“Ypsilanti” is a daunting name to pronounce for those unfamiliar with it. However, it's very unusualness is central to Ypsilantians' sense of the uniqueness of their community. How did a town in southern Michigan, known for many hundreds of years in Native Iroquoian and Algonquian languages, and later settled by French and English-speakers end up with a Greek name that most Americans would surely lose the spelling bee with if asked?
The quick succession of names the area was known by in the early 1800s is dramatic testimony to the profound changes happening throughout what is now Southeast Michigan at the time. A largely Native American population in a land claimed by the British Empire was displaced by incoming European-descendant Americans governed by the United States.
Photo: Map showing area Native trails and village sites. From 1921 Hinsdale Archaeological Atlas of Michigan
Many of the same reasons that brought Native peoples to this area brought American settlers as well. The Native trails, called the Sauk and Potawatomi after the Indian people led from the Detroit River, forded the Huron and would become roads, and later highways. The springs and rich bottom land made use of by Native agriculturalists would attract land-hungry New Englanders to farm.
The Huron River has been inhabited and used by someone for nearly ten thousand years, and in that time has undoubtedly been known by countless names now lost to us. The Potawatomi that lived on the banks of the Huron in the Ypsilanti area throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries called the river the Nottawaseppi, the Algonquin for “River of the Hurons,” a name their descendants retain today. They likely called their village near where Ypsilanti now is, Moguago’s Town after one of the principle men of the band, John Mogugago. The Hurons themselves called the river Giwitatigweiasibi, or “burnt-oak region.”
It was at the invitation of the Potawatomi that traders, largely of French ancestry and from Detroit, first came to the Ypsilanti area. Eventually the trading post was owned and operated by Gabriel Godfroy, whose family had long traded with the Potawatomi and neighboring peoples and operated a string of such posts throughout the territory. Around the time of the War of 1812, the area had come to be known to the Americans as “Godfroy’s on the Potawatomi Trail.”
Photo: Plaque commemorating the location of Godfroy’s trading post, North Huron Street.
The trading post itself was burned down sometime in this period, perhaps by forces of the Native confederacy that congregated in the area during the war. After the war and the removal of the Potawatomi, the trading post declined. Traders would soon be replaced by settlers.
Woodruff’s Grove, where the first permanent American settlers arrived in the summer of 1823, is commemorated on the corner of Prospect and Grove on the east side of the river by a boulder and plaque placed there in 1923, on the one hundredth anniversary of its founding. Named after Major Benjamin J. Woodruff, who became the first sheriff and post-master in the county, the hamlet would soon be eclipsed by a town.
In 1824, the building of a federal highway from Detroit to Chicago was planned. Known as the Chicago Road, the highway would follow the old Sauk Trail and cross the Huron River a mile north of Woodruff’s settlement. Today this is Michigan Avenue and can still be driven all the way to Chicago, more or less along the route of the old trail. Where roads go, land speculation is sure to follow and three business men, including Detroit judge (and banker) Augustus Woodward purchased land where the road would cross and platted a town. While Detroit’s Woodward Avenue is the more famous street named after Judge Woodward, Ypsilanti also has a street named after him.
Photo: 1923 Daughters of the American Revolution centennial celebration. Ypsilanti Historical Society.
In the early days of the young American republic as the new country sought an identity, there was a fascination with all things Greek. Greece was the source of Western notions of republicanism and civil-government. Greece’s rebellion against the Ottoman Empire at the time captured the imagination of many Americans, who had so recently won their independence from Britain. Judge Woodward was one of those. This fascination accounts for why so many of Ypsilanti’s earliest buildings are built in the Greek Revival style as well.
The same year of the highway plan, 1824, Daniel Webster and Henry Clay, the two leading politicians of the day, proposed that the United States recognize Greek independence, and it was decided by the investors to name the new town after a hero of that rebellion, General Demetrius Ypsilanti.
Photo: Bust of Demetrius Ypsilanti by the City’s iconic water tower.
Ypsi would see huge changes over the years as the farming town industrialized and the college became a university. Ypsilanti would have number of nicknames. Given the difficulty in people pronouncing and spelling the name, it’s no accident that “Ypsilanti” became “Ypsi” early on. No nickname was more controversial than “Ypsitucky,” which many thought denigrated the City and the many Kentuckians and Appalachian migrants recruited during World War Two to work in the local war industries. Others wore the name proudly.
The names Ypsilanti has been known by reflect a changing world; it is sure that this place on the Huron will be known by new names in the future.
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