Early History of Michigan

Instructor: Daniel McCollum

Dan has a Master's Degree in History and has taught undergraduate History

Before Michigan became a state, it was the home to numerous Native American tribes as well as French settlers who engaged in the fur trade. This lesson looks at this early residents of Michigan and tells their story.

The Native Americans of Michigan

Before the arrival of the first Europeans, Michigan was the home of a number of different Native American tribes. The dominant tribal group was called The Confederacy of the Three Fires and was made up of the Ojibwa, Ottawa and the Pottawatomie. These tribes were all related, spoke similar languages, and formed the Anishinabek peoples. The Confederacy acted as a loose alliance between the three tribes that worked together for the good of all. The Ojibwa were considered to be the 'older brother' of the three tribes and the 'keeper of faith', while the Ottawa were considered the 'middle brothers' and 'keepers of trade.' This left the Pottawatomie as the 'younger brother', and they were also held to be the 'keepers of the fire.'

Each of the 'three brothers' was considered important to the well being of the Confederacy and would send delegates to meet together at the Grand Council to discuss matters that would affect all three tribes. Should war be declared, the individual leaders who ruled the tribes during peace time stepped aside to allow war chiefs to run the war; however, the war chiefs stepped aside and returned power once peace had been declared. As the three tribes were the dominant powers in the Lower and Upper Peninsula of Michigan as well as in northern Wisconsin, the Confederacy was a major regional force.

Other tribes existed within the the borders of present day Michigan, however, than just those members of the Three Fires. These other tribes included the Sauk, the Menominee, the Foxes and the Mascoutens. Eventually, through a series of wars, the members of the Iroquois Confederacy also began to arrive in Michigan from their homes in New York and Pennsylvania after white European settlers began to occupy their lands. This set off a series of migrations and conflicts that were only exacerbated by the arrival of the French in Michigan.

The French Arrive

Father Marquette
Father Marquette

The first European explorer to reach Michigan was Étienne Brûlé who arrived in the Upper Peninsula in 1620, at Sault St. Marie. Brule was an unusual figure for the time, as he lived among the Huron tribe during his travels, learned their language, and also adopted many of their customs. He was also associated with the fur trade, a fact which made many of Jesuit authorities in New France distrust him. Even so, he taught many Europeans the Huron language, making future dealings between the French and Natives easier.

Over the next several years, France expanded its control in Michigan by sending explorers to survey the land and missionaries to convert the local tribal people to Catholicism. The reason they remained interested in Michigan was due to is thick forests and the amount of wildlife. At the time, the fur trade was very important in Europe as the pelts of beavers would be used to make water resistant felt hats. France hoped to control as much of the fur trade as possible and sent out traders, known as Voyageurs to trade with the local people. In exchange for furs, the Voyageurs would trade for goods such as guns, metal tools and other items which were prized and unavailable in North America. In order to facilitate the trade, the French opened up a series of military forts at places such as Detroit to protect trading posts.

The first permanent French settlement in Michigan was not built until 1668 at Sault Ste. Marie by Father Marquette. Father Marquette was a Jesuit missionary and explorer, and this settlement was initially founded as a mission to the local Ojibwa people and became an important site for French settlement and the fur trade as it existed at the crossroads between Lake Superior, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. During this time, the French settled the Upper Peninsula and the northern Lower Peninsula first, as they had become embroiled in a series of wars with the Iroquois which blocked settlement further to the south.

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