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Manchester and... Lexington?

By dhowell - Posted on 26 January 2008

by Ray Berg

This mystery story began when Bob Miller, Freedom Township Historian, and I visited the Michigan Historical Center Archives in Lansing. We were beginning the compilation of information for the Freedom Township History book, which is now underway. We were curious what resources were available at these archives, and began by asking the state archivist "What is the oldest map that shows individual township level details in Washtenaw County?"

The archivist presented a map printed in 1844, prepared by a survey team led by Douglass Houghton, who had been appointed State Geologist. We were able to secure a digitally scanned, high resolution image of the map. An excerpted portion of the map showing the southwestern townships is presented below. The archivist also verified that this is the oldest Washtenaw County map with this level of detail, referencing an expert work by Louis Karpinski on Michigan map history.

The map impressed us with its detail, and we studied the roads, topography, settlements and other information compared to today. Many of the road patterns which exist today were already in place when the map was completed, but some things were different (for example, Chelsea didn't exist, but its predecessor village Pierceville did). The Palmyra and Jacksonburgh Railroad had been surveyed but not yet constructed.

But the most interesting thing was the presence of a "twin" village next to Manchester called "Lexington." I had never seen or heard of Lexington before. Manchester histories reference such places as Elba, Windham and Soulesville, but not Lexington. I made a quick visit to the Claire Reck historical room at the Manchester Public Library. There Allen Dyer and Jerry Swartout helped with some reference checks in various indices—but no luck. The 1856 plat map for Manchester Township did not show "Lexington." The 1881 Washtenaw County history and other references were also silent. There were no families with the Lexington surname showing up in the census data for the Manchester area.

By comparing the location of the "Lexington" area on the 1844 survey map with other historical Manchester maps, it is clear that Lexington is the settlement and location that was ultimately known as Soulesville, founded by initial settler James J. Soule in 1835. Soulesville sat in Section 1 of Manchester Township, on the west bank of the River Raisin, just north of Austin Road where the road crosses the river/millpond at the present village offices. Soulesville was a cluster of buildings including a dam, two mill races, a sawmill, homes and other manufacturing buildings, which Soule developed between 1835 and 1843, after which he sold everything and left the area for Wisconsin. The Manchester Village offices, library, parking lots and water treatment facility occupy the land first known as Lexington, then Soulesville, and then East Manchester (by 1870), and which finally was just absorbed by Manchester.

Douglas Houghton

So where did the name Lexington come from? I went on another mission to the archives to find out. I began with the records of Douglass Houghton's surveys. Turns out Douglass Houghton was a successful doctor in Detroit, a large landowner, and an eminent scientist. He was also best friends with Stevens T. Mason, the first governor of Michigan in 1837. Mason was concerned that Michigan was getting bad press with westward immigrants as an unhealthy, cold and poor farming state, and so he worked with Houghton to commence a complete state survey, including geology, botany, zoology and topography aspects. Houghton assembled a crack team, including Bela Hubbard (assistant geologist), Sylvester Higgins (topographer and map maker) and Columbus Douglass (assistant geologist). The team systematically moved from county to county, recording vast amounts of information for processing into maps and written reports.

The state archive contains Bela Hubbard's original field notebook and diary, which I was able to hold in my hands and read as he recorded his visit to Manchester on June 24 and 25, 1839. He made notes of conversations with Elijah Carr and other residents as he recorded information on the area, and prepared fantastic sketches of geological formations. So the map published in 1844 actually recorded field conditions, villages and roads from the team's survey in 1839, not 1844. I subsequently found confirmation from Sylvester Higgins' January 12, 1840 report to the State Legislature that the Washtenaw County survey was completed in 1839. Because of the state's budgetary problems resulting from wildcat banks, state financial support of railroad development, and inflation, the state did not come through with financing for the actual map engraving and printing (done in Washington, D.C.) until 1842–1843, and the county maps were issued in early 1844. And only after Houghton had found rich deposits of iron and copper in the Upper Peninsula, which brought out the settlers, the interest in the maps, and the money!

At the Bentley Library at the University of Michigan, Douglass Houghton's original field notebooks are preserved. It turns out he made his first cursory visit to Manchester on August 13, 1837. Since Houghton's primary objective in 1837 was quickly finding salt springs and various minerals and ores, he visited only briefly, leaving it to Hubbard to come back two years later and do the detail work. It is presumed that Sylvester Higgins also did his detailed mapping in 1839 as part of Hubbard's team. I could find no record of Higgins' field notes in my Internet research.

The Palmyra and Jacksonburgh Railroad was chartered in 1836, capitalized by 1838, and a route surveyed by 1839, but the extension from Tecumseh through Manchester to Jackson was not completed at the time of Houghton and Hubbard's work. This further dated the map to the late 1830s.

East Manchester, 1872 (Click image to view larger version)

So, again, where did the name Lexington come from? Houghton's team members were experts, and their accuracy and meticulousness is well documented in the state records. So clearly they were told "Lexington" when James Soule was asked the name of the settlement. Given the propensity of our settlers to name settlements after their original homesteads in New York State, I went looking. Soule received his land patent for the Lexington location in September 1834, while he was a resident of Ontario County, New York (which is the county in which Manchester, New York is located). By early 1835 he is in Manchester, Michigan, receiving other government land patents in the area.

In looking at Ontario County, there is no current locale by the name of Lexington. But it turns out Soule lived all over New York during his life before Michigan, including at least four different counties. Lexington, New York is in Greene County, in the beautiful Catskill Mountain area. Could he have been there at one time, and developed some emotional attachment? And why didn't the Lexington name stick? At the time of writing this article, we haven't found the proof of what "Lexington" meant to Soule, but we'll keep digging. Perhaps we'll be able to report in a later edition.

An excerpt from the map, showing details existing in the summer of 1839. Lexington is the cluster of four buildings on the River Raisin bend in Section 1 of Manchester Township. (Click image to view larger version)

Finally, looking at the map (see left), and comparing the 1839 roads to today, we see many familiar routes. Three primary "roads" led into the Manchester area in the 1830s for early settlers coming from New York and New England. The Territorial Road west out of Ann Arbor brought settlers to Lima Center and Pierceville, and then south. The Chicago Road brought them from Detroit to the southern ends of our townships. And a Native American trail branching off the Chicago Road at the Textile Road-Platt Road intersection brought them through Lodi Plains and down the current Weber and Bethel Church roads into Freedom and Sharon Townships. But that is another story...

[Previously published in M, Manchester's Magazine, Vol. 2, 1 May 2007. Presented here by permission.]