Lakes Appreciation Month: Great Lakes History & Inhabitants

The Great Lakes provides a variety of resources and activities to the residents in its watershed. Its history is as unique as its features.

Today most people think of recreation, shipping, fishing and other water activities when they think of the Great Lakes. Most don’t realize the long and diverse history of this very important resource.

IN the beginning, about 14,000 years ago, the entire Great Lakes region was covered in glaciers more than one-half mile thick. As the glaciers melted and receded, it left deep depressions in the earth’s surface that filled with water. Enter the first Great Lakes. About 10,000 years ago the final lake shapes that we know today were formed.

Let’s fast forward to the early 1600’s. Étienne Brûlé, acting as advance scout for explorer Samuel de Champlain, is given credit as the first European to discover the Great Lakes in 1615. However, Native Americans were the first inhabitants of the Great Lakes region hundreds, if not thousands of years earlier, with approximately 120 different Native American tribes occupying the region throughout history. As a result of this long Native American history, each of the names of the Great Lakes comes from either a Native word for the lakes or a Native tribal name. All of the Great Lakes were known by more than one name - usually both a Native and European name - as the area was settled.

  • Lake Erie gets its name from the Iroquoian word, erielhonon, meaning “long tail” which describes the shape of the lake. Some credit the Erie tribe that settled along Lake Erie shores for its name.

Lake Erie is the fourth largest of the five lakes when measured by surface area but the smallest if measured by volume of water.

  • Lake Ontario comes from the Huron Tribe word meaning “lake of shining water.” It was also named LakeSt. Louis by Explorer Champlain. This lake is the smallest when measured by surface area. While it has similar width and length as Lake Erie, it has four times the water volume of Lake Erie due to its depth.
  • Lake Huron is actually named for the Wyandot Indians or Hurons. Lake Huron has the longest shoreline when including all of its many islands. It is the second largest of the Great Lakes in surface area. Lake Huron and Lake Michigan are actually considered to be one lake connected by the Straits of Mackinac due the constant flow of water between the two lakes.
  • Lake Michigan is derived from the Ojibwa Indian word mishigami meaning “large lake.” However it is only the third largest of the Great Lakes when measured in surface area. It is the only Great Lakes completely in the United States.
  • Lake Superior is largest lake both in surface area and water volume. Its name comes from the French word, lac supérieur which means “upper lake.” At the same time, Native Americans called Lake Superior “kitchi-gummi.

While today there is a robust shipping industry on the Great Lakes, shipping of a different nature actually began soon after the first European settlers arrived. It was the fur trade. Native Americans saw and wanted some of the implements the explorers brought realizing it would make their lives easier. The pelts of fur-bearing animals were sought after by traders. Native Americans from the upper lakes traveled by canoe through the Great Lakes and its tributaries to what became knows as trade centers: Montreal, Green Bay, Chicago, Sault Ste. Marie, and Mackinaw City. The trails between the trade centers and lakes are today major highways in and out of these cities.

The Great Lakes have a unique and interesting history from their formation to evolution of their use in social, economic and recreational activities. From the first settlers to today, expansion and innovation have kept these original trade centers active ports as well as adding many more making the Great Lakes system one of the busiest waterways in the world.

For more information on Great Lakes history, visit the Great Lakes Information Network (GLIN). 

Also see The Michigan State University Extension article, Lakes Appreciation Month: Great Lakes Facts and Features, for more Great Lakes information.

Did you find this article useful?