The History of Emmet County

by Harriet Kilborn, Emmet County Clerk 1967-1980

Emmet County is at the top of the Michigan mitten. Its northern tip bumps into the Straits of Mackinac and Lake Michigan outlines its western boundary. At first, Ottawa Indians, occupied the lake shore rim. Beyond the water’s edge there were only the forest, the lakes, the streams, and some swamps dismal enough to discourage a traveling bear. Its strategic location on the Great Lakes waterways, however, marked it for early discovery by white men and the point of control for the whole upper Great Lakes territory. By the time Michigan became a state, well over one hundred years of fur trading, European-indian wars and empire-building history were already behind it.

Recorded history started about 1715, the year the French built Fort Michilimackinac on the Straits, at present-day Mackinaw City. The history of the area revolved around this fort for the next 66 years. For the first 46 years, until 1761, the French were in control. The Indians were generally faithful to them. They agreeably brought in the furs, and just as agreeably sent war parties far distances to harass the British forces at war with the French. France lost this final aspect of the struggle to get control of the fur trade, called the French and Indian War, and by treaty provisions, the vast Great Lakes country. British forces moved into Fort Michilimackinac when the French moved out in 1761. With the exception of one little setback, they were there until 1781.

The setback occurred on June 2, 1763 when a group of indians expressed their displeasure in colorful and graphic style by an efficient massacre of most of the garrison. This was the most blood curdling episode in the territorial period of the county’s history. It took about two years after the massacre for the British to reestablish themselves at the Fort. They were there when the Revolutionary War was fought. Two years before the end of that historic struggle the fort commandant had a new fort built on the more Gibraltar-like Mackinac Island. Old Fort Michilimackinac was abandoned in 1781 and the beehive center of the fur trading, military and political doings shifted from the mainland to that island.

The Indian settlement on the western lake shore rim of the county, however, continued to flourish. In 1840, the year Emmet achieved shape and form as a county of the State of Michigan, Indian villages were almost continuous along the shore line from today’s Harbor Springs to Cross Village. The area was still a wilderness, the Indians, by treaty provision with the U.S. Government, having the right to occupy the land. The county continued to be mostly Indian reservation until 1875. In that period of time it was used pretty much as a political football and went through numerous changes in shape and size.

In 1840 the State Legislature, wishing to take the basic steps necessary to insure proper development of the whole state, passed Act No. 119 laying off and outlining the boundaries of certain northern counties. These counties were unorganized, or prospective only. Section 28 of that Act described the boundaries of Emmet County as that portion of the State lying north of the line between towns 36 and 37 north, and west of the line between ranges 4 and 5 west. The Act designated it as the County of Tonedagana. Two years later another act changed the name to Emmet. Why an area with such a long and colorful Indian history was required to sacrifice its original name to some Irish patriot remains a mystery. These unorganized northern counties were attached to the organized Mackinaw County for judicial purposes.

In 1847 a colony of Mormons under King James J. Strang settled on Beaver Island. Feuding, worse than the Hatfields and McCoys, started immediately between them and the whites in the Mackinaw and Charlevoix areas. The Mormons had the short end of the stick: the Mackinaw group had charge of law and order. In 1852, King Strang, by a brilliant political maneuver, managed to become a member of the House of Representatives of the State Legislature. By January of 1853 he had ushered through Act No. 18 of the Sessions Laws of 1853 entitled, “An Act to Organize the County of Emmet”. The Act provided that the islands contiguous to the counties of Emmet and Charlevoix, together with so much of range 4 west as was theretofore included in Cheboygan County, should be annexed to Emmet County and that the former County of Charlevoix should be a township of Emmet County. King Strang now had some law and order of his own and a much larger area of control. There is plenty of evidence, but no official records, to show that he made haste to properly organize the now greatly enlarged Emmet County and put the legal machinery in motion. County business was certainly transacted at St. James on Beaver Island and Mormons were, naturally, the county officials.

