If you are disabled and need help with the public file, call (313) 222-0566

How did Ann Arbor get its name?


Have you ever wondered how Ann Arbor got its name? Us too.

Ann Arbor, now home to one of Michigan's largest populations (and largest employers), was founded back in 1824. But the theories behind how the name was decided is a highly debated topic.

The romantic theory

One of the more legendary stories of its name comes from the founders, John Allen and Elisha Walker Rumsey. The legend says, in part, that the wives of the two, Ann and Mary Ann, were fond of sitting under a wild grape arbor built by their husbands.

John and Elisha were so enamored by the sight of their wives relaxing in the shade of that arbor, they decided their newly purchased land (which cost them $800) would be named "Ann's Arbor,"

A writer, Noah Wood Cheever, wrote in the local paper in 1902: "When their wives came here, Mr. Allen and Mr. Rumsey, aided by their wives, built an arbor out of small trees and bushes on the west side of where the Savings Bank block now stands, for a temporary home, and the men put a sign upon the front of the arbor, naming it 'Ann's Arbor', and the village when organized was given that name."

The other theory

This also comes from Cheever. A University of Michigan project found this recounting of this theory:

Another popular story, also recounted by Cheever, states that the site of the new town was a "burr-oak opening, having the appearance of an arbor, so they all agreed to call the settlement 'Ann Arbor.'"2 That account fits with a story recorded in a historical chronology of Washtenaw County. An anonymous author, who claims the story was handed down to him verbally, tells of one Calvin Chipman being instrumental in how the city came to be named.

However, in this version of the original naming, the direct credit belongs to Mary Ann Rumsey. She came up with the idea, playing off her husband's comment about the aesthetic quality of the area they were located in.

The story follows: Mr. Rumsey occupied the present site of the Episcopal Church, and, as the story goes, his wife, whose name was Ann, said one day to her husband, in reply to his remark, "What a beautiful arbor we have!" "Mr. Rumsey, let's call it Ann's Arbor."

Immediately after this exchange between husband and wife, Mr. Chipman put the matter to a vote. All who were present (the story does not supply names or a count of persons present at the time) voted, and thus, the name of Ann Arbor was secured.

So, which one is right?

The University of Michigan project cited above found some inconsistences in the romantic theory:

Mary Ann Rumsey arrived in February 1824 with the her husband and John Allen, while Ann Allen did not arrive from Virginia until October of the same year. The name "Annarbour" was registered with the office of the Register of Deeds in Detroit on May 25th, 1824, three months before Ann Allen's arrival. These facts show that the two Anns could not have relaxed together in the shade of an arbor before the name was officially registered.

However, it is possible that one Ann, namely Mary Ann Rumsey, could have been taking some shade under an arbor constructed by Allen and Rumsey and was noticed by the men, who then thought up the name.

So, it's likely that "Ann" came from one of the founder's wives. As for "Arbor," it's likely that it was just referring to the landscape of the area at the time. Arbor is defined as: "a shady garden alcove with sides and a roof formed by trees or climbing plants trained over a wooden framework."

The University of Michigan project notes: 

The truth of the matter may never be known since no historical evidence in the form of diaries or letters from the founding fathers or those directly connected with them has been found that simply states how the name came about. 

Check out that full project here, by the way. There's a lot of great info.

About the Author: