An 1877 Oakland County history book records that on March 17, 1817, a small band of emigrants followed the Clinton River inland from Mount Clemens and stopped at the place we know today as Rochester. Here they founded the first non-native settlement in what would later become Oakland County.
The group included James Graham, his wife Mary Vandemark, their son Alexander and his wife, their son Benjamin, and Christopher Hartsough. Descendants of the Graham patriarch would remain in the greater Rochester area for many generations to come, but exactly who was James Graham, the founder of Rochester?
Historical accounts differ on the place of James Graham’s birth. Some record that he was born in Scotland in 1749 and earned his passage to America as an indentured servant. Others say that James’s father, William, was the immigrant ancestor, and that James was born in either Pennsylvania or New York. In any case, he met and married Mary Vandemark and the couple eventually had a family of ten children.
We know from his Revolutionary War pension file that in April 1778, James Graham was living in Pennsylvania. His home was in the Wyoming Valley community of Lower Smithfield, on the Pennsylvania-New Jersey border about 100 miles north of Philadelphia. He and his brother enlisted with an independent company of volunteers that was raised in the area and attached to the Connecticut line of Continental soldiers.
For the Graham brothers, the fight was very personal; they were defending their homes and farms. The Wyoming Valley was a grain-rich region and major food producer for the Americans, so Loyalist and British forces had begun raiding and looting the area to disrupt the food supply to the Continentals.
The situation came to a head on July 3, 1778, in the Battle of Wyoming. Commanded by Captain Dethick Hewitt, James Graham and his comrades in arms fought in a bloody confrontation that saw the Continental force of about 300 beaten and massacred by British and Iroquois forces numbering more than 1,100. When the smoke cleared, Captain Hewitt and most of his men were dead. In his company, the battle had spared only James Graham and half dozen others. The atrocities committed at the Battle of Wyoming served to steel American resolve to evict the British from their shores, and garnered the sympathy of the French toward the American cause. As his commander and most of his unit were dead, James Graham became a messenger for Major General John Sullivan. In the aftermath of the Battle of Wyoming, George Washington tasked Sullivan with crushing Iroquois and Loyalist resistance in the region. Graham completed his enlistment term under General Sullivan and after one year of service, he was discharged.
After the war, the Grahams settled for a few years near Tioga Point, on the Chemung branch of the Susquehanna River. According to a 1928 interview that James Graham’s grandson, William Graham, gave to the Pontiac Press, the Grahams moved to Ontario in 1800. They farmed near Brantford, Ontario for 13 years, and their son Benjamin was born there. In 1813, the family moved on to Detroit, but some of the older Graham children remained behind in Ontario and made their permanent homes there. William Graham told the Pontiac Press that his grandfather brought their household goods and livestock across the river by lashing the animals to canoes. At Detroit, James, Alexander and Benjamin made a living cutting wood for 25 cents a cord.
Native Americans who traded at Detroit told the Grahams of good land that was available in the “land of the oaks,” at a place where three waterways converged. James Graham’s son, Benjamin, was working on a surveying party on the western line of Macomb County in 1816, and saw good land. In the summer of 1816, he and his brother, Alexander, explored the interior, as far west as what is today the city of Troy. The following spring, they brought the rest of the family back to the area. Traveling along the Clinton River to the place of its confluence with what we know today as Paint Creek and Stoney Creek, the Grahams found their new home and called it Rochester.
Christopher Hartsough eventually returned to Washtenaw County, but the rest of the Grahams lived in Rochester and Avon Township for the remainder of their lives. James, Mary and son Benjamin squatted on land near what we know today as Avon & Livernois roads until a government land sale was held. At that time, they bought land for a farm in sections 28 and 29, along what is now Crooks Road, just north of Auburn. Alexander Graham stayed in the village of Rochester and lived in a log house at the corner of what are now East Third Street and the alley. A marker stands at the location, memorializing the spot where the first house was built, the first settler’s child was born, and the first school was established.
Mary Graham died in 1835, and her husband, James, died in 1837, just as Michigan was becoming a state. The pioneer Grahams were buried in a family cemetery on their Crooks Road farm. That cemetery was vacated in the late 1920s and the bodies of James and Mary Vandemark Graham, and some of their children, were disinterred. They were later entombed in the mausoleum at Perry Mount Park cemetery in Pontiac. The grave marker – carved in 1926, almost 90 years after James Graham died – is known to have date errors on it. All county histories say James Graham died September 5, 1837, and federal government records from the Bureau of Pensions say that his final Revolutionary War pension payment was made in the third quarter of 1837. The Sons of the American Revolution, which re-dedicated the marker in 2008 and engraved their logo in the upper left corner at that time, also has the year as 1837.
The James Graham who is buried in Mount Avon Cemetery (Rochester, MI) is the son of Alexander Graham, and is therefore the grandson of James Graham, founder of Rochester. The younger James Graham died in 1839 at the age of 21. He was born in 1818 in the cabin on East Third Street, and is said to be the first non-native child born in Oakland County. It is his birth that is commemorated on the settlement marker.
The history books record this fitting epitaph for the man who founded Rochester: “James Graham is remembered for his unbounded hospitality and proverbial kindness. He was not only held in high esteem by his white neighbors, but by the Indians as well, who would do any-thing the Grahams asked of them.”