The Move to Michigan

By William H. McNitt

In the chronology of the move of these families to Michigan, we might begin with the year 1838.  That is when a man named John Harrington moved his family to Walker Township, Kent County, Michigan.  It is likely that David Harrington/Herrington of Niagara County, New York was related to John, possibly a nephew (years later John's son Vernon was a witness at the marriage of David's daughter Melissa).  Around 1840 or 1841, David Herrington married Filah Bullen, the daughter of his neighbors Joseph and Mary Bullen.  Their daughter Melissa, the first grandchild of the Bullens was born in 1842.

So, what led to the move to Michigan by the three Warner sisters and their families only a couple of years after two of the families arrived in Niagara County, New York?  As is mentioned above, some relatives of the Bullen's son-in-law David Herrington lived in Kent County, Michigan, and may have encouraged the move.  Although we cannot prove that he is the same Joseph Bullen, a man by that name was buying land in Ingham County, Michigan (near Lansing) in the late 1830s.  One of Joseph's descendants believes that he visited Michigan prior to 1844, but did not move his family at that time.  Perhaps economic factors brought on by the Depression of 1839-1843 had some effect on these families. 

What we do know is that in June 1844, the Bullens, Wilders, and Wheelers arrived in the area around Grand Rapids, Michigan (although the Bullen's daughter Betsey Bullen Fox and her family did not make the move until 1845, possibly due to a new baby).  The shortest route would have been to travel by boat across Lake Erie, but it was cheaper to travel by land.  In addition, this allowed them to bring some animals with them.  Some Wilder descendants still cherish the cowbell worn by a cow that they brought from New York and a trunk in which some of their possessions were packed.  It undoubtedly took several weeks to reach western Michigan.  The three families all settled in section 22 of Alpine Township in Kent County.

Map showing the location of Alpine Township, Kent County, Michigan
Alpine Township is the red square north of Grand Rapids

When Edward Wheeler arrived in Michigan in 1844, he brought enough money to buy a 160 acre farm.  He only paid $104.50 total for the land instead of the usual $1.25 per acre as he used state scrip in making the payment.  Because his brother-in-law Harvey Wilder did not have sufficient resources to buy his own farm, Wheeler agreed to transfer 40 acres to him if he would clear off eight acres of Wheeler's farm in return.

Although Joseph Bullen initially settled in Alpine Township, he soon began looking for a suitable spot to build a sawmill.  On January 31, 1845, he purchased a farm on section 4 of nearby Walker Township, through which ran Indian Mill Creek.  On October 16, 1846, he sold his Alpine Township farm to his son-in-law and daughter Erastus and Betsey Fox.

In 1846, only two years after the move to Michigan, David and Filah Herrington died, both still in their twenties.  Presumably they died in one of the epidemics that were so common in that era.  The two were buried in a cemetery carved out of the Bullen's Walker Township farm (known today as Brooklawn Cemetery and located along Walker Road, just south of Four Mile Road).  The Herrington's two young daughters were raised by their maternal grandparents, Joseph and Mary Bullem.

The Bullens, Wheelers, and Wilders had been active members of the Baptist Church in Vermont and New York and undoubtedly were involved in the founding of the nearby Indian Creek Baptist Church in 1845, the year after they arrived in Kent County.  This church did not have a building and held services in homes and schools.  By the early 1850s, church membership had grown to 34, but they were unable to support a permanent minister and the church eventually disbanded.  In 1856, a group of area residents organized the Alpine-Walker Baptist Church.  Joseph Bullen donated land and lumber for the construction of a church building, which was completed in 1859 and located on the south side of section 33 of Alpine Township (along the boundary between Alpine and Walker Townships -- now known as Four Mile Road).  It was a frame building, 36x56 feet in size, erected at a cost of probably $2000.  Later Joseph Bullen donated $1,000 and the land just north of Brooklawn Cemetery for construction of a parsonage. 

Joseph Bullen became a very successful businessman with mills in both Ottawa and Kent County.  At one point he owned 1,000 acres of land.  His focus seems to have been on business, church, and family rather than politics, but in 1849 to 1851 and again briefly in 1865, he did serve as the postmaster of Indian Creek (as did his son Francis).

Edward Wheeler soon became one of the most prominent citizens of Alpine Township.  He was a gentle man and became known as "Uncle Edward Wheeler" to all of the people in the surrounding area.  It was reported that he loved everybody and everybody loved him.  At the meeting in which Alpine Township was officially organized on April 5, 1847, Edward was elected as the first township supervisor. The next annual meeting was held at the Wheeler home due to its location near the center of the township.  Soon a small log schoolhouse was erected on the corner of the Wheeler farm and township meetings were held there.  In 1854, Wheeler deeded to the township land to serve as a cemetery (now known as Alpine Center Cemetery).  The township built a wood framed town hall on the northeast corner of section 21 in 1860, next to the cemetery.  That town hall current serves as the township museum.  Wheeler also served as township clerk in 1848 and 1849, and in 1853 was a justice of the peace. 

Harvey Wilder did not achieve the same level of financial success in Michigan that his two brothers-in-law achieved.  Described by others as poor, but honest, and a good man, Harvey had a larger family to support and also had health concerns.

Although it was a long way from Michigan, the new settlers did not lose contact with the family members they left behind in Vermont and New York.  By means of a regular exchange of letters and even occasional visits, they kept in touch with parents and siblings.  We do know from a surviving letter that Harvey Wilder spent part of the summer of 1851 back in Vermont, leaving his farm in Michigan to be handled by his wife and four oldest sons (ranging in age from 9 to 17).

On August 24, 1851, Harvey's brother Asahel Wilder of Mount Holly, Vermont, reported that Harvey was staying with him, and having serious health problems.  Although Harvey was only 46, Asahel reported that during the most severe attacks of the "rheumatism" Harvey was confined to the house and unable to help himself.  Asahel also reported that Harvey was weak and had lost a great deal of weight, but "is now on the gain ... [and] will be able to start for home in two weeks ...."

Harvey did make the return trip to Michigan safely, but his illness worsened and he died on January 28, 1852.  He was buried in Brooklawn Cemetery next to the Bullen farm.  With assistance from the Wheelers and Bullens, his widow Hannah struggled to keep her young family together.  When her daughter Hannah married William McNitt in 1854, however, twelve year old Joseph Wilder and five year old Eleazer Wilder went to live with them. 

On April 27, 1857, Hannah's sister Mary Warner Bullen died at the age of 66.  Only a few months later, on July 14, Hannah married her late sister's spouse, Joseph Bullen, who was a dozen years older than her.  This was probably not a love match, but one of convenience to provide companionship and support. All of the Bullen children were adults by this time, as were the oldest of the Wilder children, but Alma was still at home and Eleazer returned from the McNitt home when his mother remarried.   In the 1860 census, Joseph's widowed son Cyrus was living with them, and next door was Joseph's son Francis, whose household included not only his own family, but also two nieces, a nephew, and his cousin Eleazer Wilder.  Fifteen year-old Alma Wilder, Hannah's youngest daughter was living with John and Thyrza Johnson of Walker Township, possibly working as a servant.


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