THE NAMING OF KALAMAZOO
“Kalamazoo” was originally a Native American name although its exact origin hasn’t been pinpointed. Some say it means “the mirage of reflecting river,” while others say it means bubbling or boiling water.
The earliest residents of the area were the “Moundbuilders,” an early race of Native Americans that subsisted on farming. A number of earthen mounds attributed to these people still exist in the area; the most prominent one can be found in downtown Kalamazoo’s Bronson Park. Experts feel that other Native Americans who later traveled down from the north probably exterminated the Moundbuilders. The earliest written records tell of the Sioux frequently occupying the region followed by the Mascoutin and the Miami. But by the time the white settlers arrived in the area that was to become Kalamazoo County, the land was occupied by the Pottawatomi Tribe, a branch of the greater Algonquin people.
In 1680, the first white men journeyed through southern Michigan passing through Prairie Ronde and Climax. Traders occasionally did business in the county more than a century later in 1795. The Treaty of 1795 opened the Northwest Territory for settlement also setting aside a large portion of what was to be Kalamazoo County for a reservation known as “Match-e-be-nash-e-wish.” This may have been the chief gathering place of the Pottawatomi Indians. The Treaty of 1821, known as the “Chicago Treaty” opened this plot of land to white settlers and became the basis for many of the county’s land titles. In 1827 the Indian reservation was consolidated in the southern end of Kalamazoo County and the northern part of St. Joseph County. Another treaty with the Native Americans in 1833 arranged the exchange of five million acres of their land for $40,000 in trinkets and trappings. The enforcement of the treaty in 1840 required the relocation of Kalamazoo’s Native Americans across the Mississippi River.
According to Dr. Willis Dunbar’s Kalamazoo and How it Grew, the first white resident of the area was probably a British fur trader named Burrell who in 1795 spent the winter at his trading post near what is now Riverside Cemetery. A Frenchman named Numaiville erected the first permanent trading post in 1823. Rix Robinson took over the post and operated it until 1837. The first white settler of the county was a man named Bazel Harrison, cousin of U.S. President William Henry Harrison. Harrison traveled to Kalamazoo County in late 1828 and built his home on the shores of a small lake 3 miles northwest of what is now Schoolcraft. (Harrison is said to be the person James Fennimore Cooper had in mind when he created the character Ben Boden in his famous novel, The Oak Openings). Other settlers followed quickly and by 1830 over 100 families had settled in the Prairie Ronde area. Within a year, all of the county’s eight prairies had been settled.
In 1829 Titus Bronson built the first cabin within the modern city limits on Arcadia Creek, west of the present Westnedge Avenue. A year later he replaced it with a permanent cabin on the present site of Bronson Park. The county itself was organized by an act of the territorial legislature and approved by the governor on July 3, 1830. The town of Bronson was officially designated the county seat on May 1, 1831. Five years later an influential group of men in town, dismayed by the apparent eccentricities of Titus Bronson, had the name of the town changed to “Kalamazoo.”
Lucius Lyon, a land speculator, who later became one of Michigan’s first U.S. Senators at statehood, founded the village of Schoolcraft. In 1830, John Vickers built the county’s first gristmill in the Prairie Ronde area. Within the same year he sold it and built another 20 miles away. The village that grew around the newest mill came to be called Vicksburg.
In 1800 the waterways and the Indian trails were the only routes a traveler in the county could follow. Settlers constructed the first primitive roads after 1830, the main one being the Territorial Road. This ran from Detroit to St. Joseph and bisected the county. The first plank roads were built around 1845 with the most important one stretching from Kalamazoo to Grand Rapids. Although these roads aided transportation, travel on them could be slow and sometimes treacherous. The railroads soon became a faster and safer means of transportation. The Michigan Central line first spanned the territory between Detroit and Kalamazoo in 1846 and its link to Chicago was completed in 1852. By 1905 at least six railroads connected Kalamazoo with the rest of the continent. By that time, however, the importance of the railways began to fade. The short-lived interurban systems were attracting short distance passengers and freight shippers.
In the first quarter of the twentieth century, the development of gasoline powered vehicles and hard-surfaced roads offered the residents of the county improved transportation possibilities. Presently two major roads in the county are Interstate 94 and U.S. 131, both of them limited access expressways. The county also has four airlines serving its needs.
Since the early days of white settlement, Kalamazoo County has always supported a strong farming economy. Industry has also been a strong force in the county’s economic development. As early as 1850 an iron furnace to smelt bog ore was founded in the county. After the Civil War, paper manufacturers began setting up shop in the Kalamazoo River Valley and in 1886 the Upjohn Drug Company (later Pharmacia & Upjohn and now Pfizer), one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical firms, was founded. The many other new and diversified industries attracted more workers and families to Kalamazoo County.
For further information on the history of Kalamazoo County and its communities, the book Kalamazoo and How it Grew by Willis F. Dunbar, Western Michigan University, 1959, is very helpful.
Most of the county’s early white settlers were fur traders from England or New York. The remainder came from Pennsylvania and Maryland. After 1845 the number of foreign immigrants increased rapidly especially with the coming of the Hollanders in 1850. The growth rate of the county’s population reached its height between 1845 and 1860 when almost 8,000 newcomers settled here. That growth rate was not exceeded for 50 years when between 1904 and 1920 the population grew to 214,000, quite an increase over the 1860 figure. Increased immigration, better transportation, and the appearance of diversified industries all played a role in Kalamazoo County’s growth.
CULTURE & EDUCATION
As the size of Kalamazoo County grew, so did the variety of social and cultural activities. The Kalamazoo Gazette, the county’s earliest newspaper, is one of the state’s oldest. Many other papers were published here in the early years, including the Kalamazoo Telegraph (1844-1916).
The county’s educational facilities have always been a source of pride for residents. The first public high school was built in 1859 and in April 1833, the territorial governor signed legislation authorizing a charter for the Michigan and Huron Institute. Its first building was erected in 1836 on Cedar Street between Park and Westnedge and over the years, the Institute evolved into the well-respected Kalamazoo College. At present the county boasts four institutions of higher learning - Kalamazoo College, Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo Valley Community College. Branches of other colleges are now also present in the Kalamazoo area.
Excerpted from a document written by Dr. James O. Knauss of Western Michigan University
Originally published in the 1959 Kalamazoo County Directory - some content updated to 2017.