Grand Ledge Area Early Settlement

By Daniel Strange

From A Pioneer history of Eaton County  (1923. Reprinted 2017)

Grand Ledge

At the site of the present city of Grand Ledge Henry A. Trench was the early pioneer. He owned forty acres at the very heart of the city. He was sui generis. He was educated at Oberlin and was for many years township inspector of schools. He lectured in the log schoolhouses upon scientific subjects and occasionally wrote correct but brief articles for the public press but, beyond this, he had little idea of making his learning productive. He had a soldering iron and went about among the pioneers mending tin pans and was known as “Tinker Trench.” He was an idealist and appreciated his picturesque surroundings.

When Grand Ledge was becoming a village he said Nature had named it-the only ledge upon the Grand. Why not Grand Ledge as well as Grand Rapids? At a public meeting called to name the incoming post office, names of early settlers were proposed, but Reuben Wood said, “Let us give it a local name.” George Jones, always prompt upon his feet, made motion that it be called Grand Ledge. This was unanimously adopted. The question of who named Grand Ledge has been as perplexing a problem as, “Who struck Billy Patterson?” The above seems to divide the honors according to the facts.

Edmund Lamson was also an early settler and owned much of the land here. In the winter of 1848-49 the legislature granted right to John W. Russell and Abram Smith to dam Grand River at this point. David Taylor joined with them in building the dam and mill. This was later sold to Kent, Hixson & Co.

In 1859 Reuben Wood and Nathan Allen built the first store and put in a stock of goods on the north side, planning that there should be the business center. William Russell kept the first small grocery, also the first hotel.

The first bridge across the river was built in 1853 and the post office stablished in 1850 with Henry A. Trench postmaster. There was no mail route but villagers took turns in going for the mail. It was understood in Lansing that whoever brought the mail-bag was authorized to take the mail.

The original town of Grand Ledge was laid out October 28, 1853, and the village incorporated by act of legislature approved April 8, 1871.

Oneida Township

The second purchase of land from the government in Eaton County was from section 2 in Oneida in 1831. That section includes the north half of the City of Grand Ledge, the islands and the ledges. Perhaps the purchaser, H.. Mason, was a member of the surveying party, or learned of them, but the purchase did little good. It was sold for taxes four years later. Land in this township seemed exceptionally desirable as witnessed by four purchases in 1833, three in ’35 and eighty-five in 1836.

On the 5th of October, 1886, I said to my father, John Strange, “So far as we can learn, you are the only person living who had set foot in Oneida fifty years ago.” He was not the first settler but of land lookers, who afterward became settlers, he was of the first party. Others followed but a day later. He with his brother, George Strange, and Peter M. Kent (or Kind, as his father spelled the name) slept upon the ground under the canopy of heaven, upon section 34 which they chose the following day. Also on that day, October 6, 1836, they met in the forest six men from Canada who selected land and became the founders of Canada Settlement and neighbors for fifty years.

The first actual settler in Oneida was Solomon Russell; guided by Stephen Groger, the first settler in Eagle (the township next north) and a professional land looker, he cut his road ten miles through this limitless forest and landed his wife and small children in a shanty mid two feet of snow in January or February, 1837. His large family, except one daughter, have long since passed away and she can tell me nothing more of how he made this perilous trip or who assisted him. He afterward had two hired men, Robert Rix and Wm. Henry, who both became settlers in the vicinity. Perhaps, and I may say probably, they assisted in cutting this road, building the shanty and bringing
in the family. This probability is rendered almost certain by the further recorded fact that soon after this Mr. Russell fell upon his axe and was severely cut and was carried upon a litter back to Eagle. Indians may have carried him, but probably Rix and Henry. It is said that his incoming journey was by ox team from Orleans County, New York, through Canada and Oakland, Shiawassee and Clinton counties in Michigan. Two of his brothers were also early settlers here. William became the first grocer in Grand Ledge and John W. became a wealthy farmer just west of Grand Ledge. Their nephews also were early settlers here.

