A photo from Muskegon's Lumber Era courtesy of the Muskegon Museum
The human occupation of the Muskegon area goes back seven or eight thousand years to the nomadic Paleo-Indian hunters who occupied this area following the retreat of the Wisconsinian glaciation. The Paleo-Indians were succeeded by several stages of woodland Indian development, the most notable of whom were the Hopewellian type cultures that occupied this area perhaps two thousand years ago. During historic times the Muskegon area was inhabited by various bands of Ottawa and Pottawatomi tribes. Perhaps the best remembered of the historic Indian inhabitants of this area was the noted Ottawa Indian chief, Pendalouan. A leading participant in the French-inspired annihilation of the Fox Indians of Illinois in the 1730s, he and his people lived in the vicinity of Muskegon during the 1730s and 1740s until induced by the French to move their settlement to the Traverse Bay area in 1742.
The name "Muskegon" is derived from the Ottawa Indian term "Masquigon" meaning "marshy river" or "swamp." The "Masquigon" river is identified on French maps dating from the late seventeenth century, suggesting that the French explorers had reached the western coast of Michigan by that time.
No one knows for certain when the first Frenchman visited the Muskegon area, but Father Jacques Marquette traveled northward through this area on his fateful trip to St. Ignace in 1675 and a party of French soldiers under La Salle's lieutenant, Henry de Tonty, passed through this area in 1679.
If the French established any trading posts in this vicinity, their locations are not known. The earliest known resident of the county was Edward Fitzgerald, a fur trader and trapper who visited the Muskegon area in 1748 and who died here, reportedly buried in the vicinity of White Lake. Sometime between 1790 and 1800, a French-Canadian trader named Joseph La Framboise had established a trading post at the mouth of Duck Lake. Between 1810 and 1820 several French Canadian fur traders, including Lamar Andie, Jean Baptiste Recollect, and Pierre Constant, had established posts around Muskegon Lake.
Settlement of Muskegon began in earnest in 1837, when Muskegon Township was organized as a subdivision of Ottawa County. One of the earliest settlers, Henry Pennoyer, was elected as the first Township Supervisor in 1838.
As a corporate entity, Muskegon County dates from 1859. Prior to that time, the southern three quarters of the county were part of Ottawa County while the northern quarter belonged to Oceana County. At the time of the organization of the county in 1859, the county was divided into only six townships including Muskegon, Norton, Ravenna, White River, Dalton, and Oceana, with a total population of 3,947.
The era of settlement coincided with the beginning of the exploitation of the area's extensive timber resources. The commencement of the lumber industry in 1837 inaugurated what some regard as the most romantic history of the region.
The typical lumberman of the era was a young man in his twenties or thirties from New England, New York, or Pennsylvania who had enjoyed sufficient success in some previous occupation to build a small mill and to make a modest investment in Michigan timber lands. Local lumbermen such as Charles Mears, Martin Ryerson, Lyman Mason, Charles Hill, and George and John Ruddiman readily fit this stereotype. By the time the local lumber industry had reached its peak in the mid 1880s, forty-seven sawmills surrounded Muskegon Lake, while another sixteen dotted the shores of White Lake to the north. Muskegon was known as the "Lumber Queen of the World" when 665,000,000 board feet were cut in 1887 alone!
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the lumbering era was fading away. The local economy was severely depressed, the community disorganized, and the population restive and demoralized. Led by area industrialists, including Newcomb McGraft, Charles Hackley, and Thomas Hume, the community organized a program of economic development which attracted several substantial businesses to the community. Before long, Muskegon was well on its way to becoming a diversified industrial center, having attracted such firms as Shaw-Walker, Brunswick, Campbell, Wyant, and Cannon, Continental Motors, and the Central Paper Mill to this area. The Great Depression of the 1930s undermined much of that economic development, but the economy rebounded during World War II in response to Muskegon's role as an "Arsenal of Democracy." The 1950s and 1960s witnessed a return to the economic doldrums. Factories cut back on production and laid off employees in unprecedented numbers. Many area businesses closed their doors permanently. The 1960s and 1970s were years of business consolidation when numerous locally owned banks and industrial establishments were sold to giant national and international corporations. Since the 1970s, the industrial community has continued to diversify in order to cope with an ever-changing economy.
Over the years, Muskegon has attracted a unique mix of residents which has helped to shape the cultural and intellectual make-up of the community. The original settlers of the nineteenth century were typically native-born Americans from New England, New York, and Pennsylvania. They were quickly joined by immigrants from Canada, Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. The industrial surge at the the turn of the nineteenth century attracted large numbers of Southern Europeans to the area, while World War II witnessed the arrival of large numbers of Mexican-Americans, Southern blacks, and Appalachian whites. The melting pot diversity of Muskegon's ethnic heritage is in keeping with the varied nature of other elements of its recent past.
Daniel J. Yakes
Muskegon Community College and the Muskegon County Museum
Historic Figures of Muskegon County
Muskegon County's 150 Year Celebration 1859 - 2009