The Great Lakes People

The first inhabitants of the Great Lakes basin arrived about 10,000 years ago. They had crossed the land bridge from Asia or perhaps had reached South America across the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. Six thousand years ago, descendants of the first settlers were using copper from the south shore of Lake Superior and had established hunting and fishing communities throughout the Great Lakes basin.

The population in the Great Lakes area is estimated to have been between 60,000 and 117,000 in the 16th century, when Europeans began their search for a passage to the Orient through the Great Lakes. The native people occupied widely scattered villages and grew corn, squash, beans and tobacco. They moved once or twice in a generation, when the resources in an area became exhausted.

Early Settlement By Europeans

By the early 1600s, the French had explored the forests around the St. Lawrence Valley and had begun to exploit the area for furs. The first area of the lakes to be visited by Europeans was Georgian Bay, reached via the Ottawa River and Lake Nipissing by the explorer Samuel de Champlain or perhaps Étienne Brulé, one of Champlain's scouts, in 1615. To the south and east, the Dutch and English began to settle on the eastern seaboard of what is now the United States. Although a confederacy of five Indian nations confined European settlement to the area east of the Appalachians, the French were able to establish bases in the lower St. Lawrence Valley. This enabled them to penetrate into the heart of the continent via the Ottawa River. In 1670, the French built the first of a chain of Great Lakes forts to protect the fur trade near the Mission of St. Ignace at the Straits of Mackinac. In 1673, Fort Frontenac, on the present site of Kingston, Ontario, became the first fort on the lower lakes.

Through the 17th century precious furs were transported to Hochelaga (Montreal) on the Great Lakes routes, but no permanent European settlements were maintained except at Forts Frontenac, Michilimackinac and Niagara. After Fort Oswego was established on the south shore of Lake Ontario by the British in 1727, settlement was encouraged in the Mohawk and other valleys leading toward the lakes. A showdown between the British and the French for control of the Great Lakes ended with the British capture of Quebec in 1759.

The British maintained control of the Great Lakes during the American Revolution and, at the close of the conflict, the Great Lakes became the boundary between the new U.S. republic and what remained of British North America. The British granted land to the Loyalists who fled the former New England colonies to Upper and Lower Canada, now the southern regions of the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, respectively. Between 1792 and 1800 the population of Upper Canada increased from 20,000 to 60,000. The new American government also moved to develop the Great Lakes region with the passage by Congress of the Ordinance of 1787. This legislation covered everything from land sale to provisions for statehood for the Northwest Territory, the area between the Great Lakes and the Ohio River west of Pennsylvania.

The final military challenge for the wealth of the Great Lakes region came with the War of 1812. For the Americans, the war was about the expansion into, and development of, the area around the lakes. For the British, it meant the defense of its remaining imperial holdings in North America. The war proved to be a short one - only 2 years - but final. When the shooting was over both the Americans and the British claimed victory.

Canada had survived invasion and was set on an inevitable course to nationhood. The new American nation had failed to conquer Upper Canada but gained needed national confidence and prestige. Native people, who had become involved in the war in order to secure a homeland, did not share in the victory. The winners in the War of 1812 were those who dreamed of settling the Great Lakes region. The long-awaited development of the area from a beautiful, almost uninhabited wilderness into a home and workplace for millions began in earnest.

Development Of The Lakes

During the next 150 years the development of the Great Lakes basin proceeded with haste. The battles for territory so common during the era of empires and colonies gave way to nation-building, city-building and industrialization. The warriors of the previous era gave way to, or themselves became, the entrepreneurs, farmers and laborers who ran the mills, tilled the soil and provided the skills and services required for modern industrial economies.

The development of the Great Lakes region proceeded along several lines that took advantage of the many resources within the basin. The waterways became major highways of trade and were exploited for their fish. The fertile land that had provided the original wealth of furs and food yielded lumber, then wheat, then other agricultural products. Bulk goods such as iron ore and coal were shipped through Great Lakes ports, and manufacturing grew.


