24 January 2022

Pure Michigan Genealogy: Yankee Migration

Michigan Territory once had a reputation as "good for Indians and disease and not much else."  Men who served in the Michigan Territory during the War of 1812 sent word back home about the dismal area of the territory.  Surveyor General Edward Tiffin reported after an 1817 survey "no tillable acre in the whole territory, worthless soil, all they did find were bogs, swamps, mosquitoes, dangerous animals and savage Indians."

How Michigan Became a State

If this was the case how did Michigan ever become a state?  We have Lewis Cass, Territorial Governor and Henry Schoolcraft, explorer, to thank for new surveys showing that the territory was habitable.  Cass wrote to the general government saying that the lands of Michigan had been grossly misrepresented.  New surveys were ordered.  A sixty-five person team surveyed the area starting in May 1820, with Henry Schoolcraft in tow.  They found the wilderness very habitable.

How the Erie Canal Helped Michigan

Something else was happening during this time.  Robert Fulton discovered that steamboats could travel up the Hudson River from New York to Albany. Steamboat travel combined with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 allowed an all water route from the Atlantic Ocean to Michigan.  This allowed western migration to move from the Ohio Valley to the Great Lakes.

Michigan's First Survey

Lastly, John Farmer, an early surveyor from New York, sold a map and a gazetteer, "Farmer's Guide to Michigan".  The new survey results, the Erie Canal opening and Farmer's map and gazetteer reached those living in the east and new settlements were on the horizon.

Orlo Fenn Travels via Erie Canal

My ancestor, Orlo Fenn, was one of those who used the Erie Canal to travel to the Michigan Territory.  He writes back home to his family in Shoreham, Vermont:
We have enjoyed good health ever since we left Shoreham, for which we ought to feel thankful, but I must proceed to give you a short history of our travils (sic) since we left Shoreham. We arrived in Whitehall the same day we left Shoreham and locked up. The next morning we left and arrived in Troy on Friday morning. Left Troy Friday evening and arrived in Buffalo on Saturday of the next week in time to ship outboard the steamboat Ohio.  At 1/2 past 10 o'clock we left Buffalo for Detroit on Monday evening, which made us two weeks from home....
Source: ”A Letter to Shoreham,” Vermont Quarterly, July 1955, page 329.  From a letter written by Orlo H. Fenn, Dexter, Michigan Territory,  to his parents, Daniel Fenn and Huldah Rowley Fenn, in Shoreham, Vermont, 1 July 1832. 

Yankee Migration to Michigan

Orlo Fenn wasn't the only "Yankee" who migrated to Michigan during this time.  The population of the Michigan Territory in 1805 was about 4000, most of which lived in the Detroit, Frenchtown, Mackinaw and Detroit River vicinity.  By 1830 the population rose to 31630, many from the New England area.

This growth became known as the "Yankee migration."  What is a Yankee? Brian C. Wilson, author of Yankees in Michigan, defines it as a “distinct ethnic group...descendants of the first seventeenth-century English settlers to New England” 

The Yankee migration began around Plymouth, Massachusetts and continued to other points in Massachusetts.  Next, migration to Connecticut via the Connecticut Trail, then to Western Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire using the Connecticut River.  Many migrated to New York and Pennsylvania and the Northwest Territory.

Yankees left in hopes of finding better land. Lands in the east were being used up and if a family had too many sons, there wasn't enough land to inherit. Once land became available in the Northwest Territory many moved. First to Ohio, then Indiana and Illinois and eventually Michigan.

There was a song about this emigration, the Emigrant's Song:
Come all ye Yankee farmers who wish to change your lot,
Who’ve spunk enough to travel beyond your native spot,

And leave behind the village where Pa and Ma do stay,
Come follow me, and settle in Michigania-
Yea, Yea, Yea, in Michigania.

Population Growth in Early Michigan

The population steadily grew with this Yankee migration.  Michigan became a state in 1837. The 1840 population was 212,267; 1850 population was 397,654 with over 40% from six New England states:

  • Rhode Island-1031
  • Maine-1117
  • New Hampshire-2744
  • Connecticut-6751
  • Massachusetts-8167
  • Vermont-11113
  • New York-133756

Yankee Influence in Michigan

Michigan would be a different place without the Yankee influence. Yankees were involved in the law making and governing of Michigan.  The first fourteen governors were from the East . Michigan's First Constitutional Convention was 70% New Yorkers.  Michigan patterned many laws after New England states.  Punishments were taken from Vermont; Probate from Massachusetts; Real Estate laws from New York; and Townships from New England.  Just about every facet of Michigan growth can be contributed to the Yankee Migration, including education, religion, judiciary, business and more.

Today's Michiganders would never believe that Michigan was once described as inhabitable. Michigan is home to beautiful, sandy beaches, fresh water in rivers and streams, in addition to the four Great Lakes we border. It has fertile land and lush forests. The growth of Michigan from Yankee migration is one I am happy to call my own story.  I am glad my Fenn family traveled from Vermont and settled in my home state.  Yea! Yea! Yea! in Michigania.

Yankee Migration is one in a series of posts about researching Michigan.  The others are:

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