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Lansing’s First Settler – Jacob F. Cooley
Just after passing under Waverly Bridge is the area of the Jacob Cooley family farm. It is told that Jim, the son of Chief Okemos from the Red Cedar band of Ottawas, kept a camping place on Cooley farm. Locals told of hunting deer with Chief Okemos on the river at night under torchlight while silently floating downstream with only a club as a weapon. Cooley held the first July 4th celebration on a huge boulder on the riverbank.
From Durant’s History of Ingham and Eaton Counties
Jacob Frederick Cooley was born in Germany, February 23, 1807. He came of a good family, but with true German thrift and forethought learned the trade of a tailor in his native country. He lived in one of the German capitals, possibly Stuttgart, until he came to America. He settled in the State of New York. His wife was Lucy Barnes, who was born in Hartford, Conn., April 1, 1804. At the time of her marriage, her parents were living in Oneida county. She was a woman of the real live Yankee stock, and well fitted for pioneer life, as subsequent events proved.
The young couple moved to Leslie, Ingham county, Michigan, arriving there on the 6th of May, 1836. They erected a temporary shanty in the wilderness, six miles from any settlers, but being soon after attacked with sickness, which almost every settler was subject to, they became homesick. Wild beasts and snakes troubled them, and one day, leaving their two children in their cabin, they went out to examine their land and got lost in the woods; but their faithful dog found them, and they followed him home. The dog was afterwards killed by wolves.
Mr. Cooley was a stranger to everything connected to woodcraft or farm labor, and the prospect of making a comfortable home in the new country seemed anything but pleasing. Becoming at length sick and disgusted, he returned with his family to New York in 1837. But there was something enticing in the West after all, and in November of the same year, leaving his family, he returned to Michigan. At Jacksonburg he made the acquaintance of Jerry and William Ford, or at least one of them. These men had, in April, 1836, laid out a village on section 21, in Lansing township, which they named “Biddle City.” Learning that Mr. Cooley was looking for a place to settle, and also that he was a tailor and his wife a weaver, the Fords persuaded him that at or near their town was the place to settle; that it was sure to be a great city, and that the trades of himself and wife would soon make them comfortable, if not absolutely rich. To this enticing story Mr. Cooley lent a willing ear, and came down to view the country. The nearest government land to “Biddle City,” which he could find was on section 30, in the southwest part of the township, lying on Grand river, and about two miles southwest of the new city. It proved to be an excellent piece of land, and the section now includes some of the best farms in the township.
One of the Fords came along with Cooley, but only remained a short time, and then departed and left him alone in the wilderness. Mr. Cooley knew absolutely nothing of the labor necessary to hew out a home in the woods. He had never handled an axe in his life, and in cutting down a tree he hacked on all sides of it, and when he thought it about ready to fall, ran out of its reach. He did not know how to plant his vegetables after he had managed to prepare a small plat of ground, but planted potatoes, corn, beans and cabbage promiscuously in the same hill.
In building his first cabin he managed it by felling a tree, letting the butt rest upon a stump and then covering the trunk with brush and sods. He did not know where the lines of his land were, and employed a Mr. Scott, in Clinton county, to point them out for him, paying him, according to his son’s account, fifty dollars for his services. A second time he lost his lines, and had to pay Mr. Scott once more to establish them for him. His land was the southwest fractional quarter of section 30, township 4 north, range 2 west. He purchased deer-skins from the Indians and made himself a full border suit, including a coon-skin cap. His son, J. F. Cooley, Jr., remembers this suit as a great curiosity. Soon after completing his shanty, he followed the river to Jacksonburg, where he purchased supplies for winter, and then, procuring lumber, built a boat to transport them down to his future home. This was December, 1837.
On his way down the river, not being a skilled boatman, he came to grief in the swift water, opposite where now stands the Village of Diamondale, where night overtook him. His craft struck a bowlder, and either broke up or stove a hole, so that his provisions got into the stream and his flour and salt nearly spoiled. He, however, waded around among the ice and slippery stones and saved a portion. Having no means of making a fire, he ran up and down the bank of river to keep him from freezing. At length the barking of a dog attracted his attention, and following the sound he came to a wigwam, where he found an Indian and his squaw, who took him in, rubbed his half frozen limbs, and made him as comfortable as circumstances permitted. For food they set before him the best they had, boiled or roasted hedgehog and muskrat. On the following morning, he paid the Indian two dollars to carry him down to his shanty. The Indian soon after abandoned his camping place, and built his wigwam near Mr. Cooley’s.
