Over the next ten to fifteen years the city would undergo a profound
economic and social transformation. From its founding Detroit existed as
a fur-trading outpost, a military fort primarily responsible for
supplying combatants, and a government center. At the end of the War of
1812 Detroit remained the territorial capitol, a distinction the city
would retain throughout the territorial period. But the unbroken peace
on the Great Lakes following the war led to the decline of the
community's military importance. Neither the British nor the Indians
would ever threaten the community again. And raiders would not be
supplied to attack points to the south, as had happened so often in the
past. In 1826 the American fort at Detroit was abandoned and the last
two companies of regular soldiers stationed in the city were sent to
distant Green Bay, Wisconsin. And perhaps most important, the fur trade
In part the fur traders of Detroit were squeezed by the
aggressive tactics of John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company based on
Mackinac Island. Astor's tactics were so aggressive that one of
Detroit's leading fur merchants, Louis Campau, abandoned his trade in
Detroit and relocated to southwestern Michigan, where Astor's influence
was less pronounced. In the process he became the first settler of
today's Grand Rapids. But even if Astor's aggressive business tactics
had not pressured Detroit's fur traders, the fur trade at Detroit and
throughout Michigan was rapidly ending. The fur trade was inexorably
moving west, leaving the Great Lakes behind.
Detroit's continued economic health came to depend not on the
fur trade but on settlers seeking farms. The territorial government in
Detroit did much to clear the way for settlers. They negotiated a series
of Indian treaties that "extinguished" Indian claim to the land and
transferred title to the United States. They also undertook a systematic
survey of the land so that settler land purchases could be clearly and
unambiguously registered. This preliminary work took many years, but
during the 1820s the southern counties were surveyed and made ready for
It took a long time to survey the land, but this was of
minimal concern because for several years after the close of the War of
1812 few settlers ventured into Michigan. For many years those who made
the journey west clung to the Ohio River, making their homes in what
would become the states of Ohio and Indiana. Reaching Detroit by water
was considered a difficult task. Lake Erie was commonly considered more
dangerous than the Atlantic Ocean, and there were no regularly scheduled
ships to carry settlers westward. Reaching Detroit by land was even
more difficult. Although a military road had been constructed between
Toledo and Detroit during the War of 1812, it quickly fell into
disrepair. Even at its best, the road passed through considerable swamps
in northwestern Ohio and was often impassible during rainy periods.
Given that there was plenty of good land available in Ohio, Indiana, and
Illinois, there was little incentive for a westward bound settler to
make the journey to Michigan. With no real demand for land, it was not
until 1818 that the United States government even offered land for sale
Eventually settlers did come to Michigan in significant
numbers. In part they came because transportation to Michigan improved.
Steamboats first appeared on Lake Erie in 1818. These ships made
regularly scheduled trips from Buffalo to Detroit, something that
sailing vessels driven by the wind had never been able to achieve. The
steamships alone might not have made a tremendous difference in the
number of settlers coming to Michigan, but they worked hand in glove
with one of the early nineteenth century's miracles of transportation:
the Erie Canal. Completed in 1825 by the state of New York, the canal
linked the Hudson River to Lake Erie and the port towns of the Great
Lakes. The canal, along with Great Lakes steamers, offered an
inexpensive water route by which to move settlers and their possessions
westward and the fruits of their labor eastward to market.
Land transportation to and within Michigan also improved. By
1819 the military had restored the road between Detroit and Toledo,
although wagons still often found it slow going or simply impassible.
Congress, however, twice appropriated funds to upgrade the road. By
1827, although still a tough haul, the road became consistently usable
for freight. As Detroit was connected by a military road to the south,
other military roads were built that pushed westward from Detroit. In
1825 Congress voted to construct a road between Detroit and Chicago.
Although actual construction was painfully slow, by 1835 two
stagecoaches a week traveled between the cities. In 1829 the territorial
government agreed to pay for a second westward road, branching off from
the military road to Chicago near what is today Ypsilanti and
proceeding to St. Joseph. By 1834 this project was completed.
These two roads proved to be gateways through which settlers
who traveled west by water to Detroit could then continue their journey
to new farms in southern Michigan. Equally important, the period of the
late 1820s and early 1830s proved to be a period of easy credit.
Suddenly it was not only relatively easy to migrate to Michigan but also
relatively easy to finance the trip and the establishment of a new
homestead. The combination proved irresistible. People streamed to
Michigan. Some stayed in Detroit and many more purchased supplies for
their new homesteads there. Detroit once again became an important
supply center, although for the first time it was outfitting settlers
seeking new farms rather than warriors preparing for combat.
In the 1830s Michigan led the nation in land sales and
settlement. In 1836, twenty percent of all federal land sold in the
United States was located in Michigan, more by far than in any other
state or territory. The year 1836 might have marked the highwater mark
in immigrants passing through Detroit. Ninety steamships and a much
larger number of sailing vessels regularly called upon Detroit. Even in
January, three passenger ships a day, each carrying from two hundred to
three hundred passengers, were scheduled to dock at Detroit. Nine hotels
served these new arrivals. That summer, local sources estimated that a
settler's wagon left the city every five minutes. In 1836, about 200,000
people passed through Detroit on their way west.
Detroit prospered mightily from all this activity.
Immigrants to Michigan routinely sold all that they could "back east"
and traveled here by water with pockets full of money and a few precious
family items. When they reached the city, settlers purchased a wagon,
draft animals, and the supplies they would need to start a farm, and
then headed west. There was substantial money to be made supplying these
new settlers. As a result, although the Detroit area did not possess
particularly good soil for farming, the city's population and economy
grew. In 1816, 850 souls lived in Detroit. By 1834, 4,968 residents were
counted and the census of 1840 would reveal 9,192 residents. This
tremendous increase in population was made possible by the city's
pivotal role in supplying settlers who flooded into the territory.
The rapid increase in population fundamentally changed the
city not only economically but socially as well. As late as 1816 Detroit
remained a French community with a layer of English-speaking leaders.
When the first American settlers arrived in 1805 they were not well
liked and dismissively referred to as"Bostonians" by both the French
inhabitants and the British traders. The "Bostonians," however, at first
slowly and then with increasing speed, came to dominate the city. At
the beginning of the War of 1812 about three hundred "Bostonians" had
settled in Detroit. Throughout the 1820s another hundred or so Americans
settled in Detroit each year. In the 1830s, approximately one thousand
Americans came to Detroit each year.
The Americans who came to Detroit were Yankee farmers,
arriving either directly from New England or by way of farms established
in western New York by New Englanders a generation earlier. These
Yankees radically reshaped French Detroit's society. The most obvious
example was in the community's religious structure. Saint Anne's
Catholic Church had been founded within days of Cadillac's arrival, and
for more than a century it was the community's only place of worship.
The British garrison, as well as the occasional American Protestant
missionary, had conducted a few Protestant services, but this had made
no lasting impact on the community.