Paleo-Indian people inhabited areas near Detroit as early as 11,000 years ago including the culture referred to as the Mound-builders. In the 17th century, the region was inhabited by Huron, Odawa, Potawatomi and Iroquois peoples.
The first Europeans did not penetrate into the region and reach the straits of Detroit until French missionaries and traders worked their way around the League of the Iroquois, with whom they were at war, and other Iroquoian tribes in the 1630s. The north side of Lake Erie was held by the Huron and Neutral peoples until the 1650s, when the Iroquois pushed both and the Erie people away from the lake and its beaver-rich feeder streams in the Beaver Wars of 1649–1655. By the 1670s, the war-weakened Iroquois laid claim to as far south as the Ohio River valley in northern Kentucky as hunting grounds, and had absorbed many other Iroquoian peoples after defeating them in war. For the next hundred years, virtually no British, colonist, or French action was contemplated without consultation with, or consideration of the Iroquois' likely response. When the French and Indian War evicted the Kingdom of France from Canada, it removed one barrier to British colonists migrating west.
British negotiations with the Iroquois would both prove critical and lead to a Crown policy limiting the west of the Alleghenies settlements below the Great Lakes, which gave many American would-be migrants a casus belli for supporting the American Revolution. The 1778 raids and resultant 1779 decisive Sullivan Expedition reopened the Ohio Country to westward emigration, which began almost immediately, and by 1800 white settlers were pouring westwards.
Ste. Anne de Détroit
, founded in 1701 by French colonists, is the second-oldest continuously operating Catholic
parish in the United States; the present church was completed in 1887
The city was named by French colonists, referring to the Detroit River (French: le détroit du lac Érié, meaning the strait of Lake Erie), linking Lake Huron and Lake Erie; in the historical context, the strait included the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River.
On July 24, 1701, the French explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, along with more than a hundred other settlers began constructing a small fort on the north bank of the Detroit River. Cadillac would later name the settlement Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit, after Louis Phélypeaux, comte de Pontchartrain, Minister of Marine under Louis XIV. France offered free land to colonists to attract families to Detroit; when it reached a total population of 800 in 1765, it was the largest European settlement between Montreal and New Orleans, both also French settlements. By 1773, the population of Detroit was 1,400. By 1778, its population was up to 2,144 and it was the third-largest city in the Province of Quebec.
The region's economy was based on the lucrative fur trade, in which numerous Native American people had important roles. The flag of Detroit reflects its French colonial heritage. Descendants of the earliest French and French-Canadian settlers formed a cohesive community, who gradually were replaced as the dominant population after more Anglo-American settlers came to the area in the early 19th century. Living along the shores of Lakes St. Clair, and south to Monroe and downriver suburbs, the French Canadians of Detroit, also known as Muskrat French, remain a subculture in the region today.
During the French and Indian War (1754–63), the North American front of the Seven Years' War between Britain and France, British troops gained control of the settlement in 1760, shortening its name to Detroit. Several Native American tribes launched Pontiac's Rebellion (1763), and conducted a siege of Fort Detroit, but failed to capture it. In defeat, France ceded its territory in North America east of the Mississippi to Britain following the war.
Following the American Revolutionary War and United States independence, Britain ceded Detroit along with other territory in the area under the Jay Treaty (1796), which established the northern border with Canada. In 1805, fire destroyed most of the Detroit settlement, which consisted mostly of wooden buildings. One stone fort, a river warehouse, and brick chimneys of former wooden homes were the sole structures to survive. Of the 600 Detroiters who populated the area, none died in the fire.
From 1805 to 1847, Detroit was the capital of Michigan (first the territory, then the state). Detroit surrendered without a fight to British troops during the War of 1812 in the Siege of Detroit. The Battle of Frenchtown (January 18–23, 1813) was part of a United States effort to retake the city, and American troops suffered their highest fatalities of any battle in the war. This battle is commemorated at River Raisin National Battlefield Park south of Detroit in Monroe County. Detroit was finally recaptured by the United States later that year.
