History of the City of Monroe
From 600-to-230 million years ago, Monroe was on the bottom of a large shallow sea that covered much of central North America. Today a peek back to that time can be seen in the limestone rocks that form layers along the sides of the North Dixie Highway Underpass. These limestone rocks are the remains of that ancient sea. From about 500-250-million years ago, Monroe’s climate was probably much warmer than it is today because it was located father south. The seas eventually retreated and about a million years ago the first glaciers began advancing into the Midwest from Canada. Matter of fact, a little bit of Canada is under the feet of all Monroe residents.
Glaciers advanced into the Monroe area from Canada and carried sand, silt, clay, and boulders. These materials were left here permanently when the last of the glaciers retreated north and left the upper Midwest about 10,000 years ago. Geologists say glaciers that covered Monroe were up to a mile-high. The glaciers’ bulldozing power was so intense as they moved south that they gouged deep depressions and basins in the land. As the glaciers receded north from the Midwest, enormous amounts of meltwater from the glaciers filled the deep depressions — eventually forming Lake Erie and the four-other Great Lakes.1, 2, 12
After the warming climate melted the glaciers, archeologists say small bands of Paleo-Indians (20-40 people) may have traveled back and forth through Monroe as they searched for large animals to hunt (barren-ground caribou) and gathered food from plants.13 Archeologists and historians say it is impossible to determine specific Native American tribal identities from this period forward until sometime after French explorer Rene Robert Cavalier Sieur de LaSalle opened the region of New France (an area today that includes much of Eastern Canada, Michigan, and land extending south to the Louisiana) to French missionaries and fur trappers (beaver pelts) after his expedition of 1679. That year LaSalle sailed east-to-west across Lake Erie aboard the first sailing vessel on the Great Lakes, the Griffon.
Because of the area’s abundance of food and easy transport found along the River Raisin and Lake Erie, there probably were people who used Monroe as either a crossroads, camp site, or village for many hundreds of years before the first European explorers visited the area. But so far the earliest documented presence in Monroe that archaeologists have found are artifacts they have unearthed at the northwest corner of North Dixie Highway and East Elm Avenue under the first of several excavations commissioned by the City of Monroe that took place 1999-2003. Those objects document Native American Indian presence circa 1550-1650 A.D.
The geologic sculpting that left behind Lake Erie also shaped the founding of Monroe. Much of the western end of Lake Erie was marshland, which made the land subject to flooding and an area to be avoided for building a settlement. A prior history of Monroe states “The presence of the marsh barrier between the City and Lake Erie was probably the single greatest influence upon Monroe’s development.”14 In 1784 American forces Colonel and Frenchman Francois (Francis) Navarre was the first known European to come to Monroe. On June 3, 1785 Potawatomi Native American Indian chiefs signed a deed giving Colonel Navarre land on the south bank of the River Raisin. Navarre’s homestead was located where the present day Sawyer Homestead stands. Sometime shortly after that date, French colonizers built a settlement called Frenchtown on the north bank of the River Raisin just a couple hundred yards northeast of the present Winchester Street Bridge.17
Even today the French influence is still evident in the way property is legally described in Monroe. In most townships throughout Michigan, property location is identified by one-square mile by one-square mile parcels of land known as Sections. However, in Monroe, property is described by what is known as French Claims (aka Private Claims). French Claims are narrow parcels of land that extend inland north and south from the banks of the River Raisin. In some cases these narrow plots of land could extend nearly 1.5-miles inland from the riverbank. The French Claims allowed French settlers to have access to the River Raisin, were used for home sites, and offered narrow strips of land for gardening, hunting, and afforded some protection from enemies because homes were spaced somewhat close.
Civil War Major General George Armstrong Custer first came to Monroe with his half sister Lydia in 1849 when he was ten-years-old to attend school two-years at the New Dublin primary school. He went back to his parents in New Rumley, Ohio. In 1853, at the age of 14, George Custer returned to Monroe for two-years of study at the Stebbins Academy. While in Monroe this second time he met a young Elizabeth (Libbie) Bacon. His impression of Ms. Bacon was lasting enough for him to return eleven-years later, during the height of the Civil War, in 1864 and marry her. Custer graduated as a second lieutenant from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1861. During the Civil War the young Custer fought as a cavalry officer at the Battle of Bull Run, Gettysburg, and numerous other battles, drilled new recruits and helped defend the nation’s capital, and served in the Army of the Potomac. After the War Between the States, Lieutenant Colonel Custer carried out War Department policy in regard to the various Native American tribes in the West as settlers began a massive migration west that would put them in direct competition for land and food that sustained wandering Indian tribes.5, 6
The result of competing and sometimes confusing government policies toward the Indians clashed with native way of life on a grassy ridge next to the valley of Montana’s Little Bighorn River. On June 25-26, 1876, Lieutenant Colonel Custer led 262-U.S. Army cavalry soldiers and scouts in battle against a force of more than 1,500 warriors of the Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes. The Indian confederation killed all in Custer’s attacking detachment.5, 6 Custer has been remembered in a number of ways. While many books have been written about the Ohio native, Custer was immortalized in popular culture when actor Errol Flynn portrayed Custer in the 1941 film “They Died With Their Boots On.”
