History of Saginaw, Michigan

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Hoyt Public Library built in 1887

This article is about the history of Saginaw, Michigan.

Early history[edit]

The area of the present City of Saginaw was inhabited by woodland Native American Indians prior to settlement by those of European ancestry. The Sauk at one time lived in the area and were quickly driven out by Ojibwe (Chippewa). The Saginaw region includes an extensive network of many rivers and streams which converge into the Saginaw River and provided a means for easy travel for the Native American population among numerous settlements and hunting areas, as well as access to Lake Huron. Saginaw was also a frequent meeting location for councils of the Ojibwe, Pottawatomi, and Ottawa.

The present City of Saginaw itself did not serve as a location for permanent settlement until the time of European contact. This may be due, in part, to the low lying and frequently flooding land adjacent to the Saginaw River, much of which was marshland prior to being drained in the 19th century. Mosquito infestation was endemic to the area.

French missionaries first reached the area in the 17th century. Henri Nouvel, a Jesuit missionary who made repeated visits to the Native Americans present in the area, is of particular significance. He recorded information concerning his travels during the 1670s in his journals. The French controlled the territory consisting of the present day State of Michigan until it was ceded to the British following the Seven Years' War in 1763. The French established permanent settlements in many locations throughout the Great Lakes, but most of the interior of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, including the Saginaw River valley, was undeveloped. Both the French and the British primarily maintained settlements for trade and strategic defense, neither of which provided much reason to develop the Saginaw region. Following the British defeat during the American Revolutionary War, Michigan was granted to the United States. Despite this, the British remained in de facto control of the area for long after. It was not until after the conclusion of the War of 1812 that all presence of British military was removed from what is present-day Michigan. Soon after, in 1816, Louis Campau made the first attempt at permanent settlement at Saginaw by setting up a trading post. Trails leading from Detroit and the Mackinac area began to provide a slow start to Saginaw's development.

Fort Saginaw and early settlement in Saginaw[edit]

Lewis Cass in the Treaty of Saginaw negotiated the prerogative of the Americans to own and settle the area with the leaders of the Ojibwe in 1819. Soon thereafter the U.S. Army established a fort on the west bank of the Saginaw River and gave it the name Fort Saginaw. This was at the instigation of the Territorial Government with the main goal of controlling the actions of the Ojibwe in the region.[1]

Due to the undesirable conditions of intense humidity and mosquito infestation, the Fort was abandoned by 1824. A group of investors purchased some land near the fort and had it platted under the name "Town of Sagana". Few plots were sold and after the army pulled out, the town languished for most of the following decade. The town was re-platted in December 1830, comprising river front from Cass St. on the south to Harrison St. and north to Jefferson. These plots sold slowly. By 1835, only 24 had been sold and the remainder were transferred to a new owner, who made another plat in February 1837. However, the financial crisis of the Panic of 1837 dampened interest in purchasing properties. After selling only 58 out of the 407 plots, the remainder was sold again in 1841.[2]

Many of the early Euro-American settlers of Saginaw married Ojibwe women. For example, Jacob Grabfoot, a native of Germany who was the first European or Euro-American to settle permanently along the Saginaw River below Fort Saginaw, married a daughter of the Ojibwe leader Kishkawko.[3]

Organization of county and township governments[edit]

On September 10, 1822, Territorial Governor Lewis Cass issued a proclamation that set off the boundaries of Saginaw County, although it remained attached to Oakland County for administrative purposes until there was sufficient population to organize a separate government. The county boundaries initially included what is now the southern portion of Bay County and Midland County and the northwest corner of Shiawassee County. In 1831, the northwest corner of Saginaw County was detached to become a part of Midland County. In 1835, the southeast corner was detached to become a part of Genesee County. In 1857, the northern portion was detached to become a part of Bay County, although the precise alignment of the northern boundary shifted several more times in subsequent years.[4]

On July 12, 1830, the Territorial Legislature passed an act that erected the Township of Saginaw, effective with the first town meeting on April 4, 1831. The township comprised all of Saginaw County, which at the time was still attached to Oakland County. On January 28, 1835, the Territorial Legislature passed an act organizing county government in Saginaw County, effective on February 9, 1835.[4]

Four years before the county government was organized, another proclamation by Governor Cass on January 11, 1831, located the county seat at what was to become the City of Saginaw. The settlement was which had been platted for that purpose by a group of area residents.[4]

Lumber boom[edit]

The main cause for the development of Saginaw was the lumber needs of the growing American nation. A virgin growth forest principally consisting of white pine trees covered most of Michigan. The convenient access to water transportation provided by the Saginaw River and its numerous tributaries fueled a massive expansion in population and economic activity. As the trees were being felled in the region, logs were floated down the rivers to sawmills located in Saginaw, then to be loaded onto ships and later railroad cars.

