Alfred M. Merrill and Sarah (Handy) Merrill:

Pioneers of Michigan's Isabella and Missaukee Counties

In 1855, Alfred M. Merrill, a shoemaker from Broome County, New York, purchased 640 acres of land in the wilderness of Isabella County, Michigan, near what is now Mount Pleasant.  He moved his wife, Sarah (Handy) Merrill, and children to Michigan the following year.  Soon thereafter Sarah's parents and most of her siblings followed.

Both the Merrills and the Handys descended from families of English origin that had come to the American colonies in the 1600s and settled in coastal towns in Massachusetts.  The Handys lived near the coast for several generations before moving to the western end of the state in the 1770s.  In the early 1790s, Revolutionary War veteran Joseph Handy, Jr. and his wife Ruth moved from Berkshire County, Massachusetts and settled in what is now Chenango Township, Broome County, New York.   Broome County is located along the New York-Pennsylvania state line and Chenango Township is just a little north of the county seat at Binghampton.

Our branch of the Merrill family moved first from the east coast to southern New Hampshire in the 1760s.  Soon after their marriage in 1814, Edmond and Mary (Stevens) Merrill moved from Amherst, New Hampshire to what is now Colesville Township of Broome County (northeast of Binghampton).
The townships of Broome County
The townships of Broome County

Edmond Merrill was a shoemaker and the Handys were all farmers.  Chenango and Colesville Townships were not adjacent to each other, so there would have been few opportunities for interactions between the Merrill and Handy families unless Edmond traveled the county selling and repairing shoes.

The oldest son of Joseph and Ruth Handy was Horace, born in 1794.  He married Salome Sawyer.  Horace and Salome's first child was Sarah Handy born April 1, 1818.  Edmond and Mary Merrill's third child (and second son) was Alfred M. Merrill, born April 27, 1819.

As Alfred Merrill grew up, Edmond trained him as a shoemaker.  Perhaps Alfred accompanied his father on his travels around the county or even took over the work of visiting customers.  Possibly this is how he got to visit Chenango Township and meet Sarah Handy whom he married on June 26, 1839.

The newlyweds settled in Chenango Township, not too far from the Handys, and began their family.  Their first son Adelbert was born March 30, 1840, but only lived 12 days.  The following January 31, their son Newton was born.  Over the next thirteen years they added five more sons and a daughter.

In 1855, Alfred and Sarah decided to leave Broome County and move west.  After 16 years of marriage, they had acquired only a few acres of land.  In the 1850 census they had reported owning only $200 worth of real estate.  Land was relatively expensive in Broome County and there wasn't much property available for purchase.  There seemed to be little opportunity in Broome County for the six Merrill sons to obtain their own farms when they reached adulthood.  As with many others of their generation, Alfred and Sarah were attracted by stories about large tracts of land in western states available for a few dollars per acre.

In preparation for the move west, Alfred sold some of his land in Broome County on June 8, 1855 and September 24, 1855.  He probably left soon after the second transaction and traveled to Detroit, Michigan, leaving Sarah and the children behind.  Alfred's brother-in-law Leonard Handy and his wife Nancy Phillips Handy apparently accompanied him.  It is likely that they traveled west with the family of Albert and Betsey Ferris, another Broome County family that was moving to Michigan.

Alfred couldn't have been in Detroit very long, but he was listed as a resident of Wayne County, Michigan on October 10, 1855, when he purchased land from Stephen and Mary Ann Page of Ionia County.  They sold him the entire Section 32 (640 acres) of Township 14 North, Range 4 West (now known as Union Township, Isabella County) for $1225.  That works out to only $1.91 per acre, but the Pages made a significant profit, having paid the Federal government only $1.25 per acre for the land the previous May. The land was uncleared and approached by no road excepting an occasional trail blazed by government surveyors.

Michigan counties

Although the price Alfred paid seems cheap today, the total purchase price was a lot of money in those days.  Alfred had received $700 from his two land sales in Broome County earlier in the year.  Presumably the rest came from savings or loans from family members.

Except for Native Americans, Isabella County was a relatively unsettled wilderness when Alfred bought his land.  In fact, Isabella County didn't even exist yet and the area was attached to Midland County for administrative and judicial purposes.  No Isabella County land had even been available for purchase before a treaty that the local Native American tribes signed with the Federal government in 1854.  Even then much of the county was reserved for Native American usage.

The first road (more properly a trail) into the county was from the south, by way of Gratiot County, which boasted of the villages of St. Louis and Alma, each of which then consisted of two houses and families.  This trail was opened in November 1854, and made just barely passable that winter.  In February 1855, John M. Hursh settled on a farm just south of where the city of Mt. Pleasant now stands, and thus formed an opening in the forest near the center of the county.

