The year 1836 was a momentous one for Genesee County, with the creation of the county itself and three townships—Argentine, Atlas, and Flint Townships. In addition, scattered settlements cropped up all over the area we now know as Genesee County. Roads were built, timber was cleared, and fledgling governments were started. To commemorate the county’s 180th “birthday,” we decided to take a look back nearly two centuries ago.
While the area had been inhabited for centuries by the Chippewa Tribe, settlers of European extraction from Canada and the eastern seaboard had been here for a scant 17 years in 1836. In 1819, Canadian immigrant Jacob Smith built the first trading post on the Flint River. In Smith’s time, most land surveyors considered the Great Lakes peninsula too swampy and heavily wooded to be settled. But the bountiful land, with fur and game animals like beaver, fox, weasel, muskrat, deer, bear, wild turkey, rabbit, squirrel, and groundhog, beckoned with its abundance.
The Flint River was pure then, its fish good for eating. Maple syrup could be tapped from trees, and honey collected from beehives. Berries and wild grapes grew rampantly, and hickory, walnut, and hazelnut trees yielded nuts. The thick forests, instead of being an impediment, provided timber for homes and eventually gave rise to a thriving logging industry. By the time of the county’s inception, 2,800 settlers already lived there, including “Uncle” John Todd and his wife, “Aunt” Polly, who owned the first tavern.
Though it would be nearly two decades until the birth of the city itself, these settlers had begun to establish themselves. There was a schoolhouse, started two years earlier, with a dozen pupils taught by one Daniel Sullivan, who earned 10 cents a week. Sources say that he was chosen as schoolmaster because he was the most well-read man in the community. He held classes in a little log cabin in the Flint River settlement, one of several small “villages” that existed in and around the area that is now downtown Flint. Another school was held in the home of Lewis Buckingham, who became the first sheriff of Genesee County in August of 1836. There, a teacher named Sarah Curtis taught 10 pupils. A standalone school was built over the 1836-37 winter, and the schoolmistress was Hannah Hoyes.
Sheriff Buckingham was an outspoken advocate of the abolition of slavery and a devout Christian, eventually worshipping at the Court Street United Methodist Church, which also celebrates an anniversary this year—its 175th. It is said that he was a plainspoken, authentic man who commanded respect whether or not one liked him. In addition to classes, Methodist meetings took place in his home, and the Reverend William Brockway of the Saginaw Mission preached there and later had regular worship services in settler Wait Beach’s barroom. In 1836, nine citizens founded the Flint River Mission, the precursor to the church, on the upper floor of a store on the corner of Mill Street and Saginaw Street near the present downtown.
It was also at this store that the founders of Genesee County gathered on October 4, 1836 to set the formation of the county in motion. Now razed, with the aforementioned corner part of the University of Michigan-Flint campus, it was the first store built in Flint, in a large frame building owned by merchant and tanner Ira D. Wright and his business partner, Robert Stage. Daniel Seeley, another early settler, had a tailoring business upstairs where the religious services were held. Legal proceedings also took place on the upper floor. Robert Stage was, according to some accounts, an accomplished folk violinist who got people dancing, a popular pastime in Genesee County’s early days; one can only imagine the building shaking with the merry stomping of feet in time to the fiddle.
Business owners like Stage, Wright, Seeley, and Todd conducted business quite differently back then. Customers would barter for goods and services. We have no records of such transactions, but imagine being a farmer and trading a bushel of wheat to Daniel Seeley in exchange for a well-made, bespoke Sunday outfit. Genesee County’s earliest economy was built on this kind of bartering, but that was soon to change. In 1837, Michigan passed a banking act giving all people the ability to claim they were bankers—as long as they had enough gold or silver stashed away to back up their printed currency. However, in the county’s first “recycling” scheme, which was both ingenious and devious, the gold and silver ended up going from bank to bank when the inspector came around. Thus, the notes were unsecured and became known as “wild-cat currency.” Ironically, some of those antique bogus bills are now commanding $200 or more on eBay.
The day of the founders’ meeting, still a few months before that bill was passed, the town leaders convened as Seeley worked around them. At that first gathering they established a county court, determined where the courthouse and public square would be, and decided to build a jail with the upper story used as the courtroom. It took several years for these plans to become a reality, but it was from these conversations that Flint began to evolve into the city that it is today. And on the outskirts of those first core settlements, the townships also began to grow.
Flint Township took up most of the territory immediately surrounding Flint; it was later broken up into Clayton, Flushing, Montrose, Vienna, Mount Morris, Thetford, Genesee, and Burton Townships with a westerly portion of it remaining Flint Township. By the end of 1836, Flint Township’s road commissioners, James W. Cronk and R.J. Gilman, had established 18 roads in Genesee County. The first 10 roads were Frances, Potter, Beecher, Linden, Stanley, Mount Morris, Bristol, Center, and Hemphill Roads—all of which still exist. That same year, a settler from New York, Adam Miller, traveled through Flint on an Indian trail that had existed for many years. Miller and his large family became the first settlers in what would later be called Clayton Township near Swartz Creek. That trail led from Flint to the family’s farm, so it eventually was given the name “Miller Road.”
The settlement of both Argentine and Atlas was driven by the gristmills that served the population, and the mill from Atlas, built in 1836, is now part of Crossroads Village. This was also the year that the Goodrich family settled in the village near Atlas Township that is still known by their name. Atlas Township had grown so much by 1836 that residents decided there were enough people to hold a town meeting—and a group of 24 showed up.
Meanwhile, the county’s borders were morphing, and sparsely populated areas were starting to fill up. That year, a Virginia transplant named Thomas L. Brent bought most of the land in Richfield Township, which was then part of Lapeer County. Other townships progressed more slowly; though Gaines Township was also first settled in 1836, only two families, the Cargills and the Fletchers, lived there for several years. Forest Township also developed at a more leisurely pace, because it was covered with dense woodlands. As with Gaines, only two families, the Seymours and the Heisters, lived in Forest Township by the end of 1836.
It took years for the county to take its present shape, but if there is one quality that the people of the Flint area from ancient times to the present seem always to have had, it’s perseverance—a hardy strength like the mineral that gives the town its name. The denseness of the woods, and the capricious nature of the weather, especially in winter, have never been for the faint of heart. Perhaps these qualities bring out the stubborn will of people. Throughout the struggle to become established and lawful, the decades-long boom and bust cycle of both timber and auto industry, and the current water crisis, the spirit of fortitude has remained. Throughout the ups and downs of Flint’s history, there have always been those people who have never given up. From 1836 to 2016, they’re the reason we celebrate.
Information for this story was gathered from the following sources: Historic Michigan, Land of the Great Lakes, Vol. 3: An Account of Flint and Genesee County from Their Organization by William V. Smith; The Early Social Life of Flint by E.L. Bangs from the Book of the Golden Jubilee of Flint, 1855-1905; History of Genesee County, Michigan: Her People, Industries and Institutions by Edwin Orin Wood; History of Genesee County, Michigan with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Prominent Men and Pioneers by Franklin Ellis, and Through the Years in Genesee: An Illustrated History by Alice Lethbridge. Thanks to the Flint Public Library Reference Department for materials and direction. All map imagery provided by the Library of Congress.