A Story of the Naming of Our Chapter
Adapted from the writing of Virginia Hanley Harris upon
the founding of Piety Hill Chapter, February 15, 1935
At the end of the eighteenth century, Woodward Avenue, as we know it today, was
a well-worn path traveled by Indians heading northwest from Detroit, which at
the time was a major port on the Great Lakes. Our city’s pioneers
followed that same trail, eventually coming upon a ridge or hill about a day’s
travel from Detroit, and settling where the Indian path bisected that ridge. Mr.
John Hunter came in 1819, and as so often happened among the early pioneers
where families migrated in groups, the second family was that of Mrs.
Hunter’s sister, Mrs. John Hamilton. Other members of the Hunter family
also came and soon Elijah Willets arrived from Buffalo, New York, traveling on a
small schooner. Water travel was popular as it was easier than overland to
transport household goods. In fact, the first steam boat on Lake Erie was owned
by a Captain Blake who settled north of our area. John Hunter’s brother
Daniel was a fireman on Captain Blake’s boat, named “Walk on the Water.”
The first three settlers immediately built cabins and began to offer food and
lodging to travelers. John Hunter was especially successful in coming to an
understanding with the local Indians. His was the first cabin built and was
particularly vulnerable because he needed to keep his doors open for customers.
It was fortunate that he was a favorite of the Indians as he sometimes awoke to
find several of them rolled in their blankets sound asleep on his cabin floor.
Everyone naturally tried to build near the place where the trail (now Woodward
Avenue) crossed the hill (now Maple Road). This was the logical place for the
center of town to develop. The three original cabins were nearby the Indian
trail in order to catch travelers who brought news and may need provisions or
lodging. It followed that the pioneers of this area would soon build new homes,
separate from the original cabins. The first house, built by Mr. Hunter in 1822,
was followed by Mr. Hamilton’s home. Such was the beginning of what is now
In 1820, the entirety of the area we now call Oakland County had only 53
families. For several years, the first three families were the only settlers in
the immediate vicinity. The small settlement was known by the particular cabin
you were familiar with, Hunter’s, Hamilton’s, or Willet’s.
Pioneer days were usually rough and ready, but local lore suggests that the high
area that formed the crossing of Woodward and Maple built a reputation of piety
and, possibly, puritanical rules. The height of the crossing would frequently
take its toll on both people and horses, the climb being considerable,
so “Hill” is understandable. The attitude of the people the travelers
met there soon led to “Piety,” perhaps in sarcasm. At any rate,
“Piety Hill” was in general use by 1825.
The History of Oakland County, 1817-77, indicates
that “James Stoughton comes in the year of 1825 and made settlement which,
however, did not prove to be a permanent one, on John Hunter’s land at
Piety Hill.” The name appears to have been well established by 1827 when
Elijah Willets built the first industrial enterprise, a much needed tannery.
Soon John Hunter built and operated a foundry run by horse power. We sometimes
forget that these same first settlers also had to begin businesses that would
allow a community to develop. There was a need for shoemakers, millers, rope
makers, and a smithy, all essential to a community. John Hunter eventually sold
his foundry to Roswell T. Merrill. A meeting was held in 1832 to finally name
the community and none was agreed upon. However, a sign saying BIRMINGHAM
appeared the next morning at Mr. Merrill’s foundry, suggesting the hope
that the area would become an industrial center like Birmingham, England. The
name stuck and we have been called "Birmingham" since that time.
When it became time to name our DAR chapter, it was thought that the supposed
history of the original designation of the area, “Piety Hill,” would
honor the settlers and travelers who were the first to be in this part of
Michigan. Thus, we became the Piety Hill Chapter, National Society of the
Daughters of the American Revolution, Birmingham, Michigan.