The founding and naming of Ypsilanti (Ǐp’-sǐ-lǎn-tē) is pioneering spirit, exemplified. Three men, three shrewd enterprisers, sought new development and opportunity west of Detroit’s coughing smokestacks. They were John Stewart, William Harwood and, integrally, Augustus Woodward—a reputedly brilliant eccentric with a penchant for the ancient Greek language.
In The Story of Ypsilanti, author Harvey C. Colburn begins their tale: In 1825, the government commissioned surveyor Orange Risdon to establish a “practicable” route from Detroit to Chicago. Following an old Native trail around bluffs, swamps and streams, Risdon and his party stopped at the Huron Valley, an intersection of trail and Huron River.
This was where road met water, historically a formula for thriving civilization. This was, writes Colburn, the “future center of things.”
Enter Stewart, Harwood and Woodward. Together, they bought the land adjacent to this crossing; platted but still unbuilt. Yet this to-be “metropolis” needed a name.
Woodward chose Ypsilanti in honor Demetrius Ypsilanti, an officer in the Russian Army in Moldavia and a defender of Greece.
Along the coast of Peloponnese, our community’s namesake had fought to overturn Turkish tyranny. “With three hundred men he had held the Citadel of Argos for three days against an army of thirty thousand,” writes noted historian, James Mann. “Then, having exhausted his provisions, he had escaped one night beyond the enemy lines, with his entire command, having lost not a single man.”
Ypsilanti died in 1832 and was entombed in Nafplio, Greece, an ancient city 60 miles south of Athens. And, in 1966, the city of Ypsilanti invited Nafplio to become its sister city—two towns, separated by ocean, language and culture, had officiated the bond made centuries ago at the Citadel of Argos.
So, here’s to Ypsilanti: A Greek patriot and a Michigan hero.