2013-04-13 / Columnists

A Look at History

Ribbons of Land Are Features of Straits of Mackinac Real Estate Titles
BY FRANK STRAUS

The current issue of the bimonthly periodical Michigan History features an article by our neighbor, Brian Leigh Dunnigan. Entitled “Detroit’s Ribbon Farms,” the March/April 2013 article describes how French settlement patterns created an enduring feature of the Detroit landscape. Many miles of the waterfront of Michigan’s largest metropolitan area, from economically depressed acreage within the city of Detroit itself to pleasure-boat-filled frontage in the Grosse Pointes, are legally marked off as “ribbons.” The earliest French-speaking settlers asked for only a few feet of frontage on the Detroit River or Lake Saint Clair for each household, with most of each family’s land stretching back into what was then the unsettled territory of mainland Michigan. Even after these farmlands became parts of one of America’s largest cities, the original land lines created for these first settlers remain legal boundaries between parcels of land.


An early drawing of Market Street shows the Biddle house on the left and the Mitchell house on the right, both built around 1780. (Photograph courtesy of Tom Pfeiffelmann) An early drawing of Market Street shows the Biddle house on the left and the Mitchell house on the right, both built around 1780. (Photograph courtesy of Tom Pfeiffelmann) Cutting land up into ribbons made a lot of sense in the 1700s, based upon the farming patterns of life in much of both France and England at the time. Today’s tractor or combine will circle around, spiraling in towards the center or out towards the outskirts of a field; but back then, a plow or other farm implement would be hitched up to a horse, to a team of oxen, or to a mule team or other draft animals. It used to be one of the most highly prized traits of a boy growing up to be a conscientious farmer that he could lead a team in plowing the straightest possible furrow; the last pre-tractor farmer boy to become a president, Harry Truman, was honored by his neighbors for these and other traits, and was elected by these neighbors to the Jackson County, Missouri, county board; his political career went on from there, and after he became the nation’s chief executive, his friends published a child’s biography of him entitled “Straight Furrow” (1949).


John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company acquired land around its warehouse and at the beach. The street that connected everything is called Astor Street to this day. The old Clerk’s Quarters can be seen at right. The site is now occupied by the post office. (Photograph by Robert Benjamin, courtesy of Tom Pfeiffelmann) John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company acquired land around its warehouse and at the beach. The street that connected everything is called Astor Street to this day. The old Clerk’s Quarters can be seen at right. The site is now occupied by the post office. (Photograph by Robert Benjamin, courtesy of Tom Pfeiffelmann) You can see, on legal maps, the descendants of these straight furrows in and around Detroit; across the river in and around Windsor, Ontario, where the land on the other side of the Detroit River was surveyed and granted along similar lines; and at the Straits of Mackinac, much of the land in and around St. Ignace was also surveyed and granted out in this way. If you have a map of St. Ignace on paper or in your head, you can see how after Portage Street leaves State Street and heads west, it just keeps going past the high school. Sometimes called “Old Portage Road,” to distinguish this old road from the newer South Portage Road, it winds up at U.S. Highway 2 right near Point LaBarbe. Old Portage Road is the dividing line between two ribbon grants of land that were squeezed next to each other with their heads in East Moran Bay and their feet wading in Lake Michigan, and many other ribbons are stacked alongside them like long, thin dominoes in a chain.

Mackinac Island, in contrast to St. Ignace, was settled under the British Army in 1780-1781. While the British armed forces wanted the French settlers of the Great Lakes to be on their side (as opposed to the American rebels), the relationship between the British Army and these French pioneers and fur traders was not good enough to grant out most of the land of Mackinac Island in this way. The lieutenant governor of the Island, Patrick Sinclair, appears to have wanted most of the Island to be public land, and there is no record that land titles were granted immediately. A stockade wall was built around what is now the western half of the Island’s harbor front, and Fort Street and Market Street were laid out. Within this stockade, the harbor’s civilian real estate was informally sliced up into mini-ribbons. Successful fur traders were allowed to occupy strips of land with frontage on the Island’s pebbly harbor beach, where Main Street now carries out its thriving life. Records indicate that for a short time they had to be land squatters. Canoes crunched ashore and trade goods – bales of furs on the one hand and barrels, kegs, and chests of craft goods on the other – came with them. Many of the goods stayed on Main Street, and other wares were carried or rolled up the hill to the shops and trading offices of Market Street. Significant buildings of the fur-trading era survive on Market Street, including the American Fur Company store, the Stuart House, thefur company warehouse (now the Community Hall), the Biddle House, and several private residences. Eventually, under the Americans, legal titles were distributed to these ribbons of “downtown” land.

Often when a barrel of salt or a keg of gunpowder was rolled up the hill to its new inventory space, it was being rolled on a trail or arcade that was part of, or bordered, the property of a ribbon-owner. John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company acquired significant land parcels on the harbor and also up the hill with holdings grouped around its large warehouse, and the street that connected the two groups of parcels is called “Astor Street” to this day. A much narrower ribbonstreet, French Lane, may have been used by French-speaking traders; about 750 feet to the southwestward of Astor Street, this lane also connects Main Street with Market Street. Historians identify the oldest section of the nearby Biddle House as a surviving French Colonial log house of the type that would have been lived in by this group of Islanders.

The “ribbon style” of surveying and laying out land parcels survived the French political presence in Michigan by some decades. When the Americans came to the Straits of Mackinac in 1796, they did not settle on the island of Bois Blanc; instead, this island south of Mackinac was used for decades as a place for our Island to catch fish, gather firewood, boil maple sap into syrup, and as the probable location of a lime kiln to make lime mortar and plaster (the promontory that points towards our Island and the Mackinac Bridge is called “Lime Kiln Point” on marine charts). When the Army finally had the sandy, low-lying island surveyed in 1827, they started at Lime Kiln Point and drew a surveyor’s line almost straight east-south-east along the length of Bois Blanc; and the two halves that lay north and south of this line were sliced into, yes, ribbons, with their feet in the water and their heads on the survey lines. And that is how property lines on Bois Blanc look to this day.

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