Cheboygan County MI Genealogy

MIGenWeb logo Cheboygan banner USGenWeb logo

A Brief History of
Cheboygan County

Beautiful Cheboygan County is located at the "top of the mitt" and is bordered on the west by Emmet County, on the east by Presque Isle County and directly north by Lake Huron. Cheboygan County and its county seat take their name from the Indian word meaning "the river that comes out of the ground," which they first applied to the Cheboygan River.

Prior to European exploration, the region was inhabited by the Chippewa (Ojibwa) Indians who relied on the Inland Water Route ~ connecting waterways in northern Michigan which served as natural highways. This route circumvented the often perilous journey around lower Michigan's northern tip through the open waters of Lake Michigan. In addition to using waterways, the Indians made many journeys on foot, developing paths or trails to hunting areas, seasonal fishing grounds, and neighboring villages. The Saginaw and Mackinaw Trails looped through Emmet and Cheboygan Counties. Off these main trails were several lesser trails heavily used for trading between villages and later for trade with French furriers. When homesteaders arrived in the area, they adopted those Indian trails for their own use. Many of the modern roads that we travel today, such as US-23, US-31, M-131 and I-75 were once paths used by the original inhabitants.

In the mid 1600s, French explorers became the first recorded white men in the Cheboygan area. In much the same manner as the Chippewa, early French explorers also made extensive use of the Inland Water Route for travel. Having crossed an ocean to reach Canada, where they first settled, the French were well aware of the value of lands bounded by waterways. Their desire to claim new lands for France and their search for wealth led them to Michigan in 1634. Once the French discovered the wealth that abounded in the region and word got out, it wasn't long before the area's population began to swell...

The initial cause for much of what transpired in northern Michigan in the 1700s and 1800s was due primarily to the (then) fashionable beaver. Thousands of Europeans flocked to the shores and surrounding ponds and lakes to buy all the beaver skins that could be purchased from the local Indians. At that time in fashion-conscious circles, no proper man would step out on the street without his top hat, and beaver skin was the desired material. Of course, a correct man would have a hat that matched the rest of his fine apparel and as such, several beaver hats would be required. It was the market driven by this insatiable desire that drove the fur trading industry of the Great Lakes area. First exploited by the French, then the British and finally the Americans, the beaver was hunted to near extinction for that fabulous fashion statement the men of that time had to have.

Woodsmen called coureurs de bois moved into the forest to trade with and live among the Indians. The traders received furs from the Indians far in excess of the value of the goods they offered in exchange. For example, woolen and cotton goods, kettles, guns and ammunition, paints, beads, liquor, hardware and combs were traded for valuable furs. In Andrew J. Blackbird's, "History of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of Michigan," he tells of his people receiving a "few yards of flimsy cloth" for pelts which had a monetary value of several hundred dollars.1

It wasn't only the beaver. Muskrat, raccoon, deer, otter, mink, fox, and bobcat also abounded in vast forests and undisturbed shorelines of the many lakes, streams and rivers of Michigan. The resourceful French quickly realized the monetary value of these animals and laid the groundwork for a massive fur trading business. The success of early French in trapping and selling furs opened a market in which many people sought the opportunity to gain financially. Consequently, the fur trade spread rapidly throughout the Great Lakes States. Indians brought furs to forts to trade and these stockades became the foundation for interior fur trade. With those first French explorers and traders came the Army to see that the trade routes were kept open and products continued to flow.

Thus in 1715, Fort Michilimackinac was built at what is now Mackinaw City. Primarily a trading post, Fort Michilimackinac was nonetheless a military fort with its detachment of infantry lead by a Post Commandant. In fact, throughout the French (1715-1761) and British (1761-1781) regimes, the Post Commandant implemented imperial policy at Michilimackinac and the upper Great Lakes. He regulated fur trading activities, negotiated with Indian nations, and organized war parties of regular troops, militia, and Indians to fight on distant battlefields.

In 1808, Northern lower Michigan boasted its own fur enterprise, the American Fur Company, established in 1808 by John Jacob Astor. It was located on Mackinac Island and employed 2,000 voyageurs (trappers and buyers of pelts) and 400 clerks during summer months. The peak of the Mackinac fur industry came in 1822 when $3,000,000 worth of pelts were handled by the company.

