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The Saginaw Trail

Map of Saginaw Trail

Of all the named Indian trails in Michigan, the Saginaw Trail is the oldest and certainly the most traveled in the trail system. Originating from the Straits of Detroit, this Sauk trail heads north-west through Pontiac, Flint and supposedly terminating in Saginaw. Saginaw was a major native population and cultural center in Michigan with over 109 Chippewa Indian villages recorded. Saginaw was at a crossroads of numerous rivers and at the base of Saginaw Bay. From here natives could travel direct to the other major hunting and trading points in Michigan. Some researchers denote the Saginaw Trail as continuing to the Traverse Bay area, sharing the route of the Mackinac trail.


The Interior Indian Trail Through Michigan

Indian Hunters in Canoe
Indian Hunters in Canoe- Albert Bierstadt

When the French explorers and fur traders arrived they found the trail useful as a trade route into the interior of Michigan. Tribes utilized the trail to travel to eastern forts and outposts to receive treaty payments from the British. Likewise, the French fur traders established themselves at key trail points for trading.  In 1818, the Michigan Territorial Government approved the construction of a turnpike that led from Saginaw to Pontiac. Approval was granted to extend the road from Pontiac to Detroit in 1822. This turnpike was hardly better than a swampy sea of mud. It was described by William McCormick who traveled the route in 1831 —“the mud was so deep one span of horses could not draw the wagon through.”

The Michigan territory did not have funds to continue improving the Saginaw Turnpike. In 1827 requests to the US Government for funds were approved and the road completed in 1841.


Saginaw Trail Historical Monument

The Saginaw Trail running from Detroit to Saginaw through Pontiac and Flint was originally an Indian trail. In 1816 Michigan Territorial government authorized the building of a road from Detroit to Saginaw along the trail. Part of the trail in Oakland County is now Woodward Avenue and Dixie Highway. Evidence of the original Saginaw Trail path through Royal Oak is still visible as a Depression in the ground running northwesterly across the property adjacent to the John Almon Starr House.

Inscription on the Historical Monument

Significant Historical Spots Along the Saginaw Trail

Spirit of Detroit

Straits of Detroit – The term Detroit has named by the early French explorers denoted the entire length river system from Lake Huron to Lake Erie. In 1701 Cadillac established Fort Detroit on the high shore of the Detroit River. This area was also known as a terminating point for several trails that crisscrossed.


Moses Wisner Estate
Moses Wisner Estate on the Saginaw Trail

Pontiac – Michigan Governor’s Mansion – Moses Wisner was governor of Michigan from 1859 to 1861. He was born June 3, 1813, in New York. He came to Michigan in 1837. In 1841 he was admitted to the Bar and practiced law until the Civil War. By 1862 Colonel Wisner took command of the 22nd Michigan Infantry. In the same year, the regiment went to Kentucky where Wisner died on January 5, 1863.

This property was purchased by Moses Wisner in 1844, served as the Michigan Governor’s Mansion from 1859-1861. Angelina Hascall Wisner, wife of Moses made it her home until her death in 1905, and members of the Wisner family resided here until 1945 when it was purchased by the Oakland County Historical Foundation.


Drayton Plains 1872
Drayton Plains in 1872

Drayton Plains – The Drayton Plains Hotel – This hotel was an early stagecoach stop along the Saginaw Trail. Built-in 1839 by Daniel Windiate.


Indian Portage
Caughnawaga Indian Encampment at a Portage

Grand Traverse of the Flint – The spot where the trail crossed the Flint River was known as the Grand Traverse or great crossing place. This rendezvous spot is described as an open plain lying in the bend of the river. The area was named Muscatawingh. In Chippewa, this means ‘the plain burned over’. Gardens were also known to be in this area and it was known as a camping ground. The city of Flint Michigan grew up around this crossing.


The Story’s on the Saginaw Trail

Charity Island Lighthouse Trail
Charity Island Lighthouse Trail

Aristocracy on the Saginaw Trail: Tocqueville in Michigan“, is considered one of the best stories about traveling the Saginaw Trail in 1839. The story is about two aristocrats from France who want to explore America’s wilderness in 1831. The descriptions and detail of their travels from Detroit to Saginaw is a fascinating glimpse about life as a settler and experience among the Chippewa.

Their wish to go to Saginaw. Tocqueville deemed the area the last vestige of civilization.

Do you have any idea what you’re in for? . . . Do you know that Saginaw is the last inhabited place between here and the Pacific Ocean? That between here and Saginaw there’s nothing but wilderness and trackless waste? Have you given any thought to forests rife with Indians and mosquitoes? Do you realize that you’ll have to spend at least one night sleeping on the damp ground? Have you thought about the fever? Can you find your way in the wilderness, or will you lose yourselves in the labyrinth of our forests?

Alexis de Tocqueville
Pictorial Video of the Saginaw Trail

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Mike Hardy

Mike Hardy is a Marketing Information Technology Manager and author of a fun-loving blog covering topics of the Upper Thumb of Michigan. Starting in 2009, he authored a vast range of content and established a loyal base of 15,000 visitors per month. Mike welcomes your feedback, which can be found on Thumbwinds, "About" page.

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