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Michigan from 1860-1900: Civil War, Gilded Age & Mayor Pingree

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the history of Michigan in the late 19th century, from Michigan's participation in the Civil War through the Progressive governorship of Hazen Pingree.

Late 19th-century Michigan

Michigan is known for the Great Lakes, the automobile industry, and as the state whose residents can easily point out their hometown using their hand. In addition to being a great spot for outdoor recreation and a former power of American industry, the mitten-shaped state has a history all its own. In this lesson, we will explore just a slice of that history, from the Civil War to the turn of the 20th century.

Civil War

There was little doubt where Michigan's allegiance would fall when the Civil War broke out between the United States and the newly independent Confederation. Not only because Michigan is firmly entrenched in the northern half of the country, but also because Michigan was a hotbed of the abolitionist movement in the years before the war. In the 1840s, for example, Marshall, a Michigan community, unilaterally jailed a group of slave-hunting Kentuckians, allowing a slave family to escape to Canada. In fact, the Republican Party, born in part due to anti-slavery sentiment, was officially formed in Jackson, Michigan, in 1854.

When war broke out in 1861, Michiganders raced to the cause. Michigan was the first western state to send troops to fight for the Union, arriving in Washington in May. Estimates state that approximately 23% of Michigan's male population served in the war - around 90,000 men all told.

Post-War and Gilded Age

The period after the Civil War, commonly referred to as the Gilded Age or the antebellum period, was a time of significant economic boom for Michigan. But it was not the factories and manufacturing centers so often associated with Michigan that spurred this boom - those would come later. Instead, wealth derived from natural resources and agriculture in Gilded Age-Michigan.

Stories of copper in Michigan's Upper Peninsula had been told to European explorers and colonists by the Native Americans for centuries, but it was not until the 1840s, when it was rediscovered by Michigan surveyors, that the copper industry become a major source of revenue for the region. Throughout the period, Michigan led the nation in copper production. Iron ore was also discovered in the Upper Peninsula and mined extensively. Logging was also a tremendous source of wealth. When Americans first began arriving in Michigan, its two peninsulas were almost entirely covered with thick forests. The lumbering industry set upon the state and deforested most of Lower Peninsula by 1900. Wood from Michigan was shipped all across the nation.

Farmers also set upon the state as its plentiful trees were cleared by the lumber industry. Michigan quickly became the national leader in wheat production in the late 19th century, and Michigan farmers grew several varieties of fruit as well. Wheat production in Michigan in part led to the development of Battle Creek as Michigan's famed 'Cereal City,' where cereal companies like Kellogg's still have their headquarters.

The Gilded Age also saw an enormous influx of immigration into Michigan as the state encouraged new immigrants to settle the land and work in its budding industries. In the last 40 years of the 19th century, more than 700,000 people settled in Michigan from elsewhere, and well over half of these new Michiganders were from foreign countries. The state sought to attract these new citizens; for example, the state published advertising material in German. This immigrant population would also form the backbone of Michigan's future industrial working class. Michigan's population, just shy of 400,000 in 1850, swelled to over 2.4 million by 1900.

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