The Ojibwa, the Ottawa, the Potawatomi, and other Algonquian-speaking Native American groups were living in Michigan when the French explorer Étienne Brulé landed at the narrows of Sault Ste. Marie in 1618, probably the first European to have reached present Michigan. Later French explorers, traders, and missionaries came, including Jean Nicolet, who was searching for the Northwest Passage; Jacques Marquette, who founded a mission in the Mackinac region; and the empire builder, Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle, who came on the Griffon, the first ship to sail the Great Lakes. French posts were scattered along the lakes and the rivers, and Mackinac Island (in the Straits of Mackinac) became a center of the fur trade. Fort Pontchartrain, later Detroit, was founded in 1701 by Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac. The vast region was weakly held by France until lost to Great Britain in the last conflict (1754–63) of the French and Indian Wars.
The Native Americans of Michigan, who had lived in peace with the French, resented the coming of the British, who were the allies of the much-hated Iroquois tribes. Under Pontiac they revolted (see Pontiac's Rebellion) against the British occupation. The rebellion, which began in 1763, was short-lived, ending in 1766, and the Native Americans subsequently supported the British during the American Revolution. Native American resistance to U.S. control was effectively ended at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 with the victory of Gen. Anthony Wayne. Despite provisions of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolution (1783; see Paris, Treaty of), the British held stubbornly to Detroit and Mackinac until 1796.
After passage of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787, Michigan became part of the Northwest Territory. However, even after the Northwest Territory was broken up and Detroit was made (1805) capital of Michigan Territory, British agents still maintained great influence over the Native Americans, who fought on the British side in the War of 1812. In that war Mackinac and Detroit fell almost immediately to the British as a result of the ineffective control of U.S. Gen. William Hull and his troops. Michigan remained in British hands through most of the war until Gen. William Henry Harrison in the battle of Thames and Oliver Hazard Perry in the battle of Lake Erie restored U.S. control.
After peace came, pioneers moved into Michigan. The policy of pushing Native Americans westward and opening the lands for settlement was largely due to the efforts of Gen. Lewis Cass, who was governor of Michigan Territory (1813–31) and later a U.S. Senator. Steamboat navigation on the Great Lakes and sale of public lands in Detroit both began in 1818, and the Erie Canal was opened in 1825. Farmers came to the Michigan fields, and the first sawmills were built along the rivers.
The move toward statehood was slowed by the desire of Ohio and Indiana to absorb parts of present S Michigan, and by the opposition of southern states to the admission of another free state. The Michigan electorate organized a government without U.S. sanction and in 1836 operated as a state, although outside the Union. To resolve the boundary dispute Congress proposed that the Toledo strip be ceded to Ohio and Indiana with compensation to Michigan of land in the Upper Peninsula. Though the Michigan electorate rejected the offer, a group of Democratic leaders accepted it, and by their acceptance Michigan became a state in 1837. (The admission of Arkansas as a slaveholding state offset that of Michigan as a free state.) Detroit served as the capital until 1847, when it was replaced by Lansing.
After statehood, Michigan promptly adopted a program of internal improvement through the building of railroads, roads, and canals, including the Soo Locks Ship Canal at Sault Ste. Marie. At the same time lumbering was expanding, and the population grew as German, Irish, and Dutch immigrants arrived. In 1854 the Republican party was organized at Jackson, Mich. During the Civil War, Michigan fought on the side of the Union, contributing 90,000 troops to the cause.
After the war the state remained firmly Republican until 1882. Then Michigan farmers, moved by the same financial difficulties and outrage at high transportation and storage rates that aroused other Western farmers, supported movements advocating agrarian interests, such as the Granger movement and the Greenback party. The farmers joined with the growing numbers of workers in the mines and lumber camps to elect a Greenback-Democratic governor in 1882 and succeeded in getting legislation passed for agrarian improvement and public welfare.
Reforms influenced by the labor movement were the creation of a state board of labor (1883), a law enforcing a 10-hr day (1885), and a moderate child-labor law (1887). The lumbering business, with its yield of wealth to the timber barons, declined to virtual inactivity. Some of the loggers joined the ranks of industrial workers, which were further swelled by many Polish and Norwegian immigrants.
With the invention of the automobile and the construction of automotive plants, industry in Michigan was altered radically. Henry Ford established the Ford Motor Company in 1903 and introduced conveyor-belt assembly lines in 1918. General Motors and the Chrysler Corporation were established shortly after Ford. Along with the development of mass-production methods came the growth of the labor movement. In the 1930s, when the automobile industry was well established in the state, labor unions struggled for recognition. The conflict between labor and the automotive industry, which continued into the 1940s, included sit-down strikes and was sometimes violent. Walter Reuther, a pioneer of the labor movement, was elected president of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) in 1946.
In World War II Michigan produced large numbers of tanks, airplanes, and other war matériel. Industrial production again expanded after the Korean War broke out in 1950, and the opening of the Saint Lawrence Seaway in 1959 increased export trade by bringing many oceangoing vessels to the port of Detroit. In the early 1960s, however, economic growth lagged and unemployment became a problem in the state.
Detroit was shaken by severe race riots in 1967 that left 43 persons dead and many injured, in addition to causing $200 million in damage. In the wake of the rioting, programs were undertaken to improve housing facilities and job opportunities in the city, but these failed as the city suffered massive outmigration. While Detroit deteriorated, the suburbs experienced dramatic growth, spreading throughout SE Michigan. Resistance to busing was a major political issue in the state in the early 1970s.
The state's dependence on the auto industry was exhibited during the recession of the early 1980s, when car sales slumped, many factories were closed and Michigan's unemployment rate at over 15% was the nation's highest. The federal government helped bail out the Chrysler Corporation in 1979, authorizing $1.5 billion in loan guarantees. After a brief period of recovery through limited diversification of the state economy, Michigan was again especially hard hit by national recession and continuing foreign competition in the early 1990s, and it continued to suffer large, mainly auto-related manufacturing job losses over the next two decades. The financial difficulties arising in large part from the effects of those job losses led Detroit to file for municipal bankruptcy in 2013.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.