Michigan Fever

"The Scots have always been a restless people, wonderful at living anywhere but in Scotland. In the nineteenth century their restlessness exploded into a sustained surge of emigration . . . and created . . . an enduring image of a land of both exiles and adventurers. Yet the wanderlust that infected 2 million Scots in those years was no new phenomenon. Since the Middle Ages at least, Scots had habitually sought adventure or sanctuary in England and throughout Europe, before they began to turn their eyes westward, initially to Ulster in the seventeenth century, and then by the eighteenth century across the Atlantic to the Americas." (Harper, 2004)
This is the story then of Scottish families who left their native land and came directly to a section of southeastern Michigan. With a few important exceptions (i.e. the first wave of Scottish migration prior to Michigan's statehood), these pioneers were not Americans moving westward out of the New England colonies. They were not among the early Scotsmen who settled in Virginia or New York in the sixteen or seventeen hundreds. They came directly from their farms in southwestern Scotland to southeastern Michigan.

They came at a ripe time in history. There was a “Michigan Fever” that briefly spread across the original thirteen colonies and overflowed to Europe; it started in the early 1820's and raged until all the land in southeastern Michigan had been sectioned and sold. Public land sales in Detroit were held as early as 1818.

"In 1836 it was reported that "one wagon left Detroit for the interior every five minutes, dawn to dusk, from early spring to late autumn." During that one year, 4,189,823 acres of public land was sold in Michigan." (Duncan 1999)
In 1836, the population of Detroit was 7,000 residents
In 1850, the population was 21,000.
In 1860, 45,000.
In 1870, 79,603. (Duncan, 1999)

The Erie Canal was completed in 1825. This became a pioneering super highway, a “modern” pathway that cut across New York State, connected with the Great Lakes and the new steamship lines, to Detroit, the nearest big city. Michigan was settled from Detroit northeastward. Early roads connected Detroit to the edge of the frontier; as the roads developed, settlers inched their way further into the state.

That is the reason the earliest Scottish Settlement pioneers (those in the community we are studying) settled in Macomb County first. They came in the mid to late 1820's, increased their numbers during the 1830's, moving northward into Lapeer and St. Clair Counties, and then greatly expanded their community from the 1840's through the 1870's. The original families, through letters and word of mouth narratives, slowly convinced their Scottish relatives and neighbors to relocate in Michigan.

Wayne County, which includes Detroit, was established in 1815. Macomb County was established in 1818 just as the earliest land sections were being drawn and sold in and around Detroit. Then Oakland County was founded in 1819, followed by St. Clair County in 1820, and then Lapeer County in 1822.

When this land grab began, Michigan was just a territory. It did not attain statehood until 1837. The name “Michigan” was not even in the history books before 1805 when the Michigan Territory was legally formed. By the early 1830's, Federal Indian policies had resulted in the removal of native Americans from the territories. There were Indians still in Michigan when the pioneers arrived, but Indian land had been privatized, “bought” from them; treaties caused their removal to restricted areas, mostly west of the Mississippi.

The federal government quickly moved in after the Indian treaties were established. Once the land became federal property, land surveys were drawn up and legal sections defined. These plats established the location and size of townships and farms. Capitalism was alive and energetic in early America. Land speculators preceded the pioneers, buying up large tracts of land, even laying out potential towns.

“Between 1800 and 1860, the frontier advanced steadily westward at an average rate of 17 miles a year.” (Atlas of American Migration). Michigan was the edge of the frontier from about 1810 to about 1830. It was the place to go for the best land deals at that time in history.

Land speculators advertised across the colonies and in Europe. They raved about the fertile soil and wonderful climate of Michigan.

Books were written, explorers and travelers wrote glowing reports in letters and in newspapers. Shipping lines joined railroads and canal companies in actively recruiting immigrants. Individual states of the union even sent delegates to Europe to promote immigration.

