Mapping Oakland County’s History

By the time Sarah Emma Edmonds arrived at the Pratt Farm in Rose
Township, shortly before the onset of the Civil War, she had already
begun disguising herself as a man.

Her life, says Oakland County Principal Planner and Preservation Architect Ronald Campbell, “is the stuff movies are made of.”

Having
established herself as Franklin Thompson, Edmonds took up work, selling
Bibles door-to-door and helping neighbors with farm chores. When war
broke out, she left Rose Township for the Union Army, enlisting as a man
— and fighting as a solder.

“During the course of her duties,
she became a spy,” Campbell explains, “and portrayed herself as a woman
when she crossed over into Confederate territory. It’s a fascinating,
fascinating story. They didn’t discover her true identity until years
after the war ended.”

The story of Sarah Edmonds, who may be one
of the only American women to collect a military pension from the Civil War, is just one of
the fascinating highlights in the annals of Oakland County history. And it’s these
stories Campbell and his team of historians and mappers are hoping to preserve with
their latest exercise in digital mapping, Oakland County in the Civil War.

Oakland
County’s Heritage Map Series is “a way to bring public awareness to the
natural and historic features we have here in Oakland County,” Campbell
says. By marrying technology and local history and information, the
County’s developing collection of interactive, digitized maps seeks to
present 21st century residents with new ways to explore the 872
square miles of Oakland County.

“To the sounds of musketry and tap of the drum.”

The
first shot of the Civil War was fired nearly 1,000 miles away from
Oakland County, then a collection of sparsely-settled township dotted
with mills and burgeoning villages. Yet, the map notes, “the
people of Oakland County were well aware of the clouds that had gathered
over a divided nation.” Oakland County sent 10 percent of its total
population — a staggering percentage of the County’s able male bodies
— to fight for the Union Army. They were supported back at home by the
families they left behind.

“The Oakland County population was only about 38,000 at the time,” Campbell says, ‘and 3,000 of them enlisted in the Civil War.”

Oakland
County’s troops were among the first to reach Washington D.C. after President Lincoln put the call out for volunteers, prompting Lincoln to
proclaim, “Thank God for Michigan!”

And Oakland County’s Civil
War history is full of heroes who didn’t don the blue uniforms of the
Union Army. “There are 13 sites that are documented as Underground
Railroad sites in Oakland County,” Campbell says. “There’s a whole connection
there. Oakland County was an important stop for slaves escaping to
Canada.”

Oakland County’s Civil War Map tells these stories, and more. Important historic structures like Pine Grove,
the Pontiac home of former Michigan governor and anti-slavery advocate
Moses Wisner, are marked; as well as the County’s Civil War-era
gravesites. And all over, there are facts, artifacts and anecdotes, in the most unexpected
places. In Holly, townsfolk and farmers gathered to feed a historic meal
to 1,000 Civil War soldiers arriving to catch a train to Detroit. Or
the town meeting where settlers voted 126-24 to pay $100 to each Civil
War draftee or volunteer from Groveland Twp.

A Team Effort

Campbell,
an architect by trade, says he was always interested in history.
Typically, that passion was channeled into the hobby of preserving the area’s historic buildings. In a
sense, with the Heritage Map Series, he is practicing historic
preservation — of stories, not structures.

Yet he’s the first to
admit that the series wouldn’t happen without the work of a dedicated
team of Oakland County employees, not to mention scores of local
historical commissions and Civil War buffs who contributed time,
information and tales.

“Melissa Luginski really deserves credit,”
Campbell says. “She went out and gathered all the info and compiled it.
None of us had all the resources to pull it off on our own — so much
was done by different groups. We’re just hoping to bring those efforts
together.”

He adds, “I think it taught the local historical societies some new info that even they didn’t know about.”

And
there’s plenty of practical application to the chronicling of local
history. Take the work of Carol Bacak-Egbo, a staff development
consultant, for Waterford Schools. Utilizing a federal Teaching
American History grant, Bacak-Egbo is preparing a curriculum for Oakland
Schools designed around the Civil War map for 4th, 5th and 8th grade
students.

Other digitized maps produced for the Heritage Series
include a geographic study of Native American settlements in Oakland
County, historic settlements and districts, and native landscapes to the
region. The Native American map won a national award upon completion,
while the map of historic settlements came second to an effort from
National Geographic.

“Our mapping department here is just
incredible,” Campbell says. “Our mappers, our technicians, our graphic
people, the level of quality and creativity and knowledge this team has
— it’s just incredible.”

They’re all available to the public at Oakland County’s One Stop Shop, Campbell says, and will soon be available at many of the historical museums in the County. Some of the stories and information will also be available online, Campbell says. “The goal
is to make the entire map interactive. You can scroll over the
cemeteries that have been identified, and you can have a list of all the
veterans of the Civil War that were buried there.”

As for the
next map in the Heritage Series, Campbell says the department is mulling
several options. “Maybe one on recreation, one on transportation, or
the mills and rivers in Oakland County, which led to the development of a
lot of communities,” Campbell says. No matter what the subject, he’s
sure the interest from teachers and residents across Oakland County will
continue to grow. “The Civil War map has been the most popular, and
each map seems to exceed the previous one,” he says.

Visit Oakland County’s One Stop Shop to find all the specialty maps available for download.

All photos courtesy of Oakland County. Flag photo credit: Peter Glendinning, Michigan Capital Committee.