Prior to European settlement, Iroquoian people lived around Lakes Erie and Ontario, Algonquian peoples around most of the rest, and a variety of other indigenous nation-peoples including the Menominee, Ojibwa, Illinois, Pottawatmie, Huron, Shawnee, Erie, Fox, Miami, Meskwaki and Ho-Chunk (Winnebago). With the first permanent European settlements in the early seventeenth century, all these nation-peoples developed an extensive fur trade with French, Dutch, and English merchants in the St. Lawrence, Hudson and Mohawk Valleys, and Hudson's Bay, respectively.
The prospects of fur monopolies and discovery of a fabled Northwest Passage to Asia generated sporadic but intense competition among the three most powerful northwest Europe imperial nations to control the territory. A century and a half of naval and land wars among France, The Netherlands and Britain resulted finally in British control of the region, from the Ohio River to the Arctic, and from the Atlantic to the Mississippi. Beyond the region, North American claims remained disputed among Britain, France, Spain and Russia.
Britain defeated France decisively at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham near Quebec City in 1759, and the Treaty of Paris (1763) that ended The Seven Years' War, known in America as the French and Indian War ceded the entire region to the victor. Britain's claims were intensely disputed by a confederation of Indians during Pontiac's Rebellion, which induced major concessions to still sovereign Indian nations; and by the Iroquois Confederacy, whose six member nations-Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora-never conceded sovereignty to either Britain or, later, The United States.
During the American Revolution, the region was contested between Britain and rebellious American colonies. Hoping for favorable claims of territorial control in an eventual peace treaty with Britain, American adventurers led by Kentucky militia leader George Rogers Clark briefly occupied village settlements, including Cahokia, Kaskaskia and Vincennes unopposed, with passive support from Francophone inhabitants. In the Peace of Paris (1784) Britain ceded what became known as The Northwest Territory, the area bounded by Great Lakes, Mississippi and Ohio rivers, and the eastern colonies of New York and Pennsylvania, to the fledgling United States. Britain, which may have entertained ambitions to repossess the area if America failed to govern it, retained control over its forts and licensed fur trade for fifteen years.
During the Confederacy Period of 1781–1789, the Continental Congress passed three ordinances whose authority was unclear regarding the region's governance on the American side. The Land Ordinance of 1784 established the broad outlines of future governance. The territory would be divided into six states, which would be given broad powers of constitutional instituting, and admitted to the nation as equal members. The Land Ordinance of 1785 specified the manner in which land would be distributed in the Territory, favoring sale in small parcels to settlers who would work their own farms.
The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 defined the political protocols by which American states south of the lakes would enter the union as political equals with the original thirteen colonies. The ordinance, adopted in its final form just before the writing of the United States Constitution, was a sweeping, visionary proposal to create what was at the time a radical experiment in democratic governance and economy. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 prohibited slavery, restricted primogeniture, mandated universal public education, provided for affordable farm land to people who settled and improved it, and required peaceful, lawful treatment of the Indian population. The ordinance prohibited the establishment of state religion and established civic rights that foreshadowed the United States Bill of Rights. Civil rights included freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, trial by jury, and exemption from unreasonable search and seizure. States were authorized to organize constitutional conventions and petition for admission as states equal to the original thirteen. Five states evolved from its provisions: Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin. The northeastern section of Minnesota, from the Mississippi to St. Croix River, also fell under ordinance jurisdiction and extended the constitution and culture of the Old Northwest to the Dakotas. The surge of settlement generated tension culminating in the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794.
Britain, fearing that fast American settlement could lead to annexation of its western provinces, countered with The Constitution Act of 1791, granting limited self-government to Canadian provinces, and creating two new provinces out of Canada: Lower Canada (today's Quebec) and Upper Canada (Ontario).
Settlement and economic expansion on both sides accelerated after the 1825 opening of The Erie Canal, an astonishingly successful public venture that effectively integrated markets and commerce between the Atlantic seaboard and the region. The region on both sides of the border became a vast research and design laboratory for agricultural machinery and techniques. Owner-operator family farms transformed both demographics and ecology into a vast terrain of farmlands, producing primarily wheat and corn. In western New York and northeast Ohio, the St. Lawrence, Mohawk, and Hudson rivers provided outlets for commercial corn and wheat, while The Ohio River let agricultural products from western Pennsylvania and southern Ohio, Indiana and Illinois journey downstream to New Orleans. Mining, primarily soft metals of copper, zinc, and lead; and timber to supply rapidly expanding sawmills that supplied lumber for new settlements.
Agricultural and industrial production generated distinctive political and social cultures of independent republican producers, who consolidated an ideology of personal liberty, free markets, and great social visions, often expressed in religious terms and enthusiasms. The region's alliance of antislavery with free soil movements contributed troops and agricultural goods that proved critical in the Union's victory. The Homestead and Morrill Acts, donating federal land to extend the agrarian economic franchise, and support state universities, modeled western expansion and education for all future states.
