The Daring Trader: Jacob Smith in the Michigan Territory, 1802-1825

The Daring Trader: Jacob Smith in the Michigan Territory, 1802-1825

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by Kim Crawford

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A fur trader in the Michigan Territory and confidant of both the U.S. government and local Indian tribes, Jacob Smith could have stepped out of a James Fenimore Cooper novel. Controversial, mysterious, and bold during his lifetime, in death Smith has not, until now, received the attention he deserves as a pivotal figure in Michigan’s American period and the

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A fur trader in the Michigan Territory and confidant of both the U.S. government and local Indian tribes, Jacob Smith could have stepped out of a James Fenimore Cooper novel. Controversial, mysterious, and bold during his lifetime, in death Smith has not, until now, received the attention he deserves as a pivotal figure in Michigan’s American period and the War of 1812. This is the exciting and unlikely story of a man at the frontier’s edge, whose missions during both war and peace laid the groundwork for Michigan to accommodate settlers and farmers moving west. The book investigates Smith’s many pursuits, including his role as an advisor to the Indians, from whom the federal government would gradually gain millions of acres of land, due in large part to Smith’s work as an agent of influence. Crawford paints a colorful portrait of a complicated man during a dynamic period of change in Michigan’s history.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Kim Crawford is a first-class investigative reporter and researcher with a wonderfully clear writing style. He uses all those talents to bring to life a fascinating but previously untold world of fur traders, Indians, and British and American soldiers plying the Michigan wilderness in the early 1800s. Crawford fills a gaping hole in Michigan history by documenting the eventful life of Jacob Smith, an adventurer, entrepreneur, Indian interpreter and American spy, and the first white settler of what is now Flint.
—Lawrence R. Gustin, author, Billy Durant: Creator of General Motors and David Buick’s Marvelous Motor Car: The Men and the Automobile That Launched General Motors

 Crawford digs deeply into little-used archival sources to illuminate an important era in Michigan’s history as the frontier of a burgeoning United States of America. The Daring Trader adds tremendously to the literature of the fur trade and the War of 1812.
—David Lee Porembaauthor and book reviewer 

Product Details

Michigan State University Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

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Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 2012 Kim Crawford
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61186-026-9

Chapter One

Witness to Murder: Saginaw, 1802

The man who would become the most influential fur trader of territorial Michigan for his work among the Saginaw Chippewa and Ottawa began life as the son of German parents in a French city in British Canada, about a hundred miles from the U.S. border in the closing years of the eighteenth century. These circumstances may seem like a dramatic foreshadowing, portending a life of intrigue and adventure, but before Jacob Smith entered the world of the frontier fur trade in Michigan his job in Canada was more mundane: As a young man, Jacob Smith was a merchant butcher in what seems to have been a family business in Quebec.

Jacob Smith was one of the sons of John Rudolf Smith and his wife Elizabeth, born in Quebec in 1773. Quebec town censuses for the early 1790s show there were two different butchers named Smith, both of them Protestants, and there are indications that at least one them, Charles Smith, at 11 rue Notre Dame in 1795, was related to Jacob. These butchers, Charles Smith and one listed or given as "S. Smith," were successful enough that they had servants in their homes and apprentices in their businesses. Biographical notes by a son-in-law of Jacob Smith who didn't actually know him—notes that aren't completely accurate—state that Smith had a brother Charles who was a banker. There was, however, nothing like a commercial bank in what was then called Upper Canada before the 1820s.

Jacob Smith's name didn't appear in the Quebec census until the spring of 1798, when he was 25 years old and head of his own household, and almost nothing is known about his childhood or youth. But that year Smith was listed as a butcher living in the lower town at the same address on the rue Notre Dame that had been occupied by butcher Charles Smith before him. Jacob Smith's father, a soap-maker, then resided in the Fauxbourg-St. Jean area. After Jacob Smith came to Michigan, he would be described as a slight man, but wiry, agile, and strong—physical attributes that presumably served him well as a butcher but that would be even more important when he lived among the Indians for months at a time. Louis Campau, one of Smith's rivals in the Michigan fur trade, would describe him physically as being "smart as steel"—a testament to Smith's sharpness and speed in a fight.

