The Henry Clay, a side-wheel steamer that was already old in 1832, creaked into the port of Detroit and discharged a ship’s hold of infantrymen from Virginia. The troops were garrisoned in Detroit as reserves in case Black Hawk’s Native American rebellion over in Wisconsin wasn’t successfully quashed. That afternoon, the soldiers mingled with civilians at General Lewis Cass’ traditional Fourth of July barbecue.

By evening, an Army doctor diagnosed two men on the Henry Clay with Asiatic cholera. The doctor immediately ran away, hiding in a local hotel. Panic took hold of the ship, then the city, and then the territory, in short order. 

As the July heat set in, black and bloated corpses were laid out in a dockside warehouse. All around the territory, fear had taken charge in place of government. The villages around the city erected blockades and posted armed sentries, in an effort to defend against cholera. But the primary consequence of this self-interested defense was that the roads needed to bring food and supplies to the city, and to fight the disease, were cut off. As the fragile reach of the territorial   government collapsed, the acting governor of the Territory of Michigan realized he needed to ride out into the wilderness and reestablish order so that the epidemic could be fought successfully.

His name was Stevens T. Mason. He was just 20 years old. 

And so, with his top hat jammed on his head, the long-legged young man in a flapping black cloak rode from town to town, commanding residents to burn down their barricades and assist their fellow citizens. Though he was arrested, shot at, and wrestled to the ground by panicked villagers, he calmed the local authorities, who in turn restored order to their towns and re-opened the roads from Niles to  Jacksonburgh, and then on through Ann Arbor and into Detroit.

It was on this wild ride that Mason went lost beyond Marshall and wandered in the woods until he stumbled upon a rustic cabin. He was taken in by the Reverend Mr. John D. Pierce, who was then caring for his cholera-stricken wife, Millicent (Estabrook) Pierce. Mason discovered that Pierce (along with his friend Isaac E. Crary) had been developing ideas for a state-wide public education system based on the Prussian model. It was just the sort of system Mason had been imagining when he gave his first speech as acting governor, impressing upon listeners the importance of free public schooling.

Millicent Pierce died that night, and in the morning, the Reverend Pierce and Mason rode back to Detroit to minister to the sick. The epidemic subsided, and far fewer people had died than many had feared. Much of this can be attributed to Mason, who had brought order to the territory. 

Soon, Mason would bring order to state-funded public education as well.

Religion, Morality, and Knowledge

The University of Michigan may have been loosely formed in 1817, but it took the work of Mason to turn those flimsy paper dreams into a brick reality.

In those days, all of the major universities in America were privately endowed and religiously sectarian. Even the few “public” universities, such as the University of Virginia, were not really creatures of the state, but instead gifts set up by a few wealthy men for the children of their class. Likewise, almost no primary or secondary schools were open to the public, and Mason was afraid that private academies would take hold in Michigan, as they had in his native Virginia.

After 1832, however, Mason’s educational plans had to take a backseat to other Michigan matters, including a war with Ohio over Toledo. The city — plus a 468-square-mile strip of land along the Michigan-Ohio border — was lost as Mason pushed for statehood, but the mineral-rich Upper Peninsula was Michigan’s consolation prize. For the trouble of the war, President Andrew Jackson fired Mason, but when statehood was achieved in 1837, the citizens of Michigan all remembered the many things their Boy Governor had done and returned Mason to his offices in Detroit as Michigan’s first state governor.

This brought Mason to the apex of his career. It was from this vantage, and with the well-earned goodwill of the young state’s citizenry, that the 26-year-old embarked on an ambitious plan of internal improvements, including the creation of the University of Michigan.

Illustration Courtesy of Bentley Historical Library

After 1832, however, Mason’s educational plans had to take a backseat to other Michigan matters, including a war with Ohio over Toledo.

Four professorships were established at the annual salary of between $1,200 and $2,200. Mason and the regents had botanist Asa Gray, the first professor, travel to Europe with $5,000 in gold for the purchase of books. A 40-acre portion of the Rumsey-Nowland farm of Ann Arbor was purchased as a site for the future university. Mason’s original University campus was set at the western edge of the farm (land now occupied by Angell Hall), a modest pair of four-story brick buildings, a northern structure known as “The Main Building” (the first home of LSA), and a southern structure known as “South College.”

Fear Over Logic

Unfortunately, Mason’s dreams for Michigan ran up against the reality of a financial panic sparked by a real estate bubble. 

While the causes of the Panic of 1837, and the depression that followed, are the subject of heated debate, one theory places blame squarely with President Andrew Jackson.

Jackson, who had long distrusted frontier real estate schemers, demanded that all land transactions use gold and silver. He also paid off the national debt for the first (and only) time, and closed down the United States Bank in 1833. But with the radical departure of the federal government from the banking system, coupled with weak banking regulations and a new necessity for precious metals, people hoarded gold and silver, and the value of paper currency (which was being produced by unregulated “wildcat” banks that no longer had the backing of U.S. federal  bonds) collapsed.

