The University Record, January 22, 2001

Publicity for 1825 map encouraged settlement of southeast Michigan

Editor’s Note: Michigan became the 26th state Jan. 26, 1837.

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

Advertising for this map by Orange Risdon touted the Michigan Territory as 'abounding in lands of the most fertile and healthy description' and that 'the climate is particularly adapted to our eastern constitution.' Photo courtesy Clements Library
In the 1800s, talk was that the Michigan Territory was “uninhabitable excepting on river and lake shores.” But advertising for a map originated by Orange Risdon and marketed to those motivated to establish homes west of the Appalachian Mountains touted the territory as “abounding in lands of the most fertile and healthy description” and that “the climate is particularly adapted to our eastern constitution.”

Of the original 472 copies of Risdon’s 1825 Map of the Surveyed Part of the Territory of Michigan, only about 13 copies survive, and two of those are at the University—one at the Clements Library and another at the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library.

Risdon’s map was the first to show in precise detail the lands available in the southeastern portion of the future state. Like many of the sectional maps of other developing territories published over the next half-century or more, Risdon’s work focused not just on topographical or political details, but showed how the land was divided for settlement. This approach gave land seekers from the Eastern states and abroad confidence to select land on which to reestablish their lives. The surveyed townships and sections were clearly defined and numbered.

At the time of the map’s publication, the route to Detroit had been closed by winter weather. It was not until May 1826 that Risdon announced the availability of his map in the Detroit Gazette.

“For many of the newly arriving settlers, exposure to the information contained in Risdon’s map probably came at a land agent’s or lawyer’s office,” says Brian Dunnigan, curator of maps at the Clements Library. “Some of these were most likely in the form of one of the ‘painted’ or varnished copies attached to rollers for display on a wall.”

Some of the copies were “made portable in a book” by being cut into 24 sections, mounted on linen and folded into covers. The copy at the Clements is an example of a third option offered by Risdon—sold as a pair of sheets and then pasted together to form a complete map.

Regardless of format, the Risdon map provided a wealth of new and very practical information about the southeastern portion of the Michigan Territory. Lakes and streams, newly named and platted counties and towns, and the few roads that were beginning to crisscross the land were rendered with great care. “Of particular importance and usefulness were the rows of section squares, each carefully numbered, that march from the Ohio border to Saginaw Bay and from the Detroit River to the western edge of Washtenaw County,” Dunnigan explains.

The squares of the newly surveyed counties are based on the system of land division devised for the Northwest Territory and used to plat most of the American Midwest. They are uninterrupted except in the areas settled earlier by farmers of French-Canadian descent. “Their long narrow, ribbon farms along the Raisin, Detroit and St. Clair rivers contrast with and disrupt the otherwise monotonous pattern of squares,” Dunnigan notes.

Like the boundaries of their lands, however, Michigan’s French inhabitants were rapidly being engulfed by the settlers of the 1820s. The wave of new arrivals also spelled the end for organized communities of Native Americans in southeastern Michigan. A series of treaties already had extinguished their ownership of much of the land, and the remnants of territory still belonging to Michigan’s original inhabitants are represented on Risdon’s map by scattered reserves.

Risdon’s map, Dunnigan adds, “captures a significant moment in the story of America’s westward movement and shows how the territory appeared to the eyes of its new arrivals.”