Author: Grace Shackman
Michigan captured in its infancy
The U-M’s Clements Library recently received a very rare 1825 map: one of the few remaining
copies of Orange Risdon’s map of southeast Michigan. “It is the first map of Michigan that shows
serious surveying and settlement,” explains Brian Leigh Dunnigan, the library’s curator of maps.
Risdon, best known in this area as the founder of Saline, is also famous in Michigan history as the
chief surveyor of the Detroit-Chicago Road, now US-12.
Though Risdon’s surveys were done under government contract, the map was a private venture.
Risdon drew it himself and paid to have it published, planning to sell copies to pioneers trying to
pick out places to settle. Unfortunately for him, a former employee came out with a competing map
and grabbed most of the market. But though it failed to make its creator rich, Risdon’s map today
gives us a wealth of information about what our area looked like just one year after Ann Arbor was
Officially called “Map of the Surveyed Part of the Territory of Michigan,” it measures
forty-three by twenty-nine inches. It shows the area from Toledo north to Saginaw Bay and includes
Washtenaw County and a corner of Jackson County.
Surveyors hired by the federal government started working in southeast Michigan when it was still
a territory in 1818, since precise demarcation was a necessary prelude to selling the land. They
divided the state into counties, the counties into six-mile-square townships, and the townships into
square-mile (640-acre) sections. The grid allowed buyers, when they went to the land office to buy
land, to clearly identify their purchase.
Although a few intrepid settlers came earlier, serious settlement in Washtenaw County did not
begin until the 1820s. Ypsilanti was founded in 1823 or 1825, depending on how the city is defined.
Ann Arbor, Dexter, and Dixboro were all founded in 1824.
The Risdon map, although strictly a factual document, reveals two historic transitions, one long
past at the time it was published, the other still to come. The long, narrow lots Risdon mapped
along the rivers in Detroit and Monroe were legacies of the French who were the state’s first
white inhabitants. “They all had access to the water,” explains Dunnigan.
Risdon’s map also shows Toledo, then called Port Lawrence, as part of Michigan. Though it was
indeed within Michigan Territory as defined by Congress, Ohio made a strong claim, and the issue was
further muddied by years of contested surveys. The conflict briefly turned violent in the “Toledo
War” of 1835 and would not finally be settled until 1836, when Michigan accepted a federal
ultimatum to cede the city to Ohio in exchange for the Upper Peninsula.
The handful of roads shown all lead from Detroit to surrounding towns: one to Saginaw (now
Woodward Avenue) and one to Port Huron (now Gratiot Avenue), as well as the road to present-day
Chicago. Tepees mark the location of Indian settlements, but there are none in Washtenaw County (the
closest ones are in Macon and Wyandotte). Near Detroit, Hamtramck has already been established;
Dearborn also is there, but not under that name—Risdon calls it “Bucklin.”
The Washtenaw County shown on the map is larger than it is today, because it includes two
townships that are now part of Jackson County. Ann Arbor is spelled “Ann Arbour,” which is how
founders John Allen and Elisha Rumsey spelled it when they platted their 640-acre parcel the year
before. Dixboro is also spelled the old-fashioned way, “Dixborough.” All of the county’s
townships, with the exception of present-day Lyndon Township, are sectioned off, but none is yet
The map contains practical information for would-be settlers, such as the location of inns and
where to register land purchases. In Washtenaw County, the only inn outside of the towns was labeled
Sutton, in today’s Northfield Township. Settlers had to go to Detroit to buy property in Washtenaw
County, except for those acquiring land in the southern tier of townships—today’s Manchester,
Bridgewater, Saline, York, and Augusta—who were directed to Monroe.
Only five settlements are shown in Washtenaw County: besides Ann Arbour, Dixborough, and Dexter
there are Ypsilanti and Woodruff’s Grove. Showing the last two as separate places adds fuel to a
continuing debate between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti over which was settled first. It is clear that Ann
Arbor was founded in 1824 and Ypsilanti in 1825—but Woodruff’s Grove was founded in 1823, and it
was later absorbed by Ypsilanti. Saline is not shown on the map; by the time Risdon drew it he had
bought the land for his own settlement, but he would not get around to laying out the town until
1832. The only marking is a salt spring nearby.
Orange Risdon was particularly well qualified to make this map, being both a trained surveyor and
an early Michigan settler. Risdon was born in 1786 in Vermont and moved with his family to Saratoga
County, in eastern New York, when he was three. He attended local schools until age thirteen.
