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Minute Book of Trustees of University of 1821 to 1837 Brought to Light

By Frank E. Robbin, Ph.D.

Assistant to the President of the University

Some months ago a much wanted historical document suddenly came to light. It had been, not actually lost, but certainly submerged, for a good many years.

The writer well remembers how he, together with the Associate Librarian, F. L. D. Goodrich, '03, frantically searched all the corners of the Library Building a year or two ago when Judge William A. Spill, '96l, of Pasadena, Secretary of the National Alumni Committee on University History and Traditions, was writing his articles on the beginnings of the University of Michigan which have since appeared in the Michigan History Magazine, and how at the same time the Assistant Secretary of the University, Herbert G. Watkins, '11, went over the Secretary's vault, with a vacuum cleaner, so to speak, in search of the records of the Trustees of the University of Michigan between 1821 and 1837. At that time we, had to report no success.

A day or two before Thanksgiving the writer, on the trail of old maps and plans of the Campus, conceived the idea that possibly there might be some in the possession of Mr. J.  Herman Greve, who is in charge of the inventory of all the University's lands and possessions. He did not find any plans but his elation may be imagined when Mr. Greve produced,  from the back shelves of a safe in his office, the old record book containing these long sought minutes. The front cover is unhinged, but the book is all there and from now on will occupy a place in the University's historical collection in the Rare Book Room of the Library. Photostatic copies of the records have also been made.

This old book must have passed through a good many adventures, some, but not all, of, which we can reconstruct. Pasted on its inside cover is a letter from Judge Charles I. Walker to Professor Andrew Ten Brook dated April 26, 1872, which reads as follows:

"The records of which you speak ought to be with those of the University and you may, if you please, so report them."

In the Regents' proceedings of October 4, 1842, is recorded the appointment of a committee of three to wait upon the old Board of Trustees of the University of Michigan and receive from them the papers, records, etc., "now in the hands of the Secretary of the old Board," presumably G. Mott Williams. There is no record of the receipt of these papers in the minutes of the meetings which immediately follow, but in the minutes of the meeting of March 26, 1858, we find this statement: "The committee on the University property in Detroit presented to the Board the original records of the University of the Territory of Michigan received from the Comptroller of the City of Detroit."  There is also, I believe, evidence elsewhere that the Trustees' minutes were in the hands of or accessible to the Regents in the interval. We may then perhaps imagine that between 1837 and 1858 the minutes of the Trustees were kept in Detroit and were brought to Ann Arbor in March, 1858.  Possibly Professor Ten Brook then ran across them and, to make sure that he understood exactly what they were, asked Judge Walker's opinion, which is given in the letter pasted on the cover of the book. Later in the same year, 1872, the book was added to the library and entered in its Accessions Book. It is not impossible, however, that the old book may have been at some time in the possession of Judge Walker himself for he owned a great many documents bearing upon the history of the State and presented a number of those which refer to the earliest period in the history of the University (1817-1821) to the University Library. In more recent years the Regents were called upon to execute certain papers relating to lands formerly in the possession of the University and these old records apparently were withdrawn from the Library for use in this connection. This doubtless explains how they happened to get into the custody of the inventory clerk who was keeping them quite safely, but did not realize their general historical importance.

This is not the place to reprint the old records or to give a complete summary of them.   Nevertheless, the University community will be interested to learn some of their more salient features. I do not suppose that their contents will be very surprising to anyone who has read, for example,  Mr. Spill's story. I shall content myself with giving a general account of the doings of the trustees and with quoting a few rather striking passages.

The record begins with a list of the trustees, in Mr. C. C. Trowbridge's handwriting and dated November 20, 1834. The original trustees were John Biddle, Nicholas Baldoin, (This name is given as Bolvin in the Act of April 30, 1821, as printed in Dr. L. L. Hubbard’s collection of laws and judicial decisions, etc., affecting the University) Daniel LeRoy, Christian Clemens, William H. Puthuff, John Anderson, John Hunt, Charles Larned, Gabriel Richard, John R. Williams, Solomon Sibley, John Monteith, Henry J. Hunt, John L. Leib,  Peter J. Desnoyers, Austin E. Wing, William Woodbridge, Benjamin Stead, Philip Lecuyer, and William Brown. (Mr. Anderson is spoken of as “of Monroe” the others were all Detroiters.) These were all appointed April 30, 1821, and against some of the names Mr. Trowbridge has placed certain remarks. Messrs. Baldoin, Puthuff, John Hunt, Larned, Richard, (Rev. Gabriel Richard died September 13, 1832.  The last meeting which he attended was that of October 30, 1820) H. J. Hunt, and Stead are noted as "dead" and Reverend John Monteith and Philip Lecuyer as "removed."   

