The United States is a young country, for sure. And, not becoming a state until 1837, Michigan is even younger than the original 13. Despite its relatively junior age as a political entity, the region boasts thousands of years of human history. The archaeological record tells us about Michigan’s first inhabitants and gives us insight into their lives and culture. Some cities, like Detroit, have documents going back for centuries providing historians with rich evidence to tell its story.
Detroit has been a happening place for hundreds of years. In 1701, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac established a settlement there. He, his French soldiers, and Algonquins built Fort Pontchartrain, which was meant to protect the area’s fur trade. In a few years, more French settlers populated Detroit and many Native Americans (Huron, Miami, Ottawa, and Chippewa) lived in villages surrounding the town. By the end of the 18th century, the Detroit stockade included a wharf, fort, citadel, 100 houses, shops, taverns, and a church. According to the Detroit Historical Society, in 1796 “about 500 people live within the stockade, and another 2100 live on nearby farms. Two-thirds of Detroiters are French. Dutch, Germans and enslaved African Americans also live in Detroit.” (Citation link)
With its prominence on the Detroit River, the city was an important port and also the center of the Great Lakes fur trade. During the War of 1812, Detroit and its surrounding region were important military sites. After its incorporation in 1815, the city quickly grew…serving for a period as Michigan’s capital. With its close proximity to an international border (making it a lively place during Prohibition), Detroit was an important stop on the Underground Railroad as slaves made their way to freedom in Canada (in marked distinction from early Detroit, Michigan took an anti-slavery stance in 1807).
Shipping became Detroit’s biggest industry by the mid-1800s, but the city really came alive during the Industrial Revolution. As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, Detroit became a leading metropolis thanks in large part to the automobile industry, which also gave the city one of its nicknames—Motor City. Plentiful jobs drew people in droves to the area. The city became a melting pot. Today, that diverse population represents cultures from around the globe all with a unique food heritage…which makes for a tasty trip.
Detroit is enjoying a renaissance. There are plenty of things to do and places to see while there, but if you have limited time, here are five things to do in Detroit that are well worth the time!
- Take in the artistic treasures at the Detroit Institute of Arts. One of America’s finest art museums can be found on Woodward Avenue. Housed in a Beaux-Arts style white marble building, the collection within is even more spectacular than its fabulous exterior. With a massive arched façade and a copy of Rodin’s The Thinker out front, the main entrance reminds visitors that the DIA is an important cultural institution. Visitors can tour the world through exploring 100 galleries covering 658,000 square feet. You will find artifacts from France, England, Egypt, Iran, and China. The Detroit Institute of Arts houses more than 60,000 works that portray human achievement from ancient times (25,000 BCE) to the present.
- Visit the elegant Edsel and Eleanor Ford House. The son of automobile magnate Henry Ford, Edsel, and his wife Eleanor built a gorgeous mansion on the shores of Grosse Pointe Shores. Although not even a century old (construction began in 1926), Ford House has an Old World feel. The Fords literally brought the old world over to the new by transporting architectural elements and entire walls, windows, ceilings, doors, and fireplaces from European estates. Great patrons of the art, their passion is evident in every square inch of the 60-room house. Although many of their original pieces of art now are on display at the DIA, replicas were commissioned for the house so it didn’t lose its feel. Wander along and, for a moment, experience the riches that the automobile industry brought to the area.
- Feast—literally and figuratively—on the goods at the Detroit Eastern Market. Over 225 vendors voyage to Detroit’s Eastern Market on Saturday, as farmers have for 125 years. On Sundays from June to September, a street market highlights the arts. Local artists, chefs, jewelers, and musicians enrich the community with their talents. Like many good markets, the Eastern Market has continued the heritage of being a community gathering place. Serving as Detroit’s living room, locals can visit with one another, learn from artisans practicing their craft, borrow a book from the bookmobile, listen to music, admire art, or share a bite to eat at one of the surrounding restaurants.
- Stroll around Belle Isle and see the nation’s oldest aquarium and continuously-run conservatory. Historic Belle Isle is a 982-acre island park in the Detroit River. When standing on one side of the island, you can see the Detroit skyline while on the other is that of Windsor, Canada. It became an American territory by the Treaty of Paris (1783) marking the end of the American Revolution. In the treaty, it was decided that the Detroit channel would mark the boundary between the U.S. and Canada. Belle Isle boasts many great attractions, including a beach, places to fish, athletic fields, a giant slide, a golf center, nature trails, a yacht club, a marble lighthouse, an aquarium, a nature center, the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, and the James Scott Memorial Fountain.
- Follow my Roaming Historian Walking Tour of downtown Detroit. My journey will take you past important monuments, markets, statues, and buildings. You will get a real feel for how Detroit would have looked in its heyday while enjoying its current culture. From seeing stops on the Underground Railroad to taking in architecture from the 1920s, my expedition presents a vast array of Detroit history. https://roaminghistorian.com/2017/11/26/walking-tour-of-detroit/
Although not on this list, a trip to Detroit would definitely be enhanced by a visit to the house where Motown got started. The Detroit Public Library is also a fascinating place to see with its picturesque murals and stately reading room. Artisans have crafted pottery at the Pewabic Pottery Company for over a hundred years and you can see their wares—and purchase them—in their historic building. Detroit is a thriving cultural city with a storied past that deserves a visit. And, as you can see, there are many fun things to do in the Motor City, so I recommend taking a trip to the “D” soon.
Detroit Renaissance: https://roaminghistorian.com/2015/11/15/things-to-do-in-detroit/
Detroit’s Eastern Market: https://roaminghistorian.com/2017/01/22/detroits-eastern-market/
Edsel and Eleanor Ford House: https://roaminghistorian.com/2016/03/13/ford-house/
Detroit Institute of Arts: https://roaminghistorian.com/2019/03/17/things-to-do-in-detroit-detroit-institute-of-arts/
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