Challenges of Statehood
AS A TERRITORY, MICHIGAN HAD REMAINED relatively unexplored and unexploited. Protected on its flanks by the sometimes stormy and uncertain waters of the Great Lakes, the territory seemed remote and inaccessible, far from the mainstream of western expansion. Michigan's reputation as a land of swamps and sickness whose very name was synonymous with “ague, fever, and chills” served as a further deterrent to growth.
Despite these handicaps, Michigan's early years of statehood saw an enormous population increase. During the 1830s a flood of immigration sent the population soaring to over 212,000—the greatest growth for any state or territory during the decade. By 1850 Michigan had nearly 398,000 residents, of whom 14 percent were foreign-born.
Two developments in transportation had a profound impact on the state's population explosion. First, in 1811 Robert Fulton sailed his new invention, the steamboat, and within seven years the Walk-in-the-Water was plying the Great Lakes between Buffalo and Detroit. Although this first lake-steamer was wrecked in a storm three years after its launching, others soon followed, bringing new settlers to Michigan. Second, in 1825 New York's Erie Canal was completed, stretching 350 miles from Albany, on the Hudson River, to Buffalo, on Lake Erie. Its opening meant that potential settlers living in New England and New York could make much of their journey inland by water and that Michigan products would have an easier access to Eastern markets.
Most settlers poured into the rich fertile lands of the two southern tiers of counties, which were readily reached both by water and the Territorial and Chicago Military Roads. In terms of population, the three largest counties in 1837 were Wayne (23,400), Washtenaw (21,817), and Oakland (20,176). Jackson, Calhoun, and Kalamazoo counties also had substantial populations because of the presence of treeless farmland, called by settlers “prairies,” which could be immediately plowed and planted.