A French fort and fur-trading settlement founded here in 1701 by Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac and called Ville d'étroit [city of the strait] were captured by the British in 1760. Three years later the British withstood a long siege during Pontiac's Rebellion. American control, resulting from Jay's Treaty, was established in 1796. Detroit was first the territorial and then the state capital from 1805 to 1847. Fire in 1805 destroyed nearly all of the several hundred buildings in the town, but the settlement was rebuilt from a design by Pierre C. L'Enfant. Detroit was surrendered in 1812 to British forces, but was recovered by Gen. William Henry Harrison in 1813. With the development of land and water transportation, the city grew rapidly during the 1830s. It assumed great importance after the mid-19th cent. as a shipping, shipbuilding, and manufacturing center, attracting immigrants from around the world, including Poles, Italians, Germans, Serbs, Croats and others.

Large numbers of migrants from the South, especially African Americans, also arrived in Detroit after 1900 as factory production increased rapidly. Detroit was a leading producer for the military during World Wars I and II. In 1943, the National Guard was called in as race riots broke out in the city. Race riots erupted again in 1967, killing 43 and causing extensive property damage. Detroit's dependence on the declining automobile industry brought job loss, social problems, and massive migration to suburbs in the 1970s and 80s. The city's population declined 32% from 1970 to 1990, and scores of businesses left or closed.

Revitalization projects during the 1970s and 80s, including the Renaissance Center (1977), a 73-story hotel and office complex, and casinos constructed during the early 21st cent. have helped Detroit's downtown but not brought significant benefits to the city at large. Today, Detroit remains a largely minority city struggling with economic problems, surrounded by more affluent white suburbs. Detroit's notable mayors include James Couzens (1919–22) and Frank Murphy (1930–33). Coleman Young, the city's first (1974–93) black mayor, presided during difficult years of decline, and the years since have been marked by population losses and city financial difficulties, including increasingly significant debts. In 2013 Michigan appointed an emergency manager to oversee the city's finances, and later that year Detroit filed for bankruptcy.

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