Afterward, according to the 1881 Chapman History of Washtenaw County, Michigan, “he was
dependent on his own efforts.”
Risdon studied surveying under a Mr. Rice of Ballston Spa, New York. In 1807, when he was
twenty-one, Risdon got a job assisting the noted surveyor Elisha Johnson, who had a contract to
survey 100,000 acres in the new counties of Allegany and Genesee. “His duty was to carry the
chain, for which he was to receive $16 per month, but scarcely a week had passed when his skill in
surveying was discovered, and with the consent of the land agent, the work was divided, and his
wages increased to about five times the amount of the first stipulation,” says the county history.
Two years later Risdon was hired to assist in laying out the infant cities of Lockport, Brockport,
During the War of 1812 he worked for the federal government as an assistant surveyor. After the
war he met Sally Newland, and the couple married in 1816. Risdon bought land with his earnings,
eventually owning 1,000 acres on New York’s Genesee River. Risdon resolved to move to Michigan
Territory after suffering losses in the 1817 commercial crisis, but he did not arrive in Michigan
until 1823, when he spent a month traveling on foot through Washtenaw and other nearby counties. He
returned the next year, this time spending four months on a 2,000-mile exploring trip on horseback
with Samuel Dexter. After their trip Dexter bought land on Mill Creek, just off the Huron River, and
began the work of establishing the village that bears his name. Risdon bought 160 acres on the
Saline River and the Indian trail that would soon become the Detroit-Chicago Road, land that would
later be the nucleus of the city of Saline.
How Risdon and Dexter met is lost to history. They could have known each other from New York,
since Risdon’s parents still lived in Sarasota County and Dexter resided in Athens, two counties
south, or they may have met while traveling.
Their backgrounds were very different: Risdon was six years older and had been supporting himself
since he was thirteen, while Dexter had both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Harvard.
(Dexter’s father had served in the cabinets of both Adams and Jefferson.) But both have gone down
in history as town founders who went well beyond land speculation and worked to improve their towns.
They both offered free land to any church wishing to get established, and they were both
abolitionists who were rumored to be part of the Underground Railroad. It is easy to imagine that
they discussed these issues during their long hours of travel together.
Risdon’s reputation as a surveyor followed him to Michigan, and in the same year he bought his
land he was hired to direct a survey for a road connecting Detroit and Pontiac. In fall 1824, when
he must have been almost done surveying for the season, he began work on his map. From his two
exploring trips, plus his surveying work, Risdon would have known much of the area firsthand, and
for the rest he could rely on work done on earlier surveys.
Risdon advertised in the Detroit Gazette on October 1, 1824, seeking advance subscriptions to pay
for the cost of producing the map. He promised that “the work will be put into the hands of the
engraver as soon as a sufficient number of subscribers is obtained to warrant the expense of
The ad pitched the map as useful to emigrants and explorers: “The first thing necessary to an
immigrant is a general knowledge of the surveyed portion of the territory, of the course of its
streams and the relative situation of its different parts. The publisher, having spent some time in
exploring that junction of the territory embraced in his map, will be enabled to locate the most
important Indian paths, which as they were made by those who were acquainted with every part of the
country will be an important guide in the future location of our roads.” Risdon promised that the
map also would include Indian reservations and villages and would “embrace the lines of counties,
townships, and sections, regularly numbered according to the surveys.”
Although the mapping of Michigan had been going on for six years, settlement had been slow, both
because Michigan was off the beaten path (easterners going west overland were more likely to pass
through Ohio and Indiana) and because the territory was rumored to be all swamp. The first problem
would be solved a year later when the Erie Canal opened, making it easy for easterners to reach
Buffalo, where they could board a Lake Erie steamboat for Detroit. Risdon addressed the swamp story
head-on in his ad: “The country which was formerly believed to be uninhabitable excepting on the
river and lake shores, abounds in lands of the most fertile and healthy description.” Even the
climate, he claimed, “is particularly adapted to our eastern constitution.”
The maps were to be “engraved in an elegant style and published on Super Royal paper.” Risdon
offered his map in three formats: in two sheets that could be stored flat in a drawer, for $2.50;
cut into twenty-four sections and pasted on linen--so that the map could be folded without losing
detail--and supplied with a leather carrying case, for $3; or varnished on rollers, perfect for land
agents and lawyers who would be consulting it in their offices, also for $3. The Clements
Library’s copy is of the last type.
