The St. Joes - by R.C. Kedzie

The St. Joe's by R.C. Kedzie

The St. Joes, by R.C. Kedzie, Michigan Pioneer and Historical Collections, Volume 28.

The conditions of immigration in the early settlement of our State were so different from those now prevailing in these days of railroads and steamers that the public forget the trials and hardships of pioneering in Michigan. When we are told of a man carrying a grindstone on his back fourteen miles to an ax-dull community, and another carrying a hundred pounds of flour a like distance to be received with open-mouthed welcome by the hungry hamlet, the story is received with a touch of incredulity by easy-going men of today.

It is the purpose of this paper to recall some of the features of pioneering as they passed before my eyes when a mere child in my home on the banks of the River Raisin in the eastern edge of Lenawee County.

My father brought his young family to "the Michigan" in an early period of the settlement of the territory, buying his farm of the United States government in 1824, and erecting a log palace for his family in 1826. It was a pioneer life of the most pronounced type- not "Nine miles from a lemon," in the pathetic words of Gail Hamilton- but twenty-five miles from post office, store, mill, blacksmith, doctor, civilization! The roads were only blazed trails through the woods, and the bridge was a canoe in which was ferried over everything that could not swim, the wagon piece by piece, the grist, the harness, while the horses found themselves "in the swim." This was going to mill and the return was similar, the round trip consuming four days.


was constructed according to the strictest rules of sylvan architecture, built of logs, standing 18 x 24 on the ground, and one and a half stories high. It was amply protected and guarded, for half a dozen trees stood sentinels over it, of such sized that if anyone had fallen across the structure it would have crushed it to the ground. We were overawed by our guards.


The family took possession late in the afternoon of a mild October day. The palace was not completed: the ground floor was laid except a space reserved to build the "mud and stick chimney," where a fire was burning all night to scare away wild beasts. This was literally our house warming. Spaces had been cut in the log walls for doors and windows, but these had not been put in place, blankets being hung for door curtains, with barricades of chests and boxes to keep out intruders. Just at nightfall my brothers took the Indian pony, "Old Grey," to the river bottom to feed for the night, a small bell fastened on his neck to assist in finding him in the morning and, to prevent him from wandering too far, his fore feet were spanceled. Just as this was done the wolves began to howl close by, and boys and pony made a beeline for the house to tarry for the night.

Kept at distance by the fire burning in the house, the wolves howled around the house the livelong night, while the answering owls hooted from the treetops over our heads. The terrified pony did not dare to leave the house, but circled around and around it in a monotonous tramp, the thump, thump, thump of his spanceled feet beating time to this wolf and owl duet, the tinkle of his bell serving for orchestral accompaniment. To the small and select audience who held reserved seats the concert still seemed somehow to lack concord and harmony of sweet sounds. There was one audience that was in hurry for the curtain to rise.


The huge trees that overshadowed our house were too suggestive of crushing disaster if any of them should come down to our level. Their doom was settled because the skilled axe man could determine the line of their fall and thus avert danger from our home. One large red oak was marked for slaughter and he was to die at nightfall. My father placed a lighted candle beyond the reach of the falling tree, but in the line of its fall, to see what would be the impulse given to the air by the falling mass by the influence on the candle flame. The tree came crashing to the ground and his windfall caused the candle flame to flicker for a moment and then go our in darkness, to the intense delight of the "kids." It was the first experiment in natural philosophy I ever saw. The next day a white oak, four feet in diameter, had to bite the dust, and we all went outdoors "to see how it let the sky in." The trees must fall though they held their sheltering arms over our house, because danger lurked in their very shadow and we must have breathing space and sunlight around our house. These forest monarchs with coronals of green and majesty of form appealed in vain to our sense of beauty. "Woodman, spare that tree" was all unsung at Kedzie’s grove. The most beautiful inanimate thing God ever made is a tree, but in our eyes it "had no form or comeliness that we should desire it." The trees were an obstruction, an enemy to extirpate not a thing of beauty or a friend to be cherished. It was woods, woods, everywhere; trackless, savage, terrifying. They served to smother us and we gasped to drink in the open sky. Go out from our house in any direction and it was the unbroken forest for long distances; take the trail eastward and it was five miles to the first house, Richard Peters’; go west and it was six miles to the home of Harvey Bliss; strike out north or south through the lonely woods and it was twenty miles or more to a habitation. It was a forest sea, and when the wind swept through their sounding aisles it suggested the sound of far-off waves- "deep, distant, murmuring evermore, like the waters of the mighty ocean."

When we recall the fact that the woods were the home of treacherous beasts of prey, "more fierce than evening wolves," while the arm of man seemed so weak and puny before such sturdy foes, what wonder that we grew to hate a tree and clap our hands over his downfall.


Those grand old forests! I look back with remorse upon their pitiless destruction- the rich inheritance of the centuries past, wantonly wasted. Timber to build the navies of the world, timber to adorn the palaces of kings, were of no account in those early years. The oak trees on my father’s farm were ample to build an eight-rail fence around every acre on the farm, yet burned up in log heaps. Whitewood was the only tree that had a market value, because the saw logs could be floated down the river to Monroe to be sawed into lumber. But the other trees, oak, ash, black walnut, basswood, elm, hickory and cherry, had no quotable value in those early days. If the farms of Lenawee county were again clothed with the forests of 1826, the timber would sell for more than the farms are worth today.