The additions to the original Board as noted by Mr. Trowbridge are, first, Abram Edwards and Reverend Alanson W. Welton, appointed January 7, 1822,  in place of Messrs. Monteith and Stead. Mr. Welton declined the appointment. Major Thomas Rowland (Many of the Board had military titles, which are used in the minutes.) was made trustee in his place on January 14, 1822. On April 13, 1827, Major Jonathan Kearsley and Reverend Noah M.  Wells were appointed to the Board. Mr. Wells was not a member, however, in 1834. Other appointments noted by Mr. Trowbridge are those of Luther Humphrey, James Kingsley and Richard Berry.

Three others appear in the records as trustees and evidently became members of the Board after G. Mott Williams succeeded Mr. Trowbridge as Secretary, on February 13, 1835. They are John Norvell, Judge John McDonell and Ross Wilkins. The Secretaries of the Board were Lemuel Shattuck, between June 2 and December 3, 1821, Charles C. Trowbridge, from that time until February 13, 1835, and G. Mott Williams. The Treasurers were Abram Edwards, James Abbott, and DeGarmo Jones. The Governor was ex officio President and Chairman of the Board. Lewis Cass attended most of the meetings during his term of office. Stevens T. Mason, like-wise, as Acting Governor, attended a number of meetings and the name of Governor George B. Porter like-wise occurs in the pages of the old records recently unearthed.

In general, it may be remarked that at first the Trustees were much occupied with the management of the schools established under the regime of the "University of Michigania." (The minutes thus refer to the institution established in 1817, using quotations marks.) They gave much attention to the selection of teachers and the repair of the Academy Building in which the schools were operating. As time went on, however, their meetings are more and more devoted to the location and sale of the lands granted to the University by the Federal Government for its support, and toward the end it appears that their management of the schools amounted to little more than leasing the upper and lower rooms of the Academy Building, respectively, to persons who taught and managed the schools,  taking their salaries from the tuition fees. The earlier records show that the Trustees were much embarrassed by lack of money. The institution had debts which it could not at the time pay, even from the subscriptions which had been made.  After the sale of land began, however, funds were accumulated and the Trustees were able to turn over to the Board of Regents in 1937 a very tidy sum for those days.

The schools which were under the direction of the Trustees in the old Academy Building were two in number, the “Classical School” in the upper room, and on the lower floor what is at first referred to as the "Lancastrian School." The latter was a common or primary school of a type then somewhat in vogue, in which the older pupils helped with the instruction of the younger. When the Trustees came into office in 1821 Lemuel Shattuck was its teacher. He left, however, in December, 1821, and John Farmer succeeded him, continuing until January 1824. After that time the school is usually referred to as the "Common school" and perhaps the Lancastrians scheme was abandoned.   Ebenezer Shephard succeeded Mr. Farmer and a Mr. Cook from Albany, who died in 1827,  was the next teacher. At about this time the looser arrangement seems to have come in vogue and the schools became almost the private venture of those who taught them. The "Classical School" was at first in charge of Mr. Ebenezer Clapp, over whose reappointment in 1822 there seems to have been some dissension among the Trustees. At any rate,  he was succeeded in that year by Reverend Alanson W. Welton, who in turn was succeeded by Ashbel S. Wells, 1824-1826, and Charles C. Sears, 1826-1827.

In 1830 we hear of requests from the city of Detroit for the use of the rooms in the Academy Building for the establishment of common schools and in May,  1831, the use of the building was granted to the directors of common schools of Detroit.  In 1834, it was rented to John N.  Bellows and D. B. Crane, who were masters of the two schools therein. In 1836 the Reverend Mr. Elens took a lease of the upper room in order to conduct a classical school there. The building also was at times used for other purposes. The Baptist Society was allowed to occupy the lower room for six months in 1827 and St. Paul's church was allowed the use a part of the lot to erect a Sunday School building.

Aside from the building and lots in Detroit, the University during this period received two substantial grants of land. The treaty of Fort Meigs specified that six sections were to be set aside for St. Anne's Roman Catholic Parish in Detroit and "The College of Detroit," by which was meant the University of Michigan. The Act of Congress of March 26, 1804, set aside a township for the benefit of the seminary of learning which might be established in the district of Detroit and the Act of Congress of May 20, 1826, increased the grant from one to two townships. The Trustees went to a great deal of trouble, first to locate this land, and later on to place it on the market. The Fort Meigs land was their first care. Quit claim deeds were exchanged with St. Anne's Parish and in 1823, after Austin E. Wing and Philip Lecuyer had made a personal inspection,  tracts were located and later sales from it were made.   Messrs. Wing and Lecuyer end their report with the

Following statement:

"During the period of eighteen days which was spent by the committee in making their examination, they traveled over considerable portions of the countries watered by the north, west and southern branches of the River Rouge; the lower Huron from nearly its source almost to its mouth, and its tributary streams, together with a part of the River Raisin country; and they hesitate not to say that all classes of emigrants may be easily and well accommodated, and that nothing but gross misrepresentation or some strange and unforeseen fatality can obscure the cheering prospects, that Michigan's birthday of State Sovereignty will soon be celebrated."

