Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Detroit Land Office

The Detroit Land Office, which listed and sold government-owned property to individuals, opened in March 1804. Land sales were initially slow for three reasons. For one, in 1815, the land surveyor Edward Tiffin reported that the land in Michigan was swampy and very poor for farming. In addition, until the 1820s, laws regulating land sales in Michigan favored big investors over settlers from a humbler background. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, travelers had to pass through the Appalachian Mountains to get to Michigan, which made travel exceptionally long and difficult. All of these factors keep land sales low until the 1820s, when a few key events encouraged settlers to come to Michigan. 

In 1820, Lewis Cass, the Territorial Governor of Detroit, published a report challenging Tiffin’s findings. He stated that Tiffin’s report “grossly misrepresented” and the land, and that Michigan’s climate was “temperate and healthy” and the soil “generally rich and fertile.” In addition, Congress passed a new land act permitting individuals to purchase a minimum of 80 acres for cash at $1.25 an acre, which meant more settlers could afford land. Then, in 1825, the opening of the Erie Canal made travel to Michigan much easier and led to boom in land sales. Hundreds of people arrived in Detroit by boat each day and in 1825, the year the canal opened, 92,332 acres of land were sold. Throughout the 1820s, Lewis Cass was also negotiating treaties with Native Americans for the cessation of Indian land for white settler expansion. However, after treaty negotiations, Native Americans were removed without the benefits of the treaty and forced into areas beyond the Mississippi River.

By the 1830s, Michigan had become the fastest growing territory in America. Thousands of settlers coming to Michigan from New England and New York passed through or settled in Detroit. Those planning to stay in Detroit made their way to the new Land Office at the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Randolph Street. In 1836, public land in Michigan was in such high demand that the Detroit Land Office had to close its doors because too many people were trying to squeeze into the building. They took payments for the nearly 500,000 acres of land sold that year through a window instead.  The reception and outfitting of new settlers became Detroit’s most important business during the 1820s and 1830s. New towns like Birmingham, Royal Oak, Plymouth, Northville, Troy, Utica, and Romeo bore the names of New England places from which their first settlers came.