Wyandotte: Origins Through the 19th Century

By Natasha R. Garrison

While the city of Detroit is the star of the show through most of the early years of Michigan’s history, the cities bordering it are equally as important to the formation of Michigan as we know it. Wyandotte, founded as an official city in 1867, is currently located just a few miles south of Detroit. They are full of cultural and historical influences that are often overlooked when regarding Michigan’s progression as a state and their aid to Detroit’s industrial history. Their economy, factories, and population are among a few factors that helped support Detroit as it worked its own way through history. As of 2020, Wyandotte is home to around 25,000 inhabitants, smaller in comparison to the surrounding metro Detroit suburbs1. Running along the scenic view of the Detroit River, their downtown is regarded as a historic waterfront community, a popular place for both anglers and socialites alike(2). Walking down Biddle Avenue, one can see the historic buildings lining both sides, making it quite easy to imagine placing oneself in the middle of their vibrant history. Although the city of Wyandotte is a prime example of a town that thrived during both Industrial Revolutions, the early indigenous inhabitants remain the center of their culture even to this day. They host many art shows that line the streets, framing the unique native culture along with the culture that European immigrants brought with them to the area in the 1860s as they reached city level population.

When the European settlers arrived in North America, they were shocked to learn they
were not the only human residents. The new land was populated by a multitude of diverse indigenous tribes. The territory of Michigan was no different, with most forts from the early French settlers forming a positive relationship with the nearby tribes(3). The French called the tribe that was located between Lake Huron and Lake Ontario the Huron, from their word meaning “wild boar” due to the hairstyles they wore(4). French terminology aside, the indigenous in the area referred to themselves the Wyandot. The term “Wyandot,” or Wendat, means “dwellers of the peninsula” in the native Wyandot language. This is an obvious reference to their home base on the Bruce Peninsula, the large land mass between the Georgian Bay of Ontario and Lake Huron(5). The Wyandot, although distantly related, were attacked by the Iroquois in 1649, driving them out of the Canadian Georgian Bay and into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and further down to the Sandusky Bay region of Ohio(6).

After the French founding of Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit in 1701, the Wyandot went in search of their own land for settlement nearby to sustain their relationship. Invited to the area by Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, the Wyandot tribe left from places like Michilimackinac and Manitoulin Island in search of sustained friendship(7). They found land further south following what is now known as the Detroit River for about ten miles and formed a settlement called Maquaqua (8). This location was perfect for travelling to the fort and exchanging goods, as the river was easily accessible from both centers. The Wyandots were allies of the French for many years until the British took over the fort in the 1740s (9). The British slowly began to acquire the forts formally used by the French, which added to the fire of their up-and-coming war. During the Seven Years’ War, from 1756 to 1763, the Wyandot fought alongside the French, later establishing an alliance with the British once they triumphed over the French. The Wyandot had previously developed a civil fur trading relationship with the British beginning in the 1740s when they had initially established themselves as a force in the area (10). This previous relationship may have been the only thing keeping them alive once the British gained control.

In the years following Seven Years’ War, the British permanently took over the forts that the French had once been occupying, including those with close relations to the local natives such as Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit and Maquaqua. The British’s treatment of natives at the time was estranged, whereas the French saw the existence of native inhabitants as opportunity for furthering the word of the god, therefore subsequently had a richer connection (11). Enraged by the change in treatment from the new European settlers, the Wyandot joined their fellow native tribes who had also been shut out by British troops and joined Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1764. After their attempt on Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit had failed, they again joined sides with the British during the American Revolution. Once the British pulled out of the states in 1791, they were left to defend themselves from the American troops alone (12).

The Wyandot tribe maintained their residence in the area south of Detroit for the following years, until 1818. The Treaty of St. Mary’s was signed in Ohio between Lewis Cass and Wyandot leaders, confining Native Americans to select land the government approved of (13). The document allowed for a small number of Wyandot natives to live in the small settlement known as Maquaqua (14). For the rest of the indigenous population, the treaty sent majority of the native inhabitants out of the area, and for some, out of the state. For those who stayed nearby, places such as Flat Rock, Michigan and Anderdon, Ontario became their new homestead along with the Maquaqua (15). Today the Wyandot tribe is recognized as four bands between the United States and Canada: The Wyandott Nation of Oklahoma, Canada’s First Nation the Huron-Wendat Nation, and the Wyandot Nations of Anderdon in Michigan and Kansas (16).

The freeing of land left room for Major John Biddle to ride in and buy 200 acres (about the total floor space of the Pentagon) of land on what the Wyandot had once included in their claim that same year. Biddle had recently had success from the War of 1812 and came from a prominent Pennsylvania family. This purchase was his attempt at retiring from military life to country living, without really becoming a farmer. He named his farm “The Wyandotte,” his adaptation of the tribe’s spelling (17). The house he built would have been located at the heart of modern Wyandotte, near the Bacon Memorial District Library and Downriver Acting Guild on Biddle Avenue (18). Biddle failed at retiring and later went on to become mayor of Detroit in 1827 and 1828, using Wyandotte as a summer home until later selling to the Eureka Iron Works (19). After leaving his mayoral position, Biddle then became a delegate from the Territory of Michigan to the Twenty-first Congress from 1829-1831. Biddle was a prominent member in the Association for Promoting Female Education in the City of Detroit, and then vice president and then president of the Historical Society of Michigan from 1828-1831(20). He was then elected to the Michigan State House of Representatives in 1841 as speaker (21).

