Ann Arbor: What’s in a Name?

Ann Arbor’s Main Street

Although the University of Michigan is a focal point to Ann Arbor, the history of the town is substantially deeper. In fact, the University of Michigan, which was established in 1817, did not make Ann Arbor its permanent home until 1837, only a year after Michigan was accepted into the union as a state. Many historical figures and events have taken place either in town or on campus, each making Ann Arbor a more extraordinary place.

Located in Washtenaw County, Michigan, Ann Arbor is commonly referred to as “Tree City,” as arbor can be defined as a “leafy shady recess formed by tree branches, shrubs, etc.” Founded in 1824, legend has it that the name “Ann Arbor” arose from the names of the founders, John Allen and Elisha Walker Rumsey, named Ann Allen and Mary Ann Rumsey. The account claims that the two wives were resting underneath an arbor, and thus came up with the name. Although this is not confirmed, the name “Annarbour” was registered with the office of the Register of Deeds in Detroit, Michigan. Although it is plausible that the first part of the name “Ann” came from the combination of the wives’ names, another story for the word “arbor” is believed to be placed in there as a marketing scam. As Michigan winters are fierce and cold, the founders’ believed that putting in a “spring” term such as “arbor” would attract many citizens, and they were correct. Again, there is no confirmation on how the town was actually named.

Why would these two men choose to settle in a frontier? Perhaps the main driving force was money, as many people at the time were generating large fortunes. Both men had financial difficulties, and sought to leave them behind nearly thirty years after the passage of the Northwest Ordinance (which would be a crucial role in the founding of the University of Michigan). In order to be successful, the two men needed more than land, and thus paid $1,000 and their region was selected as the county seat for Washtenaw County. As a result, the associated buildings insured the economic and political success of Ann Arbor.

The first attorney of Ann Arbor was James Kingsley, who was also on the original council established by John Allen in 1833. In 1837, Kingsley became State Senator of Michigan. He was a strong proponent of education, as he was a regent at the University of Michigan. When the University of Michigan moved to Ann Arbor after the city won the bid, citizens were excited that Ann Arbor could profit from an institution of higher learning. The community accepted the new institution, although it changed how Ann Arbor operated as a city, as they took pride in their scholars. To avoid certain aspects of university life, such as alcohol and partying, ordinances were passed to prohibit the sale of alcohol to students. To draw a line between campus and the city, Division Street was subsequently added. The addition of a railway (Michigan Central Railroad) in 1839 made the University of Michigan and Ann Arbor an excellent location to settle down. Furthermore, the proximity of the Huron River made it easy to import and export products to and from Detroit.

The Northwest Ordinance allowed for institutions to be publicly paid for, which is essential since genius is random, and therefore everyone was given an equal opportunity to be educated and innovate society. In 1841, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor opened the doors to seven freshmen. Perhaps the most important president in the history of the University of Michigan was the first in 1852, Henry Philip Tappan. As president, Tappan replaced the faculty (most of whom were clergymen), with men of “intellectual distinction.” Tappan also led Michigan to true university status by raising funds for the purchase of desperately needed scientific equipment and for books to fill the under-supplied library. As time moved on, Ann Arbor saw an influx of Germans, Irish, African-Americans, and Jewish people, as the city had been liberal from the start, portraying the city’s rapid growth. In fact, in 1929, Ann Arbor had more cars and telephones per capita than any city in the world, portraying the advancement of the city and University of Michigan as a whole.

Today, the original plot of Ann Arbor of 640 acres (1 square mile) in 1824 has grown to 27 square miles. The success of Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan has always been closely related, as today the institution employs nearly 30,000 people. Furthermore, with a flood of over 100,000 people on eight Saturdays a year for University of Michigan football games, local businesses and restaurants thrive.

UM Campus circa 1850

UM Central Campus Today

Brett Smith

About: Brett Smith

Brett hails from the great state of Delaware, and is a recent University of Michigan graduate, earning a degree in Sport Management. While at UM, Brett served as the Vice President of Michigan's Club Baseball team. Go Blue!