The promise of agricultural land was the greatest attraction to the immigrants to the Great Lakes region in the 19th century. By the mid-1800s, most of the Great Lakes region where farming was possible was settled. The population had swelled tremendously. There were about 400,000 people in Michigan, 300,000 in Wisconsin and perhaps half a million in Upper Canada.

Canals led to broader commodity export opportunities, allowing farmers to expand their operations beyond a subsistence level. Wheat and corn were the first commodities to be packed in barrels and shipped abroad. Grist mills - one of the region's first industries - were built on the tributaries flowing into the lakes to process the grains for overseas markets.

As populations grew, dairying and meat production for local consumption began to dominate agriculture in the Great Lakes basin. Specialty crops, such as fruit, vegetables and tobacco, grown for the burgeoning urban population, claimed an increasingly important share of the lands suitable for them.

The rapid, large-scale clearing of land for agriculture brought rapid changes in the ecosystem. Soils stripped of vegetation washed away to the lakes; tributaries and silty deltas clogged and altered the flow of the rivers. Fish habitats and spawning areas were destroyed. Greater surface runoff led to increased seasonal fluctuation in water levels and the creation of more flood-prone lands along the waterway. Agricultural development has also contributed to Great Lakes pollution, chiefly in the form of eutrophication. Fertilizers that reach waterways in soils and runoff stimulate growth of algae and other water plants. The plants die and decay, depleting the oxygen in the water. Lack of oxygen leads to fish kills, and the character of the ecosystem changes as the original plants and animals give way to more pollution-tolerant species.

Modern row crop monoculture relies heavily on chemicals to control pests such as insects, fungi and weeds. These chemicals are usually synthetic organic substances and they find their way to rivers and lakes to affect plant and animal life, and threaten human health. The problem was first recognized with DDT, a very persistent chemical, which tended to remain in the environment for a long time and to bioaccumulate through the food chain. It caused reproductive failures in some species of birds. Since the use of DDT was banned, some bird populations are now recovering. Other, less persistent, chemicals have replaced DDT and other problem pesticides, but toxic contamination from agricultural practices continues to be a concern. DDT levels in fish are declining but, in spite of being banned, some other pesticides, such as dieldrin, continue to persist in fish at relatively high levels.

Logging And Forestry

The original logging operations in the Great Lakes basin involved clearing the land for agriculture and building houses and barns for the settlers. Much of the wood was simply burned. By the 1830s, however, commercial logging began in Upper Canada. A few years later logging began in Michigan, and operations in Minnesota and Wisconsin soon followed.

Once again the lakes played a vital role. Cutting was generally done in the winter months by men from the farms. They traveled up the rivers felling trees that were floated down to the lakes during the spring thaw. The logs were formed into huge rafts or loosely gathered in booms to be towed by steam tugs. This latter practice had to be stopped because logs often escaped the boom and seriously interfered with shipping. In time, timber was carried in ships specially designed for log transport.

The earliest loggers mainly harvested white pine. In virgin stands these trees reached 60 metres (200 feet) in height, and a single tree could contain 10 cubic metres (6,000 board feet) of lumber. It was light and strong and much in demand for shipbuilding and construction. Each year, loggers had to move farther west and north in search of white pine. The trees were hundreds of years old and so were not soon replaced. When the resource was exhausted, lumbermen had to utilize other species. The hardwoods such as maple, walnut and oak were cut to make furniture, barrels and specialty products.

Paper-making from pulpwood developed slowly. The first sulfite process paper mill was built on the Welland Canal in the 1860s. Paper production developed at Green Bay in the U.S. and elsewhere in the Great Lakes basin. Eventually Canada and the U.S. became the world's leading producers of pulp and paper products. Today much of this production still occurs in the Great Lakes area. The pulp and paper industry (along with chloralkali production) contributed to the mercury pollution problem on the Great Lakes until the early 1970s, when mercury was banned from use in the industry.

