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The 1796 Surrender of Detroit to the U.S.

A circuit rider judge's notes on the Northwestern Territory provide insights into Michigan history.

“Burnet’s Notes On The Northwestern Territory”, written by Jacob Burnet (1770 – 1853), provides very interesting insight into the surrender of Detroit and is quoted below. He was a circuit rider judge who was a personal witness to many significant early events in Michigan’s history. His book was published in 1847 based on a series of letters he wrote starting in 1837.

The Revolutionary War ended with the Treaty of Paris, signed in 1783, which granted the Northwest Territories to the United States. Since there was no pressure from the local inhabitants to hand over Detroit, and since most of the Indians in the Northwest Territories supported the British and vigorously resisted American movement into the territory, it remained in the hands of the British.

The so-called “Western Indian Confederacy,” under the leadership of Blue Jacket of the Shawnees and Little Turtle of the Miamis, engaged U.S. military forces in the area and won decisive victories against them in 1790 and 1791. In response, George Washington placed Revolutionary War hero Anthony Wayne in charge of a military force to overcome the Indian opposition and open the Territory to U.S. settlement.

During the campaign of 1793-1794, a tree fell on General Wayne’s tent leaving him unconscious. The next day he had recovered enough to resume his march and engage the Indians in the decisive battle known as the Battle of Fallen Timbers, just south of present day Toledo, which ended the war.

In 1795, General Wayne called together the Indian tribes of the Northwest Territories to a location in Ohio, where he negotiated the Treaty of Greenville between the Western Indian Confederacy and the United States. The treaty was signed on August 3, 1795. This at last cleared the way for the US to take possession of the Northwest Territories. Burnet, who knew Wayne personally wrote:

“Early in 1796, the British government surrendered the northern posts, including Fort Miami, built in 1794, by Governor Simcoe, at the foot of the Rapids of the Maumee, together with the town of Detroit, and the military works, both there and on the island of Mackinaw, in pursuance of the treaty negotiated by Chief Justice Jay, in 1793.

“The posts were delivered to General Wayne, who had been authorised to receive them, by the President of the United States. As soon as he had performed that duty, and had made the necessary arrangements to have the works properly garrisoned and supplied.

“The Governor of the North-western Territory, who had accompanied the General to Detroit, and was present when the possession of the posts was delivered, proceeded immediately to establish a new county on the strait, to which he gave the name of Wayne; in compliment to the chief, whose victory at the foot of the Rapids, two years before, had hastened the execution of the treaty of 1793, by the British government.

“The town was the most ancient on the upper lakes, having been settled by the French, as early as 1683; and it was the capital of Upper Canada, till it fell into the hands of the United States.

“When the American troops took possession of the northern posts, the inhabitants of Detroit, and its contiguous settlements, from Lake St. Clair, to the river Raisin, on both sides of the strait, were, almost exclusively, Canadian French, who were the owners and cultivators of the soil.

“One of the consequences of the change of government, and of the introduction of judicial tribunals in that country, was the commencement of a large number of suits, many of them to test the correctness of the decisions of the Commandants, particularly in cases involving the title to real estate. The docket was soon crowded with cases, and the practice became as lucrative as that of any other county in the Territory.

“The old town which was surrendered to the United States was entirely burnt down, in 1805, and was afterwards rebuilt on a new and more convenient plan. It had been for many years, the principal depot of the fur trade of the north west, and the residence of a large number of English and Scotch merchants, who were engaged in it, and was of course a place of great business. The greater part of the merchants engaged in the fur trade, both Scotch and English, had their domiciles at Detroit; and the nature of the trade was such as to require large amounts of capital, in order to be profitable; because the great distance, and the immense extent of country, over which their furs and peltry were collected, rendered it impossible to turn the capital employed more than once in a year, and sometimes once in two years. The business was also extremely laborious and precarious. In some seasons, their profits were enormously large; in others, they were small; and occasionally, they were subjected to heavy losses.”

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