The summer of 1798 was an eventful time for Jacob Smith, for he was to be married. His bride-to-be was 18-year-old Mary Reed, the daughter of Thomas Reed and Margaret McMaster. Mary's parents had wed in Montreal in 1779 and lived in Quebec afterward. Tom Reed had been a tavern keeper in the lower town; Margaret was an Irish-born immigrant from Killough. Mary was one of three Reed children, and she was about three years old when her father died.

Margaret Reed remarried early in 1784. Her second husband was a local shoemaker named Andrew Doe, born in Maryland when it was an English colony before the American Revolution. The fact that Doe had moved to Canada suggests he may have been a British Loyalist who wanted to remain a citizen of King George III when war broke out, just as thousands of "Tories" in the American colonies did. Andrew Doe took over Tom Reed's inn when he married Margaret and became stepfather to Margaret's three small children. But only Mary survived, with church records showing that her little brother Thomas, age three, and sister Ann, five, died within a week of each other late in the spring of 1786. Andrew and Margaret appear to have had children of their own.

Presumably it was happy day when Jacob Smith and Mary Reed wed on July 25, 1798, in the Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Quebec, with Mary's mother and stepfather and Jacob's parents in attendance. This was the same church where Mary's mother had married her second husband some 14 years earlier. But a state of family peace did not reign over Jacob Smith and his in-laws. Less than three months after Jacob and Mary were married, they sued her stepfather in a local court. In this suit, the Smiths wanted a full accounting of the estate of Mary's father, Tom Reed, since, they claimed, they were entitled to a third of the value of the real estate and property Reed had owned, plus interest, dating from the time Mary had turned 18 earlier that year. The Does eventually provided an extensive listing of the furniture, household goods, and other property that made up Mary's father's estate—it suggests that Tom Reed had been successful, even wealthy. How Jacob and Mary Smith fared in the case isn't reflected in the surviving records, but the suit couldn't have endeared Jacob Smith to his in-laws. The matter may have been the start of a rift between the families that would last for years.

In the meantime the family of Jacob and Mary Smith grew. In the late summer, just over a year after their marriage, Mary gave birth to the first of five surviving children. They named their daughter Harriet Margaretta. These details of Smith's life before he came to Michigan are few, but they place him and his relatives in Quebec, an important fur trade business center, in the years before 1800.

Subsequent evidence Jacob Smith would leave in Quebec and Detroit suggests that he could read and write English and French, and that by 1807 he could also fluently speak the Chippewa-Ottawa dialect of the Algonquin language. As a merchant butcher, he presumably had business experience under his belt. And if he hadn't traveled in the employ of fur-trading merchants in Canada in the years before 1798, he had doubtless heard their talk, surrounded as he was by people involved in the business. Quebec was home to many Great Lakes sailors, frontier soldiers, and trader-merchants. But sometime between 1799 and 1801—the specific date is unknown—Jacob Smith also joined in the fur trade. He and his family left their home in British Canada for Detroit, a frontier town on the edge of the Michigan woodland, just inside of the territory of the young United States.

Although Quebec was an old French settlement and the fur trade had been going on for nearly 200 years, Jacob Smith grew up during the period when the British were in control of most of this trade in the Great Lakes. The most important concern in this region was the North West Company, a loose association of mainly Scottish fur traders. One of this company's strongest incarnations was active and strong and based in nearby Montreal in the 1780s, and was deeply involved in the Great Lakes trade in the 1790s. Closely related to the North West Company was the Mackinac Company, with its field headquarters on Mackinac Island. This outfit was owned by some of the partners of the North West Company. These fur-trading operations were major businesses, and vessels as big as a hundred tons sailed on Lakes Michigan and Huron, carrying trade goods out to the Indian country far to the west, and bringing pelts back. Smaller shipments for these companies were carried on large canoes and bateauxs, barge-like craft s also sometimes referred to as "Mackinac boats" that could move cargoes of several tons.

Of course, the French explorers, soldiers, and merchants had led the way into Canada and the Great Lakes region back in the 1600s, with the British taking control of the trade after the French and Indian War. By Jacob Smith's time nearly 50 years later, Frenchmen still comprised much of the ranks of the expert traders and the labor force on whom the Scots and English businessmen relied. French and French- Indian voyageurs paddled canoes for endless miles on the lakes and rivers, and they carried huge packs of supplies, goods, and furs at the portages and into forests. Unlicensed traders, rugged men called coureurs de bois, or runners of the woods, knew the Indian trails and winter hunting grounds of the Great Lakes region, and many had Indian wives. Some were themselves the sons of Indian mothers.

