Michigan Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Michigan’s abundant natural resources and access to major waterways, including four of the five Great Lakes, have made it an important area of human activity for more than ten thousand years.

History of Michigan

Michigan’s abundant natural resources and access to major waterways, including four of the five Great Lakes, have made it an important area of human activity for more than ten thousand years. The unique geographic situation of Michigan, with the state divided into two separate land masses, has had a profound influence on its history. The southern land mass, known as the Lower Peninsula, developed into a heavily populated area of agriculture, forestry, and industry. The northern land mass, known as the Upper Peninsula, remained sparsely populated but provided important mineral resources.

Early History

The first inhabitants of the region hunted and fished about eleven thousand years ago. They also made tools from copper found in the Upper Peninsula. This is the earliest known use of metal in the New World. About three thousand years ago, agriculture began to develop in the southwestern part of the Lower Peninsula.

By the time Europeans arrived in North America, Michigan was primarily inhabited by Native Americans belonging to the Algonquian language group. These peoples included the Ottawa, the Ojibwa, the Miami, and the Potawatomi, mostly living in the northern regions. In the south lived the Huron, a Native American tribe belonging to the Iroquois language group. During the middle of the seventeenth century, conflict with other Iroquois peoples to the east drove the Huron and the Ottawa westward. At about the same time, the development of the French fur trade led many Native Americans in northern Michigan to move south.

Exploration and Settlement

The first European known to have visited the area was Étienne Brulé, who reached the Upper Peninsula from Canada in 1622. Another French explorer, Jean Nicolet, traveled through the narrow strait that separates the two peninsulas in 1634 during a journey from Canada to Wisconsin. The earliest permanent European settlements, located in the Upper Peninsula, were founded by the French missionary Jacques Marquette at Sault Sainte Marie in 1668 and St. Ignace in 1671. During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, several French missionary, fur trading, and military posts were established on both peninsulas. In 1701 Detroit was founded by Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, Sieur de Cadillac. It soon became the most important French settlement in the Great Lakes region.

During the French and Indian War, a struggle between France and England for control of North America, Detroit was surrendered to the British in 1760. After the war, control of the region went to Great Britain. Fearful that the British would bring many more settlers to the area, many Native Americans united under the Ottawa leader Pontiac. After capturing several British forts in the area, Pontiac’s forces laid siege to Detroit for nearly six months in 1763. Pontiac was forced to abandon the siege in October, and the British remained in control.

Steps to Statehood

Although the end of the American Revolution officially brought the area under American control, the British did not leave Detroit and other military posts until 1796. Michigan was part of the Northwest Territory from 1787 to 1800, when it became part of the newly created Indiana Territory. The Michigan Territory was created in 1805. In the same year, a fire destroyed several buildings in Detroit.

After being rebuilt, Detroit was an important military objective in the War of 1812, a conflict between the United States and England. Detroit was captured by the British in August of 1812 but recaptured in September of 1813. Control of the Great Lakes region was restored to the United States the same month, when American naval forces commanded by Oliver Hazard Perry defeated the British in the Battle of Lake Erie.

Michigan began growing quickly after the war. Settlement was encouraged by the beginning of steamship transportation on Lake Erie from Buffalo to Detroit. The completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, linking the Hudson River to Lake Erie, also led to rapid population growth. From 1820 to 1840, the number of settlers, mostly from eastern states, increased from less than 9,000 to more than 200,000. During this time, many Native Americans gave up their lands or were forced to leave. However, some remained on reservations that still exist.

Michigan reached the population of 60,000 required for statehood as early as 1833. Before statehood could be approved by Congress, however, a border dispute arose between Michigan and Ohio. Ohio claimed lands in the southeastern part of the Michigan Territory. In the Toledo War of 1835, Michigan militia prevented Ohio officials from occupying the area. Michigan eventually gave up the disputed region in return for a large increase in the size of its lands in the Upper Peninsula. It became the twenty-sixth state in 1837.

Economic Development

Despite an economic depression in the late 1830’s, Michigan experienced rapid growth in the two decades after statehood. Many of the new residents were immigrants from Germany, Ireland, and the Netherlands. The vast majority of settlers were drawn to Michigan by the rich, productive soil found in the southern part of the Lower Peninsula. In the 1850’s, about 85 percent of the population was involved in agriculture.

The pine forests of the northern part of the Lower Peninsula and the mineral resources of the Upper Peninsula were also important parts of the state’s economy. Iron, copper, and salt deposits began to be mined in the 1840’s. Immigrants from Finland and Cornwall, a region of southwestern England, were involved in the development of the mining industry. An important stimulus to economic growth in the Upper Peninsula was the completion in 1855 of a series of locks at Sault Sainte Marie which allowed ships to travel from Lake Huron to Lake Superior. The growing importance of the northern regions of the state was a factor in the decision to move the capital from Detroit to Lansing in 1847.

The Republican Party and the Civil War

The Democratic Party dominated Michigan politics from before statehood until the national crisis over slavery in the 1850’s. In 1854 antislavery members of the Democratic Party joined with members of the Whig Party and the Free-Soil Party to form the Republican Party in Jackson. The new party would dominate Michigan politics for the next eight decades.

During the Civil War about ninety thousand residents of Michigan fought for the Union, and around fourteen thousand were killed. Among the forces representing Michigan was a regiment of African Americans drawn from several states.

The Rise of Industry

The late nineteenth century saw the beginnings of modern manufacturing in Michigan. Grand Rapids became a center of furniture making. Kalamazoo dominated the paper industry. The Dow Chemical Company and the Upjohn Company made the chemical and pharmaceutical industries an important part of the state’s economy. Perhaps the most distinctive industry to arise in Michigan at this time was the manufacture of breakfast cereal. This industry, which grew out of health resorts in the state that developed these products as part of a vegetarian diet, is centered in the city of Battle Creek.

By far the most important industry in Michigan during the twentieth century was automobile manufacturing. The industry began in 1901, when Ransom Eli Olds began marketing the Oldsmobile, the first successful American automobile. Inspired by this success, other automobile manufacturing companies soon appeared in the state. Henry Ford organized the Ford Motor Company in 1903 and began manufacturing the highly successful Model T in 1908. The same year, William C. Durant created the General Motors Corporation. Walter P. Chrysler founded the Chrysler Corporation in 1925. These and many other companies made the cities of Detroit, Flint, Pontiac, and Lansing dominant in the automobile industry.

The Twentieth Century

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, large numbers of immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Poland, and other European nations entered the state. At about the same time, African Americans from southern states began to arrive in large numbers. From 1900 to the late twentieth century, the number of African Americans in the state rose from less than sixteen thousand to well over one million. In the last few decades of the century, immigrants also arrived from Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East.

The Great Depression of the 1930’s devastated the automobile industry. By 1932 half the industrial workers in Michigan were unemployed. This crisis ended the dominance of the Republican Party in the state. It also made organized labor an important force in Michigan. The entire automobile industry was unionized by the United Automobile Workers by 1941.

World War II revitalized industry in the state as automobile manufacturers turned to making military vehicles. Prosperity continued from the end of the war until the nationwide recession of the 1980’s, which brought much higher unemployment to Michigan than to most other states. During the late 1980’s and 1990’s, the state made efforts to lessen its economic dependence on the automobile industry, particularly by developing technological industries and tourism.

Categories: History Content