The Detroit River: First Peoples


The Detroit River has had people living along its banks it for thousands of years.

The Cities of Detroit and Windsor represent only a small portion of the Detroit River’s history. Three hundred years ago the areas around the Detroit River were inhabited exclusively by Native American tribes who had never seen a European or even heard of a place called Europe.


Migrations of Native Peoples

The first peoples to come to the “New World” did not come by boat. Instead they followed the migrating herds animals, which sustained them, and crossed over the Bearing Strait when Asia and North America were connected by a land bridge. Over the following thousands of years these people split, migrated, and settled from the north edge of North America to the south edge of South America. The group of people who settled the Michigan area were called the Anishinaabe or the People of the Three Fires and spoke the Algic language.


Native Languages Map

They were divided into three tribes: the Ojibwa, the Ottawa, and the Potawatomi. These tribes had unique oral traditions and lived completely off the land. The tribes were stewards of the lands they lived on. The Ojibwa were the first to settle along the Detroit River. Ojibwa tribesmen would steward the grasslands along the river by burning them. Today only small fragments of this grassland remain, such as Ojibway Prairie.


Traditional Ojibwa Art (Image Credits: Norval Morrisseau (1932-2007),


These people developed an intricate inter-tribal trading network, including the Great Sauk trail which ran from Detroit to the Mississippi River. Much of this trail was adopted by Europeans, and today, makes up modern-day Michigan ave. It has been suggested that the Great Sauk trail followed a game route beaten by mastodons. Therefore it can be said that Michigan Ave. was created by mastodons! The first Europeans arrived in the 1600s, mainly as missionaries. After this initial contact, more and more Europeans (French colonists) arrived until a Frenchman by the name of Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac came along…..


Ojibwa Chiefs circa 1800s

 To be continued…


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