“The seat of government for this state shall be at Detroit, or at such other place or places as may be prescribed by law until the year eighteen hundred and forty-seven, when it shall be permanently located by the legislature.”
So did Michigan’s State Constitution of 1835 read, putting a definitive timeline on when the capital would be moved. Most Michiganders know that Detroit was the original home of the state’s government, and for good reason. It was the near the mouth of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway that connected the Midwest to Atlantic shipping routes, supporting the states’ early growth. It had a deep history—France first settled Detroit in the early 18th century—and impressive infrastructure as the region’s natural gathering place.
The legislature spelled out four big reasons to move the capital away from Detroit:
- War games: Detroit was just a puddle jump away from British-controlled Canada, making the city vulnerable to naval attack. Detroit had briefly surrendered to Canada in the War of 1812.
- Population: Outside of Detroit, Michigan was largely untouched wilderness. New settlements were much-needed.
- Accessibility: They wanted everyone in the state to be within a reasonable distance from the seat of the government. (They didn’t know the U.P. would one day come into the picture.)
- Economy: To “boost the economy of the interior,” including taking advantage of the natural resources and fertile land.
For these reasons, Lansing became capital in January 1847. Only 20 settlers lived there at the time, having been “scammed” to buy land with the promise of there already being roads and infrastructure. The Agricultural College of the State of Michigan—later, Michigan State University—was founded on the east side in 1855. The City of Lansing was finally incorporated four years later, after its population swelled to 3,000.
Although Michigan now extends well beyond Lansing, the capital is still a hub for sports, the great outdoors, and nostalgic walks through history. Being the home of the legislature, there are a number of think tanks, activist groups and political movements, making it an important centerpiece in Michigan’s past and present, and charting the state’s future.
Photo courtesy of Jim Bowen.