Here is a quote from an 1855 publication speaking of the midwestern frontier (Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, etc):

“Industry and enterprise, aided by enlightened legislation, are calling forth its energies; and the prophetic declaration that “westward the star of empire takes its way,” is advancing to fulfillment. A few years ago this region, then denominated the “far west”, was regarded as the outskirts of civilization- it is now (at least the greater portion of it) the residence of an active, vigorous, and intelligent population. The steamboat, railroad car, and telegraph have become its great movers. Cities have sprung up in the wilderness as if by the will of the magician; agriculture, manufactures, and commerce flourish; literature, science, and the arts are extending their healthful and invigorating influence throughout the country. Blessed with a soil unsurpassed in fertility, and a salubrious climate; and possessing, by means of its great rivers and lakes, advantages for trade and commerce, it enjoys all the influences that can render a country prosperous and a people happy." (Colton, 1855)

Beneath the advertising hype was another reality. Not all the land in southeastern Michigan was fertile farm soil ready for planting. A survey in Addison Township, in Oakland County described the land as poor, barren, burnt, hilly, badly timbered, and swampy. The swampy land was thick with mosquitoes, the forests full of wolves and bears, and the winters could be just as brutal as back in Scotland. There was no escape from disease and despair either. The pioneers were plagued, at various times, with malaria, typhoid, whooping cough, tetanus, diphtheria, flu, smallpox, pneumonia, and infections. Mothers and children died at a shocking rate during the birthing process. Medicine was primitive and doctors scarce and ineffective.

"..perhaps the greatest hindrance to settlement in Michigan was the adverse reports to Washington by the government surveyors. In 1815 Edwin Tiffin, Surveyor-General at Chillicothe, wrote General Meigs, Commander of the Land Office at Washington that "in the whole of Michigan Territory there was not one acre in a hundred, if there would be in a thousand, that would admit of cultivation. It is all swampy and sandy." (Comin and Fredsell, 1850)

Despite the challenges, these were tough, hard working and appreciative people. Letters home often spoke of the positive side of life (almost every letter included health issues, who died since the last letter, the state of the crops, and the weather). Below is an excerpt from a letter sent in November of 1832 from Scottish Settlement pioneer Neil Gray to his son back in Scotland:

"We are all in excellent health and have been so since we came here. I myself have not enjoyed so good health for a great number of years and my stomach has not troubled me at all. "We have forty acres of wheat looking extremely well. We have saved some oats and intend to sow about 20 acres more. We intend to plant considerable corn, beans, potatoes, cucumbers, melons of various kinds and a great variety of other seeds too numerous to mention. "Our oats last season was a fine crop, the potatoes good, they need no dung here, only put them in the ground and hoe them a little and they will grow better than ever I saw them in Scotland. We made 200 lbs of sugar this spring from our own trees with but little trouble. "Our luggage was a great trouble to us from New York and considerable expense. We are 900 miles nearly west of New York, except 40 miles all by water. We are 20 miles from Mount Clemens, five from Romeo. A railroad is to be made from Romeo to Mt. Clemens where there is navigable waters to the Locks and from thence to New York. There is good market for all kinds of produce, wheat 75 cents per bushel, oats 30 cts. corn 50 cts. beans 1 dollar, potatoes 25 cts. cheese 7 cts. per pound of 16 ounces, butter 12 cts. It would surprise you to see how we get along with the clearing of our land. We have two thirds of it with light brush which we cut with a small hook like a hedge knife. The rest is timbered. We have far better land than Lockridge is. We clear all the brush off from it far easier than we could lime the land in Scotland. "Clothes are generally about 50% dearer here than with your broad cloth particularly. They did not examine us very particularly for duty. There are 20 families within a mile and a half of us. We own 720 acres which we purchased from the US Government at one dollar and 25 cents an acre. There is plenty of government (land) within a few miles, mostly very good. People are crowding in almost every day so that there will not be an acre of Government land within a great many miles in a short time. Lots of land cost a hundred dollars last year can be sold for two hundred this year. "

Meanwhile, European governments, with over populated cities, cholera epidemics, potato famines, political unrest, religious intolerance, and an industrial revolution on their hands, eagerly joined the chorus, encouraging their citizens to move to the colonies (for a while, governments had resisted emigration as the numbers leaving surged) . Special government programs even paid transportation costs, sometimes purchasing land for the emigrants in the new locations. Maps with alluring pictures and notes found their way across the sea, all the way to small farms in Scotland.

