Skip to main content

This portrait depicts Stevens T. Mason, Michigan’s first elected governor, in all his glory. Mason made an indelible mark on Michigan, where one county and one town still bear his name. Yet, Mason lived his final days in New York and was buried there. In 1905 – over sixty years after his death – Michigan’s “boy governor” finally came home!

Official painting of Stevens T. Mason as governor of Michigan. He is standing beside a desk with Michigan's coat of arms on the front of it.
Official Portrait of Governor Stevens T. Mason. Archives of Michigan portrait collection.

The Boy Governor’s Reign

Stevens Thomson Mason was born in Loudon County, Virginia in October 1811. In 1830, President Andrew Jackson appointed Mason’s father, John T. Mason, secretary of Michigan Territory. One year later, John T. Mason resigned, and Jackson appointed Stevens T, who was then nineteen-years old, to the position. As secretary, “Tom” Mason (as he was familiarly called) became acting governor when Governor George Porter was absent. Porter, in fact, was frequently absent, for reasons that have been mostly lost to time. Then, in 1834, Porter died of cholera, and the then-twenty-two year old Mason became full-time acting governor. He was later elected governor in his own right.

As governor, Mason led Michigan through a border dispute (known as the Toledo War) with Ohio and ultimately helped the territory achieve statehood. He became a champion of education, endorsing a state school program, appointing a superintendent of public instruction (John D. Pierce) and promoting Ann Arbor as the University of Michigan’s permanent site. He lobbied for a state geological survey and appointed Douglas Houghton as first state geologist. Finally, Mason backed an aggressive internal improvements program, advocating for roads, railroads and canals.

Mason’s popularity declined after statehood. The Panic of 1837 caused great economic hardship in Michigan, and Mason came under fire for his handling of financial matters. As a result, Mason did not run for re-election in 1839. By then, he had married a New York City socialite named Julia Phelps and in 1841, the couple moved to New York. On January 4, 1843, the thirty-one year old Mason died of pneumonia. He was buried in New York’s Marble Cemetery.

Coming Home

In the early twentieth century, Mason biographer Lawton T. Hemans led an effort to relocate Mason’s remains to Michigan. That effort proved successful, and Michigan Governor Fred Warner appointed a commission – consisting of Hemans and two others – to oversee the task.

On June 4, 1905, Stevens T. Mason’s body was transported to Detroit by train. Traveling with it were several Mason family members, including Mason’s daughter, Dorothy Mason Wright, and Mason’s sister, Emily Viriginia Mason (The latter was about ninety years old at the time.). A company of the Detroit Light Guard met them at the train station, and the casket containing Mason’s body was transported to the armory. There, a memorial service was conducted, with Detroit Mayor George P. Codd, Michigan Governor Fred Warner, Lawton T. Hemans and State Pioneer and Historical Society President Clarence M. Burton all delivering addresses. The presiding reverend, Dr. David M. Cooper, offered his own moving tribute, noting that, as a young boy, he had met the esteemed governor!

When the service ended, the funeral procession moved to Detroit’s Capitol Square Park. The Detroit Free Press reported that “thousands of persons covered the sidewalks” during the march and that Capital Square Park “was filled from one end to the other” with bystanders. Finally, Stevens T. Mason’s remains were interred beneath the site of Michigan’s first state capitol.

 

Final Resting Place?

This reburial is not quite the end of the story. In 1908, a life size statue of Mason was placed over the grave. Albert Weinert sculpted the statue, which was cast in bronze from melted-down Fort Michilimackinac cannons. Later, in the 1950s, Mason’s body had to be moved again. In Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State (Third revised edition), Willis F. Dunbar and George S. May note that “the modernization of downtown Detroit” made this move necessary. Mason was re-interred to yet another section of the park in October 2010, following a re-landscaping.

Sources Consulted For This Article

Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State (3rd Revised Edition) by Willis F. Dunbar and George S. May

The Toledo War: The First Michigan-Ohio Rivalry by Don Faber

“Governors of Michigan: Stevens Thomson Mason (1811-1843) by Jean Frazier. Michigan History magazine. January/February 1980.

“Taking Control of Capitol Park.” By John Gallagher. Detroit Free Press, November 25, 2009.

Life and Times of Stevens Thomson Mason, the Boy Governor of Michigan by Lawton T. Hemans.

“Michigan’s First Governor to Be Reburied. http://www.uppermichiganssource.com/news/news_story.aspx?id=343018

“Re-Interment Ceremony for Michigan’s First Governor, Stevens T. Mason, Set for October 27 in Detroit.” (Michigan Department of Natural Resources Web page, accessed January 2, 2013. URL: http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,4570,7-153-10371_10402-245533–,00.html )

“Remains Are Now at Home in His Beloved Michigan.” Detroit Free Press June 5, 1905.

Stewards of the State: The Governors of Michigan by George Weeks. http://elibrary.mel.org/record=b10066041~S15