It was incorporated as a city in 1815. As the city expanded, a geometric street plan developed by Augustus B. Woodward was followed, featuring grand boulevards as in Paris.
Prior to the American Civil War, the city's access to the Canada–US border made it a key stop for refugee slaves gaining freedom in the North along the Underground Railroad. Many went across the Detroit River to Canada to escape pursuit by slave catchers. There were estimated to be 20,000 to 30,000 African-American refugees who settled in Canada. George DeBaptiste was considered to be the "president" of the Detroit Underground Railroad, William Lambert the "vice president" or "secretary" and Laura Haviland the "superintendent".
Numerous men from Detroit volunteered to fight for the Union during the American Civil War, including the 24th Michigan Infantry Regiment (part of the legendary Iron Brigade), which fought with distinction and suffered 82% casualties at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. When the First Volunteer Infantry Regiment arrived to fortify Washington, D.C., President Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying "Thank God for Michigan!" George Armstrong Custer led the Michigan Brigade during the Civil War and called them the "Wolverines".
During the late 19th century, several Gilded Age mansions reflecting the wealth of industry and shipping magnates were built east and west of the current downtown, along the major avenues of the Woodward plan. Most notable among them was the David Whitney House located at 4421 Woodward Avenue, which became a prime location for mansions. During this period some referred to Detroit as the Paris of the West for its architecture, grand avenues in the Paris style, and for Washington Boulevard, recently electrified by Thomas Edison. The city had grown steadily from the 1830s with the rise of shipping, shipbuilding, and manufacturing industries. Strategically located along the Great Lakes waterway, Detroit emerged as a major port and transportation hub.
In 1896, a thriving carriage trade prompted Henry Ford to build his first automobile in a rented workshop on Mack Avenue. During this growth period, Detroit expanded its borders by annexing all or part of several surrounding villages and townships.
In 1903, Henry Ford founded the Ford Motor Company. Ford's manufacturing—and those of automotive pioneers William C. Durant, the Dodge Brothers, Packard, and Walter Chrysler—established Detroit's status in the early 20th century as the world's automotive capital. The growth of the auto industry was reflected by changes in businesses throughout the Midwest and nation, with the development of garages to service vehicles and gas stations, as well as factories for parts and tires.
Cadillac Square and county building in Detroit, Michigan
With the rapid growth of industrial workers in the auto factories, labor unions such as the American Federation of Labor and the United Auto Workers fought to organize workers to gain them better working conditions and wages. They initiated strikes and other tactics in support of improvements such as the 8-hour day/40-hour work week, increased wages, greater benefits and improved working conditions. The labor activism during those years increased influence of union leaders in the city such as Jimmy Hoffa of the Teamsters and Walter Reuther of the Autoworkers.
The city became the 4th-largest in the nation in 1920, after only New York City, Chicago and Philadelphia, with the influence of the booming auto industry.
The prohibition of alcohol from 1920 to 1933 resulted in the Detroit River becoming a major conduit for smuggling of illegal Canadian spirits.
Detroit, like many places in the United States, developed racial conflict and discrimination in the 20th century following rapid demographic changes as hundreds of thousands of new workers were attracted to the industrial city; in a short period it became the 4th-largest city in the nation. The Great Migration brought rural blacks from the South; they were outnumbered by southern whites who also migrated to the city. Immigration brought southern and eastern Europeans of Catholic and Jewish faith; these new groups competed with native-born whites for jobs and housing in the booming city. Detroit was one of the major Midwest cities that was a site for the dramatic urban revival of the Ku Klux Klan beginning in 1915. "By the 1920s the city had become a stronghold of the KKK," whose members opposed Catholic and Jewish immigrants, as well as black Americans. The Black Legion, a secret vigilante group, was active in the Detroit area in the 1930s, when one-third of its estimated 20,000 to 30,000 members in Michigan were based in the city. It was defeated after numerous prosecutions following the kidnapping and murder in 1936 of Charles Poole, a Catholic Works Progress Administration organizer. A total of 49 men of the Black Legion were convicted of numerous crimes, with many sentenced to life in prison for murder.
