John Allen

When John Allen came to the site now know as Ann Arbor, he did so with a hope that his fortunes were going to take a turn for the better. He had left behind a family and financial problems in Virginia. He was hoping that Michigan, with its unsettled frontier, would be the place where he could start over again, wash away his debts and build a pleasant community. John Allen was born and raised in Virginia. The son of a wealthy land owner and farmer, he was married twice. His first wife, Mary Crawford died after giving Allen two sons. His second wife, Ann J. McCue, was a widow when Allen met her. Like Allen, she had two children from a previous marriage. Both wives of John Allen had large inheritances behind them, so Allen married into money. Yet, historical records maintain that he left Virginia for a new life to escape money troubles.
Consequently, John Allen wasn't exactly the stereotypical pioneer blazing new paths into the wilderness. His past was somewhat troubling. According to historian Jonathan Marwil, Allen was trying to get away from some bad debts incurred before leaving his home state. Another historian, Professor Russell Bidlack, sheds some more light on Allen. Apparently, Allen had borrowed some money, bought a herd of cattle with that money, and intended to drive the cattle to Baltimore for profit. Whether that deal ever materialized is not clear from the existing records. What is know is Allen left Virginia in the fall of 1823, and met Rumsey soon after. Allen was the wealthier of the two men, spending $600.00 for 480 ($1.25 per acre)1 to Rumsey's $200.00 for 160 acres. In addition, both men had the foresight to lobby for and purchase the right to have their village designated the county seat. They paid $1,000.00 for this privilege. The move to obtain the county seat was brilliant foresight on their part because these government institutions, such as the county court house and jail, ensured the success of the small village. All legal and governmental business of the county had to go through Ann Arbor, thus making the village a center to transact business. Whether this foresight can be attributed to both men or one in particular is not known. However, the record on John Allen is far more complete than on Rumsey (mostly due to Rumsey's untimely death in 1828). It appears that John Allen was a man of distinct ambition and enthusiasm. Many people attribute a large part of Ann Arbor's early success to his tireless efforts building up the town structurally and culturally.
While it seems clear that John Allen founded Ann Arbor in order to start a new life, he also did it for capitalistic reasons. Allen could sell the land he had originally purchased at quite a profit and did so. By the time he left Ann arbor for New York in 1837, to better manage his financial affairs, Allen owned several thousand acres of land in the western part of Michigan. Thus the founding of Ann Arbor turned out to be a profitable venture for Allen. But Allen earned his money enthusiastically promoting his new town and its qualities writing: "Our water is of the purest limestone, the face of the county modestly uneven, our river the most beautiful . . ." But John Allen's energy was not only directed toward selling plots of land. He became involved in many civic duties and functions, helping Ann Arbor grow in more ways than just population.
Besides the selling of Ann Arbor as a great place to live, Allen wore many hats during his life in the town he founded. He established Ann Arbor's first post office in 1825, becoming the town's first postmaster. This duty alone probably didn't take up too much of his time back then. Mail was not delivered to the townspeople. They had to come to the post office to pick it up. Mail came into the town on the average of every six days or so depending upon the weather. When it did arrive, the entire mail shipment only amounted to six or seven letters. But being the postmaster wasn't the only duty of Allen's.
In addition, he was one of the county coroners. He was also president of the village trustees, and a justice of the peace. He served as a private in the Michigan Volunteers which was the first regiment in Washtenaw County. He was a member of the debate club, which, at its initial meeting, consisted of two members, Allen and Rumsey. When John Allen wasn't busy with the above obligations, helping to build houses, making sure the school had enough land and selling plots of land, he managed to get into politics.
Prior to his political ambitions and appointments, Allen studied law with the honorable Judge James Kingsley. He was admitted to the Bar of Washtenaw County in 1832. Passing the bar more than likely helped his political life. Before becoming a lawyer, Allen had run for a state representative seat but finished in a dismal fourth with only 40 votes to his credit. In 1845, a few years after studying with Kingsley and passing his exam, he ran for and won a seat in the state senate. He remained in that position for three years before leaving in 1848.
If all this isn't enough, John Allen established Ann Arbor's first newspaper, the Western Emigrant with Samuel Dexter. The two editors used the paper as a format to express their anti-Mason views. The two: "made the Emigrant an Anti-Masonic organ" and dealt powerful verbal blows at what they considered a crime against good government. Thus, John Allen was concerned with money matters as well as political motives and genuine willingness to see his village grow and prosper.
By 1837, John Allen was a very powerful and rich man in Ann Arbor. In order to manage his finances better, he moved to New York. It seemed he wanted to get closer to the action of investing. Unfortunately, the investment markets were not kind to him. By 1850, he had lost most of his wealth in real estate, and he was looking for new ventures to regain his fortune. The gold rush attracted him, so he moved to California in the mid part of 1850. He never made it back east, dying near San Francisco on March 11, 1851. Sadly, the colorful and diverse life of Ann Arbor.
1. Marwil, Jonathan. A History of Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1987. 1.
2. Bidlack, Russell E. John Allen and the Founding of Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1962.
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