Looking Back: Elijah Willits and the surrender of Detroit

Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published August 26, 2019


BIRMINGHAM — On Aug. 16, 1812, Gen. William Hull, commander of the Fort of Detroit and governor of the Michigan Territory, surrendered the fort to British forces without a single shot fired — an act that would shape the city of Birmingham we know today.

The War of 1812 had started that June after a long-simmering tension between the American and British governments. Since the beginning of Great Britain’s war against France in 1803, they had been capturing American vessels and impressing the sailors into their navy. The British sought control of the Great Lakes and with it the valuable fur trade. The American government, unable to force Britain to stop via diplomatic means, declared war.

During Hull’s court martial, he revealed that he believed the British forces and their Native American allies outnumbered his own forces. In reality, Hull’s forces outnumbered British forces by several hundred. He was convicted of cowardice and neglect of duty and consequently sentenced to death, but President James Madison would commute Hull’s sentence in recognition of his service during the American Revolution.

British forces held onto Detroit for almost a year. One of Birmingham’s founders, Elijah Willits, fought in the Michigan militia under Antoine Dequindre and was in Detroit during Hull’s surrender. He, like the other soldiers, was captured, paroled by the British as long as he agreed not to take up arms against them.

During the war, life in Detroit proved extremely difficult, with food shortages and other deprivations. Willits would stay in Detroit through the end of the war in 1815, and later would purchase land in what would become Birmingham along with three other veterans in 1819. He and his wife, Catherine, established a tavern along the Saginaw Trail, now Woodward Avenue. Catherine (Welch) Bailey had been the owner of a tavern in Detroit before she married Willits.

The surrender of Detroit was not the United States’ finest moment during the War of 1812, but without that event the government might not have seen the great need to settle the Michigan Territory with Americans or offered bounty land warrants to veterans to settle there. Who knows if Birmingham would have ever have become Birmingham?

— Caitlin Donnelly, museum assistant at The Birmingham Museum