Furs, copper and cars all three have dominated Michigan’s economy




French fur traders entered present-day Michigan in the 17th century, seeking to barter European goods to Native Americans for furs. The informal trade soon developed into an organized system that sent huge quantities of pelts to Montreal for shipment to France.


     Trading posts in Michigan included Fort Ponchartrain (Detroit), Fort Michilimackinac (Mackinaw City) and Fort St. Joseph (Niles). Voyageurs paddled birchbark canoes laden with bales of goods – such as cloth, blankets, kettles, beads, and knives – to the posts to trade. They returned with furs: muskrat, otter, mink and especially beaver. The European market had an insatiable appetite for beaver pelts, for hat makers turned it into felt hats that were all the rage throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.


     New France became a part of the British Empire after the French and Indian War in 1763. English traders entered the region to compete with their French counterparts, but the Great Lakes fur trade had already begun to wane. Native hunters had exhausted the supply of animals and the voyageurs had to travel ever-further west to trade. By the early 19th century Michigan’s once-booming fur trade had nearly vanished.


     Copper mining grew even as the fur trade fell off . Native Americans in the Upper Peninsula had mined copper for thousands of years, using nuggets of pure metal to make projectile points and tools. State Geologist Douglas Houghton surveyed the Keweenaw Peninsula in 1840 and identified rich deposits of copper ore. His 1841 report, followed by the 1843 Treaty of La Pointe that ceded the region’s Ojibwe lands to the United States, triggered a copper rush to the Upper Peninsula.


     Miners from all over the world, especially Scandinavia, flocked to the Keweenaw to wrest copper from the earth. Michigan led the nation in copper production from 1845 until 1887, but annual output actually peaked in 1916 when the mines produced 266 million pounds of the metal. Most of the copper mines closed during the Great Depression. They reopened during World War II with the wartime demand for copper, but most of them closed permanently afterward. Several mines, including the Quincy and Adventure, now serve as tourist attractions.


     Michigan’s automotive industry soared even as its copper mines declined. Over 1,800 automobile manufacturers sprang up in the United States from 1896 to 1930, about 125 of them in Detroit alone. Detroit’s proximity to natural resources, transportation networks and existing production centers made it an ideal location for auto manufacturing. Few auto companies survived in the highly competitive market but some – especially Chrysler, General Motors, Packard, and Ford – thrived.


     The Ford Motor Company, founded in 1903 by Henry Ford, pioneered the use of the assembly line to build low-cost autos. Ford introduced the famous Model T in 1908, a simple car whose $825 price tag put it within reach of even a middle class family. Ford built 16.5 million Model Ts before production ended in 1927. Hoping to secure a stable and loyal workforce, Ford stunned the world in 1914 when it announced the unheard-of fi ve dollar-a-day wage.


     Michigan’s auto industry enjoyed decades of prosperity, but global competition in the late 20th century forced some companies to shrink and others, like Packard, to close entirely. Automobile companies, while still important, no longer dominate the state’s economy. —SF☀