Another man who lived in Monroe for part of his childhood was J. (Julius) Sterling Morton — founder of internationally-observed Arbor Day. Morton lived in Monroe 1834 – 1854 and developed a lasting appreciation for nature generally, and trees specifically. Two-year-old J. Sterling Morton arrived in Monroe with his parents from Adams, New York. They lived in a house at the southeast corner of Fourth and Harrison Streets. While growing up, Morton spent a lot of his time hanging out at his uncle Edward Morton’s Monroe Advocate newspaper offices. Uncle Edward was editor of the newspaper and the young nephew greatly admired his uncle and became interested in journalism and newspaper publishing. Young Morton attended Albion College in Albion, Michigan during the winter term of 1847 – 1848, and through the summer of 1848. In the autumn of 1850 Morton began attending the University of Michigan. Morton was a senior in May, 1854 and was one-month away from graduating when he was expelled from the university for his strong opposition to the firing of a physician on the medical school’s faculty. The university later awarded a bachelor’s degree to Morton in 1858. Morton’s parents moved from Monroe to Detroit in 1854. Also in 1854, the 22-year-old Morton and his new bride Caroline moved to the Nebraska Territory where he began his own career in journalism and newspaper publishing when he began publishing The Nebraska City News in 1855.
As was permitted at the time, during the Civil War Morton hired a substitute to take his place to serve in the Union Army. During the war Morton formed a Nebraska City Cavalry Company to keep Nebraska Territory residents safe from Indian attacks. In addition to starting a newspaper in 1855, that same year also saw Morton begin pursuit of another interest that would eventually take him to Washington: politics. In 1855 the young newspaper publisher was elected a representative in the Nebraska Territorial Legislature at the age of 23. Through writing and publishing stories in his The Nebraska City News, Morton encouraged farmers to improve their farming techniques, plant better crops, and plant trees on the largely treeless Nebraska plains. Morton promoted the many benefits
trees could give farmers: reduce soil erosion, provide wood for heating and cooking, and protect farm families from the blistering Nebraska summer sun. To help promote the many beneficial uses of wood, Morton proposed a tree-planting holiday in Nebraska, called Arbor Day. A day dedicated to trees would be his legacy. In 1872 Morton submitted a resolution to the Nebraska Board of Agriculture designating April 10 as Arbor Day. To encourage participation of this new day to promote the benefits of trees, Morton offered prizes to farmers who planted the most trees. Since then the popularity of the tree holiday has spread and is now celebrated around the planet, usually on the last Friday of April.
Later, Morton’s interests in agriculture and politics brought him to the attention of President Grover Cleveland, who appointed Morton Agriculture Secretary in 1893. During Morton’s tenure over the Agriculture Department, he achieved a nearly 20% savings in the cost of operating the department, operated the department with ten-percent fewer staff, improved and expanded the Weather Bureau, and introduced the widespread use of a civil service merit system instead of relying on political patronage. Morton was even a Democratic Party presidential candidate in 1896. The one-time Monroe resident, newspaper publisher, public servant, and founder of Arbor Day died in 1902 at the age of 70.
Two successful figures from the literary world called Monroe their long-time home: Elizabeth Upham McWebb (Aunt Bett) and Vern J. Sneider. Elizabeth Upham McWebb was lovingly known as Aunt Bett by untold numbers of children and adults who enjoyed reading her children’s stories. The character she is most famous for is Little Brown Bear. Little Brown Bear originally appeared as a central character in short stories Aunt Bett wrote that were first published in children’s magazines in 1938. Little Brown Bear was published in 1942 and was the first of seven books that chronicled the many adventures of the curious bear.
Besides being an accomplished author, Aunt Bett was also a prolific story teller. Through the years area children enjoyed listening to her read and tell stories at the library and at the Monroe County Fair. Aunt Bett graduated from Monroe High School in 1923 and later lived for many years in the house at 304 Tremont Street. On October 6, 2002 a statue dedication ceremony took place at the Dorsch Branch of the Monroe County Library System at Loranger Square in Downtown Monroe. On that day, just a few feet from the library’s entrance, a 600-pound bronze statue was dedicated of Little Brown Bear sitting on a log. The statue was paid for by donations. Elizabeth Upham McWebb died at the age of 99 in 2004.22, 23
Author Vern J. Sneider was born in 1916 and was a lifelong Monroe resident. Mr. Sneider served in the U.S. Army from 1941 to 1946. After World War Two ended, Mr. Sneider was assigned to the Japanese island of Okinawa during the occupation. Mr. Sneider wrote five books, numerous television scripts, and contributed to numerous periodicals, including the Saturday Evening Post and The New York Times Book Review. But it was his experience working in the Okinawan village of Tobaru that would lead him to write the work he is most known for and for which he won the highest form of literary recognition. Mr. Sneider published Teahouse of the August Moon in 1951 and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for that novel in 1954.
During Mr. Sneider’s service in the Army immediately after the end World War Two, he is credited with reopening 550 schools in Kyong Province, Korea. Teahouse of the August Moon is set in immediate Post World War Two occupied Japan on the island of Okinawa. It is a satirical look at the humorous results of what happened when the U.S. Army tried to teach representative democracy and capitalism to Japanese villagers who put their own unique spin on those two concepts that were new to them. The novel was later adapted into a Broadway production that debuted in 1953 and ran for 1,032 performances. In 1956 Mr. Sneider’s novel was produced as a film. The film starred Marlon Brando, Glen Ford, Eddie Albert, and Paul Ford. From 1961 until his death in 1981, Mr. Sneider lived at 426 North Macomb Street. The Monroe author died in 1981 and his obituary was published in The Washington Post and The New York Times.24, 25