Orange Risdon Family

Influence of the Orange Risdon Family Upon Saline and Other Towns
By Agnes L. Dikeman

Since numerous articles have been written about Orange Risdon and his accomplishments, this piece will speak only briefly on his mighty feats; instead, it will focus primarily on his wife and family. See the endnotes for sources of more information.

The first time I heard the unusual name, Orange Risdon, was prior to my moving to the Saline area. The Risdon home site was dedicated in 1954 and shortly after the occasion, I happened to visit the town. Salinians were greatly excited about the historic moment. At the time, I had not developed an interest in history and thought all the celebrating was much ado about nothing. However, one never knows where fate will lead. In later years my interest in history was much more solid. My husband and I moved to Lodi Twp., just outside Saline, and sometime later, I became active in the Saline Area Historical Society. It was then that I found myself more interested in Orange Risdon, the founding father of Saline.

Many ask how Orange Risdon got his name. In the 19th century, names came not only from family members, but sometimes from the places where family lived. Risdon ancestors had come from England and Orange might have been named after the English monarchy, the House of Orange. Or, perhaps there was a family connection to Orange County, VT. Also, in nearby New York State, there is a very important 17th century fort known as "Fort Orange" (now Albany). Wherever his name originated, Orange Risdon must have liked it because he named his own son, Orange, Jr. There are also some nephews who bear the name.

Orange Risdon, Surveyor

Orange Risdon came to Michigan Territory from the East. Born in Rupert, Bennington Co., Vermont on December 28, 1786, he was raised in Saratoga County in eastern New York State, where his parents Josiah and Martha Cochran Risdon had moved with their large family. Orange's formal common schooling ended when he was thirteen years old, but that is not to say that he was not well educated. He was tutored in navigation and surveying, with the goal of following the sea as a livelihood. As an apprentice, he studied surveying and carried the chain. Prior to his survey work in Michigan Territory, he worked at least one summer on a Great Lakes shipping vessel as a navigator. It wasn't long before his ability was recognized and he found his responsibilities and his wages were vastly increased. In 1807 at the age of 21, he was already a noted surveyor and his work was in demand. By then, he had attained the level of assistant surveyor and assessor.

In 1816 at the age of 30, he was well into his career when he married Sally Newland of Stillwater, Saratoga Co., New York, the daughter of Rial and Dorcas Newland. Sally's hometown of Stillwater played an important role in the Revolutionary War. It was the headquarters of Gen. Philip Schuyler and battles at this site became the "the turning point" in the war. Orange and Sally's first child Henry was born in Stillwater. (Sanders)

He then moved his young family to Genesee County in western New York, where he worked as a surveyor. They settled in the town of LeRoy, southwest of Rochester and east of Batavia. Several of his children were born there. It wasn't long before Risdon accumulated about 1000 acres of land on the Genesee River, an area where he had done extensive survey work. But shortly thereafter, the widespread financial crisis of 1817 occurred and his resources dwindled considerably. As did many men in 1823, he decided to go west to the Territory of Michigan. It was an opportunity waiting to happen, as land had to be surveyed before anyone could make a purchase. Risdon left New York State with survey tools in hand. (Collins)

Early Work in the Territory of Michigan

Now, the greatest of the Indian trails in the East and Midwest was the Sauk Trail, known by different names in various parts of its long route. This trail was actually transcontinental in scope, with the eastern end leading from the Atlantic seacoast to Fort Pitt (now Pittsburgh). New Englanders knew this part of the trail as Braddock's Road. The next portion known to white settlers was called the Great Trail or the Iroquois Trail. It led from Ft. Pitt, around the southern end of Lake Erie, across the Maumee River and north to Detroit. The great swamp between the Maumee and Detroit is noteworthy; its existence explains why the Territory of Michigan was known as the Black Swamp and settlement was slow in developing. The next portion was the Sauk Trail, from Detroit to the Chicago River. It is this portion that played such an important role in the life of Orange Risdon and subsequently, in the founding of Saline.