After purchasing his land in Detroit, Alfred Merrill and his traveling companions went to Saginaw.  Albert and Betsey Ferris decided to stay there for the winter.  Presumably Leonard and Nancy Handy did also, as Nancy would give birth to their first child in a couple of months.  Alfred Merrill and George Ferris, the son of Albert and Betsey, decided to push on and visit Alfred's new farm.  Luckily they met up with Isabella pioneer John M. Hursh who must have traveled to Saginaw for supplies.

A description of Alfred Merrill's first trip to Isabella County is preserved in a biographical sketch of George Ferris in the Portrait and Biographical Album of Isabella County, Michigan  (Chicago: Chapman Brothers, 1885):

"Not long after their arrival [in Saginaw] Mr. Ferris set out with A.M. Merrill, John M. Hursh and five Indians for a tract of land in Union Township, including the whole of section 32, and owned by Mr. Merrill.  The Indians were employed to carry provisions and every man in the procession had a load.  The red men carried 125 pounds each, Mr. Hursh had a load of 120 pounds of pork and Mr. Ferris, then about 20 years old, had a burden of about 75 pounds weight.  Mr. Merrill carried a ponderous bundle of leather done up in a woolen blanket, under which he staggered and groaned to such an extent that his companions forgot their own burdens in sympathy for his sufferings.  At their journey's end the bundle was investigated and weighed, and exhibited only 15 pounds avoirdupois!  [Presumably the leather was to be used by Alfred to make shoes.] The parties carried their loads from Midland, 25 miles through the woods, consuming two days in the trip, traversing a trackless route to Chippewa Township, and cutting their way.  They camped there five weeks and then cut a road through to the claim of Mr. Merrill in Union Township, driving an ox team." 
Another account of the trip to Isabella County differs from that offered by George Ferris.  The Merrill's son Adelbert was interviewed by the Isabella Enterprise when he was 78 years old (the interview was published in the April 18, 1924 issue).  He was only nine years old when his father went to Michigan and presumably stayed in New York with his mother, so the article was based on his memories of family stories:

The Merrills were accompanied on their pioneering trip by three other families from the east.  They started for Isabella county from Detroit and came from Saginaw up the river in a large flat boat, spoken of as a “scow”.  When the little party had passed what is now Midland, the river froze over and they were obliged to disembark and put up tents, with which they were provided, and make themselves as comfortable as possible beside the stream.  Here they remained six weeks and one of the families decided to return to civilization and turned back.  But the Horace and Leonard HANEY [HANDY] families kept on with the Merrills.  While camped here they hired Indians to go to the nearest settlement and bring in some flour, which cost them $40.00 a barrel.  They tapped trees and made some maple ‘sirup’ [unlikely to be true in the middle of winter], and this with hulled corn (the standby of many a pioneer family) kept them from being hungry.  In the meantime, the men folk manufactured some crude sleds onto which they loaded their goods and resumed their interrupted journey to their future homes. They had to cut down trees and brush and haul their sleds, making a wearisome journey, especially for the women and children.  

The clearing of a patch of earth and the construction of some sort of log cabin or hut would have been the primary task for this first winter in Michigan.  All we know of Alfred's first home in Michigan is that one source describes it as a "board shanty."  It was probably similar to the home of his neighbor John Hursh which had an earth floor, no windows, and a blanket as a door.  Adelbert Merrill tells us the following:

Arriving at the Merrill land, all three families settled close together.  They erected little log shanties, covered them with trough roofing, basswood blocks hollowed out and laid one over the other to form a water tight roofing which it did very nicely.  Puncheon floors were made of white ash and fireplaces built in on which to cook and warm the room.  The first two years the settlers were able to hire an Indian, John HINMAN, by name, to go out and get meat for them, and he would frequently bring in one or three deer in a day.  So they did not suffer for lack of meat, which was dried and preserved in primative faction [primitive fashion].

In the spring they made a little clearing among the trees and put in a few crops which grew and matured in fine shape . There were no farming implements except the most simple.  A favorite mode of planting was to raise the sod with a hoe, drop in the seed, and let the sod fall back to cover it.  Oats and wheat were covered by dragging branches over the ground after the seed had been thrown on and when harvested, the grain was threshed by beating the straw on a hard bit of ground, and cleaned of chaff by tossing into the air on a windy day. 