The inexperienced settler now began to clear a spot of ground and build a better cabin of logs, and here remained until the spring of 1838, when he wrote his wife to join him with the remainder of the family. Mrs. Cooley, accordingly bade good-bye to her parents, and, taking her two boys, Jacob F., Jr., and Lansing J., came to Detroit, where she arrived in safety, though it was in the midst of the Canadian “Patriot war.” At Detroit she hired a teamster to take her to Jackson, but the Sheriff followed him for some misdemeanor, and he fled to the woods, leaving Mrs. Cooley with the team, which she drove to Jackson, where it was taken from her. Nothing daunted by the terrors of the road, she started with her boys on foot for Eaton Rapids. After walking several miles she met a man who told her if she
would take a certain trail which he pointed out, she would save considerable distance; but the path was so obscure that after a little time she lost it in the woods. Placing her children on a log, she bade them stay right there until she returned, and then proceeded to find her way out. At length she heard a cock crow, and the sound guided her to a settler’s cabin occupied by one Blakeslee, who went with her to find her children, which they succeeded in doing after a long search. Mr. Blakeslee then took his team and carried Mrs. Cooley and her children to Eaton Rapids, where she stopped with a Mr. Spicer, who procured an Indian to notify her husband of her arrival. He soon appeared, and building a boat took his family down the river. Night overtook them, and they were obliged to encamp on the hank until morning, when they proceeded on their way, and before noon on the 15th day of June, 1838, reached the site of their future home.
They had no team or domestic animals of any kind, and Mrs. Cooley assisted her husband to clear a small piece of land, which they sowed with wheat, and planted a few vegetables. They kept a record of time by marking it every day on a board or log with charcoal. Their first “Independence Day,” July 4, 1838, was celebrated on a flat rock near the river, where Mrs. Cooley sang songs, to the delight of the Indians, while her boys played with their dusky friends under the trees along the river banks.
About the middle of July the entire family were taken sick, and were nearly helpless for several days. A family named Skinner had settled up the river in the Township of Windsor, Eaton county, and Mr. Cooley got Indian to go and notify them of their troubles. Mr. Skinner came and took them their house, where they remained for several weeks, and this experience exhausted all the ready money they possessed. Recovering from their sickness, they returned to their home in the fall and found their crops all safe, their old Indian friend having taken care of them during their absence. They exchanged the products of their land with the Indians for fish and venison and thus opened the famous “dicker” trade of the early days.
In the following winter the family were all again taken sick and lost the day of the month, but a traveler happened along in January set them right again. At length all their provisions were consumed and they were forced to live on the charity of their early Indian friend, who managed to procure sufficient food to keep them from starving. At one time Mr. Cooley was so low that they all expected he would die, and he finally told his wife to lay his body in a bark trough, cover it with dirt, and take her children out of the woods. But at length he recovered.
In the spring of 1839. Mr. Cooley went to Jackson and worked at his trade, leaving his wife alone with her children. For fourteen months she never saw a white woman. Wild beasts were plenty and exceedingly troublesome. At one time a gang of wolves followed Mr. Cooley, as he was bringing home some meat for his family, for a long distance, but lie finally reached home in safety. At another time, when out blackberrying, he was chased by a bear and escaped with the loss of his hat. Occasionally the family would suffer the fire to go out, and then some one would have to travel perhaps ten miles to procure a supply. Some of the Indians were at times insolent, but they were generally friendly. Their insolence never availed them anything, for Mr. Cooley was resolute and defended his rights.
After they began to raise corn he rigged a novel contrivance, though a common one in those days, to pound it. It consisted of a mortar made by burning a hollow in a stump, and rigging a spring-pole, to which was attached a wooden pestle; and this answered a very good purpose.
On the 6th day of January, 1840, Mrs. Cooley gave birth to a son, who is said to have been the first male child born in the township. He was named Nathan L. Cooley. A friendly squaw performed the offices of physician and midwife, and was the only woman present.
In the fall of 1838 they heard of neighbors down the river and to the southeast of them. These were Coe G. Jones, on section 5, and Joseph E. North, Jr., on section 32. The Norths made them a visit. The Fourth of July, 1839, was celebrated at the house of Joseph E. North, Jr. His father had recently moved into the settlement, and the three families celebrated together.