But as the nineteenth century dawned, the Scotch-English fur kings of Montreal were worried: The Americans were coming. Merchants and businessmen from New York and Pennsylvania were attempting to break into the Great Lakes trade after the Revolutionary War, into the area the Americans called "the Old Northwest" because it lay northwest of the Ohio River. The British, whose Canadian trading empire spread far across the continent to the west and north, called the Great Lakes area "the Southwest" because of its proximity to Upper Canada, or the southern portion of what was eventually named Ontario.

The growing American presence was one of the developments affecting the fur trade in the Great Lakes region, coming about in part because of John Jay's Treaty, a 1794 agreement between the United States and Britain. This treaty established the boundary between the United States and Canada through the Lakes and it allowed both American and British subjects reciprocal rights to trade and operate across the international border. By the time Smith arrived in Michigan a few years later, there were still few Americans directly involved in the trade; Americans had actually been discouraged, if not prevented, from setting up at Detroit or establishing residence there under British authority.

This was changing, however. Detroit, the largest town on the U.S. frontier on the Great Lakes, had been a fur trading center for a century, having been founded in 1701 by Cadillac in order to expand and preserve French markets and protect them from the British and their Indian allies, the Iroquois. The British had taken over these markets and Detroit, too—right up until 1796, when the Americans took possession of the town. Detroit was located near the straits leading to Lakes Huron, Michigan, and Superior, and it was also accessible from Canada and the Ohio Valley. British officials and businessmen in Canada had groaned when they heard that Detroit and Michigan had been relinquished to the Americans during peace treaty negotiations. Some loyal British merchants moved across the river to Canada so as to remain on "English soil," but some did not. Either way, British subjects still held the upper hand, at least for the moment, in the Michigan fur trade.

It wasn't just the water routes that made Detroit such an important center. Indian trails came from nearly every direction to Detroit and each spring many Ottawa and Chippewa, who wintered in small bands to hunt and trap, made their way to the town to trade their furs and maple sugar for goods; so did Indians from Ohio and areas to the west. Merchants from Quebec and Montreal and their agents had for generations traveled to Detroit or simply set up shop there. By far, the biggest population in Michigan and the Old Northwest was the thousands of Indians who resided in their villages and camps, hunting and fishing, some raising corn, squash, and other produce in fields, clearings, and prairies that dotted the forests of Michigan.

Now as the American age in Detroit was dawning, Jacob Smith was in the vanguard of new traders. He may have had both personal and practical reasons for basing himself in Detroit in order to go into the fur trade. Histories of the North West Company show that family connections were important to its top partners, many of whom were Scotsmen. That meant a man such as Smith, unless he married into one of these families, would likely only be an employee or agent of such a company. Detroit, on the other hand, had long been a center for independent fur traders. It was a logical place for a man to go into business for himself, yet he could still deal with agents of the big company if he wanted or needed to do so.

It is also possible Smith was initially working for or in conjunction with the North West Company—something his heirs believed to be the case. But a letter written by Smith in 1815 suggests that he, like other independent Detroit-based traders of the time, did business individually with Canadian merchants. These were businessmen who extended credit to traders in the form of trade goods; traders used the goods to swap for the pelts of fur-bearing animals the Indians had trapped and hunted.

Finally, there is the matter of a family connection between Jacob Smith and a businessman named William Smith who lived in the Detroit area. A son-in-law of Jacob Smith, Thomas B. W. Stockton, would write that Smith had a brother named William who was a merchant in Upper Canada with extensive business dealings. These notes also say that one of Smith's brothers lived across the Detroit River in Sandwich in the year 1812. While the accuracy of some of Stockton's information about Smith is open to question, a letter by Jacob Smith's wife in 1817 indicates that he had a relative named William Smith in Upper Canada. It is also a matter of record that a William Smith had lived in Detroit in the 1790s and close by in Canada for years afterward. This man had been active in civic affairs in Detroit, and lived in Amherstburg, a small community about 25 miles south of Sandwich on the Detroit River. Other records reflect that a William Smith resided in Sandwich around 1815. If one of these William Smiths was truly Jacob Smith's brother, perhaps he encouraged Jacob to come to the Detroit area about 1800.

