presentations for the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society, the Detroit Historical Society and the Michigan Historical Commission, all of which he chaired at some point. In 1922, he published his definitive multi-volume text, The City of Detroit, 1701–1922.

His masterwork, however, remains the Burton Collection, which was moved to the main branch of the Detroit Public Library on Woodward Avenue in 1921. The library sold Burton's house on Brainard back to him; the library used the money to start an endowment fund for his collection.

The Burton Historical Collection is still at the main branch today, in a midcentury modern room built as part of the library's 1963 addition. You still have to search by card catalogue. From the belly of the storage floors, archivists muster up two-hundred-year-old newspapers, boxes of letters in impeccable script, creaky scrapbooks and folders full of photographs.

Above it all, a portrait of Clarence Burton presides: mustachioed, wide-eyed, his aspect dead-serious. And while I'm not sure whether he would appreciate how much giggling I do there, I still say a silent "thank you" every time I visit.


I don't remember how or when, exactly, I ran into General Friend Palmer for the first time, but my acquaintance with him and his city has been one of my most cherished.

I probably picked up his book, Early Days in Detroit, as an amusement — reminiscences of French damsels, horse carts, beaver hats and voyageurs, sketched vividly between passages about who married whom, which forgotten territorial soldier lived at what address or which general store burned down when. And my goodness —those rotten Indians and their barbarous ways.


Excerpted from "Hidden History of Detroit"
by .
Copyright © 2011 Amy Elliott Bragg.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Interlude: From The Pageant of Old Detroit,
The Grand Monarque of Ville de Troit,
Interlude: Traveling with Lewis Cass,
One Constant Succession of Amusements,
Interlude: Entertainment for Election Day,
First State Election,
Interlude: The Rain,
Interlude: The Court Crier Isaac Day,
To the Rag Bag,
Captains of Industry,
Interlude: Dr. Harffy's Harpsichord,
The Archbishop,
Burying the Boy Governor,
Selected Bibliography,
About the Author,

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