Their first threshing was done on the ground, and the first wheat-grist was taken to Eaton Rapids by Mr. Cooley, who was gone three days. The children could hardly wait for the first loaf of bread to bake, but when ready for the table they divided it with the dusky Indian children, who enjoyed it as well as they. The earliest mills near them were at Eaton Rapids and Ingersolls, now Delta. When they patronized the mill at Ingersoll’s, they took the grist down the river in a log canoe or “dugout,” and then went across the country, through the woods, and hauled the canoe and ground grist back along the narrow path, through mud and water with ox-team. The canoe was not a first class land carriage, but they managed to haul it by fastening a log chain around its nose, though it required great skill and constant attention to prevent the curious vehicle from overturning in the rough pathway. Sometimes in the winter when they wanted to cross the river with their oxen, and the ice was not strong enough to bear them, Mr. Cooley would cut a channel across and swim them over.
When at length, they had become the possessors of an ox-team, a cow, a pig, and a few sheep they congratulated themselves upon their improved circumstances; but their joy was short lived, for a great black bear carried off the pig and the lean, hungry wolves made short work with the sheep.
The hardships and privations of the early settlers of Michigan, save only in one respect, that of Indian wars and difficulties, were certainly as formidable and discouraging as were ever encountered by the people of any state in the Union. The country was largely made up of dense and heavy forests, interspersed with swamps, marshes and lakes; the earliest roads were more horrible than can be conceived of by the present generation, and then there was the almost interminable labor of cutting down the timber and clearing it away before anything could be grown for the support of man or beast. In the midst of their labors the deadly malaria fell upon them, and they froze and burned alternately for months and years with the ague and fever. When the first scanty crops were raised, and there was a small surplus, it took weeks to carry it to an uncertain market and the cost of transportation ate up all the proceeds. Wild beasts, dangerous reptiles, and persecuting insects were plenty as snow flakes in a January storm, and it was literally a struggle between life and death with the chances in favor of the latter alternative.
In many instances the earliest comers lived for several years without store or school or church accommodations, and the wonder is that men and women did not degenerate into fierce barbarians and abandon all hope of civilization amid the depressing circumstances which hemmed them in on every side. Nothing but an indomitable will, and a most sanguine looking forward to a better day in the future, an undying faith in the power of human intellect over the forces of nature, ever kept hope alive in the hearts of the pioneers of Michigan, and enabled them to work out the mighty problem of reclaiming a most forbidding wilderness and building up a free and prosperous commonwealth. There were a few comparatively sunny places among the “oak-openings” and beautiful miniature prairies of the southern and western portions of the peninsula, but they were only exceptions. By far the greater portion of the State has been won from a state of nature only through almost unparalleled hardships and the most unflinching perseverance.
Within a year or two, Mr. Cooley built a second and improved log house. The first one stood near the northwest corner of his quarter section, and a considerable distance from the river near a copious spring, which latter item no doubt had considerable weight in determining the selection of his land. The first dwelling was built by the labor of himself and wife, and was a rude affair. The only windows were small holes left in the logs, covered with greased paper. The roof was constructed of troughs, the first course laid with the convex side down, and the second inverted and lapping over the edges of the others. This plan, provided the troughs were sound, made a very comfortable covering, impervious to water so long as the material did not warp or crack.
The second house stood about fifteen rods west of the first, nearer the river. When it was all ready to be put up, it took all the able bodied men in five townships to raise it. It had a roof made of heavy stakes, pinned upon the transverse timbers with three-quarter-inch ash pins. The improved building boasted of a better chimney and sash windows, which latter Mr. Cooley whittled out with a pocket knife.
Mr. Cooley was probably the first settler in Lansing township, having arrived, as we have seen, in the autumn of 1837. There is some uncertainty regarding the arrival of the first family, but the probabilities point to Mr. Cooley’s family, who reached their destination on the 15th day of June, 1838. The deed of his land was dated in 1837, and signed by Martin Van Buren.
Mr. Cooley died on his farm, June 9. 1865, at the age of fifty-eight years, two months, and sixteen days, at a period when he should have been in the prime of his physical powers. No doubt the hardships of a pioneer life had much to do with his comparatively early demise. He left a wife and five children – three sons and two daughters, to each of whom he gave a farm, and saw them settled around him. Mrs. Cooley died February 21, 1870.