Ann Arbor Founding

By the 1820 census, the Michigan territory had a population of 8,896, an increase of 4,134 over the previous decade. Though this growth could hardly be characterized as of major significance, it indicated that the long-expected tide of settlers was beginning and would make Michigan in the next three decades one of the fastest growing areas in the country.

Who were these first settlers and why did they come? Many were born in America; others, immigrants who had lived sometime in the United States. They came mostly from New England and particularly upstate New York, though there was a scattering of settlers from the South and nearby Ohio. Most of them came to better themselves economically, to find good farm land and business opportunities. Some aggressive entrepreneurs saw the frontier as an area in which to make a large amount of money quickly in land speculation.

One of these entrepreneurs was John Allen, a young man of twenty-eight who stood over six feet tall, was “well-proportioned” and “physically a very grand specimen of a man.” He and Elisha Walker Rumsey were to be Ann Arbor’s founders. Allen was from an old, well-established, though not an aristrocratic Virginia family. He married well at age nineteen, but less than four years later found himself a widower with two children. Two years later he married a young widow, Ann Isabella McCue. John was cheerful, carefree, and adventuresome; Ann was religious, somewhat melancholy, and interested in security and the amenities of gracious living. John was ideally suited to be a pioneer; Ann was not. One other difference marked the couple: though both were native Virginians, Ann had great affection for the South and its values. John was not so inclined to cherish Virginia. Though a slave owner, he ultimately came to disapprove vigorously of this oppressive feature of southern society.

As was the case with so many pioneers, what persuaded Allen to seek a new future on the American frontier was largely economic necessity. Through faulty investment, his once prosperous father fell deeply into debt. John assumed much of the indebtedness but was unable to solve all the financial problems. In the fall of 1823, he left his home with a herd of cattle to sell in Baltimore. He never returned, and there is reason to believe he left unpaid debts. To recoup his losses, he hit upon the hardly novel scheme of using the cash he had on hand to found a town in the West and sell off lots for quick return. Success of such a scheme depended on the attractiveness of the site selected, its potential for future growth, and luck.

From Baltimore, John went to Buffalo, New York, a gateway town to the West. He stayed for two months looking for an associate before he moved on to Detroit in January 1824. Here he met Elisha Rumsey from Genesee County, New York. Though ten years older than Allen, he apparently was not the moving force behind the venture. Rumsey, from an old New England family, was on his second visit to Michigan when he met Allen. He, too, was escaping financial difficulties as well as gossip about his second wife, Mary Ann, with whom he lived before marriage.

After discussing prospects with Detroit leaders, Allen and Rumsey decided on the area west of Detroit. They took a one-horse sleigh and headed through February snow into the newly created county of Washtenaw. By the twelfth they had returned to Detroit to register their claims at the U. S. Land Office. Allen bought 480 acres for $600, Rumsey 160 acres for $200.

These speculators chose their site well, but what virtually assured the permanency of the town was a fortuitous political decision. The commissioners, appointed by Governor Cass to select a site for the county seat, chose Allen and Rumsey’s tract, and Cass supported their decision.

By March the first structure had been erected in the new town–“a good framed house” at the present-day site of Huron and First streets. The Rumseys lived there and entertained prospective land purchasers. The town plot was registered in Wayne County on May 25, 1824. The registration contains the earliest known use of the town’s unique name–Annarbour.” Much folklore has grown up about the name of the new town, but Russell Bidlack’s account in Ann Arbor’s First Lady (1999) makes clear that the “Ann” honors the wife of John Allen and “Arbor” refers to a grove of scattered oaks in an opening amid the heavily forested woods along the Huron River.