On-line Book

Book Cover
Our Fourth Shore
Great Lakes Shoreline






The Lakes and Their Areas

A Region for Recreation

Sands and Scenery

The Land and Its Life

Discovery and Development


Great Lakes Shoreline Recreation Area Survey
NPS Arrowhead logo

Fort Mackinac
The history and romance of bygone days are exemplified by Fort Mackinac.

Discovery and Development

The history of the Great Lakes is a truly amazing epic. Preceding the coming of the Europeans, the great mid-continent wilderness was the forest home of the Indians. Into the heart of this unknown region came the French explorers, the fur traders and the missionaries. Control of the region passed from the French to the British during the French and Indian War. After the Revolution, the region was divided between the United States and Canada. Though contested during the War of 1812, the boundary was unaltered and so remains to this day.

Following the turbulent early days of the creation of our country, the era of national expansion began. The natural resources of the region and the cheap, water transportation brought waves of diverse European nationalities to settle along the lakeshores. Towns were born, roads were built, forests were logged, ore was mined and industry was initiated, all in swift succession. The Great Lakes country prospered and finally emerged as one of America's foremost economic regions.

Perpetuation and interpretation of the tangible evidence of these events provides an important farm of recreation — a means by which we can appreciate the struggles, the hardships and the accomplishments of our pioneer ancestors. Today, those people who fashioned the history of the Great Lakes are gone, but they have left marks by which their efforts can be traced: the ruins of a fort, a deserted iron-smelting town, or the printed word tying the past to the present.

Within this short article it is impossible to provide a definitive history of the Great Lakes. Instead, it is the function here to outline significant historical events and to relate them, wherever possible, to sites with recreation potential. In most cases, public interest has already resulted in establishment of commemorative units to perpetuate these events. Nonetheless, some historic features on the Great Lakes have not received public recognition.

The Indians

The Indians played a conspicuous role in American history. They taught the white settler how to live in the wilderness and fight in the forest; they supplied him with agricultural crops and showed him how to raise them. The Indians fought an irresistible tide of settlement and lost. In scattered reservations, the Indians still hold vestiges of their former hunting grounds, but more and more the Indian is turning to Western culture. In the Great Lakes area, the American Indian has already been largely assimilated into the mainstream of our contemporary life. However, adequate facilities already are in existence to keep alive the memory of their own way of life before Europeans came to the lakes.

The Indians' place in Great Lakes history is already recognized through exhibits at the authorized Grand Portage National Monument and Fort Mackinac. Other opportunities to perpetuate the Indians' culture exist through public protection of their unique cemeteries.


old map of Great Lakes
The discovery of all five lakes spanned an era of 64 years.

No specific site appears to be particularly apt to commemorate the diffuse drama of Great Lakes discovery and exploration, but the exploits of these hardy, dedicated men deserve mention. Discovery of the Northwest Passage, laying claim to new lands for France, fur trade with the Indians and their conversion to Christianity supplied the impetus for early exploration.

One day in July 1615, Samuel de Champlain — the Father of New France — emerged from the mouth of the French River and gazed over the waters of Georgian Bay. Thus, Lake Huron, the first of the Great Lakes to be discovered, was duly recorded by the white man. Later, during this same trip, he crossed Lake Ontario.

Probably Champlain was not the first white man to look upon the waters of the Great Lakes, but he was the first to record the fact. Father Le Caron, a missionary, was traveling ahead of him by a few days, and Etienne Brule, who had roamed the country since 1610, may have been the first to see all of the Great Lakes, except Michigan. However, neither recorded the events. Father Le Caron was more interested in saving souls, and Brule could neither read nor write.

Jean Nicolet's westward journey in 1634 is next on the chronological list of exploration. To him goes the honor of being the first white man to visit Lake Michigan, Green Bay and present day Wisconsin.

Curiously, Lake Erie, whose shores were bypassed because of the Iroquois threat, was the last of the Great Lakes to be seen and recorded by white men. In the summer of 1669, Louis Joliet left the Lake Superior region with a ransomed Iroquois prisoner. At the Indian's suggestion, they traveled the southern route across Lake Huron to the St. Clair River, through Lake St. Clair, down the Detroit River, and thence into Lake Erie. The final Great Lake was ready for exploration and exploitation.


The men of God, asking for nothing more than to save souls, were the last of the triumvirate that threw open the gates to the Great Lakes. These missionaries followed close upon the heels of the explorers and wood rangers, plunging deeper and deeper into the interior, prepared to build missions, conduct services, or care for the Indians. Their lives were filled with hardships, starvation, poverty, and even martyrdom. The list is too long to enumerate all, but each missionary played his role, great or small, in the discovery, exploration and settlement of the Great Lakes.

The Wars

The control of the lower Great Lakes was an important factor in the broader struggle for imperial supremacy between England and France. Though the French scored early successes, their small numbers and limited resources finally told against them. Fort Frontenac fell with comparative ease in August of 1758. Fort Niagara fell in July of 1759. Two months later, Quebec passed to the British and New France was nearly dead. The coup de grace was delivered at Montreal a year later, thus ending the French and Indian War.

