Michigan’s closeness to Canada has always made Canada its chief source of foreign immigrants. The harshness of the land and weather on the Upper Peninsula made farming impossible, so that immigrants did not come in large numbers until mining and logging became profitable.

French Fur trade;Michiganfur traders and missionaries from Montreal began working in what is now the state of Michigan during the seventeenth century. France later built forts at the Straits of Mackinac in 1671 and at the site of Detroit in 1701. After the American Revolution, several hundred French Canadian immigrants;MichiganFrench Canadian farmers settled at Detroit. Political difficulties in Ontario and a financial depression in Canada led to the immigration of more Canadians. By 1870, Canadians constituted the largest out-of-state group in Michigan’s “thumb” area between Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron; they were also numerically predominant in the northern half of the Lower Peninsula. German immigrants;MichiganGerman immigrants were also numerous, especially after the failed European revolutions of 1848. However, Yankees, who came from New York and New England via the Erie Canal and the lakes via steamship after 1832, often dominated politics and business.MichiganCanadian
Michigan[cat]STATES;Michigan[03500]Canadian immigrants;Michigan

The Upper Peninsula’s economy boomed during the last years of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth. Iron and steel industry;MichiganIron mining in the western part of the peninsula brought Finnish immigrants;MichiganFinns, and logging brought Swedes, Irish, Italians, various eastern Europeans, and more Canadians. Most of the latter were French Canadian lumberjacks. During the early twentieth century, newspapers in the Upper Peninsula were published in Italian, Finnish, Swedish, and other languages. However, the forests and mines were exhausted by 1920, and many immigrants moved elsewhere. The region lost population between 1920 and 1930, from around 333,000 to 319,000.

With the growth of the automotive industry, Detroit’s position on the Great Lakes, close to transportation from Iron and steel industry;Michigansteel mills, led to a new wave of immigration. By 1930, Polish immigrants;MichiganPoles were the largest group of international immigrants, followed by Italians, Russians, Hungarian immigrants;MichiganHungarians, Romanians, and Greeks. They were also joined by African Americans eager to leave the segregated South, and by whites from southern Appalachia.

Late Twentieth Century Developments

In 1960, Michigan counted almost 400,000 residents who still spoke their ancestral languages at home. Half of them lived in Detroit. There, Polish immigrants;Detroit, MichiganPolish was the most common foreign language, followed by German, Italian, French, and Hungarian. About 26,000 German speakers lived between Detroit and Saginaw Bay, and 26,000 Dutch speakers remained in the Holland colonies. In the Upper Peninsula remained between seven and nine thousand speakers each of Russian, Swedish, Ukrainian, and Finnish immigrants;MichiganFinnish. In southern Michigan, the English that was spoken often reflected Yankee influences, but farther north Canadian accents could be heard.

Michigan’s location continued to make the state an attractive target for Canadians even after World War II. As late as 1980, Canada was the largest source of foreign-born residents. In 2000, almost 39,000 Michigan residents–most probably from Canada’s Quebec province–reported speaking French at home.Michigan

Further Reading

  • May, George S. Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1995.
  • _______. Michigan: The Great Lakes State. Sun Valley, Calif.: American Historical Press, 2005.
  • Michigan: Collected Works of the Federal Writers’ Project. Bel Air, Calif.: Reprint Services Corporation, 1991.

Arab immigrants

Canadian immigrants

Dutch immigrants

German immigrants

Labor unions

Linguistic contributions

Muslim immigrants

New York State

Polish immigrants