Multiple settlements comprise what now is the present-day City of Saginaw. On the west side of the river the first settlement around what had been Fort Saginaw developed into Saginaw, which was incorporated as the City of Saginaw in 1857 and contained the seat of Saginaw County government. On the east side of the river a parallel settlement, East Saginaw, developed which was incorporated first as a village in 1855, and then as a city in 1859. Also south of the City of East Saginaw on the east bank of the river the Village of Salina formed. Its name relates to the salty brine that led to a growing industry of salt production in the area. Both Saginaw and East Saginaw quickly became a hub for railroad transportation in addition to ships on the Saginaw River. Also on the east side of the river was Florece, another sawmill settlement, that was eventually absorbed into Saginaw.[5]

Lumber production peaked by the early 1870s and had virtually disappeared by the end of the 19th century. In addition to salt production, which experienced an eventual decline as well, growing industries supporting the area's agriculture and manufacturing developed.

Consolidation of West and East sides[edit]

The former East Saginaw Post Office now is the site for the Castle Museum of Saginaw County History.

On June 28, 1889, the Michigan Legislature passed Act 455 to consolidate the City of Saginaw and the City of East Saginaw into a new city that also was named the City of Saginaw.[6][7] Prior to this consolidation, the Village of Salina had already been added to the City of East Saginaw. The consolidation of the City of Saginaw became effective with the election of officers on March 12, 1890.[7] The provisions of the city charter were established by the same act of the legislature that provided for the consolidation. The city was governed by a city council consisting of two aldermen elected from 21 wards and an executive mayor who had fairly weak powers because numerous other elected officials and elected or appointed boards controlled much of the administrative and executive functions of government. The efficient and cohesive functioning of the City's government also was constrained by remaining rivalries between residents, business owners, and politicians from the former two cities. The distinctions and rivalries between the east and west sides of the City of Saginaw persisted throughout the ensuing century in various forms, and influences Saginaw's political and economic experiences even at the present time.[8]

Industrial economy[edit]

At the dawn of the 20th century, production of motor vehicles became prolific throughout many communities in Michigan, but most notably Detroit. In Saginaw, the Jackson, Wilcox and Church Company produced carriages to be drawn by horses, and later produced components used in motor vehicles. The company was eventually acquired by General Motors and formed the basis for its Steering Gear division. Additionally, General Motors established foundries and other manufacturing facilities in Saginaw. The early development of automotive production within Saginaw would set the course for the future economic circumstances of the City.

Home Rule government[edit]

After a new state constitution was adopted in 1908 that mandated increased home rule powers for local units of government, the legislature enacted the Home Rule Cities Act in 1909. Under this statute, cities are permitted to frame and adopt their own city charters and are given great flexibility in structuring local government. The government under the 1889 Charter had continued to be inefficient and provided for much political infighting. In 1913, a new city charter was adopted with voter approval and which followed the commission form of city government that had gained in popular interest among various American cities in the early twentieth century. The new government consisted of five commissioners each elected separately at-large who served both as the city council and the executive heads of city government departments. One of the commissioners served as mayor, a mostly ceremonial role.

The 1913 city charter was followed for little more than two decades when the voters of the city again adopted another new city charter in 1935 following the council-manager form of government. The government under the 1913 city charter retained some of the independent boards that were given authority independent of the elected city commissioners. This caused some inefficiency and political friction. The economic consequences of the Great Depression during the 1930s provided the final catalyst for municipal government reform.

In contrast to the previous government structures, the 1935 charter, having taken effect in 1936, provided for all administration of city government to be headed directly by a single officer, the city manager, who was appointed by and accountable to a city council of nine members elected as a group by the entire city at-large. The system was designed to address two principal issues with Saginaw's history of municipal government: the inefficiency and politics associated with having executive and administrative authority spread among many different officers and boards, and political rivalries and friction between various geographic areas of the city, mainly the east and west sides.

