Academic journal article The Journal of Law in Society

Detroit's People in History: The Numbers

Academic journal article The Journal of Law in Society

Detroit's People in History: The Numbers

Article excerpt



In 1943, George W. Stark authored City of Destiny: The Story of Detroit, (2) a paean to what was arguably the greatest industrial center in the world. A beehive of manufacturing, already known as the Arsenal of Democracy, the City of Detroit-with its more than 1.6 million residents, fourth largest in the nation-was pouring out the planes, tanks, trucks, and other implements of war that would defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. (3) In the book's preface, former Michigan governor Chase Osborn asked, rhetorically, how did this happen here? (4) What could account for the presence of this Promethean city along the banks of the Detroit River? The Governor continued:

   Detroit was never a seat of national government, radiating    power. It was never the center of immense natural resources,    attracting men to develop them. It was never the terminus of    important routes of trade; the Great Lakes were an avenue for    ships that passed and did not stay, and the city was off the main    trails that were beaten on the land. Detroit's geographical    advantages were far surpassed by those of other cities, today of    far less stature. (5) 

Osborn's explanation for this was "a succession of forward-looking, ambitious men, who dreamed-and worked," by which he meant individual leaders. (6) Another answer could have been all of the people of Detroit during the last three centuries. They, or their ancestors, came to this unlikely place, ambitious and forward-looking enough to leave their homes in New England, the South, or across the oceans in order to seek a better future. This is a short article about the demography of those people who came to Detroit, as well as those who have left, with only a minimal comment on the forces that brought them or caused them to go.

First, a couple of conventions. During its more than two centuries under American government, Detroit has grown from a frontier fort to a city covering 139.6 square miles. (7) On at least ten occasions in the meantime, the City grew by acquiring contiguous land, usually by annexation. (8) For the sake of simplicity, unless the text indicates otherwise, references in this article to Detroit are to the incorporated city at the relevant time. Additionally, instead of referring to "Metropolitan Detroit," a term which has also changed definitions over the decades, the article will use the more durable and fixed boundaries of Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties as the Tri-County Area ("TCA").


During its first 125 years, Detroit was a small community devoted to buying beaver pelts from French voyageurs and Native Americans from the interior of what are now Michigan, Ohio, and southern Ontario. (9) In 1763, however, after France finally lost the Seven Years' War with Britain, it ceded most of northern New France, including Detroit, to the victors. (10) British troops arrived at le detroit to replace the French, and British fur buyers and other merchants joined those French habitants who chose to remain. (11) British authorities also discouraged settlers who might interfere with the fur trade, but by 1778, the civilian population of the settlement--British and French--exceeded 2,000. (12)

Yet, the United States did not take possession of Detroit until 1796 when the British finally left. (13) When American troops under Col. John Hamtramck finally reached Detroit and raised the American flag over the fort, three quarters of the British and French civilian population opted to relocate across the river to British Canada; only about five hundred civilians remained. (14) Although American governments encouraged settlement throughout the Northwest, most early settlers chose land in what are now Ohio and Indiana because they were relatively easy to get to via the Ohio River. …

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