Bazel and Martha Harrison: Kalamazoo County’s First Family
Kalamazoo Public Library Photo P-647
Although the majority of early Kalamazoo County settlers came from New York, a significant number arrived from the south. Among these was Bazel Harrison, who led the first party of white settlers in the county. Harrison was born in Maryland in 1771. His family moved first to Virginia, then to Pennsylvania, where Harrison worked in a distillery in his early years. At the age of 19, he eloped with Martha Stillwell over the objection of her mother, and they moved to Ohio. Mrs. Stillwell's worries were for naught. Bazel and Martha were married for nearly 70 years.
Settling on the Prairie
After their son Elias explored southern Michigan in 1827 and returned with glowing reports, the Harrisons left their farm in Springfield, Ohio, and arrived in Prairie Ronde in November 1828 with a contingent of twenty-one persons, including eight of their 17 children, several grandchildren and a handful of neighbors. In the caravan were also three cows, fifty head of sheep, hogs, horses and oxen. The trip took more than a month, but when they arrived, they were happy with what they found. The settlers were reported to have said, "perhaps the eye of man has rarely rested on a more beautiful natural landscape than was presented by Prairie Ronde."
They camped the first night on the southern edge of the prairie, in what is now Schoolcraft. After making inquiries about a source of water, the local Pottawatomis led them to a site on the northwest side of Harrison Lake, so named in their honor. There they built a log cabin, and later a frame house, and there Bazel and Martha remained until the end of their long lives.
Judge Harrison's home
Standard Atlas of Kalamazoo County, 1910, page 127
The small colony gradually increased in size. By 1830 the families of Abner Calhoun, Abraham Shaver, Erastus Guilford, David Beadle and others brought the population of the area to over sixty families. That December the first township meeting was held, at which Bazel Harrison was elected one of three Commissioners of Highways. In 1831, Governor Cass commissioned him, along with Stephen Hoyt, to be an associate judge of the district that would soon be known as Kalamazoo County. He held this position until 1834 and was forever after known as Judge Harrison. He was said to have inspired the character of Ben Boden in James Fenimore Cooper's book, The Oak Openings, or, The Bee-Hunter.
Martha Harrison died in 1857. By the time Bazel died in 1874, at the age of 103, their descendants numbered 220 persons, many of whom lived in this area. Their oldest son William was the first settler of Charleston Township. Another son Nathan operated the first ferry over the Kalamazoo River in what is now downtown Kalamazoo. Bazel and Martha are both buried in Harrison Cemetery in Prairie Ronde Township.
Harrison Homestead Excavation
In 1969, Kalamazoo Valley Community College and the Kalamazoo Public Museum collaborated on an archaeological dig to identify the original location of the Harrison homestead. The correct location of the homestead was determined from information provided by John Crose, Harrison's great-great-grandson, following an unsuccessful dig conducted by the museum in 1955. By the end of the 1969 excavation, several thousand artifacts were retrieved, including pennies dated 1842 and 1865, the pendulum from a clock, a peppermint bottle, and fragments from clay pipes. These artifacts revealed specific information about early building materials and styles of living in Kalamazoo County. All the items are now housed at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum.
Written by Martha Lohrstorfer, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, June 2006. Updated 6 September 2016.