By Hon. C. D. Little of Saginaw

Oliver Williams was born in Concord, Mass., in 1774. In 1808 he visited Detroit, and after prospecting for a time returned to Concord. He visited Detroit again in 1809 and remained until 1811, when he concluded to engage in the mercantile trade. He proceeded to Boston and procured a general assortment of merchandise of the value of ten thousand dollars. Alpheus Williams, a brother-in-law of Oliver, became his endorser for the purchase at Boston. I mention this incident as the connecting inducement which at a later period was the means of bringing Alpheus Williams to the territory of Michigan. While these goods were being transported from Buffalo to Detroit they were seized by the British government, Mr. Williams made a prisoner and conveyed to Halifax. After being confined a prisoner at Halifax for a number of months he was released, and returned to Detroit. Oliver Williams did not remove his family – which consisted of four sons and four daughters – until the year 1815.

Oliver Williams, being a man of strict integrity, determined that his brother-in-law should lose nothing by his endorsement for him, and though he had lost everything, he told Alpheus he could and would, if life and health were spared for a few years, accumulate enough to pay every dollar of the ten thousand. With this honest purpose in view, in a new country, he commenced the herculean task of raising ten thousand dollars. This, with a large family to support, the oldest only thirteen years of age, would have disheartened most men, but not Mr. Williams. By strict economy and untiring zeal he succeeded, and in a few years paid every dollar.

The sons and daughters of this man are well remembered by the old settlers of Northern Michigan, and have been prominently instrumental in developing its resources. Ephriam S., better known as Major Williams, is now a resident of Flint; Gardner D. Became a resident of Saginaw City, and died in 1858; Alfred and Benjamin O. Are residents of Owosso; Mary Ann, who married Schuyler Hodges, is now a resident of Pontiac, while Alpheus and Harriet - now Mrs. Rogers - are residing in California.

In 1815 Oliver induced Alpheus to remove from Concord to Detroit and this brings me to the subject of this sketch, Harvey Williams, oldest son of Alpheus Williams, better known throughout Saginaw valley as “Uncle Harvey.” He was one of the oldest, if not the oldest, of the Yankee pioneers to Detroit now living; he came with his mother to that city in 1815.

From Concord, Mass., to Buffalo, N. Y., the journey was accomplished by wagon; from Buffalo to the mouth of Detroit river on a schooner of 40 tons burthen, called the “Salem Packet;” the master or captain was Eber Ward, father of Captain Eber Ward, now of Detroit. It required thirteen days to accomplish the trip from Buffalo to Detroit river. At this point the packet was detained by contrary winds, and Mr. Williams’ father chartered a cart and had his goods carted to Windsor, opposite Detroit, from which point they were ferried over in a “dug out.” Moving in those days was a rough experience. Mr. Williams paid fifteen dollars each for passage to Detroit, and five dollars per barrel - bulk- for the goods.

At this time Benjamin Woodworth kept the aristocratic tavern in Detroit. It was not a very extensive establishment, but was enlarged from time to time until, under the good management of “Uncle Ben,” it obtained a wide reputation as “Uncle Ben Woodworth’s Steamboat Hotel,” and for years was the headquarters of steamboat men after steamer commenced running on the lakes. It was located on Woodbride street, immediately in the rear of where the Fireman’s Hall now stands. Oliver Williams kept a taavern of less pretensions on Jefferson avenue, under “the old elm tree,” and another tavern was kept by the father of the late Judge C. W. Whipple down near the Cass farm. These were the hotel accommodations of that period of the village of Detroit, then containing about one thousand inhabitants. “Emerson, Mack & Conant” was the leading mercantile house in Detroit at that time; the firm was composed of Thomas Emerson, father of Curtis Emerson, Esq., of East Saginaw, Stephen Mack, and Shubael Conant; they kept a general assortment of dry goods, groceries, crockery and hardware. Henry I. Hunt, Abel May, Edward and John S. Krebel were also selling goods, but did not carry as heavy stocks as Emerson, Mack & Conant. All of these merchants were in the habit of issuing what they called “shin-plasters,” and they passed it as the “legal tender” of the country.

James Abbott was the agent of the American Fur Company, who had their “headquarters” for the west at Detroit; Abbott was also post master. The mails from the east were very irregular and arrived only semi-occasionally. It often required four weeks or more for a letter from New England to reach Detroit, and the postage thereon was twenty five cents.

