The University of Michigan, though established in Ann Arbor in 1837, opened its first building in Detroit in 1817. Before this, the Michigan Territory had no organized schools, and very few students were prepared to attend a university.
The year 1817 itself was crucial in the development of Michigan, and on Tuesday evening, Brian Dunnigan, William Clements Library associate director and curator of maps, addressed members of the public in this year’s Founders Day Lecture highlighting Michigan in 1817.
Through the use of photographs and maps, Dunnigan explained the original University building was commonly referred to as the “academy” until construction began in October 1837 to create Ann Arbor’s campus, a project lasting until 1858.
Detroit, which included the first University building and published the first successful local newspaper in Michigan in 1817, began blossoming in the early 1820s with the beginnings of the transportation industry. Dunnigan said many Americans who first saw the city situated on the Detroit River often compared it to Philadelphia.
“Detroit was the prime town of the old northwest,” Dunnigan said.
Dunnigan also highlighted the presence of Native American tribes on Michigan land, and their resistance of the encroachment of settlers beginning in the 1750s. This resistance, along with struggles obtaining previously owned British territory, were factors influencing the United States’s endeavors in procuring Michigan land.
A University alum who requested to remain anoymous attended the event and explained she was interested in hearing how the presentation would highlight this aspect of U.S. history, specifically with euphemisms regarding acquisition of territory from Native American tribes.
“At the founding of Michigan there’s still this huge Native American population, so I was interested in how that would be spoken about,” she said. “When you want to talk about developments and progress, how do you reconcile that with the fact that you are displacing and forcibly removing people from the land?”
One of the most prominent topics in the presentation was Mackinac Island, presently a popular tourist destination in the Straits of Mackinac. Dunnigan explained Mackinac, originally purchased by the British in 1781 and garnered by U.S. control several years later, was known for its natural wonders from the beginning. In its early days of settlement, the island went from holding 300 people in the winters to accommodating 3,000 in the summers.
“The place had a very early reputation for being scenic,” he said. “A visitor in 1816 says, ‘The first view of this interesting island justified the experience and the expectation it had incited.’ ”
Information fifth-year senior Monica Chen attended the lecture and said she felt the presentation’s coverage of the different methods by which the United States collected territory was very interesting.
“I’m not actually from Michigan, so I think it was really cool to get a look into a town that is not on the coast, but it actually kind of is on the northern coast and it borders Canada, and just how important and influential waterways are in development of places,” she said.
At the conclusion of the presentation, Dunnigan spoke of the Reading Room, one of the most historic locations within Clements Library, where most of the information and photographs from the presentation came from.
“I think our readers and our visitors find the place friendly, interesting and worth reading about,” he said.