Author: Tom Dodd
We’ve been down this road before
The Chicago Road
Take another look at downtown Ypsilanti’s Michigan Avenue. Take away the cars and trucks; take
away the concrete and asphalt. Let’s even take away what’s left of the Interurban tracks and the
paving bricks and get right down to the dirt. Now we can see footprints on the bare earth. The
traffic where this thoroughfare crosses the Huron River has been coming through for centuries.
Welcome to our Real Main Street.
This road is a path; a very old path
The earliest inhabitants of this Michigan peninsula traveled mostly by water and, for most Native
Americans, by birch-bark canoe, along lakes and rivers. Few Indians inhabited the upland, drier
portions of land––areas mostly seen while “just passing through.” Light Indian canoes were
easily guided through the rivers that kept a regular flow before deforestation took place. These
same routes and their portages were later used by the first European travelers.
Once on land, however, paths were created for foot travel. As those paths developed, at least a
few were the beginnings of highways like downtown’s Michigan Avenue.
Some early Indian trails are still in place
• Sauk Trail, followed roughly the line of present US 12 from Detroit through
Ypsilanti and to Lake Michigan through the “smile” of prairie that extended across the bottom of
the lower peninsula
• Saginaw Trail from Toledo through Saginaw to Mackinac, part of which forms
today’s Dixie Highway
• Grand River Trail between Detroit and Grand Rapids, now followed by the
trunk line US 16
• Sault and Green Bay Trail east/west across the upper peninsula, now by US 2
and State Rte. 35
The Sauk Trail ran through Illinois, Indiana and Michigan. From west to east, the trail connected
Rock Island on the Mississippi River to the Illinois River near modern Peru, with the trail along
the north bank of that river to Joliet, and on to Valparaiso, Indiana. It then ran northeasterly to
LaPorte and into southern Michigan through Niles, Three Rivers, and Ypsilanti, ending at the Detroit
River. The trail followed a winding path along the ridges of dune and moraines that marked the
earlier glacial period Lake Michigan shorelines. European settlers improved the trail into a wagon
road and later into modern highways.
There are even older trails
Many will settle for tracing the origin of these roadways back to the Native Americans but some of
these ancient paths were here even before that. Sections of the trail followed the southern boundary
between he dense forest and the mixed grassland regions. The presence of a mastodon trailway along
the same path indicates that humans may have been using a long established game trail.
Every generation of road-builders in history has had to skirt the edges of the great salt marsh
between Ypsilanti and Saline. Pittsfield Township’s C. Edward Wall still harbors dreams of
installing life-size sculptures of mastodons in that marshy area just east of the City of
Side roads proliferated
Narrower tributaries from the major trails cut swaths through the prairie that extended across
Michigan’s lower peninsula. “An Indian trail was merely a narrow path, about 12 to 18 inches
wide, permitting only single-file travel,” noted Dorothy G. Pohl, Director of the Ionia County
Road Commission, in her report to the Association of Southern Michigan Road Commissions in 1997.
“It was not until the coming of the white settlers, laden with supplies, that the trails were
improved. The use of the packhorse was the first step in the process of widening these pathways.
Branches and bushes were broken off from each side of the trail and soon it was several feet wide.
Later, when settlers flocked to Michigan Territory, bringing their possessions in oxen-drawn wagons,
there was a need for even wider roads.”
Henry Schoolcraft, at present-day Michigan City, Indiana in 1820, described the trail, as a
“plain horse path, which is considerably traveled by traders, hunters, and others...” and said a
stranger could not follow it without the services of a guide because of the numerous side trails.
The Sauk Trail intersected many important trails and early roads including the trails to Vincennes,
Green Bay, Fort Wayne and north to Little Traverse Bay.
Sections of the Sauk Trail still exist in some form. There is a winding road still called Sauk
Trail which runs from Frankfort, Illinois to Dyer, Indiana, passing through Sauk Village, Illinois.
Johnson Sauk Trail State Park in western Illinois sits on another section of the trail. Sauk Trail
forms the southern boundary of Sauk Trail Woods park. When America’s first national
transcontinental highway, the Lincoln Highway, was built, its route through western Indiana followed
the roads built over the Sauk Trail.
Treasures found along the paths
Along the many trails, archeologists have identified over 1,000 mounds, 80 enclosures and
embankments, 30 so-called ‘garden beds,’ 750 village sites, and 260 burying grounds. Unearthed
along the Indian paths are miscellaneous artifacts such as arrowheads, hammers, knives, drills,
hoes, spades, pipes, fragments of pottery, and large and small effigies in stone.
The ancient highway in Northwestern Lower Michigan has revealed countless Native American
artifacts and campsites. Near Mesick, nearly 50 mounds have been discovered. U.S. Forest Service
workers have found 150 circular fire pits near Buckley.
