City Guide: Detroit
5/2/2011
Today, we know it as Motor City and Motown, but Detroit was around long before Henry Ford and Diana Ross made waves. For more than 300 years, this inland city and major port has attracted immigrants from all over the world. Follow our guide to the historical high notes and top records -- genealogical, not musical -- for discovering your Detroit roots.

From French to Ford

In 1701, Frenchman Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac founded Fort Pontchartrain du Detroit on the Detroit River's north shore. The outpost kept would-be British occupiers at bay until the French and Indian War, when the British captured Detroit. The settlement remained a British territory until well after the American Revolution and even reverted back to Britain briefly during the War of 1812.

Detroit's shipping industry exploded in the early 1800s as canal and steamship routes opened the city to new markets. Laborers began arriving from around the world: Germans, Irish and Italians in the mid-1800s, Poles in the late 1800s, and Greeks in the early 1900s.

In the early 1900s, Ford Motor Co. and other auto builders attracted another wave of workers to Detroit. A close-knit Arab community developed in the 1920s. Immigration laws tightened in 1927, but Southerners still poured in. By World War II, 200,000 African-Americans lived in Detroit. The Black Bottom area on the near east side became a thriving African-American enclave that gave rise to Motown music.