A (Very Brief) History of Detroit

The Awesome Mitten-A Brief History of Detroit
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

It’s hard to look at the largest city in Michigan and imagine it as anything else, but Detroit really has come a long way.  From its humble beginnings as a French fort to its current status as the eighteenth most populous city in the US, Detroit has changed hands more than once and evolved in amazing ways. But where better to start than the beginning?

Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, a French officer, founded the settlement of Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit as a fort and missionary outpost in 1701. With France’s blessing, he offered free land to attract families and had around 800 settlers by 1765. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be: the British took control of Detroit in 1760, and then ceded it to the U.S. 36 years later.

In holding with Murphy’s Law, the worst happened: Detroit burned to the ground on June 11, 1805—less than three weeks before it was to become the capitol of the Michigan Territory. It’s newly-appointed governor, William Hull, had his work cut out for him. It sounds odd, but that blaze turned out to be one of the best things that could have happened. Like a forest after a wildfire, Detroit grew from the ashes better than ever before.

With the old Fort Detroit in ruins, Hull and a handful of other government officials convinced the federal government to give them permission to not only rebuild the city, but to incorporate 10,000 acres of surrounding land. It was officially incorporated as a city in September of 1806, spent a year in British hands in 1812, and got its first official charter in 1815.

Detroit really made a name for itself in the mid-late 19th century as a hub for

The Awesome Mitten-A Brief History of Detroit
Photo courtesy of Detroit Publishing Company

shipping and transportation. With its great size and convenient location near Lake Erie, Detroit was an obvious choice for shipping concerns which, in turn, made it a very attractive location for manufacturing. The production scene blew up in 1910 when Henry Ford opened up an automobile manufacturing plant.

Practically overnight, the population of Detroit soared. Between 1900 and 1930, over one million new residents moved into Detroit to help support the booming automobile industry. Low-cost housing popped up to house these thousands of new workers, many of whom came from Europe or the American South in search of work. The city expanded rapidly and had more than its fair share of growing pains.

When the United States entered World War II, most of Detroit’s considerable production capacity turned to the manufacture of tanks, jeeps, and bombers for the war effort. Detroit earned the nickname “The Arsenal of Democracy.” But as war fueled growing tensions across the country, Detroit wasn’t spared.

Labor unions sprang up to protect the rights of the many auto workers, and relationships started to get complicated between the unions and the manufacturers. Morale in the city started to droop, magnified by the epidemic of racism in early twentieth-century America. It all came to a head in 1943 with the Detroit Race Riot. Rumors spread like the plague, and violence went with them. When the dust finally settled, this tragic event claimed 34 lives, injured hundreds more, and resulted in over two million dollars in property damage.

Since the 1950s, Detroit has blossomed as a metropolitan area. While the population of the city proper has dropped from close to 2 million to less than 1 million, the metro area boasts more than four million residents. Many homes and jobs have cropped up in the surrounding suburbs, and the city itself is experiencing something of a renaissance.

Many young professionals have flocked to Detroit in the last 15 years, bringing with them new enterprise and a breath of fresh air. Detroit will always be Motown or Motor City, but the town’s industry is shifting in favor of technology. Compuware, a software company that’s made a name for itself in the information technology field,

The Awesome Mitten-A Brief History of Detroit
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

established their headquarters in downtown Detroit in 2004, bringing 4,000 employees with them. The Detroit art scene has seen a huge revitalization as well. Many landmarks like Fox Theater and the Detroit Opera House have been renovated  and now host concerts, plays, and other performances. The Detroit Institute of Arts completed a massive expansion effort in 2007, and has one of the most important art collections in the country.

Some people think of Detroit as a dying city, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Detroit isn’t the city that it was 60 years ago, sure, but in no way does that mean the city won’t last. Detroit is evolving into something greater. It’s a home to business, art, and innovation, and it’s very much alive.

Brian Murray – Feature Writer

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