The second settler (and he deserves the same credit as the first for he believed himself alone in this limitless forest) was Samuel Preston who came in from the south, through Jackson and Springport when there were but nine houses between his place and Jackson. Robert Wheaton and Asa Fuller had cut their path through some twenty miles of forest from Bellevue and erected their shanties the previous October. Mr.
Preston followed their trail to their homes in Chester. There he left his wife and two small children while he hired these two neighbors to assist in cutting a road to his land eight miles further in. A friend had selected the land for him the previous fall. In a day and a half they reached the land. In a short time the shanty was erected and covered when he returned for his family and on the 4th of March, 1837, while Martin Van Buren was taking oath of office in Washington, Mr. Preston and family “settled” in a home without floor, door or window. Blankets were hung at these and they slept in assumed safety but upon pushing the blankets at the door aside in the morning a large wolf was seen smelling at the door and skulking away.

Mr. Preston had Indian neighbors but supposed there were no white settlers within eight miles until Mr. Groger stumbled upon him and told him of his neighbor Russell but one and a half miles away and added, “Six Canadians are slashing down timber to beat the oldest but two and a half miles east of you.” He was right. Three brothers named Nichols and three named Nixon had selected their land the October before and now returned to remain. On the last day of February, 1837, they arrived, built their shanty and slept in it the first night. Two of them returned to Canada in April to bring back oxen to log up the trees they had cut down. They all became prominent men in the county, State legislature, etc. The families of Preston and Nichols became united in marriage and their sons, grandsons and great grandsons are today prominent professional or business men in the cities of Grand Rapids, Ionia, Lansing and Detroit, and Los Angeles, California.

They credit the place of third settler to John Stanley who arrived with wife and family early in the spring. He sowed two bushels of spring wheat and from it harvested sixty bushels. They no longer doubted the fertility of the soil. Mr. Stanley was renowned
for his facility in getting lost. He once drove his cattle across Grand River where Lansing now is, twelve miles away, thinking he was driving them towards home. At another time he forded Grand River six times thinking all the time he was headed
toward home. His neighbors spent much time searching for him. He could not believe his pocket compass which would point in six directions in a half hour.

The venerable T. W. Nichols, “Uncle Walker”, arrived with the wives and families in June. His three grown sons had preceded him. His three younger sons came with him. George W. (later to become the best known of them all) was then fifteen and was delegated to drive the loose animals from Canada. Hiram, younger still, became a preacher and John Wesley, the youngest, became a prominent lawyer in Charlotte. Daughters innumerable married and settled round about.

School district No. 1 was soon organized here and Abigail Billings taught the first term. She was courted by, and married, Jason Nichols. They became parents of a family of teachers and of a prominent lawyer of Lansing who bears his father’s name.

The second term was taught by my mother, then a maiden, Emma 0. Sprague. I should not mention this fact except for an unusual pioneer incident. It was common for incoming pioneers to be housed in the schoolhouse while building a shanty if there was no school at the time but here was an unique case of housing a family and the school at the same time. It was easily managed. The family hid their dishes in a box and repaired to the forest before school hour where the husband cut trees and the wife piled the brush until noon. The teacher and pupils sat in the shade of the forest to eat their lunch while the wife prepared and ate lunch with her husband. Dishes were put away without washing and school again “took up”.

School district No. 3 was two miles further west. My mother taught the first school there. One winter there was no school when Edward McMullen arrived with his numerous family. They occupied the schoolhouse. He had but fifty cents upon arrival here but Irishman-like he purchased with it a pig; not for the parlor but kept it in a hollow log securely fastened at the ends, but a knot hole at the top served for feeding place. After a light snow, bear’s tracks were often seen around this log and upon its top where bruin had smelled the pig beyond his reach. One morning bruin left his tracks upon the window sill where he had evidently smelled the Irish fry within.

This story of the early settlement of South Oneida has often been written and published but of North Oneida I find no written record. Suffice it to say that in the northwest four brothers named Johnson settled in a very early day and gave it the name of Johnson Settlement which it will doubtless ever bear. Their school
district is No. 2 and of course numbered quite early. Truman and Orange Johnson both became, much later, merchants in Grand Ledge. Smith and Morris Johnson remained, I think, upon their farms well known and esteemed. Four other brothers named Jones, later settled in this neighborhood and reared large families, Washington, Simeon, Charles and Bradford were their respective names. The latter became the father of J. V. Jones, a teacher of much local renown, an exceedingly bright and apt teacher. Had he acquired a college education combined with energy he might have become
a foremost teacher in the State.

