Dickinson County History

Dickinson County's roots lie in the mining and lumbering industries of the mid-to-late 19th century. Iron ore was first found in the region in the late 1840's.   In 1850 and 1851, government surveyors reported traces of iron ore in Gogebic County's Ironwood area and near the Menominee River.  

In 1866, brothers Thomas and Bartley Breen, timber cruisers from Menominee, Michigan, discovered an outcropping near Waucedah at the eastern end of the Menominee Iron Range.  They are credited with being the first on that region.  The remoteness of the central part of northern Michigan and a lack of transportation facilities accounts for the delay in mining her ores.  It required a dire need to find high grade ore in this country for investors to be willing to risk the high cost of exploration.

It wasn't until 1873, when John Lane Buell exposed one of the richest deposits of iron ore in the world that Dickinson County's place in Michigan history was established.  Ore was mined at Waucedah, Vulcan, Norway, Quinnesec and Metropolitan, and the Chicago and North Western Railroad was pushed through the Menominee Range as far as Quinnesec.   The Breen and Vulcan mines near Iron Mountain began active operations and shipped their first ore in 1877.  Buell's discovery, known today as the Menominee Iron Range, led to development of the area and subsequent creation of Dickinson County in 1891.

As the iron industry developed, three separate ore ranges were opened -- the Marquette, the Menominee, and the Gogebic.  The Chapin Mine, in the Menominee Range, produced 27 million tons of ore.  It was considered one of the largest iron ore producers during the period from 1880 until it closed in 1934. Between 1877 and 1955 the Menominee Range alone produced 253,999,999 tons of ore.

The last of Michigan's eighty-three counties to be organized, Dickinson County was created May 21, 1891 from parts of Iron, Marquette and Menomnee Counties.  It was named for Donald M. Dickinson (see his biographical sketch, below), a prominent Detroit attorney and the Postmaster General in the first administration of President Grover Cleveland.  Chairman of the committee that formed Dickinson County was Muskegon Judge of Probate, Fent Edwin Napoleon Thatcher.  Iron Mountain had become a center of commerce and distribution for the range and so became the natural location for the county seat once the county organized.  County offices opened in Iron Mountain only five years after Dickinson County was created by act of the Michigan State Legislature.

Today Dickinson still has some iron ore mining and lumbering, but tourism is the primary source of revenue for the region. The Chapin Mine has since been restored as a tourist attraction while the county boasts of early ties to Henry Ford and Ford Motor Company.  The forested lands and rolling terrain criss-crossed by rivers and streams provide year round recreational opportunities and is a true haven for nature lovers. The Menominee River is noted for walleye fishing. Pine Mountain is the highest artificial ski jump in the world.

Would you like to see if your surnames are in W.J. Cummings' 1991 Dickinson County, Michigan: from earliest times through the twenties? 1991.

Biographical Sketch: "Meet" the man Dickinson County was named for...

Donald McDonald "Don" Dickinson was born in Port Ontario, Oswego County, New York on January 17, 1846, the son of Colonel Asa Case Dickinson1  and Minerva Holmes.2   At the age of two he moved with his family to Detroit, Michigan where he was raised and educated.

In 1867, Donald received a Bachelor of Law degree from the University of Michigan and became a law associate of William Austin Moore in Detroit that same year.   Moore's political activism was what attracted him.  Dickinson enjoyed a meteoric legal career in Detroit, arguing frequently in front of the United States Supreme Court.  He aided largely in molding the bankruptcy law in Michigan, especially in the Eastern District of the State, where he was regarded as the leading practitioner.

Dickinson married Frances L. "Fannie" Platt3 on June 15, 1869. Their children: Asa, born Michigan May, 1870; Platt, born Michigan 1870, died in Detroit on 23 December 1878 of Scarlet Fever, age 9 years; Crosby, born Michigan 1874, died 23 December 1878 of Scarlet Fever in Detroit, age 4 years; Isabella, born in Michigan 1876; died 15 January 1878 in Detroit of Scarlet Fever, age 2 years.  In the 1870 census, only one child, Asa, showed (Platt?).  In 1880, no children were in the home.  In 1900 however, there are two children still at home, both of whom were born in Michigan and attending school: Frances C., daughter, born November 1884, age 15; Don M., son, born May 1890, age 10.  It also shows that Fannie was the mother of 7 children with 2 still living.  The couple had been married for 30 years.

In 1872, Dickinson began his long and active participation in the Michigan Democratic party. He was Secretary of the Michigan Democratic State Central Committee, during the Greeley campaign of 1872; and was an ardent admirer of the man.

He became a major figure in Michigan politics as an effective Democratic organizer in the strongly Republican state.  Dickinson was considered one of the foremost Michigan Democratic leaders. At the approach of the Presidential campaign of 1876, there was a universal demand, on the part of the Democrats of Michigan, that Mr. Dickinson should be Chairman of the State Central Committee, and manager of the campaign. He accepted the position with reluctance, but in obedience to his view that no citizen is justified in avoiding public duty to which he is called unsolicited. He knew the strength and weakness of his party, and what to do or leave undone in every part of the State. By systematizing and giving proper direction to the efforts of his friends, he procured the largest Democratic gain in any State in the Union,--thus securing one of the most wonderful campaigns this country has ever known; and showing that, as a political organizer, he has no superior in the United States.