The true gem in Wyandotte’s history started shining before it was even recognized as a city in 1853 when Philip Thurber, entrepreneur and insurance seller, traveled up to the Northern part of Michigan for a summer vacation (22). He found a financial opportunity with the iron ore mines that were beginning to boom around Marquette. Returning to Wyandotte, Thurber quickly found investors for this innovative idea, including Detroit’s first millionaire, Eber B. Ward. By 1864, the Eureka Iron Works, also known as the Eureka Iron and Steel Works, had begun making iron and steel ingots and railway using the Bessemer process. They were the first factory in the country to use this process to produce commercial steel, paving the way for the rest of America to follow the path into the Industrial Era (23).

Following the success, the Wyandotte Rolling Mill opened in support of the Works’ production. The population of Wyandotte had grown from its first census in 1870 at 2,731 to 5,183 by the 1900 census, with a considerable number of immigrants brought in to fill jobs specifically at the Eureka Iron and Steel Works and Rolling Mill plants, as further detailed below (24). The factories were remarkably successful and provided a large, growing community with jobs. In the 1850s both plants were the largest industrial employers in Wayne County, which at the time included Detroit and Ecorse Township (25). Tragedy struck in 1888 when the factory experienced a boiler explosion that they never truly recovered from (26). The downfall of the plant in 1892 was due to a lack of proper conversion to full steel production, the decrease of demand for iron, and the increased overall cost to heat and fuel the plant. Ward chose to move full steel production to a Chicago location slightly after (27).

Another profitable endeavor during the second Industrial Revolution in Wyandotte was shipbuilding. Eber B. Ward commissioned Frank E. Kirby, famed ship architect, and his brother to build a shipbuilding plant on the Detroit River near Eureka Iron Works (28). Having just recently become a city in 1867, Wyandotte quickly became the center of shipbuilding for the Great Lakes region for the next fifty years. The nearby factories allowed for utilizing the nearby processed iron quicker than other factories could, cutting down the production time significantly. The first iron boat from the plant, the E.B. Ward, set sail on the Detroit River in August 1872. For more entertainment purposes, citizens of Wyandotte could turn to the Frank E. Kirby, which was launched in 1890, taking passengers between Wyandotte and Put-in-Bay Island in Lake Erie. The Frank E. Kirby was a popular venue for churches, families, and company parties at the time (29).

As Michigan began moving through these industrial advancements, factories started to experience a worker shortage due to demand for steel to help aid the railway development. Eureka Iron Works superintendent, Louis Scofield, found a solution to this problem, and in 1855 left for Ireland to recruit workers to fill their plant’s massive production need (30). He had heard of the Great Potato Famine that was sweeping over Ireland and wanted to take advantage of the low cost of labor. By the time Scofield returned, around 1.5 million Irish immigrants had made their way to the safe and promised land of America (31). For those who found themselves in Michigan, they were able to find work in the northern mines in Marquette, others found work in factories such as the Eureka Iron and Steel Works. After the factory closed, the Irish, and other eastern European immigrants, found work in the other factories surrounding Detroit. The closing of Eureka Iron Works and other declines in steel production in the area ultimately led to the Panic of 1893 (32).

Wyandotte was not called such until 1867, being a small community that formed around the steel factories in a much larger township. Ecorse Township was established in 1854, an area that includes modern day cities of Wyandotte, Taylor, Lincoln Park, and River Rouge to name a few (33). John Van Alstyne was president of the local council in the community that formed near the Eureka Iron Works in the years leading up to the city entering the charter of Michigan in 1866. He helped lead solutions for local disputes and organized the community in times of need. Wyandotte was established as a formal city on April 8th, 1867, with Van Alstyne becoming the first mayor of Wyandotte, serving one term. In 1871 he was a partner in opening the Wyandotte Savings Bank. Van Alstyne was prominent in the Free Mason society, even serving as a high priest for five years in the Wyandotte Charter (34). In Wyandotte today, you can find Van Alstyne Street downtown, running along Bishop Park and overlooking the banks of the Detroit River. Wyandotte Savings Bank still has its doors open at their original Biddle Street location, now operating as a JP Morgan Chase (35).

When the Industrial Revolutions in Michigan are questioned, Detroit is the answer. Detroit would not have been our main event without the city of Wyandotte supporting it as it rose to stardom. The friendship and faith that the Wyandots felt when they formed Maquaqua to be near their allies can still be felt as you walk the streets of Wyandotte. The fountain on Biddle and Eureka Avenue showcases a beautiful totem pole, that towers over the river as families watch their firework celebrations over the water. The tugboats and log cabins from the 1800s are visible even for those just passing though. The city of Wyandotte is the truly the heart of Michigan’s early history.


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