Detroit: History

Riverside Stronghold Established by French

In July 1701, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac and his party landed at a riverbank site chosen because the narrow strait there seemed strategically situated for protecting French fur trading interests in the Great Lakes. The river was called d'Etroit, a French word meaning "strait." Cadillac and his men built Fort Pontchartrain on the site, naming the fort after Comte de Pontchartrain, French King Louis XIV's minister of state; soon a palisaded riverfront village developed nearby. Cadillac named the settlement "ville d'etroit," or city of the strait. Eventually the name was simplified to Detroit.

The control of Detroit changed hands three times during the eighteenth century. At the conclusion of the French and Indian War, the resulting treaty specified the surrender of Detroit to Great Britain. Under Henry Hamilton, the settlement's British governor, armies of Native Americans were encouraged to scalp frontier settlers for rewards, earning Hamilton the sobriquet, "Hair Buyer of Detroit." France's tribal allies, led by Ottawa chief Pontiac, plotted to capture Detroit; when the plot failed, they continued their siege of the fort.

At the end of the American Revolution, the United States claimed lands west of the Alleghenies by treaty, but the British refused to leave Detroit and other western forts, encouraging allied tribes to attack settlers. It was not until two years after General Anthony Wayne defeated the Native Americans at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1796 that the British finally left Detroit. During the War of 1812, General William Hull turned Detroit's fort over to the British without a fight, thus making Detroit the only major American city ever to be occupied by a foreign power. The United States regained control of the settlement in 1813 following Oliver H. Perry's victory in the Battle of Lake Erie.

Manufacturing Center Becomes Automobile Capital

Detroit was incorporated as a town in 1802 and as a city in 1815. In 1805 Detroit was selected the capital of the newly created Michigan territory. On June 11, 1805, a fire totally destroyed the city, and while all residents survived, 200 wood structures were reduced to ashes. Local Catholic leader Father Gabriel Richard observed at the time, "Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus (We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes)." His statement became the city's motto. Augustus B. Woodward, one of the new territory's judges, awarded a larger piece of land to each citizen who had lost his home. To create a street design for Detroit, Woodward selected Pierre Charles L'Enfant's plan for Washington, D.C.: a hexagon with a park in the middle and wide streets radiating outward in a hub-and-spoke pattern. As Detroit grew, additional hexagons could be added parallel to the original one. This idea was adopted then eventually abandoned and a grid street pattern was superimposed over the hexagonal design. Michigan gained state-hood in 1837; ten years later, fearing Detroit's vulnerability to foreign invasion, the young legislature relocated Michigan's capital from Detroit to Lansing.

Detroit's early economic development was spurred by a combination of factors: the opening of the Erie Canal in 1826, the city's Great Lakes location, the increasing use of rail transport, the growing lumber and flour-milling industries, and the availability of a skilled labor force. The Detroit Anti-Slavery Society was organized in 1837 and the city was a station on the Underground Railroad. Abolitionist John Brown brought slaves to Detroit in 1859 and there purportedly planned with Frederick Douglass the notorious raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia. During the Civil War Detroit provided supplies and provisions to the Union cause. By the end of the century Detroit had emerged as an important industrial and manufacturing center.

In 1896 Charles B. King determined Detroit's destiny when he drove a horseless carriage on the city streets. Soon Henry Ford introduced his own version of the conveyance, and Detroit was on its way to becoming the automobile capital of the world. Along with Ford, such automotive pioneers as W.C. Durant, Walter P. Chrysler, Ransom Olds, Henry Leland, and the Dodge brothers laid the foundation for the companies that emerged as the Big Three auto makers—Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler—by the latter half of the twentieth century.

Development Brings New Challenges

The automotive industry brought thousands of immigrants into Detroit during the 1920s. Then during the Great Depression the industry was severely shaken, leaving one-third of the workforce out of jobs in 1933. The rise of the union movement under the leadership of Walter Reuther led to sit-down strikes in Detroit and Flint in 1937, resulting in anti-union violence. Federal legislation helped the United Automobile Workers win collective bargaining rights with General Motors and Chrysler in 1937 and with Ford Motor Company in 1941. During World War II, Detroit turned its energies to the war effort as Ford opened a bomber factory and Chrysler a tank plant, leading to a new nickname for Detroit—"the arsenal of democracy."

Detroit's racial tension, traceable to a race riot in 1863, erupted in 1943 when violence resulted in the deaths of 35 people and injury to more than 1,000 others. Much progress was made in solving Detroit's race problems after the 1943 outbreak. Like many urban areas in the late 1960s, however, the city was forced to confront the issue once again when civil disturbances exploded in July 1967; 43 people were killed, hundreds injured, and entire city blocks burned to the ground. The organization New Detroit was founded as an urban coalition to resolve issues of education, employment, housing, and economic development, which were seen as the root causes of race problems.

A Modern Detroit Emerges

In 1970 a group of business leaders formed Detroit Renaissance to address questions of Detroit's future. The following year the group, restructured under chairman Henry Ford II, announced plans for construction of the Renaissance Center, the world's largest privately financed project, as a symbol of the new Detroit. In 1996 General Motors Corporation purchased the Renaissance Center for its new global headquarters.

In 1974 Detroit elected its first African American mayor, Coleman A. Young. In common with mayors of other large "rust belt cities," Mayor Young oversaw a city in which white residents fled to the suburbs and Detroit went into a severe economic decline. In 1993 Mayor Young announced that he would not seek a sixth term. The following year Dennis W. Archer assumed the mayorship of Detroit. Highly regarded by citizens and business leaders, Archer won national recognition for himself and his city. By the mid-1990s, after many years of headlines that linked the city with words like "crime," "decay," and "arson," Detroit was being described as "the comeback city," where according to the Chicago Tribune, "a new day may be dawning on this most maligned of America's big cities."

The early years of the twenty-first century saw mixed results in Detroit's resurgence. New Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, a charismatic, young politician born and bred in the city, took over the reins at City Hall in 2001. While several large-scale development projects, including three new casinos, continued downtown's transformation, the neighborhoods continued to struggle with problems of blight, poor city services, and declining population. The 2005 elections would be a referendum on Mayor Kilpatrick's direction for the city.

Historical Information: Detroit Public Library, Burton Historical Collection, 5201 Woodward Ave., Detroit, MI 48202; telephone (313)833-1480. Detroit Historical Museum, 5401 Woodward Ave., Detroit, MI 48202; telephone (313)833-1805