May 17, 2010 by Amy Elliott Bragg
One constant succession of amusements
Life in the Michigan Territory was tough. It was muddy all the time, the natives could be hostile (and who can blame them), the British were right across the river threatening to swoop in on your little frontier town, and everyone was a big drunk mess.
It’s little wonder that William Woodbridge packed up for the Territory somewhat reluctantly when he was appointed Secretary of the Territory by President Madison. Woodbridge was a little bewildered: he hadn’t applied for any jobs in the Territory, and apparently he had no idea that anyone else had applied on his behalf. But he was still pretty close friends with his former schoolmate Lewis Cass, who advised him to just take the damn job, and besides, the bracing Detroit winters would be good for his health. So he put two and two together, figured that Cass had recommended him, and took the damn job.
His wife Juliana Trumbull stayed behind at their home in Marietta, Ohio. (She was, by the way, the daughter of the poet John Trumbull, for whom Trumbull Avenue was named.) He wrote her this letter in 1815 describing life in Detroit. I couldn’t pick a passage I liked more than any other passage (except for the part about how much everyone likes to party, which I have bolded for your convenience), so here it is in full. From The Life of William Woodbridge, by Charles Lanman, 1867:
March 5, 1815
Detroit, Michigan Territory
Dear J. —
The town of Detroit is by no means so large as from my first letter to you from this place, you might have supposed. The proper town does not include so many houses by any means as Marietta. I was led to an error on this subject by the circumstance that for two miles below, and at least as many above, there is one continued village, scarcely any place in that distance larger than from our house to our barn intervening between the farm houses. Imagine to yourself a single tier of farms fronting on the strait or river Detroit, having for front of from one and one half to three square acres, and extending back from thirty to eighty square acres, few of which farms are cleared for a distance greater than one mile back, the houses and buildings placed along the river bank in front of each farm, and you will have some idea of the manner our farms are laid out. They extend in this manner very many miles, from the mouth of Detroit river along lake St. Clair and up the river Sinclair. The houses are almost universally of one story — most of them have been standing from ten to eighty years — fashioned a little like the houses of the low Dutch about New York, Long Island, Bergen, in New Jersey, and I suppose Albany. The inhabitants being mostly Catholics, you see many traces of their religion, for instance many an old moss grown crucifix, which on their gate posts, barns or houses have withstood the storms of a century.
The British side of the river, except that you see more traces of modern improvement, greatly resembles this side. The wide river, the points, and the distant islands look beautifully. The natural beauty of this country will delight you. But of the society — what shall I tell you? One would think that the lives of this people consist in one constant succession of amusements — dances, rides, dinners, card parties, and all the et cetera of dissipation follow in one long train, treading each on the heels of the other.
Tell Jane in answer to her inquiries that Mrs. May is a good religious French lady, that she talks to me always in French and I to her always in English, and yet that we get along without any sort of quarrelling. Mrs. Sibley and her little family are all well — they live in a snug little one story house at the upper end of the town.
Lanman writes that, unlike his “robust” friend Lewis Cass, Woodbridge was “possessed of a somewhat frail constitution, was a great lover of the quiet of home, and never so happy as when busy among his books.”
Woodbridge was elected Governor of the State of Michigan in 1840, leading Whig fever across the state (William Henry Harrison became President later that year). He remained in office for only a year before he resigned to take a seat on the U.S. Senate in February, 1841 (two months before William Henry Harrison became the shortest-lived President in American history).
I’m writing about him as part of what may become some occasional attention paid (let’s not call it a series yet, hmm?) to Michigan governors I like. Seeing as we’ll have a new one of those by the end of the year. But I’ll leave that matter to Woodward’s Friend.
Next time you’re enjoying yourself at Woodbridge Pub, raise a glass to this guy, won’t you?
Seriously, how could you not love this face?