Looking south down Woodward Avenue
, with the Detroit skyline in the distance, July 1942
In the 1940s the world's "first urban depressed freeway" ever built, the Davison, was constructed in Detroit. During World War II, the government encouraged retooling of the American automobile industry in support of the Allied powers, leading to Detroit's key role in the American Arsenal of Democracy.
Jobs expanded so rapidly that 400,000 people were attracted to the city from 1941 to 1943, including 50,000 blacks in the second wave of the Great Migration, and 350,000 whites, many of them from the South. Some European immigrants and their descendants feared black competition for jobs and housing. The federal government prohibited discrimination in defense work but when in June 1943, Packard promoted three blacks to work next to whites on its assembly lines, 25,000 whites walked off the job. The Detroit race riot of 1943 took place three weeks after the Packard plant protest. Over the course of three days, 34 people were killed, of whom 25 were African American. Approximately another 600 were injured, 75% of which were black people.
Industrial mergers in the 1950s, especially in the automobile sector, increased oligopoly in the American auto industry. Detroit manufacturers such as Packard and Hudson merged into other companies and eventually disappeared. At its peak population of 1,849,568, in the 1950 Census, the city was the 5th-largest in the United States, after New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.
In this postwar era, many African Americans from the South viewed the North as the pinnacle of freedom and opportunity distinct from the strict Jim Crow laws and racial discrimination policies in the South, inspiring the Great Migration. With this huge influx of individuals moving into the city, competition arose for employment, housing, and land. Racial discrimination took place in employment keeping the work force intentionally predominantly white. Unequal opportunities in employment created unequal housing opportunities for the majority of the black community. The surge in Detroit's black population with the Great Migration augmented the strain on housing scarcity. Black people were often turned away from bank loans to obtain housing and interest rates and rent were unfairly inflated to keep black people from moving into white neighborhoods. These racist policies were further reinforced with the concept of redlining which encouraged white people to further guard the racial divide that defined their neighborhoods. This marginalized the agency of black Detroiters—another important aspect in the history of postwar Detroit.
As in other major American cities in the postwar era, construction of an extensive highway and freeway system around Detroit and pent-up demand for new housing stimulated suburbanization; highways made commuting by car easier. However, this construction had negative implications for the residents involved. Many of these highways intentionally tore through black neighborhoods (mostly low income or blighted neighborhoods) displacing these individuals without considering the repercussions that this would bring to them. In 1956, Detroit's last heavily used electric streetcar line along the length of Woodward Avenue was removed and replaced with gas-powered buses. It was the last line of what had once been a 534-mile network of electric streetcars. In 1941 at peak times, a streetcar ran on Woodward Avenue every 60 seconds.
All of these changes in the area's transportation system favored low-density, auto-oriented development rather than high-density urban development, and industry also moved to the suburbs. The metro Detroit area developed as one of the most sprawling job markets in the United States by the 21st century, and combined with poor public transport, resulted in many jobs beyond the reach of urban low-income workers.
In 1950, the city held about one-third of the state's population, anchored by its industries and workers. Over the next sixty years, the city's population declined to less than 10 percent of the state's population. During the same time period, the sprawling Detroit metropolitan area, which surrounds and includes the city, grew to contain more than half of Michigan's population. The shift of population and jobs eroded Detroit's tax base.
In June 1963, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a major speech in Detroit that foreshadowed his "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington, D.C., two months later. While the civil rights movement gained significant federal civil rights laws in 1964 and 1965, longstanding inequities resulted in confrontations between the police and inner city black youth wanting change. Longstanding tensions in Detroit culminated in the Twelfth Street riot in July 1967. Governor George W. Romney ordered the Michigan National Guard into Detroit, and President Johnson sent in U.S. Army troops. The result was 43 dead, 467 injured, over 7,200 arrests, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed, mostly in black residential and business areas. Thousands of small businesses closed permanently or relocated to safer neighborhoods. The affected district lay in ruins for decades. It was the most costly riot in the United States.
