The History of Detroit, MI
Detroit is a city with a long and complex history. It's the site of a great deal of innovation but has also endured a great deal of conflict and strife. The city's location at the center of easily accessible trade routes led to a great deal of growth early on. Innovations such as Henry Ford's assembly line opened up even more opportunities. While there have been many challenges in the area, Detroit has risen to them to become a burgeoning city in the middle of a rich revitalization effort. Read on to start learning about the history of Detroit.
Detroit's First Residents
The land that's now Detroit was originally the homeland of three Anishinaabe nations: The Potawatomi, the Ottawa, and the Ojibwe. These tribes first made contact with French settlers in the 17th century.
In the Treaty of Detroit signed in 1807, these three tribes, along with the Wyandot, ceded land that now is part of the city. Throughout the 1900s, Native American community leaders created groups for educational and social activities. These groups included the North American Indian Association and the Detroit Indian Education Center, still active today. Through these and other groups, Native Americans contributed to the city's development and its rich history.
Today, the continued influence of these peoples can be seen throughout Detroit, and many still live in the Detroit metro area. A number of streets and neighborhoods take their names from various tribes. However, many Native American individuals were moved off their land to other regions as both British and French settlers expanded their holdings to include forts and depots.
The Settling of Detroit
The site that would become the city of Detroit was first established in 1701 as Fort Pontchartrain by Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, who founded it as both a military and fur trading settlement.
Detroit's name comes from the French reference to the Detroit River. They called it "le Detroit du Lac Erie," which translates as the strait of Lake Erie. This river connects Lake Erie to Lake Huron and was used for the fur trade. The term made its way into the name of the settlement as "Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit."
During the American Revolutionary War, American control of the city of Detroit was the goal of several campaigns. However, the area was not secured until the 1783 Treaty of Paris. At that meeting, Great Britain ceded the territory that included Detroit to the newly recognized country. However, the area remained under British control until the Jay Treaty in 1796.
The school, which eventually evolved into the University of Michigan, was founded after the arrival of Father Gabriel Richard in 1796. It was open to both Native American and Caucasian students. Soon, a road-building project connected Detroit with nearby Chicago. A printing press was delivered and soon began printing Michigan's first newspapers. However, most of the settlement was destroyed by fire in 1805.
The Great Fire of 1805
As far as historians can tell, the fire that caused the nearly complete destruction of Detroit started in or near the stables of a local baker, John Harvey. No official cause was ever determined. However, it was rumored that the fire was caused by hot ashes from a pipe. One of the first structures to catch fire was a nearby barn. The flames then spread quickly to nearby wooden structures.
At the time of the fire, the population of Detroit was around 600 people. They did not have a permanent paid and professional fire department. The city would not acquire its first steam engine fire truck for several decades.
Detroiters attempted to save the city using a bucket brigade. A line of people passed buckets of water from the Detroit River up to the burning buildings. However, every building except the old British fort and a few brick chimneys were destroyed by mid-afternoon.
From the Great Fire came Detroit's motto, "Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus"—"We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes." This motto features on Detroit's flag with an image of the fire.
Luckily, there were no fatalities associated with the Great Fire of 1805. After the fire, a new street plan was created by Territorial Judge Augustus Woodward. The new design featured diagonal streets that radiated out from the city center like the spokes of a wheel.
Detroit During the Civil War
While many people believe that northern states were always abolitionists and free from slavery, the historical record indicates that slavery played a key role in Detroit's history. Enslaved black and indigenous people were made to grow the area's first crops. Slave labor was used in the fur trade, as well as the construction of the city. Unfortunately, few complete records of slavery in Detroit exist outside of wills, journals, and financial accounts of slaveholders.
Despite this, before the Civil War, Detroit's proximity to the U.S.–Canada border made it a key destination for formerly enslaved people as the last stop on the Underground Railroad. When the war began, thousands of Detroiters formed voluntary regiments that included the 24th Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment. This regiment was part of the Iron Brigade, which suffered 82% casualties at the Battle of Gettysburg.
