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Defense, expense, and growth: Why Michigan’s capital moved from Detroit to Lansing in 1847

The story of how Lansing became our state capital starts when Michigan is in its infancy – back in the early 1800s.

When Michigan became a territory in 1805, Detroit was named territorial capital – and for good reason.

“It was the largest city, certainly, and it was also accessible by water, which was very important in an era when roads are, at best, terrible in most places,” said Valerie Marvin, Michigan state Capitol historian.

Detroit also already had a deep history, Marvin said – one that dated back to the French period. It was the area’s natural gathering place.

Still, the city’s location was not perfect. In fact, the 1835 Michigan Constitution says:

"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."

Legislators decided that by the year 1847, Detroit would no longer be the state capital.

“Detroit was right on the edge of the state, and no other state had their capital on the edge,” said Rachel Clark of the Michigan History Center. “Most of them were closer to the center.”

That wasn’t the only issue. The city also sat just across the river from Canada, which Clark said was problematic for many.

“In 1835, the War of 1812 was in living memory,” Clark said. “And so, it was decided when they wrote the constitution that the capital simply couldn’t stay in Detroit, that eventually it should be moved closer to the center of the state.”

When the time came, Ann Arbor, Jackson, Marshall, DeWitt and Lansing were among the areas considered.

“One of the things that Lansing offered was free land and free buildings,” Clark said. “The state had gone through some economic problems in the late 1830s and 1840s, and so the choice of building a capital had to come with a very low, if zero, price tag.”

In 1847, Lansing and its low price tag took the prize. It became our state capital 170 years ago this month.

For more, including what the Lansing area was like at the time (and what its original name was), listen above.

This segment is produced in partnership with the Michigan History Center

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