Kim Crawford, a Clarkston/Independence Township resident, recently had his third book, “The Daring Trader: Jacob Smith in the Michigan Territory, 1802-1825,” published by Michigan State University Press ($29.95). In the book, Crawford delves into historical records, documents, and letters to answer whether Jacob Smith was actually just a rascally fur trader, or if he was something more. Over the course of his research, Crawford discovered that Smith was really a confidential agent of the federal government who was pivotal in gaining millions of acres of Michigan territory for the United States in a story that before now has never been told. Originally from the west side of the state, Crawford graduated from Michigan State University in 1979 with a journalism degree. He moved to the Clarkston area in 1986 and spent 28 years as a journalist with the Flint Journal.
You spent almost 30 years as a journalist with the Flint Journal. What prompted you to start writing books? How does writing a book compare to being a journalist?
KC: Well, there sometimes were subjects that I just thought were so interesting, and I had started to accumulate information on historically. The first time out, there was a group of Michigan soldiers in the Civil War in an outfit called the 16th Michigan (Volunteer Infantry Regiment), and I was just so interested in what really happened to them that I just started digging deeper and deeper. And a guy said, “You should write a book about that.” And I did. It didn’t come out too well because it was my first time out, but that was probably back in the 1990s. And again another fellow who saw that book loved it and contacted me and said, “Would you help me write a similar book about another Michigan Civil War outfit?” And so I wrote that. It was published by Michigan State University Press back in 2010. This fur trader book is the same thing. I get hung up on wonky subjects, and I’m so interested in them that I just dig into them, and I really enjoy that.
It’s almost the same thing (writing a book and being a journalist). The difference is, when you write history there’s nobody to interview. You’re literally relying on the accounts of the past of letters, diaries, government records to try to flesh out a story. To me, I’m a big believer in narrative, in the story. I came of age in the time when big narrative feature stories were magazine style — that’s what you did as a feature writer. Today, the length of those stories would never be allowed in today’s journalism. But that’s what I grew up on, what I cut my teeth on, as a reporter. It’s very, very similar. You have to be as complete and thorough as you can and as careful as you can, and try not to come to the wrong conclusions or be led down stray paths, as it were. Try to make it as accurate as you can make it.
All three of the books you have written are non-fiction. Why did you decide to pursue writing historical nonfiction, and particularly featuring Michiganders? Are there any plans to write a novel in the future?
KC: Well, I loved history at MSU. But it’s difficult to make a living that way, and you really can’t writing history books. Maybe professors can, but not somebody like me; I’m just a journalist. So I wish I had a good answer for you, but I have just loved researching these subjects in great depth. (With) these books, you really have to be into a subject to do this. They are not for everybody. They are for people who are true history buffs and who would read about the Civil War from day to day as experienced by Michigan soldiers. And that’s a lot — more than you can ask from a lot of the readers. The fur trader book is less intense. But it’s going back 200 years ago to the time when you left Detroit on what we know as Woodward Avenue and Dixie Highway, but at the time back then it was the Saginaw Trail, and that’s what this is about.
I don’t know (if I will write a novel). I suppose anyone who writes thinks about writing a novel. I just don’t know. That would take a kind of creativity and a different kind of discipline. I don’t mind at all researching. I love researching historical information, but I don’t know if I’ve got the horses to write a novel.
You have written two books on Michigan soldiers in the Civil War, including the 4th Michigan Infantry. Why did you choose that subject matter? Please name one thing you believe most people would be fascinated to learn about Michigan soldiers’ role in the Civil War.
KC: The 4th Michigan was really a choice of my co-author on that book, a fellow named Marty Bertera. He’s from Downriver. He had done research on the 4th Michigan for nearly 30 years, and he asked me if I would help him. It’s Marty’s research and my writing. It’s just a great outfit. I didn’t really know if I would write another regimental history, as it were. But when I saw what Marty had — the information he had collected and gathered over the decades was just so incredible — I knew it was a story I had to write because that’s how I look at them. These are written in the narrative style of a feature story. That’s how I approach these books I’ve written.
I think really their (Michigan soldiers’) lives were very, very boring and routine for most of their service. Their biggest danger was from disease. Then there was just these moments of stark, hair-raising terror when they went into battle. I think that’s the biggest thing I would tell you. Their patriotism was just unbelievable. Everybody starts out with bad ideas about war (but) they really don’t know what war is really about. Once you know and once you survive, to stay there and to keep up the struggle to me is just mind boggling. Their commitment, their bravery, their patriotism.
In your new book, “The Daring Trader,” you delve into the life of Jacob Smith. Why did you choose to write about him? What about his life drew you to him? Please give our readers a snapshot of what to expect to learn about Smith.
KC: A lot of our communities have a local hero, a first settler, and he was the Flint area’s. So when I would look in these old histories about Genesee County and Saginaw County, he would be in there. Up there he’s been elevated to this first local hero (status). When I started doing research on the Civil War, I realized they had all this history in the Detroit Public Library and the (University of Michigan’s) Bentley Library (in Ann Arbor) and the Mount Clemens Library that went back 200 years. So as I started to look for Smith in these records, I realized that there was a completely different view of him: He was very much a scoundrel. Many of the first fur traders were real rascals, really shady characters. So I was like, “Wait a minute. Who was this guy? What was he really doing? What is his role?” Of course, what I found out is that he is a fur trader but he is literally a confidential agent for the U.S. government to influence the Chippewa (and) Ottawa Indians of 200 years ago. That just blew me away. I had seen some things in the history books that would cause you to wonder, “Is this guy literally the federal government’s spy? Is he literally influencing the Indians on behalf of the government?” And the answer was, yes, he was. He helped the United States just get millions and millions of acres of lands in the treaties we signed 200 years ago.
He’s a scoundrel. In a lot of ways, he’s brave, patriotic, (and a) mercenary. He will help rescue people who have been taken captive. But he ultimately is to the judges and businessmen of Detroit, an absolute rogue, an absolute rascal. But what people didn’t realize at the time is he was working for the federal territorial governors, first a fellow named William Hull and then next Lewis Cass, who was a little more well-known. So this is going back 200 years to tell the story of a fellow that really hasn’t been told, and the key role he plays in the Michigan Territory back then.
In your opinion, what do you think are some of the most interesting things you uncovered about Jacob Smith?
KC: His secret work for the government was just mind boggling. To sort of see that he is a fur trader, serves in the local militia companies before the War of 1812, and then ends up as an officer once Detroit is back in U.S. hands. And it was this secret work, the work that you see the governors saying that literally no one else could do. Again he’s not the only fur trader, but he’s really one of the most important for the areas that lay north of Detroit from essentially Oakland County to the Saginaw Valley. He’s not the only confidential agent fur trader, but he’s clearly one of the most important. And that story wasn’t told. And he’s been sort of misunderstood and misinterpreted. And I thought this could be a book, and thankfully Michigan State University Press agreed.
Where did you find most of your research materials? What sources did you primarily use? How long did it take to conduct your research?
KC: Detroit Public Libraries Burton Historical Collection. It’s just awesome. I used… Michigan’s state archives, the state library, the Bentley Library at University of Michigan, and I found some amazing documents over in Wisconsin’s Historical Collections. I had to piece the story together in bits and pieces. The further and deeper I got into it, the more complete a picture emerged about a guy who had been fairly mysterious and considered nothing more than a colorful character up until now. But he’s really more than just a colorful character. He’s a figure that’s helping to create this incredible transition where southeast Michigan has gone from Indian territory to a place where the United States government is going to send surveyors and sell land to settlers coming from (the) eastern United States from New York, Pennsylvania, New England.
Obviously the only way to communicate was letters at the time. Just day-to-day life, the operations of government, the fur trade, just amazing records exist. Court records — I was stunned at the sheer number of court records that exist going back to really before Michigan was Michigan, and those were in the Bentley Library. I was just flabbergasted at the material that was in there.
I would say it was probably several years of gathering information. Finding a publisher took time. It took time to find an editor who would really take a look at this, and thank goodness Michigan State University Press — my editor there was just, “How come I’ve never heard of this story? How come I’ve never read this story before?” And that’s because it’s never been put together before, and I was delighted because this is essentially like a frontier spy story in a lot of ways. I’m delighted (Michigan State) University Press would take on a subject like this because there’s not much else out there like it.
Where can people purchase your book?
KC: On amazon.com, (through) Michigan State University Press. I don’t know if I’m in the bricks and mortar stores because you know how there’s not much left. But I think Barnes & Noble has it on their website. But what I don’t really know is if it’s in the stores. The 4th Michigan (Infantry) book was actually in book stores. But I just can’t say for sure whether “The Daring Trader” is in physical, standing booksellers. This is Michigan territorial history. This is a book of interest for those interested in the fur trade and stories of the Michigan frontier and the relations between these fur traders and Indians and the government 200 years ago.
Any ideas on other historical figures in Michigan or in general that you wish to tackle?
KC: At the moment, I haven’t given it much thought. This book came out in March and so pretty much through April I’ve spoken about this book at a few places and been trying to get word out about it. (I’m) not sure what project I’m going to take on next. I’m sort of a volunteer coordinator for a Civil War exhibit up at the Sloan Museum in Flint, so that’s what’s occupying my time now, trying to help out the museum. They were very good to me in allowing me the use of pictures for this book, and so the least I can do is to help them out with their Civil War exhibit. So that’s what I’ve been working on.
If you could have unlimited access to one person dead or alive to write a book on, who would it be and why?
KC: I don’t know if I can even sort of wrestle that one down. There’s just so many incredible historical figures. And I’m intrigued with a lot of crazy obscure things, as you can tell from these books I’ve written. I’d have to give that a lot of thought. Right off, the top of my head, I’m not sure I have an answer for you. I mean I know it would be an easy answer to say Lincoln or one of the great figures, but I’m not so sure I would. I really get side-tracked on some very obscure, off-the-beaten-path-type areas, as you can see from regimental histories and a fur trader from 200 years ago. So I’m not sure. I just don’t think I have answer for you.
There’s so many interesting figures, and you really find out, when you look up close at some of these letters and documents, that some of the things that you thought were true or you think you know and it’s always more interesting, it’s always more complicated, than you ever believed. I’ve written about battles, and you try to reconstruct a battle from 150 years ago in the Civil War, and you’re sitting there tearing out your hair as you’re trying to think how did this happen? To try to do that is a challenge. And sometimes I think, “If only I could speak to this fellow who was there or this fellow who died in battle on what had happened…,” and you just can’t do it. I think that’s why I don’t know.