This reflects the attitude in Michigan at the time. At first the territory was given a bad name. It was reputed to be swampy and unfit for human habitation.   Now it was coming into its own, largely because in the course of the War of 1812 people had come here and seen the land for themselves. Undoubtedly the Trustees, like all other good citizens, were what we would today call boosters. Their memorial to Congress (November 10, 1823) regarding the township granted by the Act of 1804 reflects somewhat the same spirit.  They speak of the reasons why the land had not hitherto been located: "The circumstances of the country have been peculiar; its population small, the ancient private land claims unsettled and illy defined. No surveys of the public lands have been made within the territory until since the late war, and until very recently no University has been established... The prospects of the territory are greatly changed. The fertility of its soil and the salubrity of its climate are no longer unknown. An University is now incorporated competent to receive, and capable of deriving benefit from the fund, and the great influx of emigrants from the interior of the union, now rapidly spreading over the surveyed parts of the territory, indicate (sic) the expediency of prompt measures in order to secure the benefit of a grant so creditable to the munificence, providence and parental kindness of the national government." The object of this memorial was to secure permission to locate the land in tracts less than a full township in size. It would have been difficult to discover whole townships free from settlers. This arrangement was eventually made and the Regents appointed in 1837 fell heir to many sections of land which had already been located by the Board of Trustees.

On October 29, 1824, the President of the Trustees,  General Cass, was appointed a committee to procure a seal and on April 30, 1825, the following resolution is recorded: "Resolved, That the seal procured by the President of the Board under the instructions and authority of the resolution of the 29th of October, 1824, now in the custody of the Secretary, and having upon it certain emblematic devices, and these words near the circumference, 'Seal of the University of Michigan,' shall be and the same is hereby declared to be the Seal of the said University." We find that this seal was bought of James O. Lewis for the sum of $25.  

It is quite evident that the Trustees anticipated the conclusion of their trust, as is shown by their appointment on May 5, 1837, of Messrs. Williams, Norvell and Wilkins to be a committee to report the condition of affairs of the Trustees of the University to the legislature at its next session "with the view of a final close of their trust," and as shown further by actions taken at the last meeting recorded in this book and by a very peculiar circumstance in connection with the record. According to the Trustees' minutes they met at the Secretary's office in Detroit on November 18, 1837, and passed a number of resolutions. A committee was appointed to examine and adjust the Treasurer's accounts and to invest the balance in some bank. The sum of $5,249.85, which was the proceeds of a land sale, was to be transferred to the Regents "of the (new) University of Michigan." Authority was given the President pro tempore to lease or otherwise grant the Academy lot to the Regents in order to establish a branch of the University in Detroit, reserving, however,  some space for an engine house for the Detroit Fire Department, and another resolution gave the President authority to lease to the city the ground reserved for the purposes of the Fire Department.

Finally, Ross Wilkins was appointed a committee to inform the Regents of the University of the doings of the Board of Trustees and the Secretary was directed to furnish copies of the resolutions to lay before the Regents. In the printed transactions of the Regents these resolutions will be found in the minutes of their own meeting, held on the same day, November 18, 1837, at the Capitol in Detroit. Curiously enough, however, in the Regents' record it is stated that the Trustee's meeting at which the resolutions were passed was held on March 17, 1837. The original records which I have consulted are very clear on both these dates. I can see no explanation of the discrepancy (unless it is simply a very gross, error) other than the supposition that the date of the Trustees' meeting was deliberately antedated and placed on March 17 because the "Organic Act," which called the Regents into existence, was dated March 18, 1837. The Trustees may have believed that resolutions passed by them on or after March 18 would not be valid. If this is the explanation it shows that there was a complete understanding between the two boards, for Governor Mason,  John Norvell, and Ross Wilkins were members of both boards. Mr. Trowbridge, the Treasurer of the first Board of Regents, had been for many years Secretary of the Trustees, and Major Kearsley, a Trustee, was very shortly appointed a Regent. Each board must have been quite cognizant of what the other had done and was doing and the antedating of the record must have been consented to by both bodies.  

Much of the story, of course, remains to be told. All these names are, prominent in the history of Detroit and of the State and each deserves its biography. The romance of the location of land in the Michigan wilderness and of land speculation has hardly been touched on, but perhaps with the aid of these casual jottings the reader can fill in the details from imagination.

The Michigan Alumnus

April 5, 1930 Page 463-477, 470