Dr. J. L. Whiting on early Detroit, Black Hawk, Cholera and speaking on the ‘the father of medicine in Michigan.’


Evening News, April 30, 1880.

Dr. Whiting, after fifteen years of successful practice as a physician and surgeon, retired from the profession to engage in the forwarding and commission business.

Concerning this step, he said, “The tide of immigration from the east was beginning to pour in upon us in a steady flood, and the business was most promising.

I quit medicine to follow my new venture in February, 1832, but I was compelled to return to it in July, and work harder at it than ever I had in my life.

The cholera had broken out.

“The dreadful disease was brought to us by a vessel carrying troops ordered to the scene of the Black Hawk war, a war almost unknown to the history readers of this generation.

You are aware that Black-Hawk was a powerful Sac chief, somewhat after the Pontiac pattern.

The Sacs and Winnebago’s of Wisconsin had long been ugly and spoiling for a fight.

They were angry over the rapidly advancing colonization of Illinois, and dreaded further white encroachment.

In the spring of

1832 they commenced warfare upon the frontier settlements of Illinois, killing, scalping, burning, and outraging, and a national as well as a militia force was sent out to teach them a lesson.

After a number of fights the United States troops and Illinois militia, under General Atkinson, inflicted a crushing defeat upon the redskins at the junction of the Bad Axe River with the Mississippi, capturing Black-Hawk and his son and drove the Indians beyond the father Hawk and his son were taken to Washington. On their return Black Hawk stopped for a while in Dtroit, where I saw them both.

Young Black Hawk fell desperatly in love with a prominent society belle and wanted to honor honor her by making her his squaw.

She declined the proffered dignity for reasons best known to herself, but she has never married, and is still living in a state of single blessedness at Mackinac.

“Well, as I was saying,” continued the doctor, “I had just about got used to my new work down at the dock, when along came these troops with the cholera.

One of the men died of a pronounced case of Asiatic cholera on the Fourth of July.

The military surgeon accompanying the detachment was scared almost out of his wits, and immediately upon landing betook himself to bed in the hotel.

The commanding officer, thus deserted, called upon Dr. Rice, an able physician and an amiable man, to attend the sick, and Rice came to me to ask me to go with him.

I didn’t care to go, for I knew, though I had never seen a case of

Cholera that it was frightfully contagious and rapid in its results, and I told Rice so.

He urged that he had been authorized by the quartermaster to spare no expense in securing the most competent help, and finally he persuaded me to go with him.

I told my wife when I went home that Saturday evening that I had been called upon to attend the sick soldiers.

She looked grave and sorrowful, but said that as it was a case of duty she could not ask me to back out.

“That night sixteen cases were brought ashore and placed in the quartermaster’s stores, which had been converted into a temporary cholera hospital.

The stores were back of Fisk’s present crockery warehouse, between Jefferson Avenue and the river, fronting on Woodbridge Street.

Of the sixteen cases eleven proved fatal before morning.

“On the same day Dr. Rice had the sick call sounded and carefully examined every man of the detachment.

To everyone who showed predisposing symptoms of the disease, such as the premonitory diarrhea, he administered a thumping dose of ipecacuanha and calomel on the spot.

It acted like a charm.

There wasn’t another new case in the command.

After the dead were interred the detachment was hurried up to

Fort Gratiot to recruit, and before they left, the commanding officer warmly thanked Dr. Rice and myself for our services.

“The cholera visitation upon the citizens came later in the year 1832, and imposed a vast amount of work upon me.

It was confined largely to the lower classes, and swept off the intemperate and dissipated in large numbers.

In 1834 it attacked an entirely different class; the upper orders, the sober, temperate, and church-going people.

As in 1832 I was taken away from my commission business to attend to the stricken, and had to go out to Marshall, 100 miles, to attend to the cases there, the cholera having hopped over from Ann Arbor.

Dr. Rice did wonders during both visitations.

He practiced in Detroit for some 20 years, and was a man of great merit and as quick as lightning.

“This was not the only time I was called upon to minister to United States troops.

In 1823 the quartermaster insisted upon my going to Saginaw to attend to a sick garrison from Green Bay.

The troops were suffering from malignant intermitting fever, and at the end of three weeks’ attendance upon them I was knocked over myself.

I found the whole garrison sick, with one or two exceptions, and Dr. Zina Pitcher, the surgeon in charge, was the sickest of the lot.

He was completely broken up.

He had some 120 souls, old and young—60 enlisted men, with officers, laundresses, and children—under his charge, and all of them sick but one, with one of the most abominably distressing fevers imaginable.

He was all alone, one hundred miles from anywhere, with an appalling amount of work on hand, and no wonder he broke down.

When I reached Saginaw he was being carried all over the garrison on a mattress by men well enough as yet to move about or lift anything, giving opinions and advice, and a dreadful sight he presented, I can assure you.

The garrison was broken up in October and moved to Detroit where the troops were quartered on Fort street.

I did Pitcher’s duty from August, 1823, till May, 1824, nearly a year.

