Detroit’s storied past is full of unique events that shaped the way it is today. From its founding in 1701 to its exit from bankruptcy, Detroit has seen much over its three centuries of existence. It’s been the capital of a territory and forged a new mode of transportation. Check out these and more highlights from Detroit’s past.

1) July 24, 1701

Old Detroit Map

Antoine Laumet de la mothe Cadillac and his expedition established the settlement that would grow to become Detroit on July 24, 1701. Cadillac claimed the site of the new settlement for France, and it gave the French the ability to control the river next to it. Though Detroit remained a small frontier town for the next few decades, an influx of fur traders, artisans, and farmers ensured that the settlement has a bustling economy.

2) June 30, 1805


Detroit became the capital of the Michigan Territory on June 30, 1805. The U.S. Congress established the Michigan Territory months earlier, but the legislation didn’t go into effect until the end of June. Before Detroit could really enjoy its status as capital city, it had to embark on the painstaking recovery from a fire that happened on June 11. The entire city was nearly destroyed, but Detroiters recovered and went on to thrive.

3) October 24, 1815


Lewis Cass, governor of the Michigan Territory, incorporated Detroit for the third and final time on October 24, 1815. The reincorporation followed the strife of the War of 1812. Detroit had been taken over by the British and then recaptured by the Americans. As the Americans wrapped up their war affairs, Cass reincorporated the city, and it stuck.

4) June 16-17, 1903

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Henry Ford and eleven other investors met in Detroit on June 16, 1903 to sign papers that enabled them to found the Ford Motor Company. On the following day, Michigan’s secretary of state received the papers, and the company was officially incorporated. Despite spending almost all of its $28,000 cash investment by July 23, the company had turned a tidy $37,000 profit by October 1. It was the start of many great things to come.

5) April 20, 1909

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With the boom in the Ford Motor Company, it’s no surprise that Detroiters demanded better roads. On Tuesday, April 20, 1909, the Wayne County Road Commission answered the city’s demands and laid the first stretch of concrete highway in the nation. This monumental road, still part of present-day Detroit, is located on Woodward Ave between 6 and 7 Mile roads.

6) April 19, 1926

Ossian Sweet

This date marks the beginning of Henry Sweet’s trial. Henry and his brother, Ossian Sweet, had defended Ossian’s home against a white mob who wanted to remove the black family from the all-white neighborhood. At the time, it was unheard of and almost impossible for blacks to get access to housing outside of small designated areas in the city. Ossian and Henry had been tried in late 1925, but the judge declared a mistrial after the jury failed to return a verdict.

In 1926, the men were tried separately, and Henry Sweet appeared in court first. At the conclusion of the trial, the all-white jury acquitted Henry Sweet. The prosecuting attorney then elected to dismiss the charges against Ossian Sweet and his family. Although it did not end housing segregation in Detroit, it was the beginning of some progress.

7) April 8, 1956


The last regularly scheduled streetcar operated its final run in Detroit, appropriately on Woodward Avenue. The Woodward line dated back to 1863. If you’ve driven down Woodward downtown lately, you probably have seen the construction for M1 Rail bring streetcar service back to a portion of the route from New Center to Hart Plaza. That’s due to open in 2017.

8) January 12, 1959

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Berry Gordy, Jr. was a man with a dream and an incredible knack for picking out musical talent. On January 12, 1959, he founded Tamla Records, which marked his first foray into record producing. He signed a handful of artists under the label, but things didn’t really take off until April 14, 1960.

On that date, Gordy incorporated Tamla Records as Motown Record Corporation. Under his new label, Gordy found singers with rare talent, and he created music that changed first a city and then a nation.

9) July 23-27, 1967

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What started as a police raid on an illegal after-hours drinking club soon escalated into a full scale riot on July 23, 1967. Inside the club, officers found a group of 82 African Americans celebrating the return of two Vietnam War veterans. The police decided to arrest everyone on the spot.

Not surprisingly, the move didn’t sit well with local residents, many of whom were African American and had long been subject to racism and police brutality. Residents started to protest the raid and began looting businesses. The rioting lasted until July 27. To stop the violence, over 9,000 members of the U.S. National Guard were deployed to Michigan and 800 Michigan State Police were sent to help.

10) July 18, 2013

Spirit of Detroit. Daily Detroit file photo.
Spirit of Detroit. Daily Detroit file photo.

Detroiters knew that the city had been struggling for some time, but things really took a turn for the worse on July 18, 2013. Detroit filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. The city’s debt hovered around $18 billion. Detroit and its citizens were plunged into an intense debate about how to help the city recover. It’s been a long, thorny path for Detroiters, and everyone had to make concessions.

11) December 10, 2014


Detroit finally emerged from the largest-ever municipal bankruptcy on December 10, 2014. The city’s exit from bankruptcy took only 17 months, an impressive feat. Now getting back on its feet, Detroit’s future looks brighter than it did. A new wave of business is moving in, and residents still harbor a fierce Detroit pride.

Looking to the Future

It’s important for a city to know its past. Knowing where its been can help a city determine where it wants to go, and it can help a city define, or redefine, itself. Detroit’s exit from bankruptcy has allowed the city to start a new chapter in its history, and so far, the story looks promising.

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