MSU’s Randall Schaetzl has paraphrased from C.M. Davis’ Readings in the Geography of
Michigan (1964): “Those who travel its fading lanes often find themselves on a journey that
leads them back in time. Faded and worn stone markers remain at certain sections of the trail to
point the way down the old highway which has nearly been lost in the pages of time. The evidence
that it was also an old stagecoach route is that there are tracks of wagon wheels found along
certain parts of the trail. Information available at the Forest Service also states that a silver
oxidated cross, which is believed to have belonged to a Jesuit priest, was found at Buckley. A sword
and pieces of metal that resembled armor were additional relics obtained at the site. Records
indicate that a sword and armor found at the location may possibly have been from the French
explorer La Salle, who is known to have visited St. Joseph, Michigan at one time.”
Entire communities of Native American families walked these trails. The paths followed the areas
of least resistance and crossed rivers where they were shallowest. When European settlers arrived,
many of the trails became stagecoach highways.
Roadways continue to follow the old paths. The Michigan State Highway Department was created by
Governor Fred Warner in 1905 and the State Trunkline Act came into play in 1913. Pohl and Brown
highlight the 1916 Federal-Aid Road Act, the beginning of snow removal in 1918, gasoline taxes in
1925, and further legislation that created the infrastructure of today’s roadways.
In her report to the Road Commission, Dorothy Pohl’s study (with Norman E. Brown, MDOT Act 51
Administrator) on the history of roads in Michigan goes far beyond early Indian trails. Their study
examines farm-to-market routes in 1805, military roads in 1816, early State-sponsored transportation
improvements, township road-building in 1817, private turnpike companies, swamp land roads of 1859,
and on to the 1880s impact of bicyclists.
Pohl concludes, “Many of us in the road business have heard and used the phrase that the roads
just “grew” there. Now we really know what happened!”
The mastodon is our state fossil
The giant mastodon (Mammut americanum) was designated the official state fossil of Michigan
in 2002. This magnificent animal disappeared from the Ypsilanti area about 10,000 years ago. One of
the most complete mastodon skeletons was discovered near Owosso, and is now displayed at the U of
M’s Museum of Natural History. The most intact trail of mastodon footprints (30) has been found
along Michigan Avenue west of Saline across from Harry’s Furniture. The campaign to adopt the
mastodon as Michigan’s state fossil was led by David P. Thomas, Sr., a geology instructor at
Washtenaw Community College.
Mastodon vs. mammoth?
The American mastodon is different from the woolly mammoth. Mastodons had straighter tusks and both
the body and head of the mastodon is longer and squatter than the woolly mammoth and its back
doesn’t slope like a mammoth’s. Mastodons were about the size of an Asiatic elephant of today,
but its ears were smaller than modern elephants. They had thick body hair similar to a mammoth, but
mastodon teeth suggest the diet of a browser, not a grazer. The mastodon also lacks the high, peaked
knob on the head seen on the woolly mammoth. Mastodons are an older species, originating in Africa
35 million years ago and entering North America about 15 million years ago.
“The Calf-Path” by Sam Walter Foss
One day through the primeval wood
A calf walked home as good calves should;
But made a trail all bent askew,
A crooked trail as all calves do.
Since then three hundred years have fled,
And I infer the calf is dead.
But still he left behind his trail,
And thereby hangs my moral tale.
The trail was taken up next day
By a lone dog that passed that way;
And then a wise bellwether sheep
Pursued the trail o’er vale and steep,
And drew the flock behind him, too,
As good bellwethers always do.
And from that day, o’er hill and glade,
Through those old woods a path was made.
And many men wound in and out,
And dodged and turned and bent about,
And uttered words of righteous wrath
Because ‘twas such a crooked path;
But still they followed — do not laugh –
The first migrations of that calf,
And through this winding wood-way stalked
Because he wobbled when he walked.
This forest path became a lane
That bent and turned and turned again;
This crooked lane became a road,
Where many a poor horse with his load
Toiled on beneath the burning sun,
And traveled some three miles in one.
And thus a century and a half
They trod the footsteps of that calf.
The years passed on in swiftness fleet,
The road became a village street;
And this, before men were aware,
A city’s crowded thoroughfare.
And soon the central street was this
Of a renowned metropolis;
And men two centuries and a half
Trod in the footsteps of that calf.
Each day a hundred thousand rout
Followed this zigzag calf about
And o’er his crooked journey went
The traffic of a continent.
A hundred thousand men were led
By one calf near three centuries dead.
They followed still his crooked way.
And lost one hundred years a day,
For thus such reverence is lent
To well-established precedent.
A moral lesson this might teach
Were I ordained and called to preach;
For men are prone to go it blind
Along the calf-paths of the mind,
And work away from sun to sun
To do what other men have done.
They follow in the beaten track,
And out and in, and forth and back,
And still their devious course pursue,
To keep the path that others do.
They keep the path a sacred groove,
Along which all their lives they move;
But how the wise old wood-gods laugh,
Who saw the first primeval calf.
Ah, many things this tale might teach
But I am not ordained to preach.
1.Mastodon (no caption)
2. Downtown overlay
3. Indian trails of importance to Michigan
4. Major Indian tribes and trails – 1760
5. Mastodon skeletons have been found near Textile and Carpenter Roads and in the gravel pits
along Michigan Avenue west of Saline (north of Harry’s Furniture)
6. U of M’s old fossil
7. Paths through tall grass
prairies connected the main Indian trails