Michiana and the Southwestern Lower Peninsula is a region of woodlands, oak openings, small fertile prairies and grasslands, river bluffs and marshes, sand dunes, and lakeshore. It is bounded on the west by the restless expanse of Lake Michigan, which is the terminal pool for the St. Joseph, Black, and Kalamazoo river watersheds. The St. Joseph River winds through the southern tier of counties from its rise in Hillsdale County. The Kalamazoo River crosses Kalamazoo County on its northwesterly course to its mouth at Saugatuck on the western shore of the state. Both are part of the St. Lawrence River system.
The St. Joseph River served as a major transportation route. Native Americans lived in the St. Joseph River valley, and French explorers and missionaries came here and built forts and missions on the river's banks. In 1679, René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, built Fort Miami, a stockaded camp, at the mouth of the St. Joseph River at the present site of the city of St. Joseph. It served as a base for explorations southward into the Mississippi River valley, but was soon abandoned. In 1691 other French explorers, seeking to establish authority over the Miami and Potawatomi and to control the fur trade, journeyed twenty-five miles up the St. Joseph River and built Fort St. Joseph near the site of present-day Niles. A Jesuit mission had already been established in the same vicinity in the 1680s. Following the French departure in 1763, the British held the fort until it was captured by the Spanish in 1781. The Spanish only remained a few days, but their stay gave Niles the name “City of Four Flags.”
If people and supplies bound for the interior of Michiana and the Southwestern Lower Peninsula traveled up the St. Joseph River, the river also was a means of export. Reversing the usual eastward to westward migration pattern into the state, some early settlers in this region came from the south and the west. Others used Niles as a stepping-off point. Located at the juncture of major east–west and north–south land and water routes, Niles was also at the point where the Sauk Trail crossed the St. Joseph River. From Niles the Kankakee Trail led south to a portage between the St. Joseph and Kankakee rivers to connect the St. Joseph with the Mississippi River by way of the Kankakee and the Illinois rivers. In 1822–1823, Isaac McCoy, a Baptist, established the Carey Indian Mission for the Potawatomi at Niles. By 1825 more settlers had arrived from Indiana to push farther upriver to Pokagon Prairie in Cass County, and in the 1830s settlers poured into southwestern Michigan.
In 1827, after the Indian titles were terminated by the Treaty of Chicago, the Michigan territorial legislature approved the organization of all the territory lying west of Lenawee County into one county—St. Joseph County. The boundaries of all five counties within Michiana and the Southwestern Lower Peninsula were defined and named in 1829. However they organized their governments at different times: St. Joseph and Cass counties in 1829, Kalamazoo County in 1830, Berrien in 1831, and Van Buren in 1837. Establishment of the counties encouraged land sales and speculation, and in 1831 a land office opened in White Pigeon.
Attracted first to the small fertile prairies of St. Joseph and Cass counties, settlers from New England, New York, Ohio, Indiana, and from Pennsylvania and Virginia crossed the Western Reserve and established farms. A surprising architectural achievement of this early migration is the Greek Revival Marantette house, Woodlawn ( SJ4). Cass County included unusually large communities of Potawatomi Indians and African Americans. Quakers helped escaped slaves along two different routes of the Underground Railroad that converged just east of Cassopolis. Freed slaves settled in Cass County from the 1830s, and by the 1860s, the largest number of African Americans in Michigan outside of Wayne County resided in Cass County, where they founded schools and churches, resorts, and farms. On the sandy soil of Berrien and Van Buren counties and with a climate tempered by the waters of Lake Michigan, other settlers cultivated orchards, berries, and vineyards, and built canneries and wineries. Farmers grew vegetables and mint in the muck land along the Kalamazoo River valley and raised pigs in the southern portion of the region. To support this agricultural region, communities and cities sprang up along the waterways, highways, and railroad lines.
The region's rivers also served as a means of transporting logs to sawmills and shipping ports. Logs were floated down the Black River to South Haven to be sawed at mills and loaded onto ships. Lumber mills flourished along the Lake Michigan shoreline from the 1850s to 1870. Large companies operated mills at Bridgman, Union Pier, and Lakeside.
Today three major roads—U.S. 12, MI 60, and I-94—traverse the region. Of these, U.S. 12, or the Chicago Road, follows the old Sauk Trail west from Detroit and Monroe through Coldwater, Sturgis, and Niles to Chicago. The road is dotted with examples of architecture derived from practices on the Eastern Seaboard. The Michigan Department of Transportation has designated the road a Historic Heritage Route. As early as 1833 a strong timber bridge was built at Mottville where the road crosses the St. Joseph River, and bridges have been at the site ever since. Mottville became a center of river traffic with wharves and warehouses.
Internal improvements furthered settlement and economic development in the region. In 1836 the federal government began dredging and improving the port facilities at St. Joseph Harbor. Goods were taken off river barges here, loaded on lake vessels and shipped out, while supplies for Kalamazoo, Niles, and South Bend, Indiana, were brought in. In 1863, twenty-seven years after the first improvements were made, the harbor was finally constructed. Saw milling, flour milling, and boat building developed at St. Joseph and at South Haven.
Railroads also were important to the region's growth. Financed with private funds, the Erie and Kalamazoo Railroad was completed in the 1840s. At the same time, the state legislature planned three other railroads, two of which ran across Michiana and the Southwestern Lower Peninsula—the Michigan Southern from Monroe on Lake Erie to New Buffalo on Lake Michigan and the Michigan Central Railroad from Detroit to St. Joseph, which arrived in Niles in 1848.
Commercial fishing, shipbuilding, and tourism were also important to the region's economy. The southwesterly wind pattern provided welcome breezes for vacationing Chicago and St. Louis dwellers, who, beginning in 1870, arrived by lake steamers and train. Running south to north from New Buffalo to Ludington, the West Michigan Pike (U.S. 31) opened up scenic dune land and beach towns and brought resorts, such as Glassman's (now The Victoria Resort, c. 1925) at 241 Oak Street in South Haven, to serve Chicago vacationers. Resort hotels at South Haven, St. Joseph, and other coastline communities and inland lakes also provided accommodation.
Before the Civil War, Kalamazoo County established itself as a leader in Michigan education. In 1833 the Michigan territorial legislature chartered the Baptist-sponsored Michigan and Huron Institute in Kalamazoo to promote education. The following year, the University of Michigan opened a branch in Kalamazoo. The two institutions merged and in 1855 became Kalamazoo College ( KZ19). In 1850 the Michigan Asylum for the Insane ( KZ21) was also established in Kalamazoo.
The region's industries included the production of washing machines, bicycles, pharmaceuticals, fishing tackle, wood and paper products, stoves and furnaces, featherbones, and carriages. The architecture of the region was influenced not only by the East but also by Chicago. Such well-known Chicago architects as Adler and Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and William A. Otis designed buildings in Kalamazoo and St. Joseph. Other architects who worked in the region include Henry Lord Gay; Tallmadge and Watson; Wheelock and Clay; Frank S. Allen of Indiana, who designed the Indiana School (1898) in South Haven; Harry Weese; and Stanley Tigerman and Margaret McCurry.
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