The early years

Wolves roamed the countryside, and the small frontier town of Detroit had just 2,500 people when Sheldon McKnight published the first edition of the Detroit Free Press.

On Thursday, May 5, 1831,

The first front page
The first front page - Detroit Free Press

"The Democratic Free Press and Michigan Intelligencer," a four-page weekly with a top-heavy name, appeared on the unpaved streets of Detroit. In his first editorial, McKnight set the tone for the paper's future. He wrote ... "The Democratic citizens of this territory, having found the two newspapers already established here completely under the control of the city aristocracy, we have been compelled to set up an independent press."

At the beginning, the Free Press staff consisted of McKnight, an African-American printer and an apprentice. Methods were primitive and newsgathering was difficult. They used a crude hand press not much different in construction and operation from the earliest presses. In winter, contact with the rest of the world almost ceased and McKnight published news clipped from papers and journals as much as four months old.

The Free Press was first published in a small wooden office at the corner of Bates and Woodbridge, approximately where the entrance to the tunnel to Canada is located today. As the young newspaper grew in circulation and influence, it changed in important ways.

By 1832, it had outgrown its quarters and moved to Jefferson Avenue at Wayne, near the present-day site of Cobo Hall. The long name was shortened to the Democratic Free Press. In 1835, the year of Detroit's first four-story building, the Free Press became the Michigan Territory's first daily newspaper. It changed its name again, to the Detroit Daily Free Press, to announce its frequency.

Fire became a frequent visitor to the Free Press. In January 1837, fire destroyed the building and equipment, causing a six-week suspension in printing. Ironically, Michigan became a state during that time and the paper that had campaigned for statehood couldn't print the story.

The Free Press moved three times in the 1840s, once because of a fire on New Year's Day, 1842, that destroyed 25 buildings, including the Free Press and its chief rival, the Advertiser.

Like the Free Press, the Advertiser survived the fire. It lasted until 1915 when it was absorbed into a newspaper that would become the Free Press' largest rival -- and eventual business partner.

Through its first 20 years, the Free Press changed hands frequently. McKnight sold out in 1836, nine days after being acquitted of manslaughter charges from a fight in the Bull and Beard's saloon. A greater measure of continuity in owners, address and freedom from fire came at mid century.