Community, Services & Programs: County History - Early Background

County History Topics

* St. Joseph County by John Marvin:
* Introduction
* Costly Victory
* Changing Times
* St. Joseph County by John Marvin (Cont.):
* County Government Inaugurated
* Historical Firsts
* Early Background


St. Joseph County

by John Marvin


Early Background

The evidence of Mound Builders suggests an even earlier settlement but the earliest known date is 1721 when the Pottawatomie Tribe left Wisconsin and migrated to this area. At the close of the Revolutionary War, England relinquished Michigan to the United States and in 1787 it became part of the Northwest Territory. The Ordinance of 1787 governing the Territory prohibited slavery and provided one section of land in each 36 sections for school purposes. Major General Arthur St. Clair was governor.

The population of the entire Northwest Territory was estimated at 7,820 pioneers and 65,000 Native Americans. In 1805 William Hull was made Governor of the newly formed Territory of Michigan. The largest Native American settlements were in the northeasterly portion of St. Joseph County and the southeasterly part of Kalamazoo County. By 1821 Chief Topinabee had sold most of the present County to the pioneers for annual payments of $5,000 a year for 20 years. The Ottawa Tribe was to receive $1,500 a year for a blacksmith and teacher plus $1,000 a year forever.

Following this treaty the St. Joseph area was attached to Monroe County in 1822. In 1827, Judge John Sturges and John Thurston cleared ten acres of land and planted wheat, and by the following year the Judge and his family lived in a cabin in what is now called Maple Crest. It was in that same year that George Buck became the first settler in what is now Sturgis.

Before 1830, an elderly Indian Chief established a toll station on the old trail near Mottville, and charged all travelers a fee. The first mill in the area was built by Mr. Klinger near Mottville, and William Taylor opened a tavern in the Village. Mr. Taylor later became the first sheriff of the County.

As early as 1827, Florence Township was organized, and in 1828 Meek's Mill was established and became known as Constantine in 1831. Constantine was widely known as the Chicago of Southern Michigan. Also in 1828 Fawn River Township began. It contained the one-building Village of Freedom on what is now US-12 and County Farm Road.

Michael Beadle settled in Flowerfield Township in 1829 and built a grist mill in 1831. In the same year a carding mill and a saw mill were built. Park Township was formed in 1830 and Burr Oak in 1831. Settlement of the County was rapid. White Pigeon, laid out in 1829, had a population of 800 in 1831. Sherman Township in 1829 included Sturgis, Fawn River, Nottawa and Colon Township.

Growth continued and in 1830 stage coaches between Chicago and Detroit ran through Sturgis, and the Methodists formed a church society in that year. The first family in Nottawa Township located near Centreville, which was platted in 1831. Centreville was designated the County seat in 1831 and St. Joseph County was officially incorporated as part of the new State of Michigan.

Leonidas organized as a Township in 1831 and Colon Village, begun in 1832, had a school by 1833. The first tavern was opened on Sturgis Prairie in 1831 and there was a saw mill on the Fawn River in the Crooked Creek area.

The Village of Moab in 1829 and St. Joseph in 1830 located in Bucks Township (now Fabius and Lockport) were incorporated in the Three Rivers plat of 1836. Three Rivers was engaged in an intense rivalry with the Village of Echol, three miles south on an island in the river but the village was abandoned in 1840 after a dam broke.

In 1832 Chicago Drive was established as a military road. The first hotel was built in Three Rivers at the corner of Main and Portage in 1833, the same year that the first school was built.

The New York Central Railroad ran through Sturgis and by 1853 there was a rail connection from Three Rivers to White Pigeon. Both Sturgis and Three Rivers were incorporated as Villages in 1855.

Early records showed that Sturgis, in 1863, had a population of 1,600, and that there were four churches, three lodges, fourteen factories, twelve stores, a bank and a flour mill. As 1874 Census showed three flour mills, one saw mill, a planing mill, two pump factories and two schools in Three Rivers.

There was great excitement in 1872 when deeds, mortgages and records were "kidnapped" from the County Court House and held for ransom. Major fires occurred in Sturgis in 1859 and Centreville in 1910. But the County grew and prospered. The rural areas were rural, and lake area development was seasonal. The non-farm families clustered in the Cities, the Villages and the small communities provided business services for their surrounding areas.

The increasing use of the automobile and truck began to change these patterns. Improved roads and rural electric lines and the development of the septic tank made it possible for urban families to build and live in the agricultural areas and lake areas and drive to and from work. The County population increased but the community population growth slowed down, and small community business declined or went out of existence. By 1830 there were 31,740 people in the County. Forty-three percent were in Sturgis and Three Rivers and eighteen percent were in the six Villages, leaving thirty-nine percent in unincorporated areas. This compares with fifty-three percent of the 1970 population in unincorporated areas. The planning process is based upon a thorough study of the physical factors, part population growth, economic trends and land use patterns which will influence the continuing development of the County.

St. Joseph County held their Sesquicentennial in 1979 to celebrate the 150 years of growth and dedicated service to the people we have served and look forward to the years ahead with continuing growth and development.

Previous: Historical Firsts


If you have a suggestion or request for inclusion in the Community, Services & Programs section, or would like to send an update to information already included in the section, please contact the Webmaster by using the Contact Us web form.

Top of Page

St. Joseph County, MI Statistics

Founded: 1829
County Seat: Centreville

Total - 521 square miles
Water - 23 square miles

Population (2010 Census):
61,295 people
23,244 households
16,275 families