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Great Minds, Great Lakes


Social Studies

The Journey of the Great Lakes



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Tall Ship LogoGreat Lakes People

For a variety of reasons, the Great Lakes have attracted many different kinds of people from all over the world. From Native Americans to European immigrants, these people contribute to its diversity and cultural richness. This lesson introduces students to the people of the Great Lakes Basin.

About 10,000 years ago, around the time that the glacier receded, the first inhabitants of the Great Lakes area appeared. IT is believed that these Native Americans came from South America or across the land bridge once connecting the continents of North America and Asia in Alaska. Tribes of Native Americans peopled the shores, among them the Iroquois, Allumettes, Chippewas, Hurons, Ottawas, Senecas, Mohawks, Eries, and Ojibways. Many cities take their names from the tribes or great chiefs of these tribes, including Ottawa, Canada, Pontiac, Michigan,: and Erie, Pennsylvania. Lake Huron was named directly for the Huron Indians. Other present-day cities were once Indian Villages, including Quebec, Canada, which was once Stadacona: and Montreal, Canada, which was Hochelaga.

In Europe, two events increased curiosity about the so-called New World: voyages by Norsemen in the twelfth to fourteenth centuries and the voyage to America by Christopher Columbus in the fifteenth century. Artifacts such as a Viking sword, axe and shield found in Ontario and southwestern Minnesota suggest that the Vikings and Norsemen may have reached the North American continent as far inland as Minnesota via the Hudson By.

In the 1500s and 1600s, the French were the primary explorers and settlers in and around the Great Lakes. Less than 200 years after Norsemen reached the Great Lakes, French explorers and missionaries began to arrive. Over a period of time, they constructed forts along the Great Lakes all the way to Kingston, Ontario, where Fort Frontenac was located.

The British were active, too, constructing Fort Oswego on Lake Ontario's south shore in the early 1700s. The British had already colonized the New England states and part of Pennsylvania. Steady migration by the British into French-dominated territory around the Great Lakes led to war between the two nations over the fur trade. The first African Americans arrived in the Great Lakes area in the late 1700s, when Jean Batiste Pointe DuSable, a trapper, built a cabin the Chicago area. African Americans came in greater numbers in the late 1800s.

During the 1800s, there was a mass influx of other ethnic groups from Europe. They came to the New World in search of freedom and prosperity. In all, more that 21 different nationalities settled in the Great Lakes area. Scandinavians again were among the first to arrive. Norwegians founded the first permanent colony on the Fox River in Illinois, and Swedes settled at Pine Lake, Wisconsin, west of Milwaukee. Belgians also came, and the largest populations of Belgians in the United States are now in Door County, Wisconsin. The Irish represented the largest immigrant group in Canada. The first group of Finns settled on the upper peninsula of Michigan and worked in the copper mines there. They also peopled the areas around Duluth, Minnesota, working in the open-pit mines of the Vermilion and Mesabi ranges. Germans flocked to the Great Lakes area, particularly in Sandusky, Ohio, on Lake Erie and in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Also among the immigrants to the Great Lakes Basin were the Canadians, French-Canadians, Russians, Czechs, Greeks, Turks, Persians, and Spaniards, Welshmen, Scotsmen, and Dutch. Immigrants from Mexico, Puerto Rico, and other Central American countries came at the turn of the century, with significant migration occurring during World War I.


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