The British-Canadian London Conference of 1866, and subsequent Constitution Act of 1867 analogously derived from political, and some military, turmoil in the former jurisdiction of Upper Canada, which was renamed and organized in the new dominion as the province of Ontario. Like the provisions of the ordinance, Ontario prohibited slavery, made provisions for land distribution to farmers who owned their own land, and mandated universal public education.
Ford's River Rouge assembly plant 1941
Industrial production, organization, and technology have made the region among the world's most productive manufacturing centers. Nineteenth-century proto-monopolies such as International Harvester, Standard Oil, and United States Steel established the pattern of American centralized industrial consolidation and eventual global dominance. The region hosted the world's greatest concentrations of production for oil, coal, steel, automobiles, synthetic rubber, agricultural machinery, and heavy transport equipment. Agronomy industrialized as well, in meat processing, packaged cereal products, and processed dairy products. In response to disruptions and imbalances of power resulting from so vast a concentration of economic power, industrial workers organized the Congress of Industrial Organizations, a coherent agricultural cooperative movement, and the Progressive politics led by Wisconsin's Governor and Senator Robert M. La Follette Sr.. State universities, professional social work, and unemployment and workers' compensation were some of the region's permanent contributions to American social policy.
The Great Lakes region has produced globally influential breakthroughs in agricultural technology, transportation and building construction. Cyrus McCormick's reaper, John Deere's steel plow, Joseph Dart (Dart's Elevator), and George Washington Snow's balloon-frame construction are some of innovations that made significant, global impact. The University of Chicago and Case Western Reserve University figured prominently in developing nuclear power. Automobile manufacture developed simultaneously in Ohio and Indiana and became centered in the Detroit area of Michigan. Henry Ford's movable assembly line drew on regional experience in meat processing, agricultural machinery manufacture, and the industrial engineering of steel in revolutionizing the modern era of mass production manufacturing. Chicago-based Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck companies complemented mass manufactures with mass retail distribution.
Chicago and Detroit carry important roles in the field of architecture. Chicago pioneered the world's first skyscraper, the Home Insurance Building designed by William LeBaron Jenney. Engineering innovation established Chicago from that time on to become one of the world's most influential epicenters of contemporary urban and commercial architecture. Equally influential was the 1832 invention of balloon-framing in Chicago which replaced heavy timber construction requiring massive beams and great woodworking skill with pre-cut timber. This new lumber could be nailed together by farmers and settlers who used it to build homes and barns throughout the western prairies and plains. Wisconsin-born, Chicago-trained Sullivan apprentice Frank Lloyd Wright designed prototypes for architectural designs from the commercial skylight atrium to suburban ranch house.
German-born Pennsylvania immigrant John A. Roebling invented steel wire rope, a pivotal part of suspension bridges he designed and whose construction he supervised in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Buffalo, based on earlier successful canal aqueducts. His most famous project was the Brooklyn Bridge.
Contributions to modern transportation include the Wright brothers' early airplanes, designed and perfected in their Dayton, Ohio mechanics' workshops; distinctive Great Lakes freighters, and railroad beds constructed of wooden ties and steel rails. The early nineteenth century Erie Canal and mid-twentieth century St. Lawrence Seaway expanded the scale and capacity of massive water-born freight.
Agricultural associations joined the nineteenth century Grange, which in turn generated the agricultural cooperatives that defined much of rural political economy and culture throughout the region. Fraternal, ethnic, and civic organizations extended cooperatives and supported local ventures from insurance companies to orphanages and hospitals. The region was the political base, and provided much leadership political parties in the region.
The region's greatest institutional contributions were major corporate, labor, educational and cooperative organizations. It hosted some of the most influential national and international corporations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century monopoly age, including John Deere Plow, McCormack Reaper, New York Central and Erie railroads, Carnegie Steel, U.S. Steel, International Harvester and Standard Oil. In part to balance democratic representation against the economic and political power of these corporations, the region hosted industrial labor organization, consolidated agricultural cooperatives and state educational systems. The Big Ten Conference memorializes the nation's first region in which every state sponsored major research, technical-agricultural, and teacher-training colleges and universities. The Congress of Industrial Organizations grew out of the region's coal and iron mines; steel, automobile and rubber industries; and breakthrough strikes and contracts of Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan.
During World War II, the region became the global epicenter of motorized land vehicles, including cars, trucks and jeeps, as well as a major supplier of engine, transmission, and electrical components to the wartime aeronautics industry. Despite extreme labor shortages, the region increased mechanization, and absorbed large numbers of women and immigrant labor, to increase its food production.