During that first winter in Isabella, Alfred may have depleted his limited savings.  Another possibility is that he needed money to finance improvements to the farm or the move of his family to Michigan.  In either case, he mortgaged his 640 acres on May 8, 1856 for $408.12 for three years at 10% interest per annum.  Nine days later he sold the northwest quarter (160 acres) of Section 32 to his friend Betsey Ferris of Saginaw County for $500.  The Ferris family soon moved to Isabella County.

Leonard and Nancy Handy's son John was born in Michigan on December 23, 1855.  At some point in the next few months, perhaps upon the arrival of Spring, Leonard moved his family to Isabella County and settled in Union Township.

Alfred apparently returned to New York in June 1856, perhaps leaving Leonard Handy or George Ferris to continue the work on the farm.  He signed documents selling his last property in Broome County on June 11 and June 28.  On June 26, Sarah Handy Merrill gave birth to their ninth child (and second daughter) Mary Sarah.  When Sarah and the new baby were well enough to travel, the family must have set out for Michigan.

It is possible that Horace and Salome Handy traveled to Michigan with their daughter's family.  They were over sixty years old and had been living with their son Leonard before he departed for Michigan.   A purchase of land in Isabella County shows that they were in Michigan by 1858, but they may very well have come earlier.  Their youngest son Charles, who was still at home, moved to Michigan with them.  Most of their daughters were already married and some remained in New York, at least for now.

For these pioneers of Isabella County, the nearest mill, store and post office, were 45 miles away.  The settlers ground their corn in a hand mill or pounded it in a stump mortar, went without store goods, and got their letters when they could.  Game was plenty and easy to obtain, so they need not want for meat. The first school in Union Township was built of logs in 1855, one and a half miles south of Mt. Pleasant.

In 1855, the Federal government signed a treaty with the remnants of several tribes of Native Americans, mostly Chippewa, who were scattered throughout Clinton, Saginaw and Gratiot counties.  Nearly all of six townships of land were ceded to them for life, the remaining land of the county was then withdrawn from the market, and no further sales were made until 1863.  This slowed the settlement of Isabella County, so in 1860 Native Americans still comprised 58% of the population.

According to Adelbert Merrill:

The elder MERRILL was a shoemaker by trade in the east and he used at times to have a little shop and work at his trade at Gratiot Center (Ithaca).  Adelbert was sometimes sent down to the center with a one-horse conveyance, called a jumper, to bring home groceries and other necessities for the home.

By March 11, 1859, the population of the area had grown enough that the state separated Isabella County from Midland County.  This allowed the settlers to elect their own government officials and establish their own courts.  The first court house was located at the center of the county, some eight or ten miles northwest from the present location.

A vote on moving the county seat to Mt. Pleasant took place in May 1860.  According to one county history, "Foremost in this matter were Nelson Mosher, John M. Hursh, A.M. Merrill, David Ward, and Charles Rodd (the latter an Indian) who were all possessed of much influence among the Indians, to whose vote the location of the county seat at Mt. Pleasant was mainly due."  Alfred was the Union Township clerk at this time so he ran the election in that township.  Another history, however, reports that Alfred Merrill was part of the group opposed to the move of the county seat to Mt. Pleasant!  We do not know which story is correct, only that Alfred was a major participant in this decision.

According to Alfred and Sarah's granddaughter Greta Merrill, Alfred was very concerned about his Native American neighbors.  She says that the government commissioned him to distribute blankets and supplies to them.  He also worked to see that the Indian Agents didn't cheat their clients.  Alfred may also have helped in setting up the first school in the area intended to serve Native Americans and worked to convert them to Christianity.  He won the trust of the Native Americans and was said to have been made a blood brother with a name that translated into English as "Little Head."

In the 1860 census of Union Township, Alfred Merrill still listed his occupation as shoemaker.  Undoubtedly his skills in this area were much in demand during the early years of settlement when there were few others within many miles who could make or repair shoes and boots.

As Alfred gradually cleared his land and began farming, he also received income from the sale of timber and crops.  The clearing of trees from the land caused the value of the farm to increase.  In the 1860 census, Alfred gave an estimated value of $3000 for his farm. This was a significant increase over the $200 in real estate that he had owned ten years before or the $1225 value of his Isabella County farm when he first purchased it.  Horace and Leonard Handy were both farmers living near Alfred and Sarah, but their farms were much smaller.

The first law case in the brand new Isabella County circuit court began on January 14, 1860, but the first jury trial did not start until January 28, 1862.  In a case of trespass titled "Louis Bright, Plaintiff, vs. George Hursh, Defendant", the jury for that trial included Alfred Merrill, his father-in-law Horace Handy, and his brother-in-law Leonard Handy.  The pool of potential jurors must have been pretty small in those early years!

