Lewis Cass: Conquering the Wilderness

Lewis Cass
Lewis Cass

A vast wilderness; home to thousands of unfriendly inhabitants; a land of brutal winters, without roads or obtainable titles — all told, it sounds like a place to be avoided. Yet this was the Michigan of 1805, when it became a territory of the United States.

Michigan has come a long way since then, thanks to men and women of courage and determination. On the 200th anniversary of this auspicious event, it is worth looking at how one man in particular contributed to Michigan’s prosperity and contemplating what lessons his life holds for Michigan today.

Lewis Cass was born in New Hampshire, the eldest son of a craftsman who had served in the Continental Army during the Revolution. After distinguishing himself in the War of 1812, Cass was appointed as Michigan’s territorial governor by President James Madison and served from 1813 to 1831. After that, he then spent 14 years in the national arena, serving as secretary of war, U.S. ambassador to France and secretary of state. Cass returned to Michigan in 1845 and was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he represented Michigan for 12 years. In 1848 he resigned from the Senate to run for president against Zachary Taylor, but he was defeated and returned to the Senate to finish his term.

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When Cass became governor of the Michigan Territory in 1813, he faced daunting problems. Little settlement or surveying had taken place outside of Detroit. The government survey reported that the land was covered with swamps and unfit for cultivation. The territory was occupied by Indian tribes that, having fought for the British in the War of 1812, remained resentful toward Americans. The settlers in the state had been impoverished by the ravages of war. Few settlers were coming to Michigan; those who did found it hard to survive the harsh winters and mosquito-infested summers.

Cass worked hard to improve conditions and attract settlers to Michigan. He instituted another survey of government lands in Michigan and found them to be much more hospitable than the previous survey had reported. As news of productive land reached the East, settlers began moving to Michigan and Cass allowed them to purchase government land. He soon began to organize the state for self-government, establishing counties and townships. By the end of his term, Michigan was prospering and had enough citizens to qualify for statehood.

Most of all, Cass excelled in his dealings with the Indians. At first, most of the tribes in Michigan remained pro-British and openly hostile to Americans. But when Cass became Superintendent of Indian Affairs he successfully negotiated treaties with several tribes, making large new tracts of land available to settlers. He made several trips among the Indians, urging them to stop trading with the British in Canada. In large part, he was responsible for making Michigan a safe place to live.

In all his undertakings, Cass’s character and determination were leading factors in his outstanding accomplishments. He was always scrupulously honest in his dealings with the Indians, earning their respect and trust. He was a Jeffersonian, who strove to limit the use of federal power in domestic matters. He never took federal money, even that allowed him for expenses, without approval from Washington. As a result of his leadership and character, the state of Michigan in 1889 sent a statue of Cass to stand in the U.S. Capitol.

Two hundred years later, Michigan still faces significant challenges. We need leaders like Lewis Cass who will demonstrate selfless leadership, perseverance and integrity to bring prosperity and peace to Michigan. Though he was handed considerable power, Cass strove to advance freedom and self-government, rather than individual power or wealth. If Michigan leaders follow Cass’s example, perhaps they will duplicate his success.


Monica J. Rubingh is a student at Patrick Henry College in Virginia and was a 2005 summer intern at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.