The recorded history of the village of Schoolcraft begins in 1828 when Bazel Harrison and his family arrived at the site of a vast round prairie with an island of timber in the middle. The site proved ideal for farming and soon the Harrisons were joined by dozens of other enterprising pioneer families. The first man to settle on the site of the current village of Schoolcraft was a Vermonter named Thaddeus Smith. He arrived in 1830 and set up a general goods store called Smith, Huston, & Company. The business was initially successful and it drew other early pioneers to settle nearby. In fact, by the end of 1830 Schoolcraft was probably the most bustling settlement in the county.
A Promising Start
The new settlement was named after Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, an explorer, scientist, writer, and Indian Agent of the Michigan Territory. The land was plotted by Stephen Vickery who was instructed to "lay out wide streets and locate a Commons for Churches and Schools." The village was one square mile in size and by 1831 it boasted a fine hotel called the "Big Island." Smith's store was a widely used center for trade with local Indians and settlers. Smith's wife Eliza is said to have been loved by the Indians because she took the trouble to learn their language. Eliza Street in Schoolcraft is named for her. In 1832 the area post office was moved into the village and it appeared Schoolcraft's position as a regional center was assured.
In the spring of 1832 a war broke out in Illinois between the Native Americans and white settlers, and that summer a cholera epidemic spread through much of the surrounding territory. Schoolcraft weathered both of these disasters and emerged unscathed. The blow that really killed Schoolcraft's chances to become the central place in Kalamazoo County came in 1834. That year the Detroit and St. Joseph Railroad decided to run their track slightly north of Schoolcraft, through the little village of Bronson. The railroad did not reach Schoolcraft until 1866, a thirty year deficit that set the growth of the village back considerably and assured that Bronson, by then renamed Kalamazoo, would be the center of trade in the county.
Although a liability for many reasons, Schoolcraft's relatively isolated location was an asset for some. In 1835 the first physician in Kalamazoo, Dr. Nathan Thomas built a home for his family in Schoolcraft. Dr. Thomas was an ardent abolitionist, and in 1843 he agreed to help escaping slaves from the South reach Canada. His house became one of the stops on the famous "underground railroad." Escaped slaves would arrive at the Thomas home at dawn, were fed and housed during the daylight hours, and then were driven to the next station in Battle Creek under the cover of darkness. In the years before the Civil War, Dr. Thomas estimated that more than one thousand escaped slaves passed through his station.