As with the cholera epidemic, fear triumphed over logic. And again, the old homesteaders turned away from government and looked after their own interests in order to survive.

In the face of the financial chaos, there had been little time to discover, let alone survey, the state lands set aside to finance Mason’s University program. When the land was finally investigated, squatters occupied most of it, and those squatters were voters.

Mason and Pierce’s plan, which had been passed into law, called for the public school lands to be sold for $15 per acre, which the squatters had to buy from the government. But once the panic had set in, the Michigan legislature passed a law advancing a price their constituents, the squatters, deemed fair: $1.25 per acre. Mason vetoed the bill, and passed another that set the rate at $12, but the damage was done. The homesteaders who, in 1832, were grateful for a strong government that could protect them from cholera as it whipped across the territory were, five years later, not interested in paying for their stolen public land. The public finally turned against Mason. 

A squatter even occupied the 40-acre parcel in Ann Arbor, where the Main Building was being prepared for the future University. Mr. Pat Kelly had taken possession of the land and farmed it all the way through construction. No one had asked him to leave, and so he farmed what is now the Diag, while the half-completed edifice of LSA’s future home towered serenely over his fields of corn.

Everyone agreed that solid infrastructure and a fully financed public education system were a communal good, but no one wanted to pay for any of it.

In 1840, Mason did not seek re-election.

One Ending, One Beginning

Governor Mason’s political nemesis William Woodbridge ascended to the governorship and set about overturning as many of Mason’s decisions as he could. He sold the public lands for $1.25 per acre, netting the University a meager endowment. When Asa Gray came back from Europe with his massive collection of books and botanical samples, Woodbridge fired him. (Gray went on to become one of history’s greatest botanists and a friend of Charles Darwin, and he secured the U.S. publication of On the Origin of Species — all from his office at Harvard.) Finally, Woodbridge cut the salary of the state superintendent so drastically that the Reverend Pierce was forced to return to the ministry.

Woodbridge himself left for a Senate seat a year later, in 1842, and one of his successors, Governor John S. Barry, said of the meager campus where Pat Kelly had farmed, “Well, we’ve got the buildings…I don’t think they’re good for anything else, so we might as well declare the University open.”

And so began the University of Michigan, one of the greatest universities in the world.

Mason died of pneumonia shortly thereafter, in January 1843, while studying for the bar exam in the state of New York. He was 31 years old. 

The Main Building, the northern of Mason’s two campus buildings, was given the name Mason Hall. Angell Hall grew up around it. The original Mason Hall was demolished, but a new building that bears his name stands there today, its moniker a mystery to most of the students who pass through its halls.

Sources: Peckham, Howard. The Making of the University of Michigan: 1817–1992 (University of Michigan Press, 1967). Sagendorph, Kent. Stevens Thomson Mason: Misunderstood Patriot (Dutton 1947) and Michigan: The Story of the University (Dutton, 1948).
Photo Goldnpuppy

Tragic Sidebar

The Four Portraits of Stevens T. Mason

Governor Mason’s large full-length oil portrait hangs in the office of the director of the Bentley Historical Library. A rapturous public donated large sums to pay artist Alvin Smith to paint the portrait, but at the same time they refused to pay sufficient salaries for positions like secretary of state or attorney general. The public lauded Mason as their hero, but denied him the resources to govern effectively. The painting itself seems intertwined with his undoing.

His other portraits don't fare so well either.

An English illustrator drew Mason's second portrait while the Boy Governor was being shaved at a barber. The artist later would sell the portrait as a true-to-life sketch of the poet Lord Byron. Today, the Michigan state archives owns the portrait.

Kerry Chartkoff, chair of the Michigan Save the Flags committee, tells the tale of the third portrait. In 1911 a bundle of "rags" was discovered in the basement of the Capitol. Inside was Michigan's first flag, lost since the Civil War. Chartkoff attributes the painted flag to artist Alvin Smith. "On one side was a full-ength portrait of Governor Mason himself. On the other was a portrait of General Hugh Brady, various other designs, and the coat-of-arms of the new state."

In 1912 the flag disappeared. The only remaining evidence of the flag was a photograph, taken in 1911 by Mason’s first biographer, Lawton Hemans. The photograph was discovered when Mr. Hemans' home (in Mason, Michigan) was purchased by historian Loren Shattuck. Mr. Shattuck asked the Hemans family if they knew anything else about the house, and they sent him Hemans’ photograph of the flag, along with many other pieces of Mason memorabilia.

Finally there is Mason’s statue in Capitol Park in Detroit, which presides over his grave. Mason's sister brought his body to Detroit in 1905, but in 1955 the grave was moved to make way for a bus stop.

When the park was renovated in 2010, the grave was missing. The remains were finally found, by chance, four days later.

Sources: The Detroit News.