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The Founder Who Wasn't: Benjamin Pierce?

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Episode Transcript

  The term “founder” can be a tricky thing. Can someone really “found” a place that already had people living in it? Does a “founder” have to do anything other than just be the first? In some older historical material for Birmingham, four men get called Birmingham’s “founders”, which is problematic in itself because three of those men moved to the land they purchased with families, so why aren’t their wives, siblings and parents called “founders”? This becomes even more problematic when we consider that one of those “founders” didn’t even live on the land he purchased in what would become Birmingham and maybe only visited once. This episode we are looking at that guy. Benjamin Kendrick Pierce, the founder who wasn’t: why he never even lived here, what his legacy was and why he has so many things in Birmingham named after him.

                This is Birmingham Uncovered, a podcast by the Birmingham Museum, where we are exploring the diverse and compelling lives that built Birmingham Michigan into the community that it is today. First, some background on Birmingham: we are a city of approx. 20,000 people over 4.73 square miles, approximately halfway between Detroit and Pontiac in Oakland County. This area was occupied by members of the Three Fires Confederacy of Indigenous People before white settlement in the area started in the late 1810s after the War of 1812. Birmingham became a city in 1933 and today is known as a prosperous and multi-faceted community with a thriving cultural scene.

                Unlike our two previous subjects, Benjamin Kendrick Pierce started life out with nearly every advantage. Born to an established family which traced their ancestry back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Benjamin’s father was a Revolutionary War hero who ended his service as a general and was a two-time governor of New Hampshire.

                Born in 1790, he was the second oldest of 9 children and was sent to Phillips Exeter Academy before entering Dartmouth college in 1807.

                Attending college already marked Benjamin Pierce as one of society’s elites. Even in fields like the law and medicine, college education wasn’t strictly required to practice. The United States had only 9 colleges and seminaries on the eve of the American Revolution, all started by various Protestant denominations originally to train ministers. By 1800, however, more and more colleges were popping up around the nation but none yet were public colleges, making a college education a mark of an elite background.

                At Dartmouth, established in 1769, Benjamin was hobnobbing with sons (women wouldn’t be admitted until 1972) of the elite and powerful. It seems as though our Benjamin was a bit of a prankster though, and had to leave school after damaging a campus building by firing a cannon at it.   Today you’d probably face legal charges in addition to being kicked out but apparently the early 1800s were a different time when it came to property damage via cannon.

                After Dartmouth, Benjamin went to study law with a family friend. While a degree or class attendance wasn’t necessary, most prospective lawyers studied while working under an already practicing lawyer, like an apprenticeship, before taking the bar. And yes, Kim Kardashian and Benjamin Pierce do share this commonality. Stars, they’re just like this one guy from the 1800s!

                Had the War of 1812 not happened, Benjamin might have become a lawyer in New Hampshire and perhaps embarked on a political career of his own. But just like many young people have done all throughout history, he abandoned his previous plans for the army.

                Why did he join? We don’t have anything from him stating his why. Perhaps he was always attracted to the army lifestyle and was looking for an opportunity to join. Perhaps he joined out of a sense of patriotism. The army was then one of the major ways to make a name for onself and advance in society, something men whose fathers had secured the nation’s freedom may have strove for.

                Another intriguing possibility is the Society of Cincinnati. A fraternal organization of military officers who served in the Continental army with membership open to their children. Members were often highly placed in the army and government and looked out for their fellow members families and children. Benjamin’s father was a member and Benjamin inherited his membership after his death. The perks of being a child of the society, namely in this case, better commissions in the army, may have drawn Benjamin in.

                We briefly discussed the War of 1812 in our last episode on Elijah Fish, but let’s even more briefly summarize it here: The war of 1812 started in, who could’ve guessed it, 1812 and was between the United States and Great Britain. In the Midwest it was about the fur trade and western expansion but for folks in the east, like Benjamin, it was about the British impressing American ships and crews into the Napoleonic Wars against France.

                Pierce was a First Lieutenant in the 3rd Artillery (probably due to his previous cannon experience) during the war, which ended officially with the treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814. But, due in part to peace negotiations taking place across the Atlantic Ocean in the town of Ghent, in Belgium, news of the treaty took several months to reach North America and during that time several more battles had taken place.

                While there was no clear winner to the war, as both sides maintained previously held territories, it did give the United States back Fort Mackinac and the British built Fort George, renamed Fort Holmes, a fortified earthen redoubt that helped fortify Fort Mackinac. And this would be the next step of Benjamin Pierce’s career.

                The quaint island between Michigan’s Upper and Lower Pennisulas that bans cars and has killer fudge was once a very important fort. After the War of 1812, the United States used it as a point to control the ever so important fur trade and to make sure those pesky British didn’t come back. And the fur trade itself at this time on Mackinac was run by women- in particular Magdelaine Laframboise, who was descended from a French fur trader named Jean Baptiste Marcot and an Odawa woman named Marie Nekesh, a granddaughter of Chief Kewinoquot of the Odawa.