The first expedition of the Emmet County Sheriff and his posse resulted in what is known as the Battle of Pine River (Charlevoix). The battle itself resulted only in a badly shot-up posse but because of it the whites on the mainland at Charlevoix thought it best to leave Emmet County territory. Further resistance to the growing Mormon strength was then engineered legally in the State Legislature by Mackinaw and Charlevoix men. In 1855 they succeeded in getting an act passed to reorganize the County of Emmet. This time, the islands, including the Beavers, were set off into a county by themselves. The Mormons, therefore, were effectively separated from Emmet County affairs. The Act further provided for the elections of county officers and the board of supervisors was directed to fix the county seat.

Forty votes were cast in the first special election. There is no evidence that those elected ever qualified or performed any official act. In the fall of 1856 the first regular election was held and 162 votes cast for county officers. These officers qualified and official records commenced soon after that date. According to an undated certificate, properly signed by county officials, the Board of Supervisors at a meeting held at Little Traverse (Harbor Springs), on April 27, 1857 voted to establish the county seat at Little Traverse.

At this time a group of men was planning an ambitious promotion for the future Mackinaw City. The city, so far on paper only, would rival Chicago and people far and wide would be urged to hurry north and settle where all these natural advantages for establishing a profitable business awaited them. This project may have been the reason why the State Legislature in February of 1858, passed an Act establishing the county seat for Emmet County at Mackinaw City. The Emmet County Board of Supervisors promptly informed the state officials that they had already established the county seat at Little Traverse and in 1861 the Act was declared unconstitutional and repealed.

The History of Township Organization in Emmet County

As stated earlier, Emmet County was organized in 1853 by the Mormon King, James Jesse Strang. Its boundaries were considerably larger then. At this point, we are dealing only with such townships as existed at one time or another within the present boundaries of Emmet County.

The first of these was Charlevoix Township. It was organized in 1853 and included the present nine townships in the southern half of the county. In a major reorganization by the State Legislature in 1855, Charlevoix Township lost all of this territory except for the southern tip of Resort Township.

In the 1855 reorganization, four new townships, La Croix (name changed to Cross Village in 1875), Little Traverse, Bear Creek and Old Fort Mackinac were created by the State. The County Board of Supervisors created two more, Arbour Croche and Utopia. In defining the boundaries for Little Traverse and Bear Creek, the State had given an area to both townships. The Supervisors had defined Arbour Croche boundaries as being the same as the Little Traverse minus the area of overlap in Bear Creek Township. It appears that this resolved the situation to everyone’s satisfaction. The Supervisors used the boundaries they established for Arbour Croche but called it Little Traverse Township, and the name Arbour Croche simply disappeared. The townships of Utopia and Old Fort Mackinac were swallowed up by other township organizations after white settlement began.

White settlement started in Emmet County in the fall of 1874, with the homesteaders coming in droves in 1875 and 1876. By 1877 there were sufficient clusters of them to organize six additional townships. These were the townships of Bliss, Friendship, Littlefield, Maple River, Pleasantview and Readmond. Center Township came into existence in 1878 and Carp Lake in 1879. In 1897, parts of Friendship and Little Traverse Townships detached and organized as West Traverse Township.

The townships of Resort and Springvale were formed in 1880, but at the time were in Charlevoix County. They, with Bear Creek, suffered boundary changes too numerous to mention. The townships of Bear Creek and Spring Lake were created out of portions of these townships. It was not until 1897 that the boundaries of these townships finally stabilized and areas that belonged to Charlevoix County for awhile came back to Emmet County. At that time the portions of Bear Lake and Spring Lake Townships in Emmet County were annexed by Bear Creek and Springvale Townships.

The Township of Egleston (name changed to McKinley in 1903) was organized in 1897. The last change was made in 1923 when fractional town 39, North of R4W was detached from Carp Lake Township and organized as Wawatam Township.

