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The Library of Michigan: Territorial Council Era, 1828 - 1837

Born in 1828, the Library of Michigan celebrates 175 years of vision and dedicated service to the people of Michigan, from its frontier beginnings to the innovations of the 21st Century. From a territorial library system whose patrons were dependent on a horse-drawn wagon to a state library system within reach through cyberspace, this story starts with a collection of 131 books and culminates with the present day collection of over 5 million items. But more than that, it is the story of people whose leadership developed and maintained a library system for government officials, researchers and patrons from every walk of life.

Michigan became a territory in 1805. Like many future states within the Northwest Territory, achieving statehood through increased population was the goal. With the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, immigration into the Michigan Territory went from a trickle to a flood. The famous "Michigan fever" influx occurred in the 1830s, when the population jumped from 29,000 in 1830 to 212,000 by 1840. The majority of these new settlers were from New England and upstate New York.

The Michigan Territory was a vast frontier of dense forests and poor roads. It took five to eight days to travel from Detroit to Chicago by stagecoach. Survey teams set up camp in swamps and worked through swarms of black flies and mosquitoes as they divided Michigan into townships. Farming did not start until the backbreaking work of clearing the land took place. Log cabins dotted the landscape as teams of oxen started plowing the virgin soil to plant crops. The new pioneers had to deal with bouts of fever-chills called ague, a sickness common to the Michigan frontier. Although the value of money fluctuated, the average wage was fifty cents per day, while a night at an inn generally cost 25 cents for a bed and 25 cents for the meal.

Was this any place to begin the first vestiges of the Library of Michigan? Yes, for within this frontier setting filled with hardships, these New England pioneers brought their love of learning. Schoolmasters began dotting the frontier landscape, and state universities and private academies were founded.

The members of the territorial council reflected this New England interest in learning. Like our present day legislators, they found that books related to law and government history better prepared them for the important decisions that needed to be made. They sought books that informed them about laws other states had enacted and reference books that reflected the knowledge base of the time. In this regard, the first stages of the Library of Michigan related most directly to the present Law Library within the Library of Michigan.

Who were these people who started and maintained a library system on the Michigan frontier? During the territorial period, there were several documented collections of books, but there were no paid librarians appointed to maintain the collections. The first direct link to the present state library system owes its beginning to one of Michigan's famous frontier personalities, Henry Schoolcraft.

Like many early pioneers, Schoolcraft came to the Michigan Territory from upstate New York. In 1822 he accepted an appointment at Sault Ste. Marie as an Indian agent for the territory. From 1827 to 1831, Schoolcraft served on the Michigan Territorial Council in Detroit. During this time, he helped name 15 counties, founded the Historical Society with Lewis Cass and began the Library of Michigan with Wolcott Lawrence.

By 1828 the territorial council realized the need to collect, compile and store Michigan territorial laws and other important documents. In that same year, Henry Schoolcraft introduced a resolution to appoint a librarian for the council library, which consisted of 131 law books and documents used by the governor and legislators. On June 16, 1828, the resolution was approved by Governor Cass. Schoolcraft and fellow council member Wolcott Lawrence of Monroe County formed the first library committee.

On July 3, 1828, the library committee appointed William B. Hunt as the first territorial librarian, at a salary of one hundred dollars per year. Hunt's duties including attending council meetings, arriving at the meetings a half hour before they began and staying a half hour after the meeting to deliver and collect books.

As territorial council librarian, William Hunt was in charge of the care and preservation of the book collection. He also was responsible for the halls adjacent to the legislative rooms, located in the new territorial building in Detroit. Construction of the building began in 1823 and completed in 1828 – the same year the first librarian was appointed. The territorial Capitol was early classical revival style, with six columns supporting the portico and a 140-foot-high cupola crowing the roof. A façade with architectural details of the first territorial Capitol can be seen in the statehood gallery of the Michigan Historical Center.

Gershom Mott Williams succeeded William Hunt as territorial council librarian in 1834. Like Hunt, Williams was the son of a Detroit mayor and like Henry Schoolcraft, he attended Union College in Schenectady, New York. Unlike Hunt, Williams had library experience, having served as librarian of the City Library of Detroit. Williams served as the librarian for the territorial council for two years, leaving his appointment one year before Michigan was formally granted statehood.

In March of 1836, the month after Williams resigned, the act that provided for a territorial council librarian was repealed. The territorial library was placed under the jurisdiction of the secretary of state, and Kintzing Pritchette became the state librarian ex-officio. At the end of 1935, a new act had empowered the governor and secretary of state to appoint a state librarian and make rules and regulations for governance of the library and its use only by the governor, state officers and/or members of the legislature.

On January 26, 1837, Michigan became the 26th state of the Union. One month later, the former territorial council library became the state library, placed under the control of the governor's secretary, New York native Calvin Charles Jackson.

Highlights of the Territorial Council Library Era:

  • A resolution was passed in 1831 to purchase a set of maps, globes, books and periodicals "deemed proper" – not to exceed $500.
  • In the year 1832, $105 was spent on postage for periodicals and newspapers, and the library added to its décor, as the balance was paid on the $175 full-length portrait of former governor Lewis Cass.
  • The following rules for the council library were adopted in 1832:
    • That not more than three books at a time be taken from the library by any person, and these to be returned before others can be obtained.
    • That each individual at the close of the session return such books as he may have in his possession belonging to the library
    • That books be returned or renewed at the expiration of one week during the session
    • That during the adjournment of the council the library shall be opened on the 1st Monday in each month for the exchange of books, from the hours of 2, till 4 o'clock, PM.
  • Although no provision was made for the purchase of books in 1833, $60 was spent on postage for periodicals and newspapers.
  • Although one assumes that items were always stored in alphabetical order, in 1834 the library committee officially recommended that the librarian have catalogs printed in alphabetical order, "leaving blank leaves for such additions as shall from time to time be made."
  • Also during 1834, the librarian subscribed to the following newspapers: The National Advertiser, The Globe, The New-York Evening Star, The Albany Argus and The National Gazette. A rule was also included that these papers never be removed from the library.

by Jim Schultz, Department of History, Arts and Libraries

Updated 01/01/2003