Michigan, the Wolverine State, joined the union in 1837. Located in the center of the Great Lakes, Michigan is divided into two landmasses known as the Upper and Lower Peninsulas. The Mackinac Bridge, which connects Michigan’s upper peninsula to the rest of the state, spans five miles and is one of the world’s longest suspension bridges. Detroit, the state’s largest city, is home to the American auto industry and is the birthplace of Motown Records.
Michigan Native American History
Before the first French settlers arrived in the mid-1600s, Indigenous people lived in the area now known as Michigan for 10,000 years. At the time, more than 100,000 Indigenous people coalesced into nine groups throughout the Great Lakes area. The Iroquoian-speaking Wyandot (called the Hurons by the French) was the largest Michigan-area tribe at the time of European settlement. The Algonquian-speaking Ojibwe (or Chippewa), Ottawa and Potawatomi tribes banded together to form the Three Fires Confederacy.
Michigan’s Native American tribes initially traded furs with and aided the French against the British in the 1760s during the French and Indian Wars (also known as the Seven Years’ War). The French brought diseases that killed large groups of Indigenous people within a few years of their arrival.
Until the end of the 18th century, few American settlers inhabited the Michigan area—which remained the property of Indigenous people when Great Britain ceded Michigan to the United States in 1783. From 1795 through 1842, the United States government ceased Native American land in Michigan through a series of coerced treaties. Over five decades, Indigenous land was reduced from 57,900 square miles to just 32 square miles.
In the decade after the passage of the 1830 Indian Removal Act, most Native Americans in Michigan were forced to move west of the Mississippi River to Oklahoma and Kansas. Some relocated, compelled by the government’s insistence, or fled to Canada. Others—particularly the Potawatomi and Wyandot—refused and were forced off their land by the U.S. Army on a “Trail of Tears” similar to the deadly voyage made by Cherokees from the southeastern United States.
Some tribes remained in or returned to the Great Lakes area. Today, there are 12 federally-recognized tribes in Michigan.
Michigan Exploration and Colonial History
French explorer Samuel de Champlain became the first European to explore modern-day Michigan when he navigated the St. Lawrence River in 1603. Over the following three decades, he investigated and mapped much of the Great Lakes and Michigan.
Champlain’s explorations piqued French interest in establishing a fur trade in Michigan and converting Native Americans to Christianity. In 1620, French fur trader Étienne Brûlé was the first European to set foot on Michigan, descending from Canada to the state’s Upper Peninsula. Explorer and priest Jacques Marquette created the first permanent European settlement at Sault Ste. Marie in 1668. The French also established a mission at St. Ignace in 1671 and a fort in Detroit in 1701.
British Occupation to Statehood
Conflicts over control of the North American fur trade led to the Seven Years’ War between France and Great Britain. After losing the war in 1763, the French ceded its colonies east of the Mississippi River, including Michigan, to the British. Michigan remained under British control until the American colonists’ victory in the Revolutionary War.
On September 3, 1883, Michigan was granted to the United States in the Treaty of Paris as part of the Northwest Territory. In 1787, the United States Congress enacted the Northwest Ordinance, which created a government for the Northwest Territory and established a process for admitting future states to the Union.
Despite the official cession of Michigan to the United States, most settlers and Native Americans living in Detroit favored the British, who continued to maintain control of the area. It wasn’t until a coalition of Native American tribes, known as the Western Confederacy, lost the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 that the British finally evacuated. In 1796, the new United States took control of Michigan.
In 1805, the Michigan Territory was separated from Indiana Territory, with Detroit as its capital. Supported by a booming fur trade in the early 19th century, the state’s population grew. American migrants came from New England and New York, supported by the creation of the Erie Canal, while Irish and Germans immigrated to escape European political unrest. In 1835, the state reached the barrier to statehood and held its first constitutional convention. Following a primarily bloodless battle over the Michigan-Ohio boundary known as the Toledo War, Michigan became the 26th state admitted to the Union on January 26, 1837.
Civil War and Black History
During early European colonization, the French and English brought slaves to Michigan. When Great Britain transferred control of Michigan to the United States, the Northwest Ordinance officially abolished slavery in the region–although many slaveholders found loopholes in the law and retained their slaves. An abolitionist movement developed, and hundreds of people passed through Michigan on the Underground Railroad. When the Civil War broke out, Michigan eagerly sided with the Union. From 1861 to 865, more than 90,000 Michigan men served; over 13,000 died of injuries or disease.
From 1910 to 1970, Black Americans fled the southern United States for urban centers, including Detroit. During what became known as the Great Migration, African Americans came to Michigan to escape Jim Crow laws and racial violence for educational and economic opportunities. An idyllic “Black Eden” known as Idlewild arose in Michigan, with prominent landowners including writer and activist W. E. B. Du Bois and musician Louis Armstrong. Detroit was also home to Motown Records, the wildly successful Black-owned music business founded on Jan. 12, 1959.