In 1844, Eric Sutherland arrived from New York with his large family of grown children, having driven a team all the way. His grandchildren and great grand and great, great grandchildren have become very numerous in town. His oldest son Elihu had visited
Oneida in 1842, but came to settle in 1845. In 1847, when the capital was located in Lansing he took contract to clear trees from Washington avenue, there then being but one house in Lansing. He also helped get out the timber for the old State Capitol. His grain market was at Marshall or Jackson fifty miles away. He started to name his eight children all with initial E, Emory, Emily, Elmer, Emerson, Ella C., etc.

East of these was settled Philander Parmenter, accidentally shot and killed while hunting deer. At the corner east was George W. Jones who with his brother-in-law, L. H. Ion, was often honored with public office; and near him William Henry, who became the wealthiest farmer in the township, and Amadon Aldrich known far and near for his numerous family of sons and daughters. South of these and nearer Oneida Center were Peter Cole, Peter Blasier and Van Alstine. Mrs. Van Alstine lived to be the last survivor of the early pioneers. Toward the southwest were Ambrose Preston, Henry Earl and Benjamin Carr. At the west Rufus Lovel, Lucius Benson and Dr. Lamb. Hixson, Eddy and Bailey were also early settlers.

The Township of Oneida was organized by act of legislature, approved March 6, 1838, to include the northeast one-fourth of Eaton County, “and the first election shall be at the house of T. W. Nichols.” On March 9, 1843, this was divided and Delta and Windsor were formed. A year later the township was again divided and Benton created, first called Tom Benton for the distinguished U. S. Senator.

The early officers were, of course, chosen from the larger field. Supervisor, A. Hayden; Town Clerk, J. H. Nichols; Assessors, Samuel Preston, John Slater and T. W. Nichols. Four of the Ingersols from Delta Mills were elected to offices at this first election. Subsequent supervisors in Oneida, T. W. Nichols, Erastus Fisher, George Jones, Ephriam Stockwell, L. H. Ion, Smith Johnson. Some of these were several times elected. According to the first State census, 1844, there were at that time fifty-three resident taxpayers in Oneida.

Of early incidents, typical of all pioneer life in Michigan, Robert Starks, one of the earliest settlers, had a wolf trap dragged away by a bear for several miles but he was easily trailed and finally killed.

Mrs. Samuel Preston, while alone with her small children in their rude shanty, had a recently killed pig hung in a small lean-to against the shanty. She was surprised by the ever silent Indians, three of whom suddenly stood beside her and demanded meat. She shook her head, having none to spare. They replied, “Smokeman (that is white man) kill pig.” She explained she needed it for her papooses, pointing to them. Finally their spokesman replied, “Me get it.” and started for the outside entrance. She ran before him and placing her back against the door defended the meat and the Indians departed. That she then fainted deponent saith not. Her son, Horace Preston, born
that first season, 1837, was the first child born between the Thornapple and the Grand River. (Pioneers would say first white child, for they counted Indians as neighbors.) When this child was a few months old Mrs. Preston spent the night with a sick neighbor a few miles away and at morn started for home with the babe upon her arm. She became lost in the forest and wandered nearly the whole day with the babe upon her arm which was partially paralyzed for several weeks.

When my older sister was but one week old and mother still in bed, they heard commotion at the hog pen. The nurse (hired girl they called them then) ran out and saw a bear biting and mauling a pig toward the forest. She ran to the nearest neighbor, a widow with daughters. They came and pounded on the fence and scared bruin away. When my father and his brother Charles returned home they found the hog must be killed, but they set a “dead-fall” and baited it awaiting the bear’s return. The next day they were rewarded by hearing a terrific bawling or howling and there was bruin with three immense pegs driven through him. Uncle Charles crushed his skull with the axe-poll and silence ensued. When Mark Twain was shown Adam’s grave in a cave, he said he knew it was Adam’s for he reached in with a long pole and felt the skeleton. I know the above is true for that bear’s skull was a favorite toy of my childhood.