From 1826 to 1830, settlers came slowly into our neighborhood; here and there a family that seemed to be swallowed up in the solitude. The settlement was mainly along the banks of the Raisin; that river having been classed as a navigable stream it was expected that canal boats would soon bring prosperity to this region like that along the Erie canal; water-carriage being considered the most practical method and railroads all unknown. When the houses were within a mile of each other, we rejoiced to see the country settling up so rapidly. Our neighborhood extended 25 miles in every direction and families within five miles were near neighbors. Occasionally an itinerant preacher came along and word was passed from mouth to mouth of "preaching service at Mr. Blank’s house in the evening, beginning at early candle-lighting-" the Yankee clock peddler not having penetrated the wilds of Michigan.

In 1830 the ripples of the incoming tide of overland travel to the new west reached us and increased in volume year by year. Steamboats and schooners brought the movers to Monroe, from which point they began their slow journey to the rich farming lands of St. Joseph county, a name that included the fertile prairies and timbered belt of southwestern Michigan.

The United States land office was at Monroe in charge of Dr. Robert Clark. The immigrant, having obtained "the description" of his proposed farm from some friend or agent, would stop at the land office and "enter his land," depositing $100.00 in payment for each 80 acres, receiving his certificate, to be followed by a patent issued by the general government and signed by the President. The payment must be in specie and Mexican silver dollars were the most usual form.


The strife between the settler and the speculator to get possession of valuable lands gave rise to amusing incidents, of which the following will serve for a sample. A settler had selected a good farm lot in St. Joe, and was journeying on foot to Monroe to locate the farm. He stayed all night at a tavern in Hillsdale and incautiously boasted of the land he had selected, even giving the description. The landlord sent a man on horseback to locate the land for himself. The disappointed settler kept his mouth shut, returned and made another selection of land for himself and also took a description of some land not so valuable. Stopping at the same tavern he mentioned the description of a half section of land "heavily timbered, well watered, and having a rich black soil." The landlord made use of the information so easily obtained, and when the settler reached the land office he found the wily landlord had located a half section of tamarack swamp and was $400.00 out of pocket.


Usually the mover was a man with a family. The outfit for overland travel was a large wagon drawn by a stout span of horses; the box was not a simple rectangle, but projected at an acute angle at both ends to give additional space; half a dozen stout wooden bows passed over the top of the box and over these stretched a covering of white cotton cloth to enclose the wagon box and space above it, giving an airy room for wife an children, sheltered from sun, wind and rain and affording space for the bedding, household appliances and provisions for the journey. Utensils for cooking, the cast-iron teakettle, bake-kettle, teapot, tin cups and plates, etc., etc., afforded the portable means for preparing a meal by an open fire built on the ground. With a sack of flour, potatoes to roast in the hot embers, a crock of butter and a chunk of salt port, the nimble fingered and quick witted wife soon prepared a meal for the family who partook of it with the zest of the proverbial open-air appetite. An open box across the hind end of the wagon box furnished means of feeding the horses their ration of grain; a water pail, hooked to the reach and a tar bucket slung under the hind axle complete the visible outfit of the mover.


A moving household with such belongings, always going west and always inquiring for St. Joe county, soon came to be recognized as a St. Joe move and called by abbreviation a "St. Joe." A white-covered wagon proclaimed their mission and destination. Day by day they filed past our door in quest of the agricultural Canaan in the new west. Twenty a day, thirty, and even forty, they seemed to move in endless procession, and the St. Joes became a common feature of our life. They were a hardy, sober, honest race; the materials with which to build a substantial commonwealth. Very rarely they traveled on the Sabbath; very rarely they turned their faces east.

The incidents and side-play of moving were peculiar. In spending the night, the wife and children occupied the wagon box for a bedroom, the husband sleeping on the ground under the wagon. If the night was stormy or cold, the men sought refuge in house or barn if accessible. The floor of our house was often completely covered with sleeping men. I well remember a night when forty-two persons slept under the roof of our little house. Most of our family slept in the chamber, and when I attempted in the morning to climb down the ladder to get out doors, I found the floor too completely covered with sleepers to permit me to pass out without stepping on somebody. I fixed my eyes in particular upon four men lying side by side, "packed as close as pickled herring," their heads resting upon some object that served for a bolster. The four men, one after another, got up and stretched themselves into full wakefulness, and then the bolster got up and showed himself a man. Some one humorously suggested to call the roll to see that every man got the right legs!

These camping scenes at the close of "a day’s march nearer" the land of promise were of frequent occurrence at our place, because we were a day’s drive from Monroe, and it was known we had tame hay for their horses, instead of swamp hay, then so common. Our dooryard, barnyard and land were often filled at night by the St. Joes.

"Westward the star of empire takes its way."

It makes a difference from what latitude the star makes its start. Migration is along isothermal lines- latitude rather than longitude. This is the reason why people move west rather than south. Immigrants in a body carry the social atmosphere with them. Note the social condition in southern Ohio and Indiana, settled by persons from New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia, from that of Michigan, settled by families from New England and New York, bringing from the east the habits, customs and aspirations of our best civilization, dotting the country with churches and planting a school in every hamlet. The united rills of this stream of immigration has filled our State with a population second to none, and given her the name of "the Massachusetts of the west."

Agricultural College, June 20, 1898


Transcription of this article was generously prepared and donated by Patrick McCleary.


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