Founder of Kalamazoo: 1788–1853
Titus Bronson Labadie’s Souvenir of Picturesque Kalamazoo, 1909.
Like many pioneers of southern Michigan, Titus Bronson was a New Englander. Born in Middlebury, Connecticut, in November 1788, Bronson moved west in 1821 to Tallmadge, Ohio, where he learned to grow seed potatoes and earned his nickname “Potato Bronson.”
He moved on to Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1824, but returned to his hometown two years later to marry Sally Richardson. Bronson went back to Tallmadge with his family, but soon ventured out alone, returning briefly to Ann Arbor, then following an old Indian trail west to become the first white settler in Kalamazoo.
He arrived here on June 21, 1829. Living in a crude hut constructed of tamarack poles, he spent the summer and fall of 1829 preparing to establish a permanent settlement. After spending the winter with friends in Prairie Ronde (present-day Schoolcraft), Bronson returned to Ohio to bring his family and friends back to Michigan.
The Village of Bronson
Source: Labadie’s Souvenir of Picturesque Kalamazoo, 1909, page 2.
In June 1830, Bronson bought the land where downtown Kalamazoo is now located, using money he had earned from selling potatoes he had grown in Ann Arbor. According to legend, had it not been for the intervention of his wife Sally, he might have exchanged it all for $100 and a gun. Bronson and his brother-in-law, Stephen Richardson, officially entered the plat for the Village of Bronson at the county register’s office on March 12, 1831. Two weeks later, Governor Lewis Cass selected Bronson as the site of the county seat, which encouraged the development of the little community. Bronson donated some of his own land for the construction of a courthouse, churches, an academy and a jail. Eventually the academy and jail became the location for a park which bears his name. He also built a log house to replace his original hut.
A Pioneering Spirit
Titus Bronson was a public-spirited, patriotic, and generous man, but he also was outspoken against intemperance and politics, which frequently put him at odds with his fellow settlers. Careless in dress and appearance, he also was said to have a peculiar walk, moving in fits and starts. Once during a local court session, Bronson was caught whittling at a window sill in the courtroom, and later was fined for stealing a cherry tree from another settler. Both incidents fueled the growing discontent in the community against him.
Photographed by Alex Forist, 2005.
In March of 1836 his enemies succeeded in changing the name of the village from Bronson to Kalamazoo. Hurt by that, and finding the rapidly expanding community too constricting, he left Kalamazoo. He wound up in Davenport, Iowa, where he lost his wealth through a land swindle in 1842, the same year his wife died. After living in Illinois for a short while, Bronson returned to Connecticut and died a broken man in January 1853. His headstone appropriately reads: “A Western Pioneer, Returned to Sleep with his Fathers.”
Despite Titus Bronson’s personal flaws and eccentric behavior, he nonetheless played a critical role in the founding and early development of Kalamazoo. He was, after all, the pioneer who had the vision to recognize the site of a future city. Soon after he first arrived, a visitor remarked to him that in twenty years, only his hut would mark the location of his village. Agitated by this criticism, Bronson replied that in thirty years, a thriving city would exist. Titus Bronson was more right than he could have imagined.