As the number of forts established for trading increased, Indians, voyageurs and coureurs de bois expanded trapping, heavy predation took its toll on the fur-bearing animal population. Trappers did not leave behind enough animal pairs to continue populations, as the Indians did when hunting beaver. Indeed, many trappers viewed nature's resources as unlimited. In 1827, the supply of fur bearing animals had severely declined and incoming settlers were pushing out the Indians and destroying the forest. Only 17 years after it had been established, John Jacob Astor's fur company was forced to sell out.

The decline of the fur trade also forced the coureurs de bois and Indians to seek a new means of livelihood. Because of their previous experience with the woodsman's way of life, many of them were well-suited to adapt to the beginning lumber industry. At this time, railroads had not reached the north, and valuable stands of virgin white pine, beech, maple, hemlock and oak filled the forest.

Important for the history of northern Michigan was the creation in 1818 of Michilimackinac County. Michilimackinac, which eventually would become known as Mackinac County, took responsibility for the northern two-thirds of the lower peninsula as well as the eastern half of the upper peninsula. At that time, the current-day Cheboygan County became part of Mackinac County.

Cheboygan County was created on 1 April 1840 from Michilimackinac County but remained unorganized and attached for administrative purposes until January 29, 1853.2 The first county seat was Duncan (1853-1857) then Cheboygan (1857-present). It encompasses 720 square miles and its estimated 1988 population stood at 21,435.

From 1841 to 1971 the federal government made land available for $1.25 an acre. Many land grants were made to railroad companies to encourage routes into the forests, thus making new territory accessible for settlement. Some of this land was labeled "swamp" but was, in fact, valuable pine land. Timber cruisers were sent by private investors and speculators to this area to survey and select parcels of the most valuable land for purchasing. These men combed the forest on foot to estimate the yield of timber tracts and assess available river facilities for log drives. These figures were then put into detailed reports for the investors.

Settlers did not arrive until 1844. The first European settler of Cheboygan County is widely held to be Jacob Sammons, a cooper (barrel maker) from Mackinac Island. In 1844, he built a shanty near where the State Street Bridge now stands. In 1848, he was issued the first conveyance of land within the present day boundaries of the City of Cheboygan. Sammons filed Cheboygan's first plat in 1851 which contained 45 lots that were designated, "Original Plat of Cheboygan." (See all of his patents here.)

Some of the early pioneers of Cheboygan County were: John Vincent, Moses Wiggins Horne, Lorenzo Backus, R.N. Stephenson, Peter McKinley, Anson Delmadge, Alonzo Cheesman, Stephan Winchell, and the Fisher family.

In 1846, a post office had been established in the village of Cheboygan with Ronald McLeod serving as the first postmaster. Situated on the west bank of the Cheboygan River near its entrance into Lake Huron, it was known as the Duncan post office and was on the Saginaw and Sault Ste. Marie mail route. The name was properly changed to Cheboygan in 1870.

Alexander McLeod, a resident of Mackinac Island, initially built a cabin near the river at what is now Water Street, but later constructed a dam, water powered sawmill and settlement at the southern point of Duncan Bay. McLeod’s second settlement was to become Duncan City, one of the “busiest towns on the Great Lakes.”

That part of Emmet County north of the line between Townships 36 and 37 north, and embraced by Range 4 west, was originally a part of the unorganized county of Cheboygan, and was attached to Emmet County when Cheboygan County was organized in 1858. (Michigan's county boundaries were last changed in 1897.)

The county's growth was slow until the first sawmill was built in the 1846. Previously, all work and transport was done by hand. With the sawmill came a lumbering boom that tripled the population within ten years. The heyday of Michigan's logging lasted six decades, from 1840 to 1900. Railroads reaching the north gave lumberjacks and lumber barons the boon they needed.Cheboygan and Duncan City became “paper towns” with their principal industries related to lumber and shipping. White pine was considered the choicest lumber, and initially was all that was logged. Generally, Michigan's white pine was from 15 to 30 inches in diameter and approximately 70 to 160 years old, but smaller trees were also cut. Trees less than 8 inches in diameter were considered worthless.

In 1866, Cheboygan became a port. The federal government came in and dredged the Cheboygan River to about 16 feet deep and about 200 feet wide. This took away trade, and consequently importance, from a tiny city called Duncan City, which was a lumbering town in its own right. It also, in effect, sealed that city's fate ~ its future demise. Although Duncan City was larger and more important than Cheboygan, both places were “flourishing lumbering meccas” until the early 20th Century. Today, Duncan City no longer exists.