On those small farms lived young families with no hope of a better life. Families were large. The youngest children had no chance of owning a farm. Traditional jobs were disappearing rapidly as the industrial revolution raged forward. There was little work. The land was over farmed, not fertile. Scotland was a nation of mountains, ocean bays; the climate was harsh and the growing season short. By the mid-eighteen hundreds Glasgow and Edinburgh were over-populated. Cholera, the plague, and the flu were taking a heavy toll on the citizens.

Annie Allan Paton in her memoirs (Paton, 1930) provides us with a personal look at the cholera epidemic that was raging in Ayrshire in 1849. The potato famine was happening about this same time in Ireland and it was also having an impact in Scotland-- potatoes were introduced to Scotland in the 1730s (The potato blight first struck Scotland in 1845, with complete crop failure in 1846, and lasted until about 1850, Robertson, 2012). It is no wonder that many of the Scottish Settlement families came to America within five years either side of 1850, including Wallaces, Patons, Hamiltons, Borlands, Reids, Mortons, Thompsons, Taylors, Somervilles, and others.

"In 1849 Scotland was ravaged by the Asiatic cholera and our little town (Galston) lost some three hundred inhabitants in about a week, my mother being one of them. This fearful disease carried off its victims in about twenty four hours. The doctors endeavored to stop the vomiting and purging by refusing to quench the patient’s thirst which was one of the distressing symptoms of this disease. It rained continually during the plague but in spite of this a bonfire was kept continually burning in the center of the town. I suppose there must have been a superstitious belief in its purifying power or possibly it was merely one way of keeping up their spirits. I remember nothing being said of it at the time. People were too afraid to go about. One might be lying dead for days and the neighbors never know it.

"Whether I remember at the age of two the circumstances connected with my mother’s death, or if I visualized it from hearing my father and the older members of the family tell about it, I was never quite sure, but when our friends asked me later if I remembered my mother I always said I did. There were then six children in the family--the oldest Christina who was thirteen, and Sandy the baby of four weeks. Brother John, six, remembered mother saying just before she died, “I have trusted Him in life and I am not at all afraid to trust Him now.”

"As soon as Mother breathed her last Father went to order the coffin. It was dark I remember, and William who was only four climbed up on the bed and shook Mother as she lay there dead, crying, “Wake up, wake up.” He could not realize what had happened. But Christina was old enough to be afraid. She took the baby in her plaid and went to the street door where she stood gazing out into the night. Across the way was the black shadow of the big Kirk, the grave-yard round it and the iron gate that was never closed these dark days. Now and then it was lighted up by the glow from the bon-fire at the corner. Once the wee bairn gave a whimper that mingled with the crying of the children within. Before her the desolate scene and behind her the little ones huddled in the room with the dead.

"My sister stood there in the door until Father came home with a rude unpainted coffin made of rough boards--the only casket available. Mother’s shroud was the sheet she had died on. Neither her family nor my father’s were notified. Terror closed the doors and it was not until it was all over that relatives learned what members of their families were left.

"Father was taken sick immediately after Mother’s death and called the doctor, who was also an intimate friend--not to ask for a prescription but to give him instructions in case he died as to the disposition of the property and the children who were to be taken to an orphan asylum.

"He refused to take the medicine others had used but doctored himself sitting in one of the big arm chairs by the fireside, drinking hot coffee and taking Morrison’s pills composed largely of Aloes (good for the liver) and a strong purgative. His friend urged him to take a regular prescription but father crying, “They are all dying who take it,” insisted on carrying out his own plan and so recovered, thus making a great difference in the lives of all of us.

"A few days more and hundreds of homes were bereft of fathers, mothers, brothers or sisters, and the church yard was crowded to the utmost where identification of graves was almost impossible. But reconstruction had to take place. No time even for sorrow where children are concerned, and in Scotland at that time birth control would have been considered blasphemous, so there were many in every family to be cared for. Soon a ray of light came into the darkness and gloom. For us it was not to be the orphan asylum but life in the country of the rising sun, “America the land of the West.”

