Father Gabriel not only sought to establish Detroit as an important city, but put himself up for election to serve as Michigan territory’s Representative in Congress. Richard was elected in the fall of 1822 to the 18th Congress but was unsuccessful in seeking reelection. Father Richard had visited Washington previously and met with President Jefferson seeking a federal land grant for the school he intended to build close to the present-day intersection of Junction and West Jefferson.
Once a member of Congress, Father Richard was able to secure a federal judicial appointment for Detroit resident Solomon Sibley whose home stands on East Jefferson. However, Richard had several projects for which he wished to secure federal funds. There were, in the early 1820s, almost no facilities for educating deaf children. Richard wanted to establish a school in Detroit for the deaf from across what was then known as the Northwest Territories. He was unable to convince his fellow Congressmen to finance such a school.
At this time, the federal government held much of the land in Michigan. Richard sought to see that the land was sold or made available so as to foster the territory’s development. However, he also proposed that federal lands be made available for what he called “seminaries of learning.” Richard was no longer a member of Congress in 1826 when an act was passed in accord with his wishes. This was the law that made it possible for lands to be set aside for the establishment of the University of Michigan, a school Richard had founded nine years earlier.
Richard’s third aim in Congress concerned transportation. The Sauk Indians, according to their own heritage, originally lived in the lands of the St. Lawrence Valley, but were driven from that location in the 1500s. They settled in southeast Michigan but traveled widely throughout the Midwest. Most of the European explorers and early settlers traveled primarily by water as did most tribes of Indians. The Sauk were somewhat different in that they established land trails. The one that extended from Detroit northwest was known as the Saginaw Trail. The Great Sauk Trail went west from Detroit to the base of Lake Michigan—now Chicago—and then on to the Mississippi River.
The British were able to capture General Hull and Detroit in the War of 1812 because there was no road from Ohio to Detroit for the transport of military supplies. The British and Canadian forces were able to capture US ships on the Detroit River. Shortly after the end of the War of 1812, Michigan’s territorial legislature approved building a road from Detroit to the mouth of the Maumee River.
Once in Congress, Gabriel Richard sought federal funds to improve the Great Sauk Trail from Detroit to Chicago. At this time, paving meant placing logs on the trail and then packing dirt on top of them so that the trail would be passable in all seasons. I believe that this type of paving was not very successful, but it was better than no paving at all.
Richard argued that there were two reasons why federal dollars should be spent on a road to Chicago. The Erie Canal was about to open and this promised to lead to a substantial increase in the number of settlers in the Midwest. Richard contended that the paved road from Detroit to Chicago should be thought of as an extension of the Erie Canal. And then there were the military reasons. British forces overran the US forts in both Chicago and Detroit during the War of 1812. Should there be a need to shift troops from one city to the other, the freezing of the lakes would severely limit the time when that could be accomplished. Richard was successful in getting Congress to appropriate $3,000 to investigate the paving of the Great Sauk Trail. After he left Congress, further appropriations were made, and by 1827, a rudimentary road connected Detroit to Chicago. Current highway United States #12 closely follows the route of the Great Sauk Trail across southern Michigan
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites:
State of Michigan Historical Marker: Put in place
Biography of Gabriel Richard: Frank B. Woodford, Gabriel Richard: Frontier Ambassador, (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1958)
Photograph: Ren Farley, April, 2009
Description updated: October, 2009
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