At that time I began to talk to him of moving into Detroit, for I had a high opinion of him as an able physician and a fine man.

In 1828, when I was making arrangements to give up my practice, I began writing to him, endeavoring to induce him to settle in Detroit and take my place, but I did not succeed until 1835 or ’36.

“Dr. Pitcher was styled not long ago, by a president of the county medical association, the ‘father of medicine in Michigan.’

With all due respect to the president, who knew better, as I told him afterwards, medical history compels me to dispute the title awarded to my old friend.

As long ago as 1811, I commenced the formation of a medical society among the few scattered physicians of the territory.

We had three at the capital and one respectively at Pontiac, St. Clair, Mount Clemens and Monroe, and they all joined me.

Long afterwards, when I had retired from practice, and when the number of physicians was greatly increased, county and State associations were formed and Dr. Pitcher was one of the first presidents of the Wayne County Society.”

Dr. Whiting had some experience with Cass among the Indians, and was a traveling companion with General Winfield Scott as early as 1827.

“In 1827,” he said, “General Cass called upon me to accompany a treaty-making expedition to the Buttes des Morts, or Hills of the Dead, on the Fox River about 40 miles above Green Bay.

The treaty was to be executed between General Cass and Col. McKinney, Indian agent at Washington, joint high commissioners for the United States, and Winnebago’s, Chippewa’s, Pottawattamie’s, Foxes, Sacs, and Menominee’s.

The expedition went out on board the steamer class vessel in her time.

She had only a main deck, which was a fore and after, with a cabin below.

The affair was regarded as a splendid chance for speculation, so the steamer was loaded down with Detroit merchants and their goods.

I was myself entrusted with $3,000 worth of goods of one kind and another, which I disposed of to advantage.

One of the passengers was General Winfield Scott, who was on a tour of inspection of forts and posts, and as two companies were stationed at Sault Ste. Marie he persuaded the captain to take him there.

This is how the first steamboat voyage to the Sault came to be made.

“The general was about 40 hours inspecting the post, and while he was busy we were having a splendid time enjoying ourselves in pleasure and trade.

There were about a dozen beautiful young ladies on board and we had a dance nearly every night.

The after cabin was given up to the demoiselles, so General Scott used to sleep on the dining tables every night, with a whale sperm candle burning at either side of his pillow; for there was an awful deal of fuss and feathers about the old fellow, even at that early stage of his career.

“My duties as medical officer were sufficient to keep me busy night and day.

I had to attend to the Indian sick, and as it was a season when green corn was in, they gorged themselves to repletion with it, and of course, suffered torments.

I was a big gun among them, I can tell you, as the ‘medicine man,’ with a couple of interpreters in constant attendance, moving around among people who regarded me as little less than a divinity, and swallowed the most atrociously unpleasant draughts with relish.

To hear them smack their lips over rancid castor oil which spoke for itself at long range, was a caution.

“We had to wait a long time for the Winnebago’s to come in, for they were saucy and disposed to show the whites that they didn’t care for them, but at the same time they were suffering from a bad attack of green corn.

A Menominee runner came in one day in advance of his people, many of whom came down from the neighborhood of Hudson’s bay, and in answer to my inquiries replied, with gesticulations far more eloquent than words:

‘Menominee sick like hel-l-l! Eat corn!

Break up Munnominee, purroo purro-o-o-o-f ! ! !’

“There were about 3,000 Indians of the different tribes present, many of whom had marched one thousand miles to partake of the benefits of the treaty and receive the presents of food and clothing.

They were supported while they were on the treaty ground and given all the provisions they could carry away with them.

The valuable lands which they ceded have long since become among the most fertile portions of the western granary.

We went upon this expedition in June and returned in August.

The Indians thought the world of Cass, whom they named OsKotchee, or ‘Big Belly.’ ”

Of his personal share in the Black-Hawk war Dr. Whiting tells in a modest, interesting way:

“I was appointed,” he said, “surgeon of the First Michigan militia regiment in 1818, and held my commission till 1832, when the war broke out.

A Dr. Hurd, who came here in 1819, was very anxious to displace me and brought a number of recommendations from people in high position which he pressed upon General John R. Williams, then commander in chief.

When we were ordered to rendezvous at Fort Dearborn (Chicago) preparatory to marching upon Illinois, Hurd spent a whole day with the general trying to get the position.

The fact was, he had been rather unsuccessful in Detroit, and the pay was an object to him, as much as the prestige was to me.

I was determined I would not be thrust out of my rank to suit Hurd, and in the long run I defeated him and was ordered to provide a supply of medicines and make ready to march at once.

I got Dr. Chapin, then our only druggist doing anything like a business, to fit me up a big medicine chest sufficient for the requirements of 200 infantry and a company of cavalry.

We got marching orders and had gone about fifty-five miles in the direction of Illinois when we received an order from General Williams ordering us back.

Our expedition lasted from the Thursday of one week till the too short a time entirely to give the First Michigan an opportunity to disquingish themselves on the field of glory, and I regret to say, also too short to qualify any of us for the 160 acres of land which every patriot had in his eye.

