The Early Settlement of Bay City, Michigan

Another short segment from my current Bay City history project on the very early days of white settlement in what would become Bay City:

Shortly after the American Revolution broke out and the colonists rejected British rule the Chippewa of the Saginaw River would begin dealing with agents of the American Federal government. Replacing the French government after the Seven Years War, the British had continued to use French traders for their expertise and relationships with the local bands of Indians.  When the Americans took over after the Revolution, the French traders stayed in Michigan and continued to operate as a bridge between the native Americans and the new Americans.

The Americans began a concerted effort to interact with the Indian tribes as Americans began to pour across what is now known as the Midwest. Life for the white men in the Saginaw valley was not easy, but through Chippewa help, ingenuity, and drive, the newcomers would create the foundation for a community along the banks of the snake-like Saginaw River. Though the Chippewa had already grown squash and maize, most of these crops grew wild, and the United States government dispatched agents to the Saginaw Valley to teach them the finer points of agriculture. The trouble was that many of the farming agents actually didn’t have experience with farming.

Such was the case when Leon Trombley and a man named Mesho came to the future site of Bay City as agents in 1832. Leon quickly discovered he had nothing to teach the Chippewa. Rather than go back a failure, Leon Trombley decided to set up a trading post on the banks of the Saginaw and built up a rapport with the Chippewa there. A replica of this original trading cabin stands today at Veterans Memorial Park in central Bay City and is used in many of the summer festivals put on by the city each year.

Map of Michigan, 1802

Before Leon arrived to teach the Indians to farm, though, his own Trombley family had already experienced the Saginaw Valley. Up until 1792 Louis Trombley was already working the area as a trader with the Chippewa. Before he was murdered by an Indian with a spear Trombley had made himself Louis must have gotten word out to his relatives about the potential for business in the valley. Whatever he may have told them, his death revealed the dangers of living in the wilderness. Not only had he been stabbed in the back by a Chippewa with a spear, in his attempted escape Louis fell into the river, drowning beneath the choppy waves. Louis’ sons also frequented the Valley as traders, plying their trade to gain furs and wild game from the Chippewa, but it was Louis’ grandsons, Joseph and Mader Trombley that would become the real pioneers of Bay City.

The Trombley’s and other traders and government agents paved the way for permanent settlers to come to the Saginaw Valley later on. People came first to the village of Saginaw, but before long they were venturing north through the swamplands to build a life along the riverbanks. Many of these early pioneers felt that it was only a matter of time before this new settlement would become a great commercial town due to its prime location at the mouth of the Saginaw River. It was the perfect crossing point for the white pine forests of the north and the markets to the south. Whoever commanded the Saginaw Bay would play a crucial role in trade along the entire Great Lakes. All that was needed were people to tame the wilderness. Sooner or later, those people would come.

Further Reading:

Pioneer Directory of the Saginaw Valley, “History of Bay City.”