Lost History V: Rev. William Ferry Founder of Grand Haven and namesake of Ferrysburg


by Ron Robotham


In a continuation of the Examiner’s Lost History series, our next installments will focus on the founding of Grand Haven and the history of the surrounding area in Ottawa County.


Rev. William Ferry, Grand Haven’s founder, arrived by boat at the mouth of the Grand River on November 2, 1834 with family and friends. He was born in 1796 in Granby, Massachusetts; his parents were farmers but he chose a professional career. He attended New Brunswick Seminary and was ordained by the New York Presbytery in 1822.  He was appointed a Presbyterian Missionary to the Native Ameri-cans and other residents of Mackinac Island, Michigan.

 He had married Amanda White, also from Massachusetts, who came with him to this new wilderness area. They lived on Mackinac Island for twelve years where they began their family. Five children were born to William and Amanda while at Mackinac. They were, in order of birth, William M., Jr. (born 1824), Thomas White (1826), Amanda Harwood (1829), Noah Henry (1831), and Hannah Eliza-beth (1834). This would be the family that, as the first sentence states, “ . . . arrived by boat at the mouth of the Grand River . . .”

There are two exceptions as to the family total. Around 1831, Amanda was sent back east to Ashfield, Massachusetts, to be raised by her grandparents. Her sister, Hannah, joined her and was also raised by the grandparents until they died in 1847. At that time, Amanda (age 18) and Hannah (age 13) returned to Grand Haven to live with their parents.There will be more detail later, but the short story is that Amanda remained in Grand Haven and had a family here, while Hannah returned to Ashfield where she married and raised her family.

It was not as if no one lived on this site when they arrived. One source, Wally Ewing’s Our People, Their Stories, tells of some of the other early pioneers. One most prominent name that occurs in Grand Haven and other communities is the man, Rix Robinson. It is reported that Rev. Ferry preached his first sermon on November 2, 1834, at the log cabin house and fur trading post of Rix Robinson. Rev. Ferry and Mr. Robinson most likely knew each other from their days in Mackinac. Both were connected to the American Fur Company and a key center of their business was at Mackinac Island.

One of the sources about Rev. Ferry had a chapter heading, “Bi-vocational Presbyterian Minister,” referring to his tendency toward business as well as ministry. A story was told that soon after Rev. Ferry’s arrival in Mackinac, around 1825, he contracted to have a schooner built to carry materials and provisions. The schooner was aptly named “Supply” and made trips to Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, and Grand Haven. The ship made a profit and the profit went to operation of the Mackinac mission. However, his Mission Board determined that the shipping business was in conflict with his ministry. He was forced to sell the ship.

To connect this story back to his settling in Grand Haven, there is another man’s name that shows up, and that is one Pierre Duvernay. Mr. Ewing’s book, mentioned earlier, states that Mr. Duvernay brought Rev. Ferry and his family to Grand Haven aboard his schooner, THE SUPPLY! Surprise! Rev. Ferry had not sold his ship too far out of his friendship and usefulness circle. Mr. Duvernay was said to be a clerk for Rix Robinson. His sons served in the Civil War as did Rev. Ferry’s and that will be a large topic of one of the other parts of the story of Lost History.

One more word about Rev. Ferry’s business flair. In the next part of the story, I will speak more extensively of the businesses, as we talk about his family. All three of his sons were involved in the expansion and diversifying of the industries spoken of under “Ferry and Sons.”

Another big part of the Ferry story wraps around the Civil War. Two of the Ferry boys were officers in the Army. I spoke earlier of Mr. Duvernay’s sons and their involvement. However, it was Rev. Ferry, himself, who was the most involved. He was involved for many years before the war started. “While he made no speeches about slavery, he was committed to the Aboli-tionist Movement that preceded the Civil War, and he brought Blacks to Grand Haven after the war,” quoted from Our People, Their Stories. However, the more extensive record is documented by Dr. Ewing in another book titled Slave, Soldier, Citizen. I acclaim this book for its content, but also that, personally, it has totally shaped my research about the Underground Railroad going up the western coast of Michigan. That research has not only led me to Rev. Ferry, but to other Lost History persons. Most notable is Jonathan Walker, a long standing Abolitionist who lived, died, and is buried in Muskegon. That conversation will have to wait for another time.

For now, we will concentrate on the story of Rev. Ferry. We have already promised writing about their many businesses, and more about the family. Next let us discuss Lt. Col. William M. Ferry, Jr. and his brothers, Thomas W. Ferry and Noah H. Ferry. Please join me in Part Two for more Lost History.