Annie Paton and her large family joined the flood of suffering Scots who were desparate for new hope and a new beginning. They had heard the stories of the promised land and were determined to carve out a new life. The Patons, especially the father, David Paton, were influenced by the glowing reports that came from many sources, including the reports coming from the shipping companies.

Business interests played a major role in fostering transatlantic migration from Great Britain to the Americas. Major shipping companies transported materials like furs and lumber from North America to ports in Great Britain and Europe. After picking up timber from Canada, for example, then sailing across the Atlantic to Europe, ships would have to sail empty back to Canada at considerable expense to the shipping industry. Emigration was a major financial boom for these companies and they spent considerable expense hiring agents to recruit emigrants to fill the ships on the trips back to North America. This system of agents became quite developed over decades and the agents were responsible for the glowing advertisements that appeared in newspapers.

"Major port cities such as Glasgow supported numerous agencies, but in the first half of the nineteenth century, when emigrant shipping to British North America remained decentralized, shipping agents could still be found in virtually all the ports that dispatched these human cargos- including 23 Scottish ports in 1831 and 1832." (Harper, 2003)

America had land agents, too. They were busy advertising their own states and regions. In Michigan for example, the governor appointed a land agent to be based in Detroit; the agent's job was to recruit immigrants for Michigan.

"In 1859 Governor Wisner suggested the appointment of an "emigrant agent" to promote immigration to the state. He was aware that immigrants were beginnng to bypass Michigan on their way west." (Duncan, 1999)

There was also constant political and religious animosity between Great Britain and Europe. War was a way of life. The “sudden” explosion of pioneers coming to America after 1815 was in large part due to a lull; a brief respite from constant war. The French and English had been fighting constantly from about 1770 to 1815 (American and French Revolutions followed by the Napoleonic Wars). The American and English ended the War of 1812 in December of 1814 with the Treaty of Ghent. Prior to 1815, it was not safe to be sailing (traveling, immigrating) anywhere.

The church of Scotland was Presbyterian. The Anglican Church in England ruled south of the border. Scottish villagers must have longed to live far away from people who wanted them to believe and act differently than they wished. Michigan was far away and the culture was unformed. If the ads in the newspapers and the first hand accounts in the books and letters were even slightly true, then Michigan must have seemed a miracle waiting to happen.

Michigan fever therefore was a calculated, orchestrated land rush. It started as a trickle of pioneers headed west to take advantage of the bargains, this began in the late 1820s and early 1830s, and it roared through the 1830's into the 1840's. Between 1830 and 1837 the population of Michigan soared from 31,000 to 87,000.

Every Scottish family had their own stories and their own reasons, but overall they were collectively caught up in the land rush, “Michigan Fever”. It was a thrilling, hopeful time in history for these pioneers. By our standards however, life was not easy. This was a determined, tough, stubborn group of people.

Besides being stubborn and determined, there was a tribal quality about these people, something in their gene pool perhaps, certainly in their culture that drove them to wander and explore.

"Between 1825 and 1938, 2,332,608 people departed Scotland for overseas destinations. No other industrial society in Europe experienced such a hemorrhage." (Devine, 1992)

This huge migration of people out of Scotland seems remarkable, but there is a larger context. Long before the 1800's, the Scottish people had been migrating. They were almost Viking-like in their determination to explore new lands. Indeed, if you study a map, it is apparent that Scotland is closer to Scandinavia then it is to Europe. There is a rich history of contact between the Scottish and Scandinavian populations, much intermarriage and trade occurred over the centuries.

"Between 1600 and 1650 the net emigration outflow may have been between 78,000 and 127,000. The emigration of mercenary soldiers was very significant but most movement even in this period consisted of civilians... It is clear (therefore) that mass emigration (from Scotland) was a continuum; the great diaspora ... was a further stage in a process which had been going on for centuries." (Devine, 1992)

One final fact of life about our Scottish ancestors helps explain why these hardy people were so comfortable with migration. The chief employer of the young adult in Scotland was the agricultural farm or manor of a lord. With the job came lodging. Agricultural work is seasonal, so at the end of every harvest came not only unemployment but also homelessness.