These were natural trails, the width of two warriors running side by side. They were dry and smooth during most times of the year. There were no large trees obstructing the way. Between villages, the trails were wide enough for the poles of a travois tied to a pony, the Indians' method of travel for hauling their belongings from one village to another. (Collins)

Once in Detroit, Risdon made the acquaintance of influential persons, such as Judge Samuel Dexter, Chief Justice of Washtenaw County, and Fr. Gabriel Richard, a delegate to Congress from the Michigan Territory. The influence of these men was beneficial to Mr. Risdon. Ever since the alliance of the English and the Indians during the War of 1812, the federal government believed there was an imperative need for a military road between Detroit and Chicago, in order that soldiers could move quickly should there be an Indian uprising. It was at this time that Fr. Gabriel Richard recommended Orange Risdon, an astute man with excellent credentials, for the job of chief surveyor of such a road. The federal government budgeted the grand sum of $3000 for the project.

In the beginning, Risdon intended to make the road as straight as possible between the two cities, but part way into the work, the government ran out of funds. As if that was not enough of a problem, there were some major obstacles such as heavy marshes, which caused him to follow the Sauk Trail, instead. This explains why today's US 12 is fairly straight from Detroit to Pittsfield Twp. But extending west from that point, it winds back and forth as a trail might have done. In subsequent decades, the road has had several names: the Military Road, the Chicago Turnpike, the Chicago Road, MI State Trunk Line #23, and US 112. Today, it is known as Michigan Ave. or US 12.

Washtenaw County had been established since 1822. While surveying the military road within the county, Orange Risdon decided he liked the Saline River Valley. The area was surrounded on all sides with beautiful countryside, capable of producing abundance in food and fuel. At the same time, water was available for manufacturing. Risdon purchased 164 acres in Saline Twp. in 1824 and an additional 78 acres in York Twp. the following year. (Peck) In prior decades, the Pottawatomie had a large village here and old timers often said the Indians never made a mistake in selecting a site for their village. It was a good spot, indeed.

Risdon produced a map in 1825, which contributed significantly to the settlement of Michigan Territory. The map was printed so that it could be folded and carried in a man's pocket, a convenience for anyone seeking to identify a property site. It was the first map to show in precise detail the lands available in the southeastern territory. Completion of the Erie Canal was imminent and Risdon had accurately predicted that the tide of immigration was just beginning. He ordered 472 copies to be printed. Today, two of the surviving thirteen copies are located in graduate libraries on the campus of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

In 1829, Risdon chose a site for his house on the road he had surveyed and built it on the southeast hill overlooking the Saline River. This beautiful focal point and commanding spot is now part of Oakwood Cemetery. For many years, his house served as an inn, actually the first inn within the community. The year 1830 was extremely busy in the sense that Orange Risdon was an exuberant entrepreneur. The first election was held in his home in April. The first post office was in his house, with Risdon acting as the first postmaster for ten years. He rented out his parlor to Silas Finch, to be used as the first store. Risdon was the Justice of the Peace for twelve years. He founded the permanent village in 1832 and named it Saline, after the river of the same name. 

Risdon built several rental houses within the village. In today's terms, he might be called a wheeler and dealer, establishing and maintaining several different businesses, including a livery business at the time when the railroad came through Saline. (The livery barn he built at one of his houses on the corner of Chicago Road and Lewis Street was constructed prior to 1834. It has been removed and restored at the Saline Railroad Depot Museum complex on N. Ann Arbor and Bennett Streets.) He continued working for the U.S. Government as a surveyor until 1856, surveying seventy-five townships and re-surveying forty-five others in Michigan. See.

Many years ago, a news reporter wrote that Orange Risdon has the distinction of being the only man living who took a prominent part in the laying of the corner stone of the first State Capitol in Detroit 50 years ago. "We think (he is) the most notable individual present (at the laying of the corner stone of the new State Capitol in Lansing) and one who attracted more attention than any one else. He is now 87 and he marched at the head of the Ann Arbor Commandory (Masons) at Lansing as nimble and spry as any man in that body. His health is good and he bids fair to live a number of years yet." (Ann Arbor Peninsular Courier)

Risdon's Washtenaw County Death Record confirms he died three years after that incident on November 26, 1876, at the age of 89 yrs., 10 mo., 30 days., after a short illness. It has been said he contracted a cold that he could not shake.
Orange Risdon's Map 1825