However, not everyone was enthusiastic about military service and the mandatory draft laws. This tension was heightened by the racial and economic discrimination present in the draft. On March 6, the Detroit race riot of 1863 broke out as the figurative kettle boiled over. At the time, it was reported as the bloodiest day in Detroit. Thirty-five buildings were burned to the ground, and at least two people were killed. Many more were injured, with African-American residents taking the most casualties.
Henry Ford Opens the Highland Park Plant
As Detroit grew, it emerged as a major transportation hub and industrial center. The area had large coach-building and machine-tool industries that made it more attractive to new industrial efforts. Its easy access to the Great Lakes and railways made it easy to ship out goods, which made it an ideal setting for automobile manufacturers.
Henry Ford created the first assembly line when he built his Highland Park Plant in 1910. This innovation changed the nature of mass production and galvanized growth in the Detroit region.
Ford's rivals quickly adopted his manufacturing techniques, and more and more automobile manufacturers came to the city, earning it its nickname, Motor City.
Ford also revolutionized labor relations by announcing that he would pay workers at his plants nearly twice the wage at nearby plants. The high wages increased productivity, lowered overall labor costs, and dramatically reduced turnover.
However, by the 1920s, Ford's cheap, basic cars were overshadowed by the work of General Motors, who emphasized variety and upscale quality. The brand provided financing to buyers to make the fancier cars more affordable. In 1935, automotive labor relations were upended again with the founding of the United Auto Workers labor union.
Civil Rights in Detroit
While worker rights in Detroit were evolving with the times, not every citizen had access to the benefits of the industrial economy. Poverty was rife in the area, and a great deal of de facto segregation made social mobility all but impossible.
In June 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a speech in Detroit that foreshadowed his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Detroit was also chosen as one of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Model Cities for his War on Poverty.
The Model City Program promised new anti-poverty programs and alternative forms of municipal government. However, despite the transformation of a nine-square-mile area of the city, many city activists felt the plan did not go far enough. They argued that funds should be used to replace deteriorating current buildings. The city's political and financial elite, however, sought to protect the central business district's property values by separating them from areas of greater poverty.
The 12th Street Riot
Racial clashes between the city's police force and residents continued to escalate. These culminated in the 12th Street Riot in July 1967.
In the early hours of Sunday, July 23, police raided an unlicensed after-hours bar in Detroit's Near West Side. Inside, they found 82 people who were celebrating the return of two local soldiers from the Vietnam War. Police decided to arrest everyone inside. While they were waiting for transport, a crowd began to gather. A doorman from the bar threw a bottle at a police officer, and soon a riot broke out. Michigan Governor George W. Romney ordered the Michigan National Guard to enter Detroit. President Johnson sent in US Army Troops.
This riot was considered the largest and most destructive in American history at the time and was not surpassed in size until the 1992 Los Angeles riots. It lasted over five days. By the end of the riot, 43 people were dead and 467 injured. There were over 7,200 arrests and over 2,000 buildings destroyed. Thousands of small businesses in the area either closed shop permanently or moved to other neighborhoods. The affected district was allowed to lay in ruins for decades.
After years of struggle, Detroit began to experience a revival in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Much of the renewal was centered around the New Center, Downtown, and Midtown areas. One only has to take a look around the city to find a plethora of things to experience in Detroit.
Marian and Mike Ilitch purchased and renovated the historic Fox Theater and Fox Office Center in 1987 and subsequently moved the headquarters for Little Caesars Pizza to Downtown Detroit. New downtown stadiums were constructed for the Detroit Lions and the Detroit Tigers. Three casino resorts were added to the city.
The addition of the Little Caesars Arena in 2017 allowed the Detroit Pistons and the Detroit Red Wings to share a home stadium. This made Detroit the only North American city to host all major professional sports in its downtown.
Detroit's International Riverfront is the focus of a great deal of development, including a long RiverWalk, which features some of the most popular parks in Detroit. The Renaissance Center received a major overhaul in 2004.
Detroit's economy has greatly increased the size of its tech sector, which has made it an attractive destination for many.
Discover Detroit's History
Detroit has a wide range of properties, outdoor activities, public transit options, and things to do for its residents and visitors. As more individuals move to Detroit, the city will continue to flourish and offer new and more opportunities.