During the War of American Independence, no important battles occurred on the Lakes nor on their shores. The battle for the Lakes was fought in Paris in 1783 when the peace commissioners sat down to draw the boundary line between Canada and the United States. They agreed to the present border which splits four of the Great Lakes.

However, the Indian menace continued, boundary lines remained in dispute, British subjects were allowed to carry on the fur trade on American soil, and nothing was said about impressment of American seamen. These and other grievances were not resolved. Once more the two nations drifted into war.

Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial
Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial National Monument on South Bass Island in Lake Erie.

The Great Lakes were on the front line of the War of 1812. They were the key to the retention of the American Northwest. The Lakes in military operations were of prime importance, particularly in view of the undeveloped condition of land communications. Transportation of men and supplies was more rapid by water than by land. In short, control of the water routes was the decisive factor in the over-all military picture. For proof of this, it is only necessary to cite Perry's victory over the British fleet on Lake Erie as one of the important engagements of the war. This decisive victory gained control of Lake Erie and cleared the way for an American invasion of Canada and subsequent victories.

Physical evidence still remains of this military era. Forts Oswego, Niagara, Wayne, Mackinac and Wilkens have been restored and protected. Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial commemorates our Canadian treaty. The decaying ruins of Fort Collyer at Drummond Island, Michigan, however, have no public protection and offer an opportunity for restoration and further interpretation of Great Lakes history.


After the termination of the War of 1812, westward migration took a tremendous upsurge. A fort building program was launched to protect the settler from the Indians until such time as the Indians were brought under American control. Economic distress, prior to and during the war, was followed by a post war depression in the East that provided additional impetus to drive the people westward.

Later, the Industrial Revolution, and the unsettled conditions in general, turned thousands of New Englanders westward. Michigan felt the impact first as ships carrying settlers put into the harbor at Detroit. Roads were constructed and soon it was possible to travel to Chicago over the Chicago-Detroit Road. From Chicago, people moved north into Wisconsin and Minnesota.

As the Great Lakes were the highways for people so also were they the highways of commerce. The bulky freight of the region was well suited to water transportation. With the completion in 1855 of the canals and locks at Sault Ste. Marie — now the world's busiest — Lake Superior was linked to Lake Huron to provide an uninterrupted seaway from the western end of Lake Superior to Chicago and Buffalo. This, with the railroads, was one more highway linking East and West in the crucial period before the Civil War, and proved a tremendous aid to the North during that conflict. The war and reconstruction provided an impetus for further economic development of the Great Lakes region.

The copper country of Lake Superior was known to Champlain, but it was over 200 years before it was utilized for industrial purposes. In the 1840's and 1850's the copper lodes were being tapped and mining reached its peak during the third quarter of the nineteenth century. But it was iron ore and not copper that converted Lake Superior into a region of major mineral importance.

The discovery of iron ore in the 1840's witnessed a rush to the ore fields of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Railroads were built to haul the ore from the mines to the lakes. Docks were constructed, and larger and larger vessels were built to carry their bulky cargoes of ore to the furnaces of Ohio and Pennsylvania. There the ores from the Lake Superior iron deposits were wedded to the coal of the Appalachian Highlands to produce steel.

The birth and growth of wooden cities on the shores of the Lakes and on the paths of westward migration called for unprecedented exploitation of the forests. The lumbering industry eventually declined with the reduction of its supply. However, through timely conservation measures and sustained-yield forestry programs, lumbering continues today but on a much smaller, though consistent, scale than during its heyday in the late nineteenth century.

Fishing on the Great Lakes goes back to the era of the Indian and his dependence on lake fish for much of his food supply. Following the Indian came the explorer, trapper, trader and soldier, and each in turn used fish for part of his diet. The fish were plentiful, and commercial fishing was begun in time to help feed the thousands of immigrants who settled the West. Fishing became a big business, but with the advent of the lamprey, the fish supply, particularly of lake trout, has dwindled on the upper lakes.

The shores of the Great Lakes are dotted with cities, large and small, turning out a variety of manufactured goods. Perhaps the best known of all is the automobile. The supremacy of Michigan in this field is explained by its nearness to raw materials, previous experience in making carts and wagons, the use of its numerous small shops to make machine parts, previous experimentation with marine engines, and, finally, the spirit of the businessman. The Midwest is looking forward to even greater production and commerce with the completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway, linking the port cities of the Lakes with foreign markets by a direct all-water route.

Much of this commercial and industrial development has been so current, so dynamic that we have tended to lose sight of the earlier history of the Lakes. The romance of Great Lakes shipping and the role of the Coast Guard in manning the lonely lights on island, reef and point are rich in historical associations. A surplus lighthouse, located on a busy shipping lane, could be turned into a memorial to the men who man the ships and the lights. It would tell the story of the growth of Great Lakes shipping, its evolution, and its future. The restoration of the quaint, iron smelting village of Fayette could help us appreciate the native ingenuity of early industrial undertakings. The story of the lumbering era that once made the Great Lakes the greatest lumber producing area on earth is waiting to be told. Suitable settings for such stories exist; they merely await an interpreter.

Fayette, Michigan — a nostalgic reminder of an era past.

Next >>>

top of page Top

Last Modified: Mon, Dec 22 2003 10:00:00 pm PDT

National Park Service's ParkNet Home