His national political prominence preceded Grover Cleveland’s victory in the 1884 presidential election. An early supporter of the candidacy of Grover Cleveland in 1884 earned Cleveland’s private confidence during the campaign and became a close adviser to Cleveland on patronage matters after the election.

President Cleveland offered Dickinson a seat on the Civil Service Commission but Dickinson declined the post.  Following the 1887 departure of William Vilas as postmaster general, Cleveland offered Dickinson the post. This time, Dickinson accepted the nomination.  He was confirmed by the Senate as U.S. Postmaster General in January, 1888. Railroad workers went on strike soon after Dickinson took office, interrupting the nation’s mail delivery. Dickinson refused to call in federal forces to break the strike and reworked distribution routes so that mail delivery remained unaffected. Dickinson also applied civil service hiring rules to the post office upon Cleveland’s request, cutting the effect patronage had on his department.

After Cleveland’s defeat in 1888, Dickinson returned to Michigan and the practice of law with his partners, Henry Thurber and Elliot Grasette Stevenson. All three law partners were prominent in Democratic Party affairs in the latter half of the nineteenth century.  Dickinson headed the Michigan delegation to the 1892 Democratic National Convention and was instrumental in securing the nomination of  Grover Cleveland.

Dickinson held pro-expansionist opinions and he was very attracted to the glamorous intricacies of international law. In 1896, Cleveland named Dickinson to represent the United States in a dispute with Great Britain over the seal industry in the Bering Sea. Dickinson was one of the first associates of President Cleveland to criticize British policy in Venezuela, and he recognized the importance to the U.S. of Cuba’s strategic position.

With the 1896 presidential election, Dickinson preferred the ‘sound money’ policies of the Republican Party candidate and eventual election winner, William McKinley.  By 1897, Thurber and Stevenson had left the firm, and Dickinson formed a partnership with Charles Beecher Warren and Benjamin Streeter Warren, which lasted until 1902.

Dickinson supported William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt in 1900, having been alienated by the Democratic Party’s turn toward free silver.  He threw his support behind  Roosevelt's independent candidacy in 1912 due to an interest in TR’s program of "New Nationalism."

After Cleveland's re-election, Dickinson took a less active role in politics and turned his attention to his law practice.  Dickinson fell ill with cancer in 1908, but continued to practice law until 1912. From then until his death on October 15, 1917, he lived a secluded life in his home in Trenton, Michigan.  He is interred in Lot 7, Section W of Elmwood Cemetery, Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan.

1. Born 1 Jan 1802 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, son of John Dickinson; died 23 March 1885 of pneumonia in Detroit, Michigan at the age of 82; buried Elmwood Cemetery, Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan.   
2. Born 13 March 1805 in Winfield, Herkimer County, New York, daughter of Reverend Jesseriah Holmes and Olive Goodell, Puritans.  Minerva died of "old age" 5 January 1883 in Detroit, aged 77 years 7 months; buried Elmwood Cemetery, Detroit, Wayne County, Michigan.  Reverend Holmes was widely known and respected for his profound learning and unostentatious piety. Minerva's ancestors came from Wales, and settled in Pomfret, Connecticut near the scene of General Putnam's wolf-den exploit.
3. Fanny was a daughter of Doctor Platt of Grand Rapids, and a granddaughter of the late Doctor Brigham of Ann Arbor.


Sources for the Biographical Sketch:

1870 census of Michigan, line #29.1880 census of Wayne County, Michigan.  Roll #T9_610-0841, E.D. 270, page 9A, call #55A, line #31.

1900 census of Wayne County, Michigan.  Roll #T623-754, E.D. 193, page 284A, sheet 2, line #8. 

American Biographical History of Eminent and Self-Made Men, Michigan, Volumes I-II. Published by the Western Biographical Publishing Company,  1878.

Bolt, Robert. Donald McDonald Dickinson, in John A. Garraty & Mark C. Carnes (eds), American National Biography, Oxford
University Press, New York, 1999, vol. 6, pp.561-562.

Bolt, Richard. Donald M. Dickinson and the Second Election of Grover Cleveland, 1892, Michigan History, vol. 49, March 1965, pp.28-29;

Bolt, Richard. Donald McDonald Dickinson, pp.561-562.

Fuller, George N., ed., Michigan, a centennial history of the state and its people, volume IV.  Chicago:  Lewis Publishing Company, 1939, page 169.

Legal News, 31 October 1917, Warren Papers, Box 8; New York Times , 21 August 1896.

Marquis, Albert Nelson,  ed.,  The Book of Detroiters: A Biographical Dictionary of Leading Living Men of the City of Detroit.  Chicago: A. N. Marquis & Company, 1908, pages 129, 237, 431 & 465.

Newspaper Cartoonists' Association of Michigan. A Gallery of Pen Sketches in Black and White.  Detroit: W. Graham Printing Co., 1905. 

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