                Mixed race individuals, like Magdelaine, ruled the fur trade because they straddled European culture and Native Culture. Magdelaine had a French name, could speak French and English and was baptized a Catholic. But she also spoke Chippewa and Ottawa and was raised in her mother’s Odawa culture. This made her a master at negotiating between both sides. She married Joseph Laframboise and developed a fur trade in what is today western Michigan, taking the furs to be further sold and traded at Mackinac. The Odawa were a matrilineal society and many of the white folks involved in the fur trade secured their contacts in the trade by marrying into the Odawa. After her husband died, Magdelaine ran the operation herself along with raising her children, Josette and Joseph. It is estimated that she earned between $5,000-$10,000 per year, an almost astronomical sum at a time when a carpenter could expect a wage of about $1.45 a day on average in the United States.

                Benjamin Pierce was placed in command of Fort Mackinac in 1816 and in April of that year married Josette Laframboise, making an extremely advantageous match. Besides coming from great wealth, Josette had been educated in Montreal and was widely reported to be very beautiful.

                But here begins of stream of what I can only call bad luck, Pierce seems to always be at the right place, at the right time and making what appears to be good decisions but something always seems to mess it up for him.

                Josette died in 1820, leaving behind two children with Pierce, Josette Harriette (sometimes referred to as Harriet Josephine) and Benjamin Langdon, who died in infancy.

                Between 1821 and 1835 he bounced between Fort Barrancas in what is today Pensacola, Florida; Fort Delaware in Delaware; and Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, New York. And he got promotions along the way.

                The year 1836 would see him again return to Florida to fight in the Second Seminole War. I know what you’re thinking: Can I understand the second war if I completely missed the first?

                The Seminole Wars were three military conflicts taking place between 1816 and 1858 between the United States and the Seminole People. The Seminole were originally part of the Creek, a loose confederacy of ethnic groups and tribes that lived in the present day South East of the United States- Georgia, Alabama and Northern Florida. As white settlers pushed more and more Native Americans off their traditional lands, the Seminole people settled further and further into Florida and welcomed individuals from other tribes as well as formerly enslaved individuals and free people of color. There are two stories about how the Seminole got their name, one is that their name comes from the Spanish “Cimarron” [cim-ar-en] meaning wild or free or runaway. The word may also come from the Creek word simanó-li whose meaning is along the lines of “separatist” or “frontiersman” and its debated whether this word is related to or comes from the Spanish “Cimarron”.

                The meaning of the name is important to knowing about the conflict- the Seminole had no interest in assimilating into a mold that outsiders-whether they be Spanish or American- wanted them to conform to. Their freedom also constituted a threat to slaveholders as well as they welcomed freedom seekers fleeing enslavement.

                The first Seminole War happened before Florida was even a part of the United States, in 1817 Andrew Jackson lead an incursion into Spanish territory and destroyed many Seminole and Black Seminole towns because slaveholders in Georgia were upset that the people they were enslaving were seeking freedom there. And yes, that is the Trail of Tears ratbastard Andrew Jackson. This episode features two terrible US presidents!

                In 1818, the United States and Spain negotiated the transfer of the territory and from there on the government of the US worked hard to pacify and relocate the Seminole people. The Second Seminole War, the one Benjamin Pierce was sent to Florida for, was the Seminole people resisting the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The law, as described by Congress, provided "for an exchange of lands with the Indians residing in any of the states or territories, and for their removal west of the river Mississippi.” This law saw over 60,000 Native Americans from Eastern States and the Midwest forcibly removed primarily to present day Oklahoma and Kansas.

                This act lead to the Trail of Tears, wherein tens of thousands Native Americans were forcibly removed from their lands and forced to walk to what is today Oklahoma. Historians debate just how many folks were forced to move and how many died along the way but a conservative estimate is that 46,000 were forced to leave their homes and 4,000-10,000 died along the way.

                The Seminole put up a fierce resistance to the act, launching acts of guerilla warfare from deep in the Everglades, where the American army had a hard time navigating. The army found their supply lines, and outposts destroyed or captured and nearby plantations were burned. Osceola [aa-see-OW-luh] emerged as a leader of the Seminole during this war and, like Pierce’s wife and mother in law, was of mixed ancestry. In Osceola’s case, he was Muscogee and Scottish.

                During the war, Pierce and his men built a small fort, named Fort Pierce in his honor.

                The war was declared over in 1842. Osceola had been captured under a flag of truce when he went to discuss terms of peace, later dying in prison 1838 and his head displayed in a drugstore owned by one of his captors. Many Seminole villages were burned and the people carted off and forced to move west. The ones that remained would come under fire from the United States government during the Third Seminole War from 1855- 1858.

                After 1838, Pierce bounced around a few more posts. During the Mexican American War, Pierce’s ill health, he appears to have contracted malaria while in Florida, prevented him from serving in Mexico, instead he stayed in Texas and Florida before being sent North to Fort Adams in Rhode Island to recover in a less malarious climate.

