Edward Tiffin Portrait
Edward Tiffin

Tiffin and Michigan Land

After the War of 1812, the federal government conducted surveys of land to be used for military bounties in parts of the Northwest Territory for soldiers who fought in the war.  Each soldier to be given 160 acres.  Edward Tiffin, Surveyor General for the Northwest, issued a letter dated November 30, 1815, to Josiah Meigs, Commissioner of the General Land Office, in which he reported unfavorable conditions in the Michigan Territory describing the land as “so bad that there would not be more than one acre out of a hundred, if there would be one out of a thousand, that would in any case admit of cultivation.”

Josiah Meigs

James Madison

In response to Tiffin’s report, President James Madison recommended the Senate find more suitable lands for military bounties outside of the Michigan Territory.  On February 6, 1816, he stated before Congress:

“It is represented that the lands in the Michigan Territory, designated by law towards satisfying the land bounties promised to the soldiers of the late army, are so covered with swamps and lakes, or otherwise unfit for cultivation, that a very inconsiderable proportion can be applied to the intended grants.  I recommend therefore that other lands be designated by Congress for the purpose of supplying the deficiency.”

Lewis Cass

After the Tiffin report and President Madison’s proclamation to Congress, Michigan lands were seen in an unfavorable light by members of the federal government.  In criticism of Tiffin, Lewis Cass, Governor of the Michigan Territory, wrote a letter to Congress expressing his opinion that the description of the land in Michigan had been “grossly misrepresented.” Further, Cass requested new surveys be completed.  Congress approved the request and new surveys were taken of Michigan lands. 

One of the surveys taken was of Township 6 North, Range 17 East, which is known today as Port Huron located in St. Clair County, Michigan.  The survey commenced November 20, 1816 and was approved by Tiffin on February 20, 1818.  This area was originally located in the township of St. Clair, which was organized January 8, 1818 by Governor Cass.  According to Judge William T. Mitchell:

“It was then a part of Wayne County, and was bounded on the south by the northerly shore of the river Huron (the Clinton River) on the east by the shore of the lake and river to Fort Gratiot and extending west to the lands of the United States and one-eighth miles from the river and lake shore.”

Wayne County was organized January 15, 1818.  The boundaries for St. Clair County were established on September 10, 1820, and the county was officially organized in January 1821, with the seat of the county established in the city of St. Clair.

Original Survey 1816

Soon after the survey was approved in 1818, the land was made available for purchase by the General Land Office in Detroit.  A public land sale purchase was completed in two parts.  First, the individual would go to the local land office and fill out entry papers for the piece of land they were interested in.  The registrar would check the local register to make sure the land was available for sale and take payment. 

Second, the registrar would forward the paperwork to the General Land Office in Washington to be double checked for accuracy and proof of payment.  Once the purchase passed this second phase, the General Land Office would issue a patent and forward it to the President for signature.  However, the patent process was slow and could take months or years to complete. 

Original Land Sales in 1818

According to land records held in the St. Clair County Tract Book in the Michigan State Treasury office in Lansing, Michigan, Solomon Sibley, Joseph Watson, Edward Purcell and Zephaniah W. Bunce are recorded as the first individuals to purchase land in the Port Huron area on September 19, 1818.  

The next individual to purchase land was Anselm Petit on June 10, 1824.  However, different dates of purchase are found within the information transcribed in the book titled “The Land Ownership Records 1800s St. Clair County” held by the St. Clair County Register of Deeds office.  Further, the original land patent dates show a large lapse of time between purchase and issuance. 

While the dates of purchase are in conflict, it can be proved the first date of sale in 1818 is correct by other documentary evidence.  An advertisement in the Salem Register dated June 10, 1818, stated:

“At a meeting of the inhabitants of the city of Detroit, in the territory of Michigan, called to take into consideration the proper course to be adopted to give general information respecting the sale of public lands in this territory, and the prospects and advantages held out to immigrants, Solomon Sibley, Esq., was appointed chairman, and John R. Williams, Esq., secretary.  Resolved, That Governor Lewis Cass, Hon. William Woodbridge, Wm. Brown, George McDougall, John R. Williams, Solomon Sibley, Abraham Edwards, Henry I. Hunt, James Abbott and Charles Larned, Esquires, be appointed a committee to adopt such measures in relation to the foregoing subject, as they think proper. 

In pursuance of the foregoing resolution the subscribers take the liberty of stating, that; The lands of the United States, within this territory, are by a proclamation of the President, to be offered for sale at this place on the first Mondays of July, September, and November next.  Not an acre of public land has ever been sold in the country, and the whole is open to the enterprising, for choice and purchase. 

It is confidently believed, that no part of the United States offers greater inducements for settlement and improvement than this does.  The fertility of the soil, the temperature of the climate, and the general healthiness of the country are equal to any part of the western States, and produce of all kinds finds a ready and a good market. 

The great inland seas, which bound three sides of the territory, furnish inexhaustible supplies of excellent fish, and will cause an activity in commerce and business, which always insure a demand for the surplus produce of the country.  The contemplated canal in New York will open an easy avenue to the ocean, and even now, the price of transporting goods from Albany to Detroit is but four dollars and fifty cents per hundred.  A steamboat is now building at Buffalo, which will probably be ready for sailing in June, and will greatly facilitate the access and departure to and from the country. 

The United States lands are sold in tracts of one hundred and sixty acres, at two dollars per acre, with a payment of one fourth part of the purchase money at the time of sale, and a credit of five years for the balance.  The sum of eighty dollars is therefore sufficient to produce an incipient title to the land; and any man of common industry, long before the expiration of the term of credit, may make the remainder of the sum from the land itself, besides placing his farm in an improved and productive state. 

