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The book version of James Gammell's life story is now available. Click on this image.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Fitzgeralds of Spring Arbor

Spring Arbor, Michigan
Replica of a typical cabin of the early 1830's

In the century preceding 1829, Detroit was “almost the only civilized spot in the vast area about the Great Lakes.”(1)   The land twelve miles west of the tiny hamlet of Ann Arbor marked the edge of civilization.  Beyond that point was a virgin wilderness known only to occasional government surveyors and soldiers, or adventure seekers and Indian traders.(2)  A few adventurous early pioneers sent reports east to friends and family about the rich natural resources and fertile land available in south central Michigan.  As word spread, the influx of settlers began. The Erie Canal, combined with the Lake Erie steamboats, plus the well-marked Detroit to Chicago trail, made southern Michigan easily and cheaply accessible to settlers from west central New York seeking to start a new life on the frontier.(3)  They could make the journey with all their possessions in about two weeks. In the early 1830’s the Michigan territorial legislature divided the land in the southern counties into eighty-acre parcels for sale at one dollar and twenty-five cents per acre.(4) John Fitzgerald, a farmer from Onondaga County, New York, his wife, Abigail, and their children were among the first wave of settlers to inhabit Jackson County in about 1832. On February 11, 1833, Fitzgerald purchased two parcels of government land: eighty acres in the southwest corner of Spring Arbor Township and the adjoining eighty acres in Concord Township.(5)  He successfully operated his land and became quite well to do in the process.(6)

John Fitzgerald’s daughter, Harriet, born in Onondaga County, New York, had lived in Spring Arbor since she was sixteen years old.  She met James Gemmell soon after he arrived in Michigan, and married him in the Jackson County Court House on September 29, 1843.(7)  Harriet was twenty-seven, and James was twenty-eight. Less than three years later Harriet gave birth to their son, Orlin Fitzgerald Gammell (b. 5 July 1846.)

Soon after Orlin’s second birthday, and five years after her marriage to James, Harriet died.  She was just thirty-two years old. Harriet, her parents, and her sister Maria were all buried in the Spring Arbor Cemetery.(8)  The inscription on her headstone reads: “HARRIET, wife of James Gemmell, and daughter of John and Abigail FITZGERALD, Died August 20, 1848, E. 32 yrs. 4 mo. 4 ds.”

My brother Mark Gammell and his family at Spring Arbor Cemetery.
Gravestones, from left to right:  John Fitzgerald, his wife Abigail,
and his daughters, Harriet and Maria.

John and Abigail reared Orlin after their daughter’s death. Later, after the death of his grandparents, Orlin lived with his uncle, John Fitzgerald, and his wife, Eliza, and their two daughters, Mary and Alta, on the Fitzgerald homestead in Spring Arbor. John, Jr., like his father before him, was a successful farmer and active member of the community.  He served as Justice of the Peace for eight years, Township Treasurer for three years, and was a member of Concord Masonic Lodge.(9)

Fifteen months after Harriet’s death James remarried: “James Gemmell, age 34, of Jackson, and Mrs. Editha A. Clark, [widow of James B. Clark](10)  age 34, of the same place on 15 November 1849 at Jackson by E. H. Hamlin, Pastor Baptist Church. Witnessess: Silas Every and George Sutton of Jackson.”(11)   In the 1850 Census, which was taken at least seven months after the marriage, James had gone west, and Edith is listed as Edith Campbell (likely a misspelling of Gemmell). She was living with two daughters, Mary A. Clark, age fourteen, and Amanda Clark, age ten.(12)

It is difficult to piece together the time line, but we do know that after 1843 James made several expeditions west, some as far as the Great Salt Lake Valley, returning each time to his family in Michigan.  In any case, James didn’t like to stay settled for long.  Sometime after his marriage to Editha (November 1849), he returned to the Salt Lake Valley, but didn’t return to Michigan for at least six years, if at all.(13)
  1. Parkins, A. E. (Almon Ernest), The Historical Geography of Detroit, Lansing, 1918, p. vi.
  2. Thomas, James M., Jackson City Directory and Business Advertiser for 1867-68, p. 2.
  3. Parkins, pp. 173-4.
  4. Terman, William J., Spring Arbor Township 1830-1980, Spring Arbor, 1980, p. 18.
  5. Terman, p. 27; Peck, Paul R., Early They Came, p.100. (See Section 31in southwest Spring Arbor Township, and adjoining Section 36 in southeast Concord Township.) Peck, Landsmen of Jackson County: An entry in this book records that John Fitzgerald purchased another 193.84 acres on the same day, Feb. 11, 1833. This parcel of land adjoined section 31 (Spring Arbor Township) to the south and was part of Hanover Township.) Sections 31 and 36 still belonged to the Fitzgerald family after 1887, when John Fitzgerald, Jr. died, and his widow, Eliza, continued to live in a lovely home in Concord and maintain the Fitzgerald estate.
  6. Portraits and Biographies of the Governors of Michigan…, pub. Chapman Bros., Chicago, 1890, pp. 496-97.
  7. Jackson County Marriages 1833-1870, p. 138.
  8. The Fitzgerald graves are located in Spring Arbor Cemetery, southwest corner and four or five rows east of the west fence [Spring Arbor Road (M60)].
  9. See Google Books: Portraits and Biographies of the Governors of Michigan...,, pub. Chapman Bros., Chicago, 1890, pp 496-97. (Biographical sketches of Mrs. Eliza M. Fitzgerald, her parents, and her husband.)
  10. Land Records Prior to 1850, Jackson County, Michigan, Vol. 4:  “On 1 April 1846 for the consideration of $40.00, James B. Clark and Edith A. Clark, his wife, both of Jackson to James G. McCraken of the same place, a convey of land in the village of Jackson.”
  11. Jackson County Marriages 1833-1870,  p. 138.
  12. Ten years later (1860 Census), she was still living with her two daughters (one was married), but she was listed as Edith Clark, having reclaimed the name of her first husband.
  13. Gemmell, Letter to Brigham Young, Aug. 20, 1856, from Brigham Young Papers, Church Archives.

Note:  Monday, May 10th,  the PBS series "American Experience" broadcast a documentary "Whaling Industry in America."  It was excellent.... a vivid portrayal of what James must have experienced on his voyage to New Bedford.   I hope it will be repeated.  (Check the PBS website.) 

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