Local Pioneer Olivia Gilbert Arrives by Ship in 1863

by Ed Howard
Reprinted from Society News, the newsletter of the Arcadia Area Historical Society
October 2012. Volume 18 Issue 2.

Society president Joyce received an unexpected surprise while compiling the Museum's Parlor Family Album. A cousin revealed that she possessed 17 pages of handwritten memoirs passed down from their mutual great grandmother, Olivia Gilbert. This years family exhibit was of the Gilbert family which, of course, began with early settler Sam Gilbert (1854). Olivia was the wife of Sam.

Through local and state histories we knew much about Sam, but never before had we heard directly from Olivia. Of special local interest, in these memoir pages she includes her impressions of arriving, first at Frankfort and then at their shore-line home in what was later-to-be Burnham. This article will consist of those first-hand accounts, but first some background:

After nine years in this primitive area between Frankfort and Onekama, Sam Gilbert returned (1863) to his home area of Hiram, Ohio to marry and bring back his wife Olivia (Livy). He had built a home (now known because of Olivia’s memoirs.) on land he owned in what-would-be Burnham. Things would change rather quickly after 1863, but Olivia states that, at the time, only two families were living in the area, one on the Herring Lake “flats” (whom she never met because they moved soon after the father “enlisted“)1 and one at “Bar Lake (Arcadia now)2 . In between, unbroken forest.“

With this article, I’m including a portion of an early, handwritten plat map showing the location of Sam Gilbert’s early home and, also, a portion of the 1903 Arcadia Township plat map which reveals that this home site was within the boundaries of Burnham.

The first sentence quoted below was partially erased due to a fold in the page, but here are Olivia Gilbert’s first arrival impressions:

“…steamer called the Rocket lay off the harbor of Frankfort (which was then no harbor at all. Only a channel with small slab piers into which only fish boats and other small crafts could enter.). To discharge its cargo of passengers and freight, mostly home seekers en route for Benzonia where a small colony was then located and their belongings. The people were taken off in fish boats which put out from shore for that purpose. And kindly cared for by the few families then located in small log and slab houses, for Frankfort then consisted of only one frame house and that not an extensive affair. The household effects were next removed in the same manner, and, lastly, the horses and cattle were driven off into the water and made to swim ashore---and I have no doubt, but what they at least thought immigration to northern Mich a swindle."I do not know whether the people whose destination was up the river to Benzonia left Frankfort that evening or not, but I do know that next morning one small Macinaw boat with three occupants took its solitary way up the shore of Lake Michigan to a spot now known as Burnham. The day was beautiful, calm and still. Old Lake Mich never wore a more smiling face, the woods were never greener, the flowers were never sweeter, and the birds never song gayer or more joyous songs---than those which welcomed me to my forest home. Travel worn and weary as I was, I shall never forget my first impressions of it as I stood upon the edge of the bank and gazed in through the few rods of timber to the clearing where stood the small frame house which was to be my future home. I had just left a country ringing with the news from the terrible Civil War, then raging in our afflicted country. From among whose fairest and dearest had marched away only to die of disease or fall upon the field of battle. My own home across the lakes had been desolated by the terrible scourge of war.3 What wonder then that in that first long look at my dear little nest in the woods, it seemed to me the picture of peace and rest. It was well for me then that I knew nothing of the privations and hardship of pioneer life….”



Olivia and Sam Gilbert
















1  The Alden Bryant family of five

2  The Towsley family

3  Olivia was first married to a young soldier, Dewitt Clinton Morton, who died in a regimental hospital in Ohio in 1861.







Sam Gilbert Home Site 1863

This ia the northwest corner of an early Arcadia Township map. The highlighted shoreline property is what Sam Gilbert owned when Olivia arrived in 1863.





Map2At410px1903 Map of the Same Area