". . . agricultural workers on Scottish farms were "servants" hired on annual or half-yearly contracts who received accommodation as part of their labour contract. The unemployed farm worker who inevitably had lost his home, had no choice but to move to seek a job." (Devine, 1992)

Our ancestors must have had time to think and dream between jobs and lodgings. There must have been an adrenaline rush every time they found themselves "out on the street" without a job or a roof over their heads. They must have comforted each other, formed strong bonds. They were constitutionally ready to catch the emigration fever sweeping over Scotland throughout the first half of the 1800's.

Our Scottish ancestors came down with Michigan fever; they became part of a larger historical revolution.

“Europe represented continued political despotism, religious intolerance, and a large peasantry locked at the bottom of a class society. America in contrast was a noble experiment in freedom, whose liberty and opportunity should be shared by all...” (“Open Door and Endless Room” Atlas of American Migration).

When our pioneers came to Michigan in the early and mid-eighteen hundreds, the United States allowed free immigration, open ports, open borders. Anyone could come. No formal immigration records were even started until 1820.

The Paton family preserved letters, a family history book, and personal narratives that prove to be valuable gifts for all of us today. On August 30, 1902, Annie Paton wrote a brief history of the family of David Paton, her father and the pioneer who came to the Scottish Settlement in 1852. She writes:

“It was love of independence and individual liberty that led our father to seek a home in the far West, when he was prospering in business at home. It was that his family might have the free, vigorous life of the country, that he choose the farm in preference to the City of Chicago, where there seemed to be a good opening for him on coming to America. To be, rather than to have, was his motto."
Three Centers of Energy

To gain historical perspective for the time period of the Scottish Settlement, it is helpful to look at conditions in three locations: in Michigan; in Great Britain and Europe; and in the eastern colonies of the United States.

Relative to Scotland and the eastern States, Michigan was a wilderness. Detroit had been an important French and (later) English village; a strategic location during the fur trading years, but it did not become the jumping off point for homesteading pioneers until about 1820. There were no railroads and only a few roads (mud and stump pathways) leading from Detroit. The Great Lakes passenger ship had not evolved; it was no easy task getting across Lake Erie. The Erie Canal was not complete until 1825; prior to that, if you wanted to reach Michigan, you had to walk through New York, beside the pack mules and supply-laden wagons.

Over in Great Britain and Europe, at the same moment our Scottish pioneers were inching their way out of Detroit, through mosquito infested swamps, past Indian encampments, Western civilization flourished. The Greek and Roman legacy had molded European cultures for centuries. Intellectuals debated Darwin's theories, and Shakespeare played in the theaters of London and Paris. Our Scottish ancestors were not primitive "country bumpkins" emerging from the ignorance of the Middle Ages. They were sophisticated people, courageous, and industrious. They had departed their homeland with the legacy of western civilization intact. They ventured into the wilderness with an intellectual and emotional heritage.

Between the wilderness of Michigan and the glory of western civilization in the old world, stood the original eastern colonies that became the United States. These colonial States had formed in the 1600's. They had evolved for two hundred years by the time our Scottish ancestors set foot in Michigan. In the year 1700, the population of the Thirteen Colonies was 250,000. By the year 1800, America had over five million citizens. By the time our Scottish relatives began to occupy Michigan (1820 census report) they were entering a country with over nine million inhabitants. About the time the Scottish Settlement was coming to an end (about 1870), the United States had close to 40 million people.

On their way from the eastern ports (New York, Boston, Philadelphia) to Michigan, the settlers passed through fairly sophisticated territory. They did not cross the Atlantic and step off the boat into a wilderness. They arrived in vibrant, thriving cities, into an organized, intelligent, and economically stable civilization. That was there jumping off point for the pioneering trek into Michigan.