The archaeological record tells us that human beings arrived in the Great Lakes region, from the west, almost 11,000 years ago. These early Native Americans were nomadic hunters and gatherers who pursued mastodons, woolly mammoths, and migratory game along the edges of the receding glaciers.
Michigan’s earliest residents were largely affiliated with the Algonquin nation, a people who had been driven by the Iroquois from Canada’s Georgian Bay. Down through the centuries, this migratory population came to organize themselves into three major tribal cultures – the Ottawa, Chippewa, and Potowatomi, forming a loose confederation known as the Three Fires. A fourth group of people, calling themselves the Wendats (Wyandots), settled in southeastern Michigan. Both the Wendats and the Potowatomi established permanent and semi-permanent villages along the Huron River. They were culturally highly developed, with intricate social systems and complex religious beliefs. They engaged in varying degrees of agricultural practice and/or permanent settlement, pursued cooperative barter and trade, and struggled competitively for life-supporting resources.
Europeans began to arrive in Michigan at the beginning of the 17th century. First to come were the French explorers, who were followed by fur trappers and traders, and later by Jesuit missionaries. It was the explorer Robert Cavelier Sieur de LaSalle and his party who “discovered” the Huron River in 1680 while traveling overland from Lake Michigan. They paddled south from Portage Lake to the area near modern-day Belleville. Resuming their land route, they encountered the established Native American settlements near the river’s mouth. The French named the people who lived there the Hurons (from the French word hure referring to rough hair and inferring uncivilized characteristics), and named the river the Riviere Aux Hurons, or River of the Hurons.
The 18th century was marked by unrelenting European and colonial American settlement as homesteaders made the long journey across Ohio to Michigan’s fertile southern plains. The settlers who found their way to the Huron River Valley discovered the same environmental attributes that had attracted their Native American predecessors – clear water for drinking, flowing water for transportation, fertile soils, productive forests, abundant wildlife, and edible flora.
In 1805, after the successful American Revolution and the winning of independence from British rule, Michigan became part of the Northwest Territory. The Erie Canal was completed in 1825, connecting Michigan to New York State via Lake Erie. This opened the way for an even larger wave of American settlers. By 1830, Michigan’s non-native population had tripled and in 1837 Michigan gained statehood. As a result of dislocation, relocation, epidemic disease, and western migration, Michigan’s indigenous native communities dwindled and all but disappeared by the end of the 19th century.
During the 1800s, settlements in the Huron River Watershed were populated almost entirely by farmers. Agricultural production was largely self-sufficient and every town and village had access to a mill powered by the river or one of its tributaries. Life in the watershed has always been enriched by the extraordinary cultural diversity that traces its origins to the early settlement of homesteaders and missionaries from northern and western Europe, from Canada, and later from southern and eastern Europe.
In southeastern Michigan, industrial development followed closely on the heels of the early settlers, beginning with lumber and mining and expanding quickly into shipping and transportation. In 1855 the Soo Locks at Sault Ste. Marie lifted the first steamship from Lake Huron to Lake Superior, and in the late 1800s Ransom Olds and Frank Clark built the first gas-fired “horseless carriage.” By 1908 Henry Ford was producing America’s favorite automobile, the Model T.
The rise of the transportation industry in the 20th century transformed human history in southeastern Michigan and the Huron River Watershed. In the early 1900s, automobile factories dominated the industrial scene, especially in and around Detroit. World Wars I and II added to product demand with the need for tanks, trucks, and airplanes. The industry’s wartime employment attracted thousands of workers – both white and African American – from the nation’s southland. For at least 50 years, southeastern Michigan rode the crest of an unprecedented economic prosperity promoted primarily by the automobile industry.
At the same time, the benefits of industrial growth have been costly. Area residents have paid a severe price in urban blight, racial strife, high unemployment (a byproduct of foreign competition, industry restructuring, and a depressed economy), and environmental degradation.
Negative consequences notwithstanding, economic prosperity remains embedded in the history of the Huron River Watershed. Cities and towns have flourished, as have the arts, theater, music, and higher education. The citizens enjoy an abundance of parks and natural preserves, and outstanding recreational and leisure opportunities, including some of the nation’s finest fishing and canoeing. Individuals, communities and industries alike have supported, and continue to support, a tradition of cultural and environmental conservation and preservation.