Detroit to Saginaw: A Trail Runs Through It

Book explores historic past of iconic Woodward Avenue

Woodward Avenue, or M-1, may well be one of the most significant thoroughfares in southeastern Michigan.

It was the first paved road in the United States. It’s gained international fame for being the route of the annual Woodward Dream Cruise, an iconic multi-day parade of classic cars.

It runs all the way from Detroit to Saginaw, connecting the major hubs of Michigan’s auto and manufacturing industries. In fact, its history as the Saginaw Trail is the subject of a new book by local writer and historian Leslie Pielack.

Leslie Pielack, author and Birmingham Museum Director.

The Saginaw Trail: From Native American Path to Woodward Avenue ($29.99, The History Press) documents the history of the important trade and travel route from Detroit to Saginaw. It  spans centuries, going back to the earliest settlers of Detroit — first the Native tribes, followed by French-Canadian fur traders and then the colonizers.

Pielack has been involved in local history and research for a long time as director of the Birmingham Museum. Several years ago, she worked on a project documenting the history of Woodward Avenue as it related to Birmingham for an exhibit for the museum.

“I was curious about what preceded ‘Woodward’ and stories on the early settlement of Michigan,” she says. “I wanted to know more about those stories of development along the Saginaw Trail, which became Woodward. Who else was involved? What about Native Americans? What was happening before white settlers came here with the fur trade?”

Three years and stacks of documents later, she had enough material for four books. Part of that research went into the exhibit, but around that same time, she was approached by The History Press to write a book on the Saginaw Trail.

“I thought it would be a good vehicle for me to tell those stories of everyday people who don’t show up in the histories — not wealthy people, not white people, but immigrants, women and uneducated people who don’t show up in the histories a lot,” she says.

Pounding the Pavement

While The Saginaw Trail is about the physical trail that became Woodward, she says, the book is more about the people who made and used the trail — especially those who wouldn’t otherwise show up in major historical accounts.

1930s archival image of the Saginaw Trail taken by Alfred Peabody. Courtesy of the Birmingham Museum Collection.

To conduct her research, Pielack relied on the “great undiscovered resources” that are local historical societies. She found some of her material by perusing local historical collections as well as online through the digitized Native history collections at the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and Central Michigan University.

“But I knew to get out there and pound the pavement, just like you do in sales and journalism,” she says. “It pays in history, too.”

Barb Frye, board member and research assistant at the Oakland County Pioneer and Historical Society and a photographer and graphic artist, is the daughter of longtime (1953-1983) photographer Richard H. Frye.

“She discovered that I had my father’s negative collection and we were able to find an image of his that she could use in her book,” Frye says. “We were also able to find images in the Society’s collection that helped tell her story.”

“She has helped us at the Society scan some of our old scrapbook clippings and found tantalizing bits of information in them.”

Pielack did research at Saginaw Chippewa Ziibiwing Center, the Saginaw and Genesee County historical societies and the local Oakland County Pioneer and Historical Society.

“Occasionally I would come across original pioneer accounts, and that was one of the best ways to get a sense of the Native American presence prior to settlement,” she says.

Pielack obtained a lot of information from a collection of legal briefs related to Judge Augustus B. Woodward, the namesake of Woodward Avenue. Through these briefs, she was able to tell the story of Elizabeth Denison Forth, born in the Michigan territory as a slave to British landowners between the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.

Denison Forth and her siblings were the first slaves to sue for freedom in the United States and the case went before Woodward. Because of a technicality in the law — the treaty governing the territory at the time allowed British citizens to keep their possessions and slaves were considered possessions — he could not rule in her favor. Instead, he later outlawed slavery in the Michigan territory entirely.

Denison Forth stands out in the history of the Saginaw Trail as a formerly enslaved woman who couldn’t read or write, but was able to purchase land in Pontiac — still all wilderness at the time — and make sound investments. She ultimately became fairly well-off and was the first African-American and first woman to purchase land in the city.

Pielack was surprised to learn then that Denison Forth had not been inducted into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame, so she nominated her. Denison Forth was inducted in 2017.

“Some of the research I did is now being used to tell her story, which is really gratifying,” Pielack says. “It’s so great to see that picked up.”

The Fur Trade

Detroit was a major depot for the fur trade coming out of Canada, and the earliest white settlers were French-Canadian fur traders. At that time, the land didn’t have any value — only the fur. But when Michigan became a U.S. territory, Americans wanted to colonize and sell land in order to generate revenue for the government. That dramatically changed the attitude toward the land and brought colonizers into conflict with the Native population, who had been using the land for centuries and continued to do so even during the fur boom right up until the time it was sold and someone settled on it.

“The average Native American would move around a lot. They really didn’t have a concept for land use ownership,” Pielack explains. “The Saginaw Trail had been used for centuries by Native people from Detroit to Saginaw. They had seasonal gardens they would use along the trail that were suddenly gone because settlers came in and cleared the land.”

Many of the Native people were, understandably, not pleased with the new white settlers. Another story in the book is about Raven, a Saginaw Chippewa chief who went to war with the British against the Americans because he knew the Americans wanted his homeland. When they began moving up the trail, he terrorized them — stealing livestock, ripping out gardens, making threats.

One white man, Maj. Oliver Williams, had purchased several acres of land in Waterford along the trail. He learned the Chippewa language, invited Raven to share everything the Great Spirit had provided in his garden and smoked a peace pipe with him.

“He approached this chief in a respectful way that showed respect for his people and his culture,” Pielack says. “He and his family were never harassed by the tribe again.”

One of a Kind

As the years, decades and centuries passed, the southern stretch of the Saginaw Trail became known as Woodward Avenue, considered the most important transportation route in Michigan. Then commuter “bedroom communities” began developing along the route, a brand-new concept that came from the tremendous growth in the auto industry that also increased the need for housing.

Besides being the first to be paved, Woodward was also the first to get infrastructure improvements. It was an amazing feat — not just of engineering, but also of coordination and cooperation between multiple jurisdictions.

Pielack says, “There really isn’t another Woodward Avenue anywhere else in America — from the rich history of being a land route for the Native Americans and early settlers to the existence of the road from Detroit to Pontiac to Flint to Saginaw, connecting these major manufacturing cities that have all contributed to the reason we’re the Motor City.”

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