On August 18, 1970, the NAACP filed suit against Michigan state officials, including Governor William Milliken, charging de facto public school segregation. The NAACP argued that although schools were not legally segregated, the city of Detroit and its surrounding counties had enacted policies to maintain racial segregation in public schools. The NAACP also suggested a direct relationship between unfair housing practices and educational segregation, which followed segregated neighborhoods. The District Court held all levels of government accountable for the segregation in its ruling. The Sixth Circuit Court affirmed some of the decision, holding that it was the state's responsibility to integrate across the segregated metropolitan area. The U.S. Supreme Court took up the case February 27, 1974. The subsequent Milliken v. Bradley decision had nationwide influence. In a narrow decision, the Supreme Court found that schools were a subject of local control and that suburbs could not be forced to solve problems in the city's school district.
"Milliken was perhaps the greatest missed opportunity of that period," said Myron Orfield, professor of law at the University of Minnesota. "Had that gone the other way, it would have opened the door to fixing nearly all of Detroit's current problems." John Mogk, a professor of law and an expert in urban planning at Wayne State University in Detroit, says, "Everybody thinks that it was the riots [in 1967] that caused the white families to leave. Some people were leaving at that time but, really, it was after Milliken that you saw mass flight to the suburbs. If the case had gone the other way, it is likely that Detroit would not have experienced the steep decline in its tax base that has occurred since then."
1970s and decline
New cars built in Detroit loaded for rail transport, 1973
In November 1973, the city elected Coleman Young as its first black mayor. After taking office, Young emphasized increasing racial diversity in the police department. Young also worked to improve Detroit's transportation system, but tension between Young and his suburban counterparts over regional matters was problematic throughout his mayoral term. In 1976, the federal government offered $600 million for building a regional rapid transit system, under a single regional authority. But the inability of Detroit and its suburban neighbors to solve conflicts over transit planning resulted in the region losing the majority of funding for rapid transit. Following the failure to reach an agreement over the larger system, the city moved forward with construction of the elevated downtown circulator portion of the system, which became known as the Detroit People Mover.
The gasoline crises of 1973 and 1979 also affected Detroit and the U.S. auto industry. Buyers chose smaller, more fuel-efficient cars made by foreign makers as the price of gas rose. Efforts to revive the city were stymied by the struggles of the auto industry, as their sales and market share declined. Automakers laid off thousands of employees and closed plants in the city, further eroding the tax base. To counteract this, the city used eminent domain to build two large new auto assembly plants in the city.
As mayor, Young sought to revive the city by seeking to increase investment in the city's declining downtown. The Renaissance Center, a mixed-use office and retail complex, opened in 1977. This group of skyscrapers was an attempt to keep businesses in downtown. Young also gave city support to other large developments to attract middle and upper-class residents back to the city. Despite the Renaissance Center and other projects, the downtown area continued to lose businesses to the automobile dependent suburbs. Major stores and hotels closed and many large office buildings went vacant. Young was criticized for being too focused on downtown development and not doing enough to lower the city's high crime rate and improve city services.
Long a major population center and site of worldwide automobile manufacturing, Detroit has suffered a long economic decline produced by numerous factors. Like many industrial American cities, Detroit reached its population peak in the 1950 census. The peak population was 1.8 million people. Following suburbanization, industrial restructuring, and loss of jobs (as described above), by the 2010 census, the city had less than 40 percent of that number, with just over 700,000 residents. The city has declined in population in each census since 1950.
High unemployment was compounded by middle-class flight to the suburbs, and some residents leaving the state to find work. The city was left with a higher proportion of poor in its population, reduced tax base, depressed property values, abandoned buildings, abandoned neighborhoods, high crime rates and a pronounced demographic imbalance.
On August 16, 1987, Northwest Airlines Flight 255 crashed near Detroit, killing all but one of the 155 people on board, as well as two people on the ground.
In 1993 Young retired as Detroit's longest-serving mayor, deciding not to seek a sixth term. That year the city elected Dennis Archer, a former Michigan Supreme Court justice. Archer prioritized downtown development and easing tensions with Detroit's suburban neighbors. A referendum to allow casino gambling in the city passed in 1996; several temporary casino facilities opened in 1999, and permanent downtown casinos with hotels opened in 2007–08.
