Can you guess Michigan’s 10 oldest cities and towns? Here’s how they got started.

Can you guess Michigan’s 10 oldest cities and towns? Here’s how they got started.

Photo courtesy of Canva

By Ellery Weil

October 24, 2023

History buff? Mitten traveler? If you’re curious to see a living slice of Michigan history first-hand, consider stopping by one of our 10 oldest cities and towns. Here’s why they’re worth a visit:

Greenville: 1867

(Photo via Andrew Jameson / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Greenville today may be best known as the birthplace of Meijer, but its history goes back much further than the store’s founding in 1934. Founded by 19th-century Danish settlers and incorporated as a village in 1867, today the town of 8,816 remains proud of its Danish origins, from the Little Mermaid statue in town (a small-scale replica of the one in Copenhagen) to the annual Danish Festival celebrated every August. Over the years, the many refrigerator factories that have come and gone there have earned it the title of “refrigerator capital of the world.”

Marquette: 1849

(Photo via Steven Fine / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Yoopers in particular have something to smile about when they think of Marquette—the largest city in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. While Native Americans and French Jesuits had lived in and around what is now Marquette for many years before, the village of Marquette was officially founded in 1849, alongside the Marquette Iron Company. Today, the city is known for its beautiful Lake Superior coastline and cultural events, including the Hiawatha Traditional Music Festival and Marquette Art Week, which showcases local artists every summer.

Mackinac Island: 1847

(Photo via n8huckins / CC BY-SA 4.0 Deed)

When you learn that a city made motorcars illegal immediately after they were invented, you know it’s a place with some history. Mackinac Island, whose name comes from an Ojibwe word for “Great Turtle,” was likely established as a European settlement at some point in the mid-1600s. In 1783, the US acquired the whole Straits area through the Treaty of Paris. Then, in 1817, the Borough of Michilimackinac was formed, followed closely by Michilimackinac County Not long after, in 1847, the Borough of Michilimackinac became established as the Village of Mackinac. Today, Mackinac Island is a popular vacation spot for Michiganders and tourists to enjoy pristine natural landscapes, Victorian architecture, and of course the famous fudge.

Traverse City: 1839

(Photo via Austin Park on Unsplash)

Cherry pie on the beach? We’re all in. Today, Traverse City is beloved by Michiganders for its delicious produce, which helps make Michigan the largest producer of cherries in the United States, as well as its beautiful lakeside beaches. But did you know this popular vacation spot is one of the oldest cities in Michigan? The Ojibwe and Potowatomi have lived in Traverse City for centuries. French fur traders named it “la grande traverse” for the long crossing they made across the bay. However, the city we know wasn’t officially established until 1839, around the same time its very first cherry trees were planted.

White Pigeon: 1837

(Photo via Joshua S. Goodrich, J.D., LL.M. / CC BY-SA 4.0)

With a town population that hovers around 1,600, the village of White Pigeon, first incorporated in 1837, is a small but mighty slice of Michigan history. Named for the Potawatomi chief Wahbememe, whose name translates to “White Pigeon,” this southern Michigan town is home to the oldest surviving US Land Office in the state of Michigan. If you’re passing through, try the Country Table for some Michigan home cooking or take a stroll along the White Pigeon River.

Birmingham: 1836

(Photo via OmidGul / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Located just north of Detroit, the city of Birmingham was founded in 1836 and named for the city of Birmingham, England. Today, with a population of 21,813 and close ties to the neighboring cities of West Bloomfield and Bloomfield Hills, Birmingham is considered a suburb of the Detroit metro area but still retains ties to its own specific history—including through the publication of its nearly 150-year-old local newspaper, the Birmingham Eccentric.

Dearborn: 1833

(Photo via WMrapids)

Home of the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, the city of Dearborn dates back to 1833, when it was established as Dearborn Township. Named for Henry Dearborn, Revolutionary War soldier and eventual Secretary of War for the Jefferson administration, today Dearborn is home to one of the oldest and largest Arab-American communities in the United States, with a particularly large Lebanese American population dating back to the early 20th century.

Detroit: 1701

(Photo via Michael Tighe)

The Motor City is well-known as the largest city in the state, both in terms of population and economy, but did you know it’s also one of the oldest? Dating back to the French settlement of Fort Pontchartrain du Detroit, founded in 1701, today Detroit is the third-largest economy in the midwest region and is famous for its historic auto industry and music scene, as well as its rapidly growing arts and startup sectors.

St. Ignace: 1671

(Photo via Royalbroil / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Located in the southern tip of the Upper Peninsula just a stone’s throw from Mackinac Island, the small town of St. Ignace is the seat of Mackinac County. The second-oldest European settlement in Michigan, the town dates back to the 1671 founding of the St. Ignace French mission. Today, St. Ignace is best known for the Mackinac Bridge, aka the “Mighty Mac,” which connects the Lower and Upper Peninsulas and is one of the Mitten’s most distinctive landmarks.

Sault Ste. Marie: 1668

(Photo via P199 / CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED)

The oldest town in Michigan wasn’t always entirely in Michigan—it was also in Canada. While today the “two Saults” are divided by the St. Mary’s River, prior to the War of 1812 they were a single city. Sault Ste. Marie traces its history to a French mission founded in 1668, making it not only the oldest European settlement in Michigan, but one of the oldest in North America. Today, the seat of Chippewa County is a town of more than 13,000 residents, home to Lake Superior State University and host of the International 500 Snowmobile Race.


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