Grand Rapids: The Grand City

COUNTY: Kent

POPULATION: 192, 294

THE HISTORY OF GRAND RAPIDS MICHIGAN

Buried under the modern day city of Grand Rapids lies the civilization of what historians have called the “Mound Builders.” The Mound Builders, also known as the Hopewell Indians, were the first people to dwell in Grand Rapids; a legacy dating back for nearly 2000 years. There is evidence that the Mound Builders have resided not only in Grand Rapids, but in other areas of Michigan, as well as states like Ohio and Missouri. Remains of the Hopewell Indians have shown that they were skillful, highly intelligent, and rich in spirit. Traces of pottery and tools illustrate their skillfulness, while numerous locations across West Michigan showcase how effectively they utilized river banks and lakes to produce an abundance of food. One is able to see that many of them had a secure livelihood with the archeological remnants of these settlements alone. The Hopewell were rich in spirit because they held rituals to honor the dead, they were a close nit community and although many of the Hopewell were buried under these mounds–their existence nearly invisible–they still managed to influence many upcoming societies and civilizations.

Three hundred years ago the people of the Three Fires were among the next group of natives that occupied the land currently known as Grand Rapids. At that time the Ottawa, Chippewa, and Potawatomie Indians established a livelihood in the West Michigan area, that is, until the Treaty of Chicago went into effect in August of 1821. The Treaty of Chicago was an act in which all territory south of the Grand River was procured by the United States for settling purposes, and the establishment of Whites. Although natives were reluctant to relocate from their villages and communities, the Three Fires tribes eventually agreed to sign the document, due to being misled by the wording of the treaty. With hopes of fair compensation, many of the Indians and tribes ceded their ancestral holdings. With then the Grand River Valley legally open to White settlement, in 1825 a missionary by the name of Isaac McCoy was among the first white settlers to make use of the area by building schools and churches. A year later in 1826, French trader Louis Campau established a trading post. Even though communities were developing in the Grand River Valley, it was not until 1831 that the area was named and its boundaries were organized into the county now known as Kent County. The newly organized land sold to Louis Campau for $90 is now downtown Grand Rapids. This particular area was favorable to many people, and so immigrants from New England and New York have made their way to the city of Grand Rapids.

As Grand Rapids began to become more populated, the city’s existence began to flourish. The population of Grand Rapids increased to over 500 people in 1836 (5 fold since 1831). Political organizations and offices began to form, more schools and churches, along with hotels, bridges, and several saw mills, were built too. At this time, and leading into the mid-1800s, Grand Rapids was becoming a commercial landmark. Yet even though there was much development, Grand Rapids was still considered a village. It wasn’t until April 2, 1850 that Grand Rapids became a city. Finally, shortly after the city’s incorporation on May 11, 1850, the first elections where held with Henry R. Williams becoming the first mayor.

Considering the number of sawmills along the Grand River which directly led to the growth of Grand Rapids, very early on the city established a reputation for furniture production. As early as 1834, there have been small shops where furniture was made. Many of the furniture establishments were powered by the Grand River itself. Even in current times, Grand Rapids remains the world leader in the production of office furniture.