Campus Martius, a reconfiguration of downtown's main intersection as a new park was opened in 2004. The park has been cited as one of the best public spaces in the United States. The city's riverfront has been the focus of redevelopment, following successful examples of other older industrial cities. In 2001, the first portion of the International Riverfront was completed as a part of the city's 300th anniversary celebration, with miles of parks and associated landscaping completed in succeeding years. In 2011, the Port Authority Passenger Terminal opened with the riverwalk connecting Hart Plaza to the Renaissance Center.
Since 2006, $9 billion has been invested in downtown and surrounding neighborhoods; $5.2 billion of that has come in 2013 and 2014. Construction activity, particularly rehabilitation of historic downtown buildings, has increased markedly. The number of vacant downtown buildings has dropped from nearly 50 to around 13. Among the most notable redevelopment projects are the Book Cadillac Hotel and the Fort Shelby Hotel; the David Broderick Tower; and the David Whitney Building.
Little Caesars Arena, a new home for the Detroit Red Wings and the Detroit Pistons with attached residential, hotel, and retail use opened on September 5, 2017. The plans for the project call for mixed-use residential on the blocks surrounding the arena and the renovation of the vacant 14-story Eddystone Hotel. It will be a part of The District in Detroit, a group of places owned by Olympia Entertainment Inc., including Comerica Park and the Detroit Opera House, among others.
Detroit's protracted decline has resulted in severe urban decay with thousands of empty buildings around the city referred to as greyfield. Some parts of Detroit are so sparsely populated that the city has difficulty providing municipal services. The city has considered various solutions, such as demolishing abandoned homes and buildings; removing street lighting from large portions of the city; and encouraging the small population in certain areas to move to more populated locations. Roughly half of the owners of Detroit's 305,000 properties failed to pay their 2011 tax bills, resulting in about $246 million in taxes and fees going uncollected, nearly half of which was due to Detroit; the rest of the money would have been earmarked for Wayne County, Detroit Public Schools, and the library system.
In September 2008, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (who had served for six years) resigned following felony convictions. In 2013, Kilpatrick was convicted on 24 federal felony counts, including mail fraud, wire fraud, and racketeering, and was sentenced to 28 years in federal prison. The former mayor's activities cost the city an estimated $20 million. In 2013, felony bribery charges were brought against seven building inspectors. In 2016, further corruption charges were brought against 12 principals, a former school superintendent and supply vendor for a $12 million kickback scheme. Law professor Peter Henning argues that Detroit's corruption is not unusual for a city its size, especially when compared with Chicago.
The city's financial crisis resulted in Michigan taking over administrative control of its government. The state governor declared a financial emergency in March 2013, appointing Kevyn Orr as emergency manager. On July 18, 2013, Detroit became the largest U.S. city to file for bankruptcy. It was declared bankrupt by U.S. District Court on December 3, 2013, in light of the city's $18.5 billion debt and its inability to fully repay its thousands of creditors. On November 7, 2014 the city's plan for exiting bankruptcy was approved. The following month on December 11 the city officially exited bankruptcy. The plan allowed the city to eliminate $7 billion in debt and invest $1.7 billion into improved city services.
One of the largest post-bankruptcy efforts to improve city services has been work to fix the city's broken street lighting system. At one time it was estimated that 40% of lights were not working. The plan calls for replacing outdated high pressure sodium lights with 65,000 LED lights. Construction began in late 2014 and finished in December 2016 making Detroit the largest U.S city with all LED street lighting.
In the 2010s, several initiatives were taken by Detroit's citizens and new inhabitants to improve the cityscape by renovating and revitalizing neighborhoods. Such include the Motor City Blight Busters and various urban gardening movements. The well-known symbol of the city's decades-long demise, the Michigan Central Station, has been renovated with new windows, elevators and facilities since 2015. Several other landmark buildings were fully renovated and transformed into condominiums, hotels, offices or for cultural uses. Detroit is mentioned as a city of renaissance.