The History of Otsego County

Otsego County occupies the highest lands of the great central plateau of Northern Michigan, comprising the main watershed that sends the headwaters of the Cheboygan River toward the North, the Au Sable toward the East and the Manistee toward the West.

Our county was first laid out in 1840 and given the name Okkudo; a Native American word for "sickly" or "stomach pain" by Henry Schoolcraft. The name was changed to Otsego by an act of legislature in March 1843. There are several interpretations as to the origin of the name Otsego. Schoolcraft, thought Otsego was a derivation of the Iroquois words denoting "bodies of water" and "beautiful". In the first issue of the New York Otsego Herald published in 1795, the opinion is that the word conveys the idea of a spot where meetings are held. The historical marker in front of our courthouse and several short local histories define Otsego as meaning "clear water".

It is believed there was once an Indian village on the southern shore of Otsego Lake. However, Otsego County remained a vast, unpopulated wilderness, save for the occasional visiting trapper until A. A. Dwight brought a logging crew to the county in 1868 and constructed log cabins along Crooked Lake, now known as Manuka Lake.

By the spring of 1869 Charles Brink and a crew of 14 men cleared acreage for farming and Brink's wife, Jane, was the first white woman in the county.

Otsego County was one of the last counties opened for settlement due to problems of inaccessibility. The first attempts at permanent settlement did not occur until 1868 and the first state road in the county, from Mancelona to Otsego Lake, was cut through the southern section of the county in 1869 and 1870.

Otsego County lost a portion of land before its first settlers had arrived. Hudson Township, which made up the Northwest corner of the county was removed and added to the Charlevoix area to give them enough land to establish their own county government after a dispute with Petoskey over the location of the county seat in Emmet County.

In the fall of 1872, the Village of Otsego Lake was established and the railroad reached the Otsego Lake area about this same time. Shortly after, the first settlers located on the present site of Gaylord. The village was platted in 1873 by O.M. Barnes of Lansing, and was first named Barnes in his honor. The name soon changed to Gaylord in honor of Augustine Smith Gaylord, an attorney for the Jackson, Lansing, Saginaw railroad, although the reason for doing so is not clear.

Within three years the Otsego area had progressed to the point that it could organize itself as a county and on March 12, 1875 Otsego Lake Township detached itself from Antrim County and organized into the County of Otsego. The county at that time consisted of four townships: Otsego Lake, Charlton, Livingston, and Elmira. In 1876, the citizens of Gaylord began a campaign to move the county seat and emerged victorious in the spring a 1877 election, but it took a ruling from the Michigan Supreme Court to end the dispute. Five more townships were later established,, for a total of nine: Corwith (1877), Hayes (1877), Dover (1879), Bagley (1882), and Chester (1888).

Located on the 45th parallel, Otsego County has continued to grow and flourish and now boasts of its nine townships, the City of Gaylord, and the villages of Waters, Elmira, Vanderbilt, and Johannesburg. Latest population estimates put the county population at 24,164 with nearly 4,500 residing in the City of Gaylord.

Farming continues to be a major economic activity. However, the county is well known as a popular four-season vacation spot, attracting thousands to the area for golfing, swimming, boating, skiing, snowmobiling, fishing, hunting and in general the opportunity to experience Northern Michigan at its finest.

From the chilly waters of the rivers, which flow through the area to its many lakes, to the miles of untainted forest area, Otsego County represents not only clear waters but clean living and community pride.

For more information about the history of Otsego County please click here to visit the Otsego County Historical Society.