Michigan’s First Settlers


American pioneers have always had a reputation of being industrious, hardy, and adventurous, but Michiganders took this to a new height. Beginning in 1825, Michigan would escape its reputation as uninhabitable and barren land, with the opening of the Erie Canal. The canal would allow for the first mass migration to Michigan from New England and New York, and thus open Michigan up to the rest of America as a popularized new settlement destination. In the words of one personal entry, “as many other young men do, to make a strike for himself; and with that desire uppermost in his mind, he made up his mind to go to Michigan territory, get a hold and grow with the country.” (Coffinberry, 57.) Looking for a chance to make a life for themselves many “ambitious, but poor..” (Coffinberry, 57.) traveled to Michigan in search of a new life.

Almost immediately, even upon travel to Michigan, many pioneers faced hardship. Those who traveled by boat to Michigan often faced the faults of the newly invented steamboats which often spewed molten tar and hot ash which caused fires and burns, terrifying many of the passengers, as “women were screaming, children crying, some praying,bot more cursing and swearing.” (Whitehead, 61.) Once the pioneers arrived, they came to a land that was dense with either woods or swamps, and without many necessities essential we view necessary for ample living, such as the access to roads, or other establishments of society. Without these necessities the settlers relied on themselves almost solely for their survival as Michigan was first settled. The settlers were responsible for constructing their own house, planting crops, and supporting their family through harsh and unforgiving Michigan winters. As explained by one settler “Hard times. Hard times is the complaint of most everyone we see. Money is scarce and produce is very low. There is but little money in circulation.” (Dibble, 60.)

Aside from the settlers own hardships they experienced in their own sphere of life, the settlers were not the only inhabitants of Michigan. The Native American presence, while diminished by the multiple treaties in Michigan’s history; still had a role in settlers lives. Settlers were exposed to the Natives history, such as the discovery of an Indian burial grave. (Dawson, 60.) Other than relics of Indian, the settlers would sometimes have run-ins with the Natives. While perhaps not inherently rude, the customs and norms of the Natives in comparison with the customs of the settlers, offended and frightened the settlers. An excerpt of an “Indian visit” is told, which highlights the cultural differences between the groups. The Indians borrowed from the family, leaving a rifle in exchanged, which frightened the family at first. What most alarmed the family was the Indian’s unannounced intrusion, and their asking of bread, milk and whiskey, and after the Indians migrated weeks later “We were very pleased, as well as the other neighbors, when they were gone. (Nowlin, 66.) While rude to us, the Natives probably did not intend threat. Many who encountered the Native’s grew accustomed to their silent intrusions. “They were very curious about the things they saw in the house. Everything was new to them, of course, but they never did us any harm, and we never felt that they helped themselves to anything.” (Dewey, 63.)

Throughout all of these hardships, from the very moments settlers traveled to Michigan, and from the hardships they faced settling a harsh terrain, and surrounded by an alien culture in the Native Americans, the settlers found a way to take care of themselves, their neighbors, and expand the power and potential of Michigan to create the 26th state on January 26, 1837.

Works Cited:

Thick, Matthew R. The Great Water: a Documentary History of Michigan. Michigan State University Press, 2018.

10 thoughts on “Michigan’s First Settlers

  1. The first Michigan settlers truly were following the “American Dream” by starting with nothing, or hardly anything and looking to expand, grow and make a successful life for themselves. They have set a great example that it is possible to become what you wish with a determined mindset and willingness to suffer through the bad times. It’s quite admirable to live in a state who’s early settlers accomplished so much and started a firm foundation for Michigan.

  2. After reading through the blog posts and reading it is easy to see that life in the 1800s as a Michigander were not easy. Through all the mishaps and misfortune; the people of Michigan made it work and made it work well. They stayed strong and worked hard to make Michigan a resourceful home.

  3. I love that the courageous started the trek and battled through the terrain, weather and unknown to settle and make a name for themselves. I did shake my head and the nonsense of discriminating which I feel possibly continued to form the beginning chapters of our state. I always if we would have embraced one another where would we be, would we have had more culture?

  4. Reading about the Michigan settlers really has made me grateful for all the luxuries we have today. I hate the cold and having to deal with harsh winters without heat, insulation, the home I have now, there is absolutely no way I could do it. The pioneers are kind of amazing. I can’t even imagine how hard it was to live such an unpredictable life. I am grateful that they wen’t through it so I didn’t have to. I am also grateful that they are such great reminders that no matter how hard things may be, just gotta keep pushing forward.

  5. I can’t imagine going through what they had to go through. Really puts the life we have now into perspective. They made something out of nothing and kept with it. I couldn’t imagine doing half the stuff they did. Loved reading this!

  6. It is very interesting to look back into history and seeing how waterways played such a big role in where people settled, such as the Erie Canal. Between the lack of resources and the effective but poor technology of the time settling was extremely hard for these Michigander hopefuls. It is interesting to read how the settlers and Natives interacted and the different customs. It is truly an honor however to come from such an early statehood and all the hardships the people before us faced.

  7. I also wrote about the tar on the steam boats! It is horrifying to think that any living being would have to go through the torture of not knowing whether or not hot tar was going to catch your “bed” on fire or burn your skin. I loved your point of culture clash with the Native Americans with what was rude to us was the norm for them. Excellent post!

  8. I find it amazing the amount of strength and courage that the first settlers had; to endure the hardships and overcome them. It has been very interesting to learn about our statehood. I do, however feel upset about the fact that Native Americans had to change their way of life for the settlers.

  9. The relationship between the Native Americans and Michigan settlers is interesting because neither one really feels they mean each other harm, yet they still have uneasy feelings towards each other. The Native Americans see the settlers as strange foreign people moving into their land and hunting their resources, and the settlers see the Native Americans as strange “savages” with confusing customs. Humans tend to fear the unknown, so even though they didn’t mean each other harm, they still feared each other to some extent because they didn’t take the time to understand each other.

  10. The part where the white settlers talk about how the Native Americans would just wander into their houses is so interesting. The difference in culture is clearest here: the idea of property. Europeans were very property-centric, while the Natives, though not interested in stealing per se, had no qualms about looking through someone’s things just to have a look.

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