The logging industry was exploitive during its early stages. Huge stands were lost in fires, often because of poor management of litter from logging operations. In Canada, lumbering was largely done on crown lands with a small tax charged per tree. In the United States, cutting was done on private land but when it was cleared, the owners often stopped paying taxes and let the land revert to public ownership. In both cases, clear-cutting was the usual practice. Without proper rehabilitation of the forest, soils were readily eroded from barren landscapes and lost to local streams, rivers and lakes. In some areas of the Great Lakes basin, reforestation has not been adequate and today, as a result, the forests may be a diminishing resource.

Canals, Shipping And Transportation

Conflict over the Great Lakes continued after the War of 1812 in the form of competition to improve transportation routes. By 1825, the 586 km (364 mile) Erie Canal, a waterway from Albany, New York, to Buffalo, was carrying settlers west and freight east. The cost of goods in the west fell 90 percent while the price of agricultural products shipped through the lakes rose dramatically. Settlement in the fertile expanses of Ohio and Michigan became even more attractive.

The Canadians opened the Lachine Canal at about the same time to bypass the worst rapids on the St. Lawrence River. In 1829, the Welland Canal joined Lakes Erie and Ontario, bypassing Niagara Falls. Other canals linked the Great Lakes to the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and the Great Lakes became the hub of transportation in eastern North America.

Railroads replaced the canals after mid-century, making still-important transportation links between the Great Lakes and both seacoasts. In 1959, completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway allowed modern ocean vessels to enter the lakes, but shipping has not expanded as much as expected because of intense competition from other modes of transportation such as trucking and railroads.

Today, the three main commodities shipped on the Great Lakes are iron ore, coal and grain. Transport of iron ore has declined as some steel mills in the region have shut down or reduced production, but steel-making capacity in North America is likely to remain concentrated in the Great Lakes region. Coal moves both east and west within the lakes, but coal export abroad has not expanded as much as was anticipated during the rapid rise of oil prices in the 1970s. As a result of economic decline, the Great Lakes fleet of over 300 vessels is being reduced through the retirement of the older, smaller vessels.

Commercial Fisheries

Fish were important as food for the region's native people, as well as for the first European settlers. Commercial fishing began about 1820 and expanded about 20 percent per year. The largest Great Lakes fish harvests were recorded in 1889 and 1899 at some 67,000 tonnes (147 million pounds). However, by the 1880s some preferred species in Lake Erie had declined. Catches increased with more efficient fishing equipment but the golden days of the commercial fishery were over by the late 1950s. Since then, average annual catches have been around 50,000 tonnes (110 million pounds). The value of the commercial fishery has declined drastically because the more valuable, larger fish have given way to small and relatively low-value species. Over-fishing, pollution, shoreline and stream habitat destruction, and accidental and deliberate introduction of exotic species such as the sea lamprey all played a part in the decline of the fishery.

Today, lake trout, sturgeon and lake herring survive in vastly reduced numbers and have been replaced by introduced species such as smelt, alewife, splake, and Pacific salmon. Populations of some of the native species such as yellow perch, walleye and white bass have made good recovery. Lake trout, once the top predator in the lakes, survives in sufficient numbers to allow commercial fishing only in Lake Superior, the only lake where substantial natural reproduction still occurs. However, even in Superior, hatchery-reared trout are stocked annually to maintain the population.

In addition to the lake trout, the blue pike of Lake Erie, and the Atlantic salmon of Lake Ontario were top predators in the open waters of the lakes and were major components of the commercial fishery in earlier times. Of the three, the blue pike and Lake Ontario Atlantic salmon are believed to be extinct. Currently, hatchery-reared coho and chinook salmon are the most plentiful top predators in the open lakes except in the western portion of Lake Erie, which is dominated by walleye.

Only pockets remain of the once large commercial fishery. The Canadian commercial fishery in Lake Erie remains prosperous. In 1991, 750 Canadian fishermen harvested a total of about 2,300 tonnes (50 million pounds) with a landed value of about $59 million (Canadian). For Canada, the Lake Erie fishery represents nearly two-thirds of the total Great Lakes harvest. All commercial fish caught in Canada are inspected prior to market for quality and compliance with federal regulations.