Gen. Lewis Cass, Messrs, Larned, Ten Eyck, Wetherell, Forsyth, John and Thomas Palmer, and Judge Woodward, who afterwards made the plat of the city, were among the then prominent men of the Territory.

In the same year - 1815- Uncle Harvey commenced blacksmithing on the ground where the Russell House now stands, making steel traps, axes, and doing irregular custom work for the inhabitants; there was but one other shop of the kind in Detroit, which was owned by a French man named Peltier.

Uncle Harvey’s business increased rapidly; he soon added a small furnace to his shop and commenced casting plows; when his business increased so that he cast three plows a day, the fact was published as an evidence of the “great progress of Detroit was making in her manufacturies.”

The coal used for melting the iron was charcoal, and the blowing was done by a single horse. Mr. William’s business grew from year to year, until it attained to $100,000 annually. He purchased , set up, and used the first stationary steam engine ever used in the territory of Michigan; he built for J. K. Dow and C. C. Trowbridge the first steam engine for the first steam mills in Michigan, and his last work in his shop in Detroit was the building of the two steam engines for the old steamboat Michigan.

Mr. Williams changed his location twice while in Detroit. He removed from the Russell house lot to the grounds now occupied by the D. & M. R. R. Co., and from that point to the triangular lot on Cass street, Jefferson avenue, and Woodbridge; here he purchased one hundred and five feet front for one hundred and five dollars. Mr. Williams informs me that the first circus performance ever given in Michigan, and which he considers the best, was in the middle of the street between where the Biddle house now stands and the old jail that stood on the north side of Jefferson avenue, opposite the Biddle house. 

Mr. Williams furnished all the iron work for the first substantial jail that was built in Michigan, and has now in his possession the contract by which was furnished to him the iron –forty tons, at seventeen cents per pound. He did the iron work on the first Presbyterian church, erected on the corner of Woodward avenue and Larned street in 1818, and also the French Catholic church, which was commenced the same year. With is stationary engine he pumped the water for the citizens of Detroit. The reservoir was located on Fort street west, between the former residence of Gov. Baldwin and the City Hall; and it is a fact worthy of note that a three inch pipe was of sufficient capacity to furnish all the water used at the time. The city paid Mr. Williams $500 per annum for the pumping.

Late in the fall of 1842, Major Whiting was desirous of getting supplies through to the troops then stationed at Saginaw City. Knowing the determination and indefatigable perseverance of Uncle Harvey, he approached him on the subject. With reluctance, after much persuasion, he consented to make the trial. Calling to his assistance the late John Hamilton of Genesee county, the journey was undertaken and accomplished. With eight days’ labor they succeeded in carrying four tons of supplies from Detroit to Saginaw. In performing this they were obliged to ford the Clinton river five times; the Thread, Cass and Flint rivers, as well as the Pine and the Elm, had to be forded. Fortunate was it for the poor soldiers that they were successful, for when the supplies arrived they were almost famished, having been without rations for two days previous to Uncle Harvey’s arrival. I have mentioned this incident for the reason that it was from conversations with the officers at this time that he formed the opinion that at some future time Saginaw would become one of the important points in Michigan. For twelve succeeding years Mr. Williams thought much of Saginaw; but not until 1834 did he see his way clear or the inducements sufficient to tempt him, with all his courage, to try living in a wilderness forty miles from civilization. On arrival in Saginaw his first labor was the erection of a steam saw mill, which was located at the back of Merrimac street in Saginaw City, and will be remembered as the G. D. & E. F. Williams’ mill, and was the first steam mill erected in the Saginaw valley. Afterward a run of stone was added to the mill, and used for grinding corn. In 1836 and ‘37, Mr. Williams built the steam saw mill which for a number of years was called the Emerson mill, and stood on the grounds now occupied by the East Saginaw gas company. This was the mill of its day. This mill was run by H. Williams till the disastrous crash of 1837. Those of the Saginaw pioneers still living remember the result of that crash. The panic of last September pales into insignificance in comparison with it. Hundreds of mechanics and laboring men, who had all the work they could do at the highest wages ever paid, were suddenly thrown out of employment; employers who considered themselves millionaires were reduced to laboring men, and paper currency, which was up to this time considered as “good as gold,” became worthless and could not be sold for a dollar a bushel in specie. The result was that those who could, “went through the woods” - a familiar expression used in taking the Indian trail to Flint, which was the only road out of Saginaw at that time. The place became almost depopulated. This was a time that “tried men’s souls,” but Uncle Harvey’s faith in the ultimate prosperity of Saginaw was not shaken, and though he went down in the general crash he did not become dishonored, but with that heroism and stamina still characteristic of him, determined “never to give up” till he had realized the fruition of his hopes in seeing the Saginaw valley what it now is, one of the most populous and prosperous portions of Michigan.