                And I promise that one of these days we will have an episode where malaria doesn’t show up, but that day is not today. While endemic in the past, nowadays in the United States only about 2,000 cases of malaria are diagnosed each year and it only has a .3% mortality rate. One of the hardest things sometimes for me to wrap my head around is how often diseases that most of us are only slightly aware of in our modern world show up in basically every person’s story from the past.

                Bad luck continued to dog Benjamin. In 1823 he married Amanda Boykin, a woman from a wealthy enslaver family in Alabama. He called her “the woman of my choice” so perhaps it was a love match. It also might be throwing Chris Pratt levels of shade on his first wife. Stars, they’re just like this one dude from the 1800s!

                Benjamin and Amanda had five children before her death in 1831. Only three of those children would outlive their father. Amanda died while Benjamin was stationed at Fort Delaware after giving birth to a son named Benjamin, who also died. Her remains were almost incinerated during a fire, just to add insult to injury. Oddly enough, Pierce’s first wife also died shortly after giving birth to a son named Benjamin, and that Benjamin also died shortly after birth. Even weirder, Benjamin’s younger brother Franklin had a son named Benjamin, who fell from a train and died. Benjamin just wasn’t a lucky name in the Pierce family.

                Benjamin married a third time in 1838 when he married Louisa Gertrude Read of Delaware, the great-granddaughter of Declaration of Independence signer George Read. She died in 1840.

                Benjamin Pierce died in a New York hospital where he had been convalescing on April 1, 1850, having served 38 years in the army. It’s hard to say what his legacy might have been had he kept his health and continued his military service. The second in command at Fort Pierce, William Tecumseh Sherman, rose to great heights during the Civil War and it’s not unlikely that Benjamin may have as well.

                But wait, I hear you exclaim, I never once heard you mention Birmingham! And that’s true, so let’s correct that. On December 30, 1818, Pierce obtained the northwest quarter section of Section 36, which lies today at the center of downtown Birmingham. He did this a month after John West Hunter, Elijah Willits and John Hamilton obtained their lots that abut his. All four plots converged on modern day West Maple Road and Old Woodward Ave. Hunter et al bought their land to settle on it and make money from folks traveling into the interior of Oakland County along the Saginaw Trail, now Woodward Avenue. Pierce, like the other three, was a veteran of the war of 1812 and entitled to a discount on his land and probably purchased it as a retirement property.

                While he never lived on his land and maybe only visited it once or so, he did rent it out to a sister before being forced to sell in 1844 for $2,500 after meeting with financial hardships. Ironically, that land today is one of the most expensive pieces of land in Michigan, I don’t even want to know how much a storefront rent is.

                So why count this one guy, who didn’t even live here as a “founder”? On the one hand, he was the fourth of the first four landowners. Four is a round number, unlike three, and allows us to present the first four owned pieces of land as a nice circle centered around the intersection of Old Woodward and West Maple instead of just three pizza pieces and leaving us having to continuously answer where the fourth one is.

                But, if I had to advance my theory, it’s name recognition. Unlike John West Hunter, who has much fewer things named after him despite actually living here, Benjamin Pierce was a brother to a president. Franklin Pierce was Benjamin’s younger brother and was elected as president in 1853 and served until 1857.

                And yes, we have reached the second terrible president in this episode. While he might not be on any top 5 worst lists, he was one of those presidents prior to the Civil War who saw the war coming and did his absolute best to make things much worse. We’ll leave aside debates about whether the Civil War was inevitable but signing the Kansas-Nebraska act which repealed the Missouri compromise and launched the violence known as “Bleeding Kansas” and enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act while believing that the growing abolitionist movement was a threat to the nation’s unity was 100% not the right call. The subject of our previous episode, Elijah Fish, would like a word.

                And sometimes when it comes to legacy, it’s all who you know. Would Nicholas Cage be a household name if he wasn’t a Coppolla? Would Benjamin Pierce have a school and a street in Birmingham named after him if his brother wasn’t a president? Stars, they’re just like this one guy from the 1800s!

                Join us next week as we further deconstruct the idea of the four “founders” of Birmingham by talking about the Prindle sisters, three women who were here from the earliest days of the settlement. I’m Caitlin Donnelly and thank you for joining us for this episode of “Birmingham Uncovered”. Special thanks to the Birmingham Area Cable Board for PEG grant funding that made this podcast possible. Also thanks to past and present staff of the Birmingham Museum, whose research made this episode possible. To see maps of Benjamin Pierce’s land purchase in Birmingham and his portrait, check out our website, link in the shownotes. For questions, comments or concerns, please contact us at museum@bhamgov.org.

Benjamin Pierce Portrait
Benjamin Pierce-2 REV St. Lucie DSC_1420 - Copy
Land Patent
Benjamin Pierce land patent
First Four Landowners Map
Original Land Purchases Map
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