1840 Federal Census Of Highland Township,
With Notes And Commentary By
NOTE: Highlighted names link to notes at the end of the census schedules
SCHEDULE of the whole number of persons within the division allotted to Samuel Chadwick, Jr.
* Total does not match actual entries
* Totals do not match actual entries
 - MICHAEL BEACH - b. 1790/91; d. 1855; grew
to manhood in Parma, Monroe County, New York; Veteran of the War of 1812; came to Michigan
c. 1818 and settled first in Troy, Oakland County; removed to Highland c. 1833; m.
Lucy Davis, dau. of Joshua and Rebecca Davis of Troy, Oakland County, Michigan. Had
a family of 14 children.
Highland Township's First Census - A Pioneer Community In 1840
By Eugene H. Beach, Jr. and Diane Needham
Taken only seven years after the first recorded settlers arrived, and only five years after Highland's formal organization in 1835, the 1840 Federal Census affords a comprehensive and objective look at the township's "pioneer" days. Given the number of modern misconceptions about what "frontier life" was like, the picture which emerges from the raw numbers of this first enumeration holds several surprises.
It is now customary, for example, to think of the early pioneers as few in number, living more or less solitary lives. Indeed, one early Highland history claims that the "... habitations of the new settlers were so widely and so thinly scattered that the nearest neighbors could scarcely have exchanged the courtesy of the periodical visit without the aid of the seven-leagued boots of knightly days." If this were ever truly the case, however, it did not last long, for the 1840 Census shows Highland having had a total of 567 residents living in 113 different households. Assuming a more or less even distribution over thirty-six sections, this yields an average population density of 15.75 persons and 3.13 households per square mile. Even these figures are conservative, since over 6 percent (or approximately 1,400 acres) of the Township's total surface area is taken up by lakes and wetlands. While this population density is admittedly still "sparse" by today's urban and suburban standards, it is also a far cry from the popular image of isolated wilderness cabins located miles or more apart. Rather, it seems fair to suggest that most early Highland settlers had a least one, and possibly more neighbors within a half-mile's walk or less.
It is also common today to envision the "typical" settler as a man in his 20's or 30's, with a wife and brood of young children. Popular films and literature which portray frontier life rarely show older persons except in limited numbers and/or in stereotypical roles, e.g., the "grizzled" woodsman, elderly parson, etc. Whether this image is due to mistaken notions about 19th century life-expectancy or for other reasons is unclear. Suffice it to say the 1840 Census shows "older" pioneers well-represented among the population of Highland, with 24 residents over age 50 (4.2 percent of the total). Of these, 17 were between 50 and 60 (10 male/7 female); 4 between 60 and 70 (2 male/2 female) and 3 between 70 and 80 (2 male/1 female). Note further that both of the two oldest males, Peter Hiller [#26] and Adam Miller [#62] lived alone as the sole occupant of their respective households. Cemetery records likewise show that a sizable portion of the early settlers were born in the mid to late 1700's, including Phineas Lyon (b. Jan 1, 1770); Rev. Thomas Baker (b. Sep 28, 1771); his wife, Jerusha Waldo Baker (b.c. 1776); Betsy Walker Phillips (b. 1779); and Polly Rowe (b.c. 1799), to name but a few examples.
Another common misconception is that the early pioneers were largely Caucasians of English or northern European descent. As the 1840 Census shows, however, one of Highland's 113 households was composed of "Free Colored Persons" headed by a John Sister(?) [#100] with 2 males under 10, 1 male between 36 and 55; 1 female between 10 and 24; and 1 female between 36 and 55. Efforts to determine the exact spelling of this man's last name, much less discover more about him and his family, have thus far proved unsuccessful. He is not mentioned in the earliest history of the Township, nor has he thus far been found on any subsequent census of Highland, suggesting he soon "moved on" as many of his white counterparts also did. Even so, this single mention of his residence so early in Highland's infancy serves as a needed reminder of the role played by African-Americans in the nation's westward expansion.
Finally, most today would envison a pioneer community to consist largely of farmers. Yet a scant seven years after settlement first began, Highland boasted a fair share of tradesman and professionals. Specifically, the 1840 Census shows 10 persons engaged in "Manufacture and trade," plus another 3 in the category "Learned professional engineers," for a total of 13 - roughly ten percent of the 138 shown engaged in agriculture. This suggests the Township proved attractive not only to "homesteaders," but also to blacksmiths, millers, attorneys, ministers and others whose early settlement helped establish the "social infrastructure" necessary for community self-sufficiency.
In conclusion, the 1840 Census is more than simply a list of names of Highland's earliest settlers. If carefully studied it can also provide valuable insights into what the lives of such settlers.
1. Samuel W. Durant, History of Oakland County, Michigan, L. H. Everts & Co., Philadelphia (1877), p. 201.
2. Highland Township Comprehensive Land Use Plan, 2000-2020, Table 1 "Tabular Summary of Land Uses." It is assumed that any post-1840 "gain" in surface water area through the construction of dams and ponds is roughly offset by the "loss" of swamps and marsh through draining and filling.
3. The spelling of this man's last name is unfortunately unclear on the original census film. Ancestry.com's online census index renders it as "Sister" and the first three letters are clearly "Sis," but what follows is open to question. Note that a patent for land in Section 3 of Highland Township was issued to one John "Cisco" on September 30, 1837, raising the possibility the census taker rendered "Cisco" as "Sisco," but this is only speculation at this point.
4. Note that 1840 Census uses fewer, and thus broader age categories to enumerate both "Free Colored Persons" and "Slaves."
5. Consider, for example, the following account found in History of Livingston County, Michigan, L. H. Everts & Co., Philadelphia (1880), pp. 393-394, which describes the settlement of one William Dawson in Tyrone Township:
In the fall of 1834, Mr. Dawson came to the town of Highland, where Michael Beach was living, and got him to accompany him in a search for land. They struck out to the westward, and in this town [i.e., Tyrone] found a piece of land that seemed to possess all the natural advantages desirable, ... Another advantage of the land thus selected was that on it was situated the cabin built by the Mormons, which would furnish shelter while the work of clearing and breaking up was going on. The colored family of Berrys had been living there about two weeks at the time of Dawson and Beach's visit. On the 20th of April, 1835, the Dawson family, consisting of father, mother, and two children,--a daughter of two years and a son a few months old,--reached their new home, and moved in with the Berrys, who were not ready to move out because of the unfinished condition of their house. So for a period of about two weeks the two families occupied the same habitation. [Emphasis added]
It is probably just coincidence that Beach, a "neighbor" of the John Sister (?) family of Highland, should encounter another African-American pioneer family on his expedition with Dawson to Tyrone. Regardless, accounts like this show that the African-American presence in early Michigan was probably larger than commonly assumed.