The “little steam saw mill” at the foot of Mackinaw street did all that was required of it in it’s day. The big mill at East Saginaw, the model mill of 1837, when finished was supposed to be equal to, aye, and beyond, any future requirements. Could those wise ones, who thought Mr. Williams foolish in building so large a mill, look at the mills on Saginaw river today, and the hundreds of millions of feet of lumber manufactured by them, they would acknowledge their own short-sightedness and the superior judgement manifested by Uncle Harvey in his prophecies of the future of the Saginaw.

Mr. Williams removed to the Kawkawlin river in 1844 and remained there till 1864. During the twenty years he resided there he was extensively engaged in the fisheries at the mouth of the river in the spring months, and in the summer and fall months his operations were extended down the bay and Lake Huron. During the winter his business relations with the Chippewa Indians were extensive, amounting in the aggregate to hundreds of thousands of dollars. No man has ever possessed the confidence of those Chippewa Indians that Uncle Harvey has had, and certainly no man could be kinder and more generous to them than he.

Fifty-nine years in Michigan! Few, but very few men can with Uncle Harvey say that they have seen the infant in the cradle grow up to the full status of manhood as he has seen “our beautiful Peninsular State” grow. How little was known in 1815 of the vast mines of wealth that lay buried beneath her surface! Who then dreamed that Michigan would furnish successful competition against the whole world in copper and iron? Who then imagined that the Saginaw valley mills would manufacture more lumber than any other point on the globe? Who ever conjectured that in a little more than half a century Michigan would stand preeminent for its mineral wealth, for its lumber, for its agricultural products, for its fruits , its stock, and for the provision it has made for the education of its sons and daughters? Nevertheless, Uncle Harvey has lived to see all this, and well might he say, “Now let thy aged servant depart in peach;” but he is not yet willing to depart, for his ambition has not been destroyed by the frosts of more than eighty winters. His energy is manifested in all that he does, and he bids fair to outrun many men whose years to not number one-half of his. 

Mr. Williams was married to Miss Julia Tourniaid in 1819. Mrs. Williams is still living, a well-preserved woman; one of the “mothers in Israel,” form whose door the poor and needy have never been turned away empty. Forty-five years of wedded life! How seldom it is chronicled. In the great majority of families the “silver cord” is snapped and alas! How few to whom the “golden bowl” is preserved.

It would have been gratifying to the pioneers of Saginaw valley to have had Mr. & Mrs. Williams with us to-day, as no doubt it would have been to you, the pioneers of the State, who are our guests; but no persuasion would induce them to leave the quiet of their home, notwithstanding they are “living epistles” of what well-ordered and temperate lives can effect. Mr. Williams informs me that there are but eight persons of American descent now living who were residents of Detroit in 1815: Ephriam S. Williams, now of Genesee county; Benj. O and Alfred Williams of Shiawasee county; Mrs. Schuyler of Oakland county; Benj. Woodworth of St. Clair county; Alpheus Williams and Harriet Rogers of California; and Harvey Williams of Saginaw county. Uncle Harvey is the pioneer blacksmith, the pioneer manufacturer of agricultural implements, the pioneer engine builder, and the pioneer lumberman of the Saginaw valley. I have hastily compiled these incidents in his life, deeming it but just and proper that one so long - for over half a century - identified with the interests of Michigan, should be honored at this meeting of the State pioneers.

O. C. Comstock, Mr. Farnswoth, Col. E. H. Tomson, A. T. Draper, and James V. Campbell, contributed letters of which we have no copies.

Several members were added to the association on this occasion. These reunions, divested of all formalities, should be frequent, so that the kindly memories of the “land we left and the land we live in” may continue to form the strongest link that binds the grand old past to the hurried and ever-living present.




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