Michigan's Upper Peninsula is a unique region in the United States. It is surrounded by three Great Lakes (Superior, Huron and Michigan) and the state of Wisconsin. For years although part of the state of Michigan it was physically isolated from the rest of the state by the Straits of Mackinac. Back in 1836 when Michigan was moving toward statehood, the down state people did not want the region attached to the state for a variety of reasons. As a result the Upper Peninsula has grown and developed on its own.
The first inhabitants of the area were the Anishinabe people who lived off the harsh land. When the French arrived in the 17th century the Native Americans and Europeans began to interact around the fur trade which made the region a rich economic resource for the French and later the English. The French left in 1763 by the terms of the Treaty of Paris and were replaced by the English. Native American dislike of the English and their social attitudes led to Pontiac’s Rebellion and a positive reevaluation of English attitudes and methods towards the Native People.
During the American Revolution Fort Michilimackinac was the staging post for raids against America's allies the Spanish in St. Louis. In 1780 fearing an American attack on their old fort the British burned Fort Michilimackinac, moved to Mackinac Island in the Upper Peninsula, and built Fort Mackinac. The United States eventually took over the Old Northwest of which the Upper Peninsula was a part in 1797.
Through the first half of the 19th century the Americans continued to interact with the Native Americans around the fur trade. During the War of 1812 Mackinac Island and Sault Ste. Marie were sites of hostilities. John Jacob Astor established the American Fur Company on Mackinac Island. With the decline of the fur trade in the 1830s the Company turned to the fishing industry with the Native Americans as active participants. The American taste was not attracted to salted whitefish and the AFC was left with debt and warehouses full of barrels of fish.
During the years prior to the 1840s missionaries ministering to the Native Americans were an important part of the story. Jesuit missionaries came with the French. Not only did they minister to the Native Americans but they were chroniclers of the land and its people who have left their observations and comments in the Jesuit Relations. With the coming of the Americans came Protestant missionaries from New England who established themselves on Mackinac Island and elsewhere. One of the more famous was Reverend Abel Bingham who established a successful Baptist mission at Sault Ste. Marie. Others followed and established Methodist missions north of L’Anse. The Catholics returned in the 1830s with Father Frederick Baraga who became known as the "Snowshoe Priest." Later with the coming of American settlers these missionaries were torn between ministering to the Native Americans or the American settlers.
After statehood in 1837, the State of Michigan had the Upper Peninsula surveyed linearly and geologically under the direction of Douglass Houghton and others. In the mid-1840s copper was discovered on the Keweenaw Peninsula and iron ore in the central Upper Peninsula inland west of Marquette. This began "copper fever" which attracted thousands of American and immigrants to the economic opportunities of this mining frontier. The California Gold Rush might be more famous but Michigan ultimately produced more mineral wealth.
It was iron and copper that brought the first great population boom to the region. The first immigrants to enter the Upper Peninsula were the Cornish with their centuries of mining knowledge followed by the Germans and Irish fleeing famine and political unrest in the Old Country, and French Canadians. In the late 19th century immigrants from Italy, Finland, Scandinavia, Poland, Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Wales and Scotland and even from the Isle of Man and China. These people brought with them their ethnic traditions and foods. In 1917 a writer for the National Geographic Magazine could say that when you left Houghton and traveled to Calumet some ten miles away it was like entering a foreign land. Ethnic churches, newspapers, clubs, shops dominated the community where over 75% of the population was foreign-born. Similar conditions existed throughout the Upper Peninsula. This immigrant tradition has left the region with what folklorist, Richard Dorson called dialectic folklore.
The "Golden Age" of the Upper Peninsula was between 1880 and 1913. Economic opportunity attracted hundreds and then thousands of people. During the summer season ore boats sailed round the clock to get the ore to industrial centers. Today this tradition continues. Jobs could be found in the expanding timber industry where the rich white pine forests were quickly cut and then the hard woods were taken. In 1893 as a tribute to the logging industry, the World's FairLoad was sent to Chicago and viewed by visitors with astonishment. Commercial fishing brought prosperity to many towns along the lakes. Railroads crisscrossed the region and connected the Upper Peninsula with Detroit, Chicago, and Minneapolis, an overnight trip to the south.
The economy and increased population caused a demand for better education. In 1885 Michigan Technological University was established as a mining school to serve the local industry. Subsequently it has become a nationally recognized research school specializing in engineering. Their Industrial Archaeology master’s program helps to preserve and sites and traditions of the Copper Country. Northern State Normal School was created in 1899 as a teachers college. Over the years the small school expanded and developed into a medium-sized institution with wide-ranging programs. In 1963 it became Northern Michigan University. Other institutions of higher education in the Upper Peninsula include: Suomi College (Hancock), Gogebic Community College (Ironwood), Bay de Noc Community College (Escanaba), and Lake Superior State University (Sault Ste Marie).
Unfortunately these were extractive industries and little wealth was left in the land. The environment had been altered and the land polluted. An infamous copper strike in Calumet and adjacent towns in 1913-1914 sent hundreds of people to other locations. It must be remembered this is when Henry Ford in Detroit was offering to workers the $5 a day, 8-hour workday. The Roaring Twenties was in many ways the last gasp of the copper industry and the forests were rapidly being depleted.
The Great Depression brought the "Golden Era" to an end. There was little demand for copper and iron and the mining industry closed down and was unable to paid local taxes. Unemployment rose. However at the same time, many residents who had left the region for jobs in the urban industrial centers in the 1920s returned to the Upper Peninsula. They wanted to return to their roots, families and traditions and live off the land. New Deal programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) provided them with an income.
World War II had an impact on the region. The Soo Canal at Sault Ste. Marie which had been constructed in 1855 to connect Lake Superior with Lake Huron had to be defended against possible enemy attack and sabotage. Early in the war thousands of service men were stationed in the small community and disrupted its social fabric. In five locations across the Upper Peninsula, camps were established for German prisoners of war who cut pulp wood. At Germfask there was a conscious objector camp where men worked in the Seney Wildlife Preserve. The local population was disrupted. Thousands of men served in the armed forces while others flocked to jobs in the large urban areas. However gliders were constructed in a Ford plant in Kingsford, Michigan. There are also many large and small local industries that aided the war effort.
In the years since World War II the Upper Peninsula has gone through another set of changes. By the 1950s conditions looked bleak. The fabled Calumet & Hecla Copper Mine was in the process of closing. Iron mines throughout the Peninsula were hitting low-grade ore and were closing. Then a new enriched iron ore called taconite, developed by the Cleveland Cliffs Mining Company, revitalized the mines on the Marquette Iron Range.
Tourism quickly became a new industry for many communities. The area’s heavy snowfall has allowed skiing to develop as a major industry in some communities, as in the Ironwood area. Throughout the year a variety of celebrations and festivals are celebrated across the Peninsula.
Today the Upper Peninsula is home to the Isle Royale National Park , Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Keweenaw National Historic Park and numerous state parks. Mackinac Island at the eastern end of the Upper Peninsula continues to be a major tourist destination as it has been since the 1830s when the Sardinian and Austrian ambassadors spent their summers there. The Mackinac Island State Park Commission oversees the preservation of the history of the Straits area.
Winter or summer you will find the Upper Peninsula a pleasant place to visit, enjoy the natural beautiful, the colorful traditions, and the hospitality of the people.