20th century boom[edit]

As the United States entered the conflict of World War II, Saginaw's industrial complex was geared towards production supporting the war effort. Munitions and components for military vehicles made Saginaw a significant contributor to the nation's eventual victory. Specifically, Saginaw was home to one production facility that produced over half a million M1 Carbine rifles for the US Military during World War II.[9]

Saginaw became the destination for a great number of workers migrating from areas of the United States that were greatly devastated by the Great Depression, especially from the south. This migration continued throughout the war years and in the economic boom, which followed. Saginaw, like most of America, benefited from the dramatic economic prosperity following the war. General Motors expanded its presence in Saginaw, and other manufacturers increased production as well. This caused the population of the City to swell to its height of approximately 100,000 during the 1960s.

The needs of a growing city were met by significant investment in Saginaw's infrastructure. Notably, Saginaw constructed a 65-mile long water supply pipeline drawing water from Lake Huron in 1947 to meet the anticipated needs of the community. In addition, the cities of Midland and Bay City along with Saginaw jointly developed and began to operate an airport facility in nearby Tittabawassee Township that is now MBS International Airport.

Late 20th century decline[edit]

In the years following World War II, the legislature of the State of Michigan enacted laws making it increasingly difficult for incorporated cities to expand by annexing adjacent territory contained within townships. Townships, which had historically served a rural population, were given the ability to provide nearly all of the same services that an incorporated city can. Residential growth in neighboring townships led the City of Saginaw to provide water under long-term contracts to such other units of government. This increased the ability of adjacent townships to further develop. The unintended consequence of this was that the city of Saginaw stopped growing in population and new housing development slowed significantly.

As a result of migrations of workers from other parts of the United States, particularly the south, Saginaw's African-American population expanded significantly in proportion to those of European ancestry. Attitudes of racism promoted the segregation of African-American residents into concentrated neighborhoods almost exclusively within the city's east side. Mortgage lenders and real estate sales agents enforced racial segregation by making it difficult for residents of certain areas to obtain financing or for African-Americans to purchase properties in white neighborhoods. Gradually most of the east side's white population migrated either to the west side or to adjacent townships thus making the Saginaw River the virtual dividing line for segregated racial groups in Saginaw. From the 1950s onward and persisting to the present, African-Americans overwhelmingly comprise the east side's population while white residents form a majority of the west side. After the eventual breakdown of institutionally enforced segregation and increased opportunities for African-Americans, however, the west side has become significantly more diverse in its ethnic and racial composition and no longer has almost exclusively white residents.

The geographic racial segregation within Saginaw set the stage for much of the city's political concerns during the last 40 years. Increasingly, race and ethnicity became significant aspects of local political campaigns and issues. The racial composition of the majority of the city council has shifted between African-Americans and whites during this time. This has caused for some degree of tension to exist among members of the council at various times. The city council appoints a replacement member in the event of a vacancy. In each instance where a vacancy has occurred under the present city charter, a white replacement has been appointed when a white council member has vacated the seat, and an African-American replacement has been appointed when the prior incumbent was of the same race.[citation needed]

Also, since the city council selects one of its own members to serve as mayor, the racial group with a majority of the city council membership has elected a mayor from the same racial group. From 1989 until 2005, a majority of the city council membership was African-American and each of the mayors serving during this time were also African-Americans. Gary L. Loster served the longest tenure of any mayor in Saginaw's history during this time, an unprecedented four terms from 1993 until 2001.

The economic conditions of the City of Saginaw make up another significant area of concern. The decline of manufacturing has resulted in high rates of unemployment. There has been a decline in the values of properties in the city, which has shrunk the amount the city is able to collect through property taxes. Saginaw has experienced a significant rate of crime activity while at the same time being forced to decrease the size of its police department. Overall, the number of employees and size and scope of city government is now nearly half of its level during the 1970s.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ History of Saginaw County, Michigan, p. 164
  2. ^ Leeson, Michael A. (2005) [1881]. History of Saginaw county, Michigan. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Library. pp. 596+. Retrieved 2007-04-11. 
  3. ^ History of Saginaw County, Michigan (Chicago: Charles A. Chapman, 1881) p. 161.
  4. ^ a b c Leeson, Michael A. (2005) [1881]. History of Saginaw county, Michigan. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan Library. pp. 301–315. Retrieved 2007-04-11. 
  5. ^ Walter Romig, Michigan Place names, p. 200
  6. ^ "Minutes of City Council Meeting - June 27, 2005". Retrieved 2007-11-29. 
  7. ^ a b "City Charter Preface". Retrieved 2007-11-29. 
  8. ^ Thompson, Mike (June 2007). "Saginaw Celebrates its 150th Birthday!". Review Magazine 29 (641). Retrieved 2007-11-29. 
  9. ^ "A Pocket History of the M1 Carbine". Retrieved 2007-11-29.