As demographics in Michigan changed, many white people struggled to adjust. Throughout much of the United States, Black people in Michigan faced racism and segregation. Racial tensions in Michigan ran high, leading to the Red Summer of 1919 and the Detroit Race Riot of 1943. As the civil rights movement took hold, some white people in Michigan protested school and neighborhood integration. The violence culminated with the deadly Detroit Uprising of 1967 (also known as the Detroit Rebellion of 1967), which resulted in 43 deaths and hundreds of injuries.
The automotive industry in Michigan started when Ransom Eli Olds founded Olds Motors Works—later called Oldsmobile—in Lansing, Michigan, on August 21, 1897. In 1903, Henry Ford incorporated the Ford Motor Company in Detroit, near his hometown of Dearborn, Michigan; the company sold its first car that same year. In 1908, Ford started production of its popular Ford Model T. The first moving automobile assembly line began operations in Ford’s Highland Park plant in 1913, reducing chassis assembly from 12.5 hours to 93 minutes within a year.
Since then, Detroit—sometimes called “Motor City”—has remained synonymous with the automotive industry. In the early 20th century, 125 automotive companies were founded in Detroit alone, including the “Big Three” of Chrysler, General Motors and Ford. Many towns around Detroit, such as Flint, manufactured car parts to supply the auto industry. In 1935, the United Automotive Workers of America (UAW) was organized in Detroit. From 1936 to 1937, the group organized the first major labor disputes in the auto industry with a sit-down strike at a General Motors car plant in Flint, Michigan.
Between the late 1940s to the 1960s, the Detroit auto industry began to restructure and automatize many assembly-line jobs while decentralizing manufacturing jobs throughout the Midwest and Sunbelt. This led to a rapid decline in the Detroit auto industry, furthered by the 1970s energy crisis. The city suffered again in the early 21st century during the Great Recession when General Motors and Chrysler declared bankruptcy and were restructured by the government.
Despite these challenges, Michigan still stakes its claim as auto capital of the world. As of 2021, Michigan was the headquarters for 26 original equipment manufacturers or technology centers, and 20 percent of the state’s workforce worked in the automotive or motility industries.
Date of Statehood: January 26, 1837
Population: 10,077,331 (2020)
Size: 96,713 square miles
Nickname(s): Wolverine State; Great Lakes State; Water Winter Wonderland
Motto: Si quaeris peninsulam amoenam circumspice (“If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you”)
Tree: White Pine
Flower: Apple Blossom
- In 1874, John Ward Westcott established a marine company to deliver destination and dock information to passing ships by sending messages up a rope on a pail. In 1948, the J.W. Westcott became an official mail boat of the U.S. Postal Service, and later acquired the world’s first floating postal zip code: 48222.
- The five-mile-long Mackinac Bridge, linking the Upper and Lower peninsulas of Michigan across the Straits of Mackinac, took more than three years to complete and was the world’s longest suspension bridge between anchorages when it was first opened to traffic in 1957.
- Michigan has more than 11,000 inland lakes, greater than 36,000 miles of streams and 3,126 miles of shoreline along the Great Lakes.
- The Great Lakes contain more than 80 percent of North America’s—and more than 20 percent of the world’s—surface freshwater supply.
- Michigan borders four of the five Great Lakes: Superior, Michigan, Huron and Erie.
National Park Service, What Happened on the Trail of Tears?
Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, History
National Park Service, American Expansion Turns to Official Indian Removal
The University of Michigan Press, Michigan: A History of Explorers, Entrepreneurs and Everyday People, Chapter 1: First Residents
Michigan State University, Ojibwe
Michigan State University, Indian Land Cessions
Gun Lake Tribe, History.Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi
Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi, Historical Events Timeline
Central Michigan University, The Potawatomi Experience of Federal Removal Policy
Pokégnek Bodéwadmik Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, History
Milwaukee Public Museum, Great Lakes History: A General View
Library of Michigan, Michigan Native Americans Research Guide
Michigan State University, Native Americans in the Great Lakes Region
University of Michigan Library, Indigenous Resources
French-American Cultural Foundation, Exploring Michigan’s French Roots
Michigan State University, French Explorers
Michigan Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, The Toledo War
Library of Congress, Northwest Ordinance
Detroit Historical Society, Timeline of Detroit
Library of Michigan, The Library of Michigan Presents: Michigan in Brief
Michigan State University, The British
Michigan Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, The Civil War
University of Michigan, Michigan Men in the Civil War
National Archives, The Great Migration
University of Michigan, Detroit’s Dark Secret: Slavery
Detroit Historical Society, Detroit Anti-Slavery Society
WTTW, Idlewild: Michigan’s ‘Black Eden’
Detroit Historical Society, Uprising of 1967
Library of Congress, The Yankee Empire, 1820-1890
Michigan State University, Henry Ford's biography
Library of Congress, The Flint, Michigan, Sit-Down Strike
The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, Motor City: The Story of Detroit
Detroit Regional Chamber of Congress, Automotive & Mobility
Oldsmobile Club of America, History of Oldsmobile
Detroit Historical Society, Motown Records
United States Environmental Protection Agency, Facts and Figures about the Great Lakes