Daily Life . . . in 1863

Sep 25, 2023

Have you ever wondered what life was like in the Rochester area when William and Caroline Yates settled here in 1863?

For starters, there were a lot fewer people. The village of Rochester counted around 500 residents, while another 1,200 people were scattered throughout the remainder of Avon Township or lived in the village of Stony Creek. That meant a total population of just over 1,700 for the area that is occupied today by Rochester and Rochester Hills.  For a bit of perspective, that’s the same number of people as makes up the current student body of Rochester High School.

Most of those 1,700 people belonged to farm families with their biggest crops being wheat, corn, oats, potatoes, and wool. Because there were three fast-moving streams in the township—the Clinton River, Paint Creek, and Stony Creek—the Rochester area was a prime location for mills to process grains and wool. By the time the Yates family arrived in Avon, there were two woolen mills, three sawmills, and four grist mills operating in the area.

The people of Avon had to be self-reliant because the township and its villages were relatively isolated. With few exceptions, the roads were little more than rough wagon tracks, and a trip to Detroit and back was a multi-day excursion. The arrival of a railroad line through Rochester was still almost a decade into the future.

Life in the country with no railroad or telegraph lines meant that news of the outside world reached Rochester by mail that was delivered by stage riders. News of “current” events might arrive days or weeks after the fact. Since Rochester would not have its first regular newspaper until the railroad came in 1872, the Rochester and Avon residents of 1863 waited for the stage to bring copies of the Detroit Free Press or the Pontiac Jacksonian.

The newspapers brought word of the Civil War that was raging toward a turning point, and during 1863 the fierce battles of Chancellorsville, Chickamauga, Vicksburg, and Gettysburg would be fought with tremendous loss of life. President Lincoln would issue the Emancipation Proclamation and deliver the Gettysburg Address. While these news accounts were probably of chief interest, here are a few of the other headlines that residents of Avon would have seen in 1863:

  • Harriet Tubman led Union guerilla raiders into Maryland to free slaves
  • Samuel L. Clemens published in a Virginia City newspaper under the pen name “Mark Twain” for the first time.
  • President Lincoln designated the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day in the United States.
  • The International Committee of the Red Cross was formed.
  • A new subway system, affectionately called “The Tube,” opened in London, England.

And if there had been a local newspaper in Rochester in 1863, it would have also reported that William and Caroline Yates of Madison County, New York, had bought land in Section 13 and planned to start a mill on the Clinton River.

Written by Deborah Larsen
Freelance writer, Copyeditor, Proofreader,
Research Committee chairperson with
Rochester Avon Historical Society.

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