Cheboygan County developed into one of the important regional lumbering centers of Michigan. By the latter half of the 1800's, mail and other traffic was being carried by boat from Cheboygan to the west end of Crooked Lake near Petoskey via these lakes and their interconnecting waterways.

During the logging era, many homesteaders came to Michigan's north and began farming. In 1875, land was offered to individuals in 80-ace parcels; Civil War veterans were entitled to 160 acres. Many early settlers, however, found the woods more of a challenge than they expected. Local towns had little to offer in the way of employment to complement homesteaders' meager farm yields. The homesteaders often wore burlap bags for clothing and came to towns only sporadically. Town residents called them "mossbacks." The winter of 1875-76 was a rugged one and many homesteaders had to accept food and supplies in the form of state aid.

With the northward thrust of the Michigan Central Railroad into Cheboygan County, other interior communities such as Topinabee and Wolverine were created in 1881 as rail stations.

When the last of the white pine fell under axe and saw, the lumbering industry turned to other trees in the area. Ash, elm, maple, cedar, hemlock, spruce and birch were felled as well as smaller red and white pines that had been previously ignored. Finally, between 1900 and 1910, most of the desirable conifers and hardwood stands were depleted and the lumbering industry began its final decline.

Many people in the region were plunged into poverty. Barren, stump-covered fields were left as a reminder of a flourishing economy that was based, once again, on the philosophy of an "endless" natural resource. A handbook for travelers in 1898 describes a lumbered area north of Cadillac which would have appeared the same as parts of Emmet and Cheboygan Counties:

"For miles and miles this desolate wilderness of stumps stretches on either side with gaunt, bare pine 'stubs' sprinkled among them and decaying logs scattered in wild confusion everywhere. The stubby undergrowth of oak and poplar adds to, rather than relieves, the desolateness."

Tourism brought Cheboygan County back around. As the number of vacationers increased, hotels and small resorts began appearing along the Inland Water Route. These hotels often had their own docks and steamboats for guest transportation. A raised flag on a hotel dock signaled the steamboat captain to stop either for freight or passengers. Guests could also charter smaller boats which were hauled by the steamboats to favorite fishing holes on Crooked or Pickerel Lakes. Later the steamer would pick the boats up and return to the hotel.

During these times, hotel customs were far different than they are today. Guests often boarded for entire summers. All meals were served on the premises "American style." Daytime pursuits of visitors included croquet, badminton, cards and bicycling. Generally evenings were spent at the hotels mixing with other guests or participating in planned social events. Hotels just after the turn of the century had their own gardens, horses, and wagons.

Today, Cheboygan County's active tourist industry provides ample opportunity for visiting historic sites, and summer or winter outdoor activities. The Cheboygan County Courthouse and Newton-Allaire House in Cheboygan, and the Mackinac Point Lighthouse and Forrest J. Stimpson House in Mackinaw City are all included in the National Register of Historic Places. Several scenic drives in Cheboygan County offer such diverse scenery from the beautiful shoreline of Lake Huron and the Straits of Mackinac to the shorelines of many inland lakes and rivers and large tracts of state forestlands. Of course, the southern terminus of Mighty Mac, supporting the only road link to Michigan's Upper Peninsula must also be included in the available sites.

One hardly notices the pavement while driving along a modern highway in Cheboygan County today. Most drivers would not remember when it was an unpaved gravel road. However, their parents might recall the days when it was only a two-track road traveled by horse-drawn wagons and early automobiles. To recollect an era when the highway was a wilderness trail trampled by work boots or even moccasins would probably take one's grandfather or great-grandfather a moment's reflection.

1 "History of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of Michigan; and grammar of their language" by Andrew J. Blackbird (1887).

2 For all legal, judicial, and taxation purposes, the set off county was "attached" to and legally part of an already organized county. Counties could remain set off for long periods, often fifteen or twenty years, during which time the legislature might repeatedly detach the set off county from one organized county and reattach it to another. Eventually, the residents of the set off county would petition the legislature for "organization," that is the granting of full legal recognition to the county. A referendum election was held and, assuming a majority of those who voted approved, the legislature would pass the necessary act to officially organize the county.

This Page Was Last Updated Saturday, 03-Mar-2012 12:37:35 MST

Please send Cheboygan County contributions or report any broken links to:

Copyright 2004- by Deb Haines/MIGenWeb Project. All rights reserved.
Copyright of submitted items belongs to those responsible for their authorship or creation unless otherwise assigned.