Newton Merrill, Alfred and Sarah's oldest son, was 19 years old when the Civil War started.  On September 26, 1861, he enlisted in Company B of the 10th Michigan Infantry.  He was mustered in on February 6, 1862 and only served a couple of months before dying of disease at Henderson, Kentucky on May 24.  A story has been preserved among Alfred and Sarah's descendants that Sarah had a premonition of the death of her oldest son.  One night she heard a noise, woke up all of her children, got them up, and announced to them that their brother had died in the war.  Some time passed before the black-edged letter from the War Department arrived. It turned out that her announcement came just when he died hundreds of miles away.

After arriving in Isabella County, Alfred and Sarah added four more children - three daughters and a son - to their family.  This brought the total to thirteen - eight boys and five girls.  Even with the loss of their first son soon after his birth and the death of Newton in the Civil War, this left eleven children who eventually grew to adulthood, married, and had children of their own.

Most of Sarah Handy Merrill's married sisters siblings moved from Broome County to Michigan in the early years.  Jane Handy Leonard and husband Samuel were in Gratiot County by 1860.  Laura Handy Herion and husband Alonzo and Aura Handy Chase and husband Henry brought their families to Michigan in the 1860s and appear in the 1870 census of Union Township.  This brought together most of Horace and Salome Handy's family for a few years.  On September 10, 1869, Horace Handy died in an accident at age 74.  He was killed by a tree that was being felled.

By 1870, Alfred Merrill listed his occupation as farmer rather than shoemaker for the first time.  He may still have occasionally practiced his old trade, but farming had become his main source of income.  Although he had gradually sold parts of his original farm, he now valued his real estate at $6,000 (and had $2000 in personal property).  Sons Dudley (age 20), Roderick (18) and Roando (16) worked on the farm.  Adolphus (22) was blind, so he couldn't help as much.

Alfred Merrill
Alfred M. Merrill

Later in the 1870s, some children of Alfred and Sarah began leaving Isabella County for opportunities further north in Missaukee County.  By 1880, their sons Adolphus, Dudley, and Roando had already made the move.  Alfred and Sarah decided to move there too.  They sold the last piece of their Isabella County farm on October 1, 1879, but retained occupancy until October 1, 1880.  Alfred and Sarah were both in their early sixties at the time, not the normal age to be thinking about moving to the wilderness and starting a new home.

When Alfred and Sarah made the move to Missaukee County, several other children followed them.  Most of these families cut down trees and built houses at Arlene, Michigan, along what is now highway 42 (the road from Lake City to Manton) in Caldwell Township.  The homes of Alfred and Sarah, sons Dudley, Roando, and Arthur and daughters Mary Brenner and Marcelia Chadwick were along this road, while daughter Eva Merkle lived on the next road north and daughters Ada Leeman and Myrtle Brown also lived nearby.  Sons Adelbert and Rodorick Merrill remained in Isabella County and Dudley eventually moved back there.

Alfred and Sarah's granddaughter Leafy Merkle Handlogten described the clearing of the farms in the following manner: "The timber that was not used for building purposes was sold and everybody prospered.  There were logging bees and house and barn raising bees and many other work-play activities, the land was cleared, farming began and gradually took over.  Oxen pulled the plows and much of the work was done by hand."  Later, the log houses were replaced by houses made from lumber milled in the town of Jennings.

According to Alfred and Sarah's granddaughter Greta Merrill, her grandparents home at Arlene was a very fine one for the time.  There were two stories and a basement.  The first floor had six rooms with hardwood floors, including a study for Alfred.  The front door contained frosted glass and had stained glass windows on either side.  Alfred and Sarah were certainly living much more comfortably than they had in the shanty that they occupied when they first arrived in Michigan thirty years before.

Leafy Merkle Handlogten also reports that "We grew up with all of the wildlife native to our part of Michigan.  Deer roamed freely.  One day a bear ambled in the front door and out the back while Ma watched breathlessly.  Other animals frolicked about."

During this era, many members of the family still made their living from agriculture.  Others, especially sons Roando and Arthur, engaged in the lumber industry, cutting down trees or transporting them out of the woods or milling the logs into lumber.

Alfred lived in his new home at Arlene for more than a decade before dying of consumption on November 1, 1892.  He is buried in Caldwell Township Cemetery.  Sarah lived on with one or the other of her children for almost nineteen years, dying in Caldwell Township on April 18, 1911.

Alfred Merrill
Sarah Handy Merrill
Alfred M. Merrill
Sarah (Handy) Merrill

Ancestors of Alfred M. Merrill

Ancestors of Sarah Handy

Descendants of Alfred M. Merrill and Sarah Handy

Photographs of the cemetery where Alfred Merrill's parents are buried

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