The opportunity now offered to industrious and enterprising men, to lay the foundation of moderate fortunes does not often occur, and ought not to be neglected.  Detroit, May 2, 1818.”

This advertisement is signed by Lewis Cass, William Woodbridge, William Brown, George McDougall, John R. Williams, Solomon Sibley, Abraham Edwards, Henry I. Hunt, James Abbott, and Charles Larned as the Committee.

Solomon Sibley

With land in the territory up for grabs for the first time in 1818, it makes sense that three of these men would become first purchasers.  Serving as the Chairman of this committee, Solomon Sibley would have been in an advantageous position to make his purchase of acreage in Section 10. 

While Joseph Watson was living in Washington, D.C., at the time of his purchase, he would also have been knowledgeable about land sales.  He acted for the territory as deputy collector, notary public, and secretary to the Governor, Judges and City Register of Detroit from 1806 to 1812.  One of his duties as secretary included recording the proceedings of the Detroit Land Board.  This experience would have put him in contact with land experts. 

He was also the son-in-law of the well-respected Michigan Supreme Court Justice, Judge James Witherell of Detroit.  This would have given him the opportunity to interact with influential citizens of Detroit on a political and social level.  Further, Joseph Watson showed an interest in land ownership in the Michigan Territory.  In lieu of payment for his duties as secretary, he instead accepted land from Governor Cass. 

Zephaniah W. Bunce had the greatest motivation of all the men.  He was already living on the land he would purchase in Section 28 in 1818, having come to the area a year earlier. 

John Quincy Adams Directive

Why the federal government delayed in the issuance of their land grants for a period of between 5 and 97 years, in the case of Edward Purcell, or why patents were never issued for Section 2 and the N. fraction of Section 11 is unknown.  A plausible explanation could be attributed to the Fort Gratiot Military Reservation and Indian Reservation located in the area.   The survey marks and bounds about 1200 acres of the Chippewa Reservation along the River Delude (Black River), being made up of approximately 800 acres in Sections 9 and 10 and some smaller portions of Sections 15 and 16.

William Henry Harrison

Fort Gratiot was commissioned to be built in 1814 by William Henry Harrison, of which 472.88 acres of Section 3 had been set aside for military use at the time of the survey in 1816.  On May 23, 1828, the Commanding General of the War Department resigned.  President John Quincy Adams appointed Alexander Macomb as Major General the next day.  Three days later, Peter B. Porter became Secretary of War. 

General Alexander Macomb

During an inspection of the Fort Gratiot Military Reservation later that year, Major Macomb wrote a letter to Secretary Porter at the War Department dated November 10, 1828, on a plat map of the area, which read: “I recommend that all the land unsold and unpatented which is enclosed within the red lines A, B,C,D,E be reserved for military purposes.”

Peter B. Porter

Peter B. Porter wrote below him, “I concur in the above re: communication.”  John Quincy Adams wrote below Peter, “Let the reservation be made accordingly.” President Adams dated his response November 11, 1828.

President John Quincy Adams

This plat map with the written directive was also mentioned by William L. Bancroft in 1887 in his narrative about the history of the military reservation.  Mr. Bancroft states:

“The grounds forming the original military reservation extended from what is now known as Michigan Street in Fort Gratiot village, on the north, to Suffern street, on the south, and from the St. Clair river on the east, to Black river on the west. 

An old government plat in my possession shows it as containing all the land lying above the mouth of Black river to Michigan street, and it also included the light house reserve. 

The recommendation of Gen. Macomb, then commander in chief of the army, indorsed on the plat is ‘that all the land unsold and unpatented be served for military purposes.’ The recommendation was concurred in by Gen. Peter B. Porter.”

Point “A” on the plat map below shows the areas of Section 2 originally purchased by Solomon Sibley in 1818 and the N. fraction of Section 11 originally purchased by Anselm Petit in 1824.  These areas are check marked as being seized for military purposes.   The map also indicates the words “sold” written across the part of Section 10 purchased by Solomon Sibley containing 91.40 acres.

Plat Map with Executive Order signed by John Quincy Adams
Plat Map: Close Up of Areas A-E

The “Other” Survey

Further exploration of a second survey recorded with the original titled “Other” survey, shows the presence of a purple boundary line to indicate the area set aside for military purposes.  A notation on this record from 1832 describes the directive given by President John Quincy Adams and specifically identifies that the NE part of Section 10 (91.40 acres) purchased by Solomon Sibley was “previously sold and patented.” 

Why the President allowed Mr. Sibley and Mr. Petit to keep some of the property from their original purchase and why he excluded their ownership from the other parts is a mystery leaving the matter open to speculation in the absence of an official record. 

What this documentation does prove is that by November of 1828, land patents had still not been issued for these two purchases, and the property was never legally transferred to them.  As Macomb indicated property “unsold” or “unpatented” in the designated areas were thus reserved for military use. 

“Other” Survey 1816

What does bear fruit here is President Adams’ directive, which increased the original seizure of acreage for military purposes with the stroke of a pen.  While individuals were free to purchase property in the territory, all sales were not final.  Their purchasing power was not so great when wielded against the power of eminent domain held by the federal government.  It is an unfortunate affair Sibley and Petit became subjective victims.

From the founding of the U.S. government until the Civil War, the federal government had the right to declare eminent domain in the District of Columbia and any territory with no recourse for the individual.  It was not until the Supreme Court decision in 1875 in Kohl v. United States wherein the Court established the Just Compensation Requirement in cases of eminent domain.  This requirement established that the government could no longer seize the property of private individuals without first compensating them.