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Postwar Growth

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 finally ended.

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 sale.

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 in Michigan.

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.