The next year, 1825, Risdon started the job for which he is most famous: chief surveyor for the
great military road from Detroit to Chicago, today known as Michigan Avenue or US-12. Work on the
survey no doubt showed him features to include on the map but left him little time to work on it. He
hired a helper named John Farmer, finished the map, and sent it to Rawdon, Clark, and Company in
Albany, New York. On November 13 he paid them $400 for engraving the two copper plates. Five weeks
later he paid to have 472 copies printed. After printing, each copy was hand painted. By the time
they were ready to deliver, however, winter had shut down shipping on Lake Erie. Risdon’s
subscribers had to wait until May 1826 for an announcement in the Detroit Gazette that their copies
That delay proved fatal to the map’s commercial prospects. Later in the summer of 1826, Farmer
published his own rival map. It was basically the same as Risdon’s but with added details that had
been learned in the interim. Farmer’s map, being more up to date, overshadowed his employer’s.
“It was bad luck that Orange didn’t get the map in time to get it promptly to the
subscribers,” says Brian Dunnigan. By examining both maps, Dunnigan can tell that Farmer had
probably done most of the hand coloring on Risdon’s map. “John Farmer dominates after this--he
becomes ‘the’ Michigan map-maker,” says Dunnigan. “He is probably the best-known Michigan
mapmaker of the nineteenth century.”
Risdon moved on from the failure of his map, earning a good living as a surveyor. He surveyed at
least seventy-five townships and the city of Saginaw, and he reexamined or resurveyed forty-five
more townships. He continued working for the government until 1856, when he was seventy.
By then his own village was well established. In 1829 Risdon had returned to his property south
of Ann Arbor and built a twelve-room house on a hill overlooking his Detroit-Chicago Road. He
brought his family out from New York and began building up his new town. His house was used as
Saline’s first inn, post office, general store, and polling place. Risdon himself served as
postmaster and magistrate, officiating at the first marriage in the township. After Michigan became
a state in 1837, he was elected to the Michigan House of Representatives.
Risdon’s “advice was often sought in the selection of lands,” the county history records.
“Very many miles were traveled by him to point out desirable locations, yet [he was] ever
unwilling to receive a reward.” Although there is no evidence that he made any other maps, his
contemporaries knew of his pioneering effort. L. D. Norris, in an address to the Washtenaw County
Historical Society in 1874, said, “The first general map of the surveyed part of this territory of
which I have any knowledge was published in 1825 by Orange Risdon, then and now a pioneer of
Risdon died in 1876 at age ninety, a well-regarded member of the community. “He was genial in
his disposition, unselfish, benevolent, and liberal almost to a fault,” said the county history.
At his funeral, “great numbers of people from neighboring towns and cities were in attendance.”
His home passed to his daughter after his death. In 1948 the house was moved to Henry Street to make
room for expansion of Oakwood Cemetery. Still standing, it has been divided into apartments.
The Clements copy of Risdon’s map was a gift from the Michigan Map Society, purchased to honor
Frank Kerwin, a founding member of the society who recently died. The Michigan Map Society meets at
the Clements and works closely with the library, so members knew that although the Clements had a
large collection of Great Lakes maps, it was missing this very important one. Since Kerwin, a Grosse
Pointe resident and sailor, was himself a collector of Great Lakes maps, the Risdon map, a copy of
which had gone on the market, seemed a logical choice. Of the 472 copies originally printed, only
thirteen are known to have survived. Kerwin lived long enough to learn of the purchase but died
before the formal presentation last May.
The map society has about seventy members; most are from the Ann Arbor and Detroit areas, but
some come from more distant places, such as Lansing and Grand Rapids. Although mostly amateurs, they
are a very knowledgeable group; many are serious map collectors. Several of them volunteer their
expertise to help the Clements staff. They meet four times a year to hear map-related lectures;
including a talk by Dunnigan on his book, Frontier Metropolis: Picturing Early Detroit,
1701–1838, before it was published.
Since the Clements is a research library, people cannot just come in and casually look at
Risdon’s map. “Serious researchers may study the map once they have completed our reader
registration process, which is relatively simple,” explains Dunnigan. The map itself will also be
exhibited from time to time, but at the moment, no public exhibition is scheduled.
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