I didn’t have an opportunity of physicking a single combatant before the whole business was over.”

On the close of the “second cholera” in 1834, Dr. Whiting retired permanently from the practice of medicine, and devoted himself for the ensuing eight or ten years to the forwarding business, which consisted principally in the receipt and handling of the goods of immigrants who were then flowing into the State in large numbers.

The rush of immigration began in 1828 and continued for a long period afterwards.

“I saw,” said Dr. Whiting, “the early movement of emigration to Ohio, which was vigorously proceeding when I was on my way to Michigan.

I have seen the huge wagons of the pioneers, drawn by four teams of horses or yokes of oxen, making their way over the terrible roads, laden to the bursting point with household goods, and so arranged as to be moving homes for the family for the whole duration of the journey and until the settler could erect his log cabin in the unbroken wilderness.

The immigrants who came to us were from the thriftiest and most industrious New England stock, principally from the northeastern States and New York; people who could turn their hands to almost anything, and whose industry and perseverance, which they transmitted as a heritage to their posterity, have made Michigan what she is to-day.

“While keeping an eye on immigration, I saw the arrival of most of the men who have attained to note and position in this city and State.

It was while I had my office on the dock that Zachariah Chandler, then quite a new-comer, applied to me for a situation.

I well recollect when my friend, Mr. C. C. Trowbridge, came here—I was practicing then—a bright-eyed, ambitious, enthusiastic young man whose friendship I have enjoyed for scores of years, and whose career I have watched from early manhood to old age.”

Digressing a little, Dr. Whiting said:

“I observe in your sketch of Mr. Trowbridge that he speaks of an M. Laselle having once whipped the commandant of the fort in a dispute over a question of etiquette.

M. Laselle was well known as a peppery French officer in the Union service, who was present at Winchester’s defeat at River Raisin in the war of 1812-15.

He was the officer of the day, and, as the troops slept on their arm after the carnage, while posting a tall, gaunt New Hampshire soldier as a picket guard, intelligently instructed him as to his duties as follows:

” ‘Spose you see Hinjin, you say how?


Dat call him ‘tenshun.

Den you say Endoss! Endoss!

Dat come here!

Come here!

‘Spose Hinjin no endoss, you vill sa-a-acra-wentelment baionnez le dans la ventre!”

[You will sacramentally bayonet him in the bowels.]

“To return to forwarding.

There was not much of a general trade in my earlier experience of the business.

The fur trade was carried on by a few houses, Judge Abbott, Mack & Conant, Dequindre, and the Buhls.

There were a few small manufacturing concerns turning out boots and shoes, clothing, wool hats, and so on, but nothing to signify.

For all our iron work we had to send to Cleveland, and large quantities of goods, now manufactured in and exported from Detroit, were imported from Ohio.

But as the flood of population poured in from the eastern states a change came rapidly about, which had a remarkable effect upon my business.

I had at one time the agency of five steam boats, something enormous for that period—purchased their supplies, and gave a decided impetus to the fuel trade by requiring a constant supply of from 1,500 to 2,000 cords of wood.

The steamers for which I was agent ran to Buffalo, calling at the different lake ports on the way.

Once or twice a year they went to Chicago and Mackinac with supplies and stores.

In my younger days we had quite a contemptuous opinion of Chicago as a little swampy hamlet compared with which Detroit was of metropolitan grandeur.

Times fully since then, yet always for the better in Detroit whose growth has been gradually solid and substantial.

I have seen the population grow from 900 to 130,000, and I know whereof I speak.”

Dr. Whiting, after a lengthened experience as a forwarder and commission merchant, went into business as a land and tax agent, in which he continued till his physical infirmity obliged him to retire.

He stayed at his post till he was forced to seek repose.

Speaking of politics, he said:

“I have never been actively engaged in politics.

I was originally what was called a ‘blue-light federalist,’ and cast my first vote for DeWitt Clinton for president just before I left for Detroit.

Parties have come and parties have gone, leaving me, in my opinions, pretty much where I was standing when I cast my first vote.

Though I was elected city clerk in 1832 and again in 1834, I have never sought office.

During my second term as clerk of the city I found I had to either giveup my warehouse or resign the clerkship, and I chose the latter.

This completes my experience of office.

I became a Whig when Whiggery represented principles, and when it died out I found it terrible hard work to become a republican, and only surrendered under protest.

However, I had not much time to throw away on politics and politicians; my life was too busy a one for any dissipation of the kind, and besides I have always had the confidence that this Union could take care of herself, without my going into hysterics about saving her.”

As I rose to go, Dr. Whiting said: “When you hear young fellows of yesterday talking of Detroit as a slow, fossilized place, remember that I have seen it grow from a frontier post, with half a hundred English speaking Americans in it, depending upon the precarious support afforded by the fur trade and the disbursement of public money by the troops; from a little settlement, yet showing the ravages of a long war, to a great imperial city, with the most thrifty and generally prosperous population of the United States, at the distributing head of the most magnificent inland water system of the world, and growing year by year in power and riches.”

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