Michigan’s Earliest Settlers

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The earliest settlers of Michigan faced hard times as they made their way to the state. When someone decided to leave their home and travel to this state, they needed to be tough and resilient. Upon entering the state back in the 1850’s, travelers were met by towering trees and not much more. Where the trees were missing, the area was likely covered in swampland. Michigan’s very name is associated with the terms “fever and chills.” (Rubenstein and Ziewacz, 70). So why would anyone want to come to Michigan?

People came to Michigan hoping to settle the land. They were hard working and industrious. They were reformists that were interested in education. Many believed in ending slavery. They were afraid that slave labor would open Michigan up to ownership by the very rich who would use their slaves to farm and mine the land. It wasn’t so much that they were supporting abolition, they just believed in hard work and not just the few owning land, as was the norm in southern states. They were thrifty and religious people. Early settlers were drawn to Michigan since they knew with hard work; they could make a life for themselves. Once the land was cleared, they could farm and hunt and fish, and with faith, they would survive. Some settlers were drawn to Michigan for the copper and iron mining found in the Upper Peninsula.

The earliest settlers faced many hardships. Hard winters meant little food, especially if settlers arrived in late fall or winter. Careful planning and help from neighbors were necessary to survive the first few months after arriving. Once crops were grown, settlers often dealt with low crop yield due to insect infestations. The newcomers also had to deal with Indians that lived on the land. Most meant no harm to the settlers, yet others would walk into a house and demand food and drink and this could prove frightening. This helped to encourage some settlers to be prejudiced against the Indians and to want them to leave the area where the settlers made their homes. This is evident many years later in the Burt Lake incident in which an entire Indian village was burnt to the ground and the Indian residents were run off the land. Prejudice was also evident in the ways that the early settlers of Michigan dealt with the African Americans that lived among them. While blacks were allowed to live in the state and were even helped by the efforts of the Underground Railroad, they still were not considered equal. When a state convention was called in 1849, the vote for black suffrage was defeated by a margin of nearly 3 to 1. Most whites agreed with a Detroit delegate to the convention who stated that blacks should be kept separate from whites and “kept in their present sphere” (Rubenstein and Ziewacz, 83), Prejudice also existed between the Catholics and Mormons and is evident in the events on Beaver Island, which ended in the murder of the Mormon leader, James Jesse Strang, and the aftermath of his followers being driven from the island. Michigan politics were affected by prejudice also. The short- lived Know-Nothing party was against Catholics and feared new immigrants.

These prejudices affected our society in many ways. Fighting over slavery, and disagreements within the Democratic Party helped to form the Republican Party. We still see separation of races today. Many communities are predominantly one race, and often, areas that are mostly African American have higher unemployment, poorer schools and crumbling infrastructure.

Michigan’s early settlers helped to shape our state in many ways. Without the hard work and driving force of these people, weaker individuals may have turned around and went back home. By having a never quit attitude, our state has one of the most extensive road systems in the country. With perseverance, the settlers created the farmlands, planted the crops, built the towns, mined the mines, built canals and locks, and literally constructed the states infrastructure from the ground up. Without the dedication of our states ancestors, the auto industry may have had its start somewhere else. When voters were dissatisfied with the current state of politics, they didn’t just sit around and complain; they created the Republican Party, which is one of the major political groups in our country. Michigan’s earliest settlers had a huge impact on our history and culture. Without their grit and tenacity our state would not be the same.

Works Cited

Thick, Matthew “The Great Water” Chapter 5

Rubenstein and Blackwell; ‘Michigan; A History of the Great Lakes State Chapters 5-6’

6 thoughts on “Michigan’s Earliest Settlers

  1. I found it interesting how industrious those who first settled Michigan were. Reading the excerpt’s from The Great Water, many of those who settled Michigan in the beginning from New England and New York, were completely helpless from the harsh Michigan winters, the Native’s, albeit peaceful, however were also often intrusive and frightened the settlers, and received no financial aid. The factor most impressive to me is that the first settlers were completely self sufficient, building their own home, planting crops, and supporting their families in a region that was almost completely woodland and swamp. As more brave and hardy Americans settled Michigan, the more industrialized it became. In a way, we owe our existence to these great pioneers.

  2. You wrote a very interesting blog here. I like how you included that Michigan was named “Fever and chills.” If I walked into a state, seeing all trees, I wouldn’t feel to comfortable. Reading on into the blog, it made me feel good. I never looked much into how Michigan became Michigan. Knowing all the toughness, love and grit that was put into this state makes me feel good. Our settlers before us worked hard on making this state how it is. They saw potential and they seized it. The fact that the first settlers did all of their own building, farming and such is also incredible. We are industrialized due to these great men and women. Very informative blog Ian.

  3. Early settlers coming to Michigan could be thought of with the term “melting pot” as they came here for all of the same reasons, but from all different backgrounds. They did indeed have grit and it started a good reputation for Michigan. The early settlers were not “weak” people by any means and they proved that with taking on what they were given to deal with. If Michigan had not been settled by such strong people, would we be a struggling state today?

  4. It is amazing how self sufficient the first settlers were and how even through harsh winters they survived. They were quite industrious and without these hardy settlers I wonder what Michigan would be like today. I find it humorous how the Natives frightened the settlers even though they were only curious and trying to trade. This is a well written post.

  5. You presented a lot of interesting information in your blog. I found it particularly interesting how in depth you went when describing the work ethic of the early settlers in Michigan and all they did to establish what we call home. It’s also interesting to take the knowledge of all their accomplishments and compare them to more modern standards. Some would say the work ethic has become lazier in the modern age today, but I feel that we still have the same drive as those early settlers to make our world the best it can be. With such incredible advancements in technology and medicine, we have made a lot of progress since oil lamps and a life expectancy of 35. It’s interesting how humans have such an innate drive to solve problems and create solutions, advancing society with every step.

  6. Ian,

    I love that you wrote that they were “met by towering trees.” Michigan does have places that were named for this, such as Oakland County. We know prejudice was running wild in these days, against everybody, as you stated. How crazy to think that rather than seeking help in these hard times they decided to push out the Native Americans. I like that you mention the start of the republican party and the start of the auto industry a little bit, something that changed the world as we know it today.


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