Jacob Smith appears to have left no record reflecting his activities at the turn of the nineteenth century, so there is no indication of what prompted him to make a career change from merchant butcher to fur trader. Was it at the suggestion of a relative? Did Smith lose his lawsuit against his in-laws and feel the need to make a fresh start in a new place? Did he and his wife get a settlement or award in the matter of her father's estate and use the money to buy a stake in the fur trade? Or did Smith long for a venture taking him into a new country? However it happened, evidence shows that Jacob Smith came to Michigan, then part of the Indiana Territory of the United States, by at least the last part of the winter trading season of 1801–1802, at an Indian village on a river called the Saginaw, some 90 miles north-northwest of Detroit.

The Detroit of Jacob Smith's time, though technically in U.S. territory, was a town inhabited by hundreds of French and French-Indian people, a number of Scottish and English merchants and tradesman, some Germans and Dutch, and a garrison of U.S. Army troops. It had narrow streets and rough-hewn, ramshackle houses and buildings for the most part, described by one American as "low and inelegant." Many of the French and English residents were voyageurs and their families, traders, small farmers, and ex-soldiers, some of whom had Indian wives. People from the Ottawa, Pottawatomi, Wyandot, Chippewa, and other nations or tribes of the region came and went from Detroit, trading for manufactured goods and services upon which some were coming to rely.

There were also farms outside of town and a small village called Frenchtown, about 35 miles south of Detroit. This settlement, which would eventually be called Monroe, was on the River Raisin near its mouth on Lake Erie. Outside of Detroit and Frenchtown, only cabins and farms lined and dotted the eastern coast of Michigan, from the Maumee River (near present-day Toledo) on the south, to the Clinton River, which empties into Lake St. Clair about 20 miles north of Detroit. All told, there were less than 3,800 people living between these rivers, with most of them in the Detroit area, and almost all of them near or along the water.

Again, most of these residents were French and British-Canadians. It was from Detroit that the British military and its agents had encouraged Indian attacks against the American frontier during the Revolutionary War, and Detroit had been an important center for Indian alliances against the United States in the late 1700s. Though Detroit was supposed to be turned over to the United States after the Treaty of Paris in 1783 ended the war between the Americans and Britain, the British had been in no hurry to leave. They only did so 13 years later, when they were increasingly pressured by their involvement in a war in Europe. A contingent of U.S. Army soldiers under Colonel John Hamtramck came in July 1796 to claim the fort at Detroit and raised the American flag over it for the first time.

By the time of Jacob Smith's arrival in Detroit around 1800, the number of U.S. citizen civilians who had come to live there was small. Still, each passing year would see more Americans from the eastern United States arriving at Detroit. There was resentment at these newcomers, from Indians concerned over the Americans' push west and from the British Canadians whose fur trade interests were threatened by U.S. businessmen and settlers. For years settlers from the eastern United States had come over the mountains into the Ohio Valley and Indiana and Illinois to build homes and farms or trade, a tide that represented a virtual invasion to the Indians who lived there. White settlers did this at their own peril, and few had ventured to Michigan. Away from U.S. garrisons at Detroit and Ft. Michilimackinac at the straits between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan, a settler had no protection beyond what he could provide for himself.


Excerpted from THE DARING TRADER by KIM CRAWFORD Copyright © 2012 by Kim Crawford. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Kim Crawford is a veteran Michigan newspaper reporter and the author of a previous regimental history.

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The Daring Trader: Jacob Smith in the Michigan Territory, 1802-1825 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
DougSanders More than 1 year ago
DISCLAIMER: Kim Crawford is a former newspaper colleague of mine and one of the finest reporters I ever worked with. In penning his book "The Daring Trader: Jacob Smith in the Michigan Territory, 1802-1825," Crawford has built an important...bridge across a chasm of myth and misinformation about an important character in Michigan history. Jacob Smith was a fur trader in Michigan Territory, a well-known, well-connected Canadian transplant who's generally given credit as the founder of Flint. Crawford's meticulously researched work, gleaned largely from primary sources, strips away much of the myth and places Smith in his proper context as a key player in the territory's transition to statehood. If you have any interest in Michigan history, "Daring Trader" should be on your shelf.See More