History of the County Courthouse

The old courthouse, first known as the Petoskey City Hall, was started in 1901 and completed in 1902. It cost the city of Petoskey $40,000.00 to build. One newspaper correspondent visited Petoskey in April of 1902 and reported:

“The architectural appearance of the structure is imposing. It is red pressed brick with gray sandstone trimming, and is of pleasing exterior detail. The interior throughout is of polished oak, excepting the basement which is occupied by the fire department and a modern steel-cage jail with excellent sanitary appliances. The main floor is devoted to office rooms, large, high and well lighted. Above are still more large offices and the court room. This chamber will be one of the finest of its kind in the northern half of the state. From its windows is afforded one of the most magnificent panoramic views we have ever seen, overlooking as it does, the entire length of Little Traverse Bay. The building is a credit to northern Michigan.”

This building, completed with a clock in the tower to bong out the hours of each day, was the bait offered the citizens of the county if they would change the county seat from Harbor Springs to Petoskey. At the October, 1901 session, the Emmet County Board of Supervisors considered the offer. After three days of quarreling they agreed to accept the 50-year lease offer of the building and authorized a vote on the removal of the county seat from Harbor Springs to Petoskey. From then until voting day – April of 1902 – the factions for and against removal waged a bitter war of words. Even Charlevoix County got into the act. There were those who proclaimed it would mean the end of Charlevoix County if Petoskey became the county seat of Emmet. They based the assumption on the idea that a number of Charlevoix townships would like to be taken in by Antrim. Considering the history of political affairs in the area, the fears and the word fight waged, are not hard to understand. Charlevoix had been annexed before and Harbor Springs had lost the county seat.

In 1853 the State Legislature passed an Act organizing Emmet County. Included in its boundary was the unorganized county of Charlevoix plus the Mormon King Strang’s domain, the Beaver Islands. Since Strang was responsible for all this, the first official affairs of Emmet County were conducted by Mormons at St. James on Beaver Island.

King Strang’s drive for political power was effectively halted in 1855 when the Legislature reorganized Emmet County, chopping the Beaver Islands from its boundaries. There was very little choice and no objection now to relocating the county seat at Little Traverse, now Harbor Springs. This was done officially by the Emmet County Board of Supervisors in April of 1857.

In February of 1858 the State Legislature went out on its own and passed an act establishing the county seat for Emmet County at Mackinaw City. The Board of Supervisors screamed about this and in 1861 the Legislature got around to repealing the act as unconstitutional.

The question of location popped up again in 1867 when the Charlevoix area citizens wanted the county seat moved to Charlevoix. There was a vote on this, but some people voted for a county seat and others, for a county site, so no one knew for sure which side won. In May of 1868 the Circuit Court ruled in favor of Charlevoix and ordered the removal of county records to that village. The next year an area was carved off Emmet and a Charlevoix County was officially organized. The seat of Emmet County was now in another county and no provision for its relocation was authorized. However, Harbor Springs became the county seat, in fact if not legally, until 1902.

The April 1902 vote for removal to Petoskey passed by a two-thirds majority. There was some question of its being a clear-cut mandate for change since the tremendous vote expected did not materialize. A snowstorm on Election Day kept many away from the polls.

Emmet County affairs had been conducted in the Court House at Petoskey for 63 years. Tearing down the familiar land-mark in 1966 to make way for a new, more modern structure, was not accomplished without a twinge of regret. People have especially missed the sound and sight of the old clock in the tower. It was a gift to the city in 1902 by one of its leading citizens, Mrs. W.L. Curtis. The clock was removed before the building was razed, and perhaps someday its voice can be heard again in Petoskey.

Who was Robert Emmet, Emmet County’s namesake?

Have you ever wondered about the namesake of Emmet County? It’s Robert Emmet, an Irish nationalist, orator and rebel leader born in Dublin, Ireland.

He became a heroic figure in Irish history and his legacy lives on in a number of locations named for him; aside from Emmet County, Michigan, there is also an Emmet County, Iowa, Emmetsburg, Iowa, and Emmet, Nebraska. There is also a statue of him in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.

Recent photographs of Emmet’s statue were taken at St. Stephens Green in Dublin, Ireland, by Emmet County resident Ed Karmann, who owns the County Emmet Celtic shop in downtown Petoskey.

Emmet County, Michigan
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