Indians may have camped along the shores of the Detroit River as early as 400 BC. Further archeological research may provide more information about the area’s first human settlers. Indians apparently regularly used the river for transport and trade. The Dutch settled New Amsterdam in 1625. Not long after that, the Iroquois may have traveled as far west as the Detroit River to secure furs to trade with the Dutch.
The first ship crewed by Europeans to sail the river was Le Griffon in August, 1679 led by Rene Robert Cavalier, Sieur de la Salle. The French, by this time, had claimed the area of North America for their kingdom but had yet to explore it. I believe that members of LaSalle’s party, without much imagination, gave the river the near it bears today—Rivière de Détroit or River of the Strait.
Antoine Cadillac selected a location toward the northern end of the Detroit River for his settlement in 1701. He wished to establish a large prosperous settlement so his enthusiasm may have propelled him to observe:
“This river is scattered over, from one lake to another both on the mainland and the islands with large clusters of trees surrounded by charming meadows. Game is very common, as are geese, and all kinds of wild ducks. There are swans everywhere, there are quails, woodcocks, pheasants and rabbits, turkeys, partridges, hazelhens and a stupendous amount of turtledoves. This country is so temperate, so fertile and so beautiful that it may justly be called 'The Earthly Paradise of North America.'”
The Detroit River flows 51 kilometers from Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie and is fed by the River Rouge, the River Canard and the Ecorse River. Its waters surround several dozen islands of which 27 are named. Grosse Isle, Belle Isle and Bob-lo are the most well-known islands. It includes the man-made Livingston Channel and the Trenton Channel to facilitate Great Lakes shipping.
The United States Government’s Environmental Protection Agency, in 1989, designated the Detroit River as an American Heritage River, one of 14 such rivers. The Detroit River is the only one in Michigan and the nation’s only international American Heritage River.
The Detroit River has primarily been a stream of commerce. With the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, the coming of steam powered vessels in the 1830s, the opening of the locks at Sault Ste. Marie in 1855 and the development of Detroit as a leading manufacturing center in the years after the Civil War, boat traffic increased. It has also seen some warfare. At the beginning of the War of 1812, US forces led by General Hull briefly invaded Canada, but then retreated. British and Canadian forces briefly invaded Michigan, but were turned about at the Battle of Mongaugon in the first year of fighting. In military activities associated with a Canadian independence movement in 1838, attacks on Windsor were carried out from the Detroit River as described in the information about the Battle of Windsor historical marker on this site.
Since 1990, both Detroit and Windsor have invested substantially in making their waterfronts beautiful. An attractive sculpture garden extends along the Canadian shore from the Sandwich area near the Ambassador Bridge to downtown Windsor. North of downtown Windsor, attractive parks have replaced a rail yard. The Riverfront Conservancy in Detroit is making rapid progress in creating a park that will include the shore from the Renaissance Center to Gabriel Richard Park at the MacArthur Bridge to Belle Isle. The United States has no international water boundary as spectacular as the Detroit River.
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Number S0704
State of Michigan Historical Marker: Put in place in 2007
Information about the Detroit River: http://www.chrs.ca/Rivers/Detroit/Detroit-F_e.htm
Website for a Detroit river support or fan group: http://w.detroitriver.org/
Photograph: Ren Farley, August, 2009
Description prepared: October 2009
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