In the United States, the commercial fishery is based on lake whitefish, smelt, bloater chubs and perch, and on alewife for animal feed. Commercial fishing is limited by a federal prohibition on the sale of fish affected by toxic contaminants. Pressure to limit commercial fishing in the U.S. is also exerted by sport fishing groups anxious to manage the fishery in their interests. In addition, the trend in the U.S. is to reduce the pressure on the fishery by restricting commercial fishing to trapnets that harvest species selectively, without killing species preferred by recreational fishermen.

Commercial fishing is under continuing pressure from several fronts. Toxic contaminants could cause the closure of additional fisheries as the ability to measure the presence of chemicals improves together with the knowledge of their effects on human health.

Sport Fishery

Several factors have contributed to the success of the sport fisheries. The sea lamprey, which almost destroyed the lake trout population, is being successfully controlled using chemical lampricides and low-head barrier dams. Walleye populations rebounded in Lake Erie owing to regulation of the commercial fishery and improvements in water quality. The population of alewife exploded as lamprey destroyed native top predators. The increase in alewife provided a forage base for new predators such as coho and chinook salmon, which were introduced in the 1960s to fill the gap left by depleted lake trout stocks, when lamprey populations declined.

The sport fishery developed quickly as Pacific salmon rapidly grew to large sizes after they were introduced into Lake Michigan. Charter fleets developed and a minor tourist boom led to plans to develop a large fish stocking program to fuel a new sport fishing industry.

By 1980, the idea of stocking exotic fish such as salmon to support the sport fishery had spread to all the lakes and jurisdictions. Ontario and Michigan also experimented with the 'splake', a hybrid of the native lake trout and brook (or speckled) trout. None of these predators has been able to reproduce very well, if at all, so the fishery has been maintained by stocking year after year. Ironically, the exception is the pink salmon, a small species accidentally introduced into Lake Superior in 1955. It has survived to establish spawning populations and spread through Lakes Michigan and Huron, where it established self-propagating populations by the 1980s.


Since early in the industrial age, the waterways, shorelines and woodlands of the Great Lakes region have been attractions for leisure time activities. Many of the utilitarian activities that were so important in the early settlement and industrial development became recreational activities in later years. For example, boating, fishing and canoeing were once commercial activities, but are now primarily leisure pursuits.

Recreation in the area became an important economic and social activity with the age of travel in the 19th century. A thriving pleasure-boat industry based on the newly constructed canals developed, bringing people into the region in conjunction with rail and road travel. Niagara Falls attracted travelers from considerable distances and was one of the first stimulants to the growth of a leisure-related economy. Later, the reputation of the lower lakes region as the frontier of a pristine wilderness drew people seeking restful cures and miracle waters to the many spas and 'clinics' that developed along the waterway.

In the 20th century, more people had more free time. With industrial growth, greater personal disposable income and shorter work weeks, people of all walks of life began to spend their leisure time beyond the city limits. Governments on both sides of the border acquired lands and began to develop an extensive system of parks, wilderness areas and conservation areas in order to protect valuable local resources and to serve the needs of the population for recreation areas. Unfortunately, by the time the need for publicly accessible recreation lands had become apparent, much of the land in the basin, including virtually all the shoreline on the lower lakes, was in private hands. Today, about 80 percent of the U.S. shoreline and 20 percent of the Canadian shore is privately owned and not accessible by the public.

The recreation industry includes production and sale of sports equipment and boats, marinas, resorts, restaurants and related service industries that cater to a wide range of recreational activities. In some areas of the basin, recreation and tourism are becoming an increasingly important component of the economy, in place of manufacturing. The Great Lakes basin provides a wide range of recreational opportunities, ranging from pristine wilderness activities in national parks such as Isle Royale and Pukaskwa to intensive urban waterfront beaches in major urban areas.

The increasingly intensive recreational development of the Great Lakes has had mixed impacts. Some recreational activities cause environmental damage. Extensive development of cottage areas, summer home sites, beaches and marinas has resulted in loss of wetland, dune and forest areas. Shoreline alteration by developers and individual property owners has caused changes in the shoreline erosion and deposition process, often to