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The Early Settlement of Birmingham

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Birmingham was founded, you could say, on a get-rich-quick scheme, hatched by three fellow ex-soldiers in a tavern in Detroit after the end of the War of 1812.

Chief OkemosBut before we get to that, we have a whole culture and centuries of occcupation of this area by Indigenous Peoples of the Great Lakes region. Before European contact here, first by the French and then the British, the Indigenous tribes of the Chippewa (Ojibwa), Potawatomi, and Odawa dominated the territory. While all part of the larger Algonquin culture, and on peaceable terms with each other, each tribal group had distinctive cultural practices and traditional lands for their use. They intermarried and moved seasonally between major camping grounds, but by the War of 1812 period, Oakland County was the domain of the Saginaw Chippewa, and the main land route was the Saginaw Trail. A footpath for centuries, the trail led from the Detroit River in what is now downtown Detroit on a northwest route toward Flint and then beyond to Saginaw, where the tribe had its largest seasonal camp. Although there had been conflict, the Indigenous Peoples adapted to the European interest in furs, and an economic arrangement developed in which the native people trapped furs and exchanged them for rifles, blankets, iron items, and other materials.  The European wars for control of the Great Lakes region and its valuable furs finally erupted in the War of 1812. At its conclusion in 1815, the Americans gained the territory that became Michigan, and, unlike the French and British before them, they had big plans for settling it.  (Image of Chief Okemos, chiefokemos.com)  Watch a video of a recent presentation on the Indigenous People of Oakland County below:

Willits-Hamilton-Hunter Portraits - CopyEnter three entrepreneurs--John Hamilton, Elijah Willits, and John West Hunter.  When the Americans got control of the land in Oakland County through treaties with the Indigenous tribes, the U.S. wasted no time in surveying it and getting it ready for sale in 1818. The more settlers, and the faster, the better. Hamilton, Willits, and Hunter all entered their land purchases together for a desirable location they had scouted out on the Saginaw Trail about one day out of Detroit, halfway to the planned new town of Pontiac. Their adjacent parcels connected at the point where the Rouge River crossed the trail, and left them with many economic options: milling and manufacturing, using water power from the river; farming on what was good quality land; and making extra income by renting cabin space to travelers coming up the trail. the Saginaw Chippewa and other Native Americans still used the trail, but less and less so in the southern portion of the county. Toward the north, beyond Pontiac, there were more confrontations with some of the Saginaw Chippewa, since the treaty terms permitted them to continue using the land until it was sold.

Bham MillsBy the early 1820s, the Hamilton, Willits, and Hunter families were joined by the Swans, Fishes, and others, while the Hunts, Morrises, and Bagleys set up their farms and inns near what is now Long Lake Road. They first built cabin dwellings as they cleared their land of virgin timber, and in the very early year of 1822, John West Hunter built the first frame house in the area. First located on the trail, it was later moved twice, and now rests at the Birmingham Museum site.  The settlement attracted more settlers, who primarily farmed, but who also were interested in small-scale industry like tanning, sawmills, and foundry work. By the 1830s, the trail was a government road, partly planked, and plans for a railroad from Detroit to Pontiac would bring this new form of transportation right through the town, which had a bright future of industry and commerce. Or so it seemed to settler and mill owner Roswell T. Merrill, who was so taken with this vision that he is said to have named the town for its industrial cousin, Birmingham, England. When the town got the new government post office in the late 1830s, it was officially named Birmingham. 

1898 George and Eliza Taylor sketch-2 - CopyRoads were laid, farms were ploughed, sawmills became flour mills, and the village prospered. Schools began, first in settler cabins, later in public school buildings. Churches were founded, such as the (First) Presbyterian Church, which met for years in a barn at Deacon Elijah Fish's. While Birmingham grew, so did the rest of southern Michigan, which was transformed from a wilderness territory to a state in 1837. Slavery was outlawed in the state, and Oakland County was home to a few free families of color, but the building tensions between slaveholding and non-slaveholding states led to secret highways for helping enslaved people reach Oakland County through the Underground Railroad. Birmingham, as it happens, had both a high profile abolitionist and a discreet provisioner for the Underground Railroad--Deacon Elijah Fish. In the years leading up to the Civil War, Fish, Merrill, and others sponsored abolitionist speakers in town, and escaped enslaved people came to live in Royal Oak and other areas nearby in the 1850s. By 1855, George B. Taylor had found freedom in Oakland County and worked on a farm just outside of Birmingham. Taylor became well known in town and later was the first African American to purchase property here.  In some ways, Fish and Taylor and other social progressives laid the groundwork for tolerance in Birmingham, although prejudice continued to persist as well, as the community evolved toward the Civil War and beyond.