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Almost 400 Years Of Detroit History

Aug 29, 2007
For hundreds of years, what is now the Detroit area was so important to commerce between Native American tribes that only traders were allowed into the territory.

As a city, Detroit wouldn't begin to shape into its current form until roughly four centuries ago. In the 1600's, France began establishing forts at strategic locations in North America, in order to try to keep the British from moving west out of New England and to establish a monopoly on trade. Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac felt that the area that had become known as le detroit, or the straits, was an obvious location for a major post. The river was narrow enough that a cannon could be fired from one side to the other, but substantial enough to provide a defense. The surrounding Great Lakes and waterways meant easy travel from most major points. The court in France agreed, and Cadillac was allowed to establish a settlement at the Detroit River in 1701.

Fort Ponchartrain, built by Cadillac, was probably not the first settlement in the area, although there is little known about any previous inhabitants. Some early explorers reported evidence of Jesuits and coureurs de bois, or fur trappers, in the area; others reported evidence of Native American settlements. Previous to that, a people known as the Mound Builders lived in the area.

That's when French explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac landed on the banks of the Detroit River and established a fort in 1701. Nine years later he was removed from his post as outpost commander due to "ill conduct", or the excessive lining of his own pockets.

Change would remain a constant throughout Detroit's first century. In 1760, French rule gave way to British. And in 1796 the United States took over Detroit as a result of Jay's Treaty.

Detroit was incorporated as a city in 1815 and spent the decades leading up to the Civil War as the final U.S. stop on the Underground Railroad. The area also was earning a reputation for, among other things, the manufacturing of cigars and kitchen ranges.

So how did Detroit become the Motor City instead of the stove-making capital of the world?

It's due in large part to the influence an entrepreneurial farmer's son, Henry Ford. In 1896, Ford built his first car in Detroit - not quite the earth-shattering event since the automobile had already been around for a few years. It was the method of building cars that he would later devise - the moving assembly line - that put the world on wheels and Detroit on the industrial map.

During the early part of the 20th century, dozens of companies emerged in the Detroit area committed to finding success in the new industry. During World War II, the factories they built to produce cars were put to use churning out weapons for the Allied Powers. The production edge they provided helped to win the war.

Ironically, it was a former autoworker that led the way for Detroit's other famous 20th century contribution - Motown. Founded by Berry Gordy Jr. with just an $800 family loan, the upstart record company introduced the world to Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokie Robinson, Michael Jackson, the Temptations, Diana Ross and others - all of whom either grew up or gained their first fame in Detroit.

In the last half of the 20th Century the city has had its ups and downs, including the 1967 riots and the downturn of auto industry fortunes. At the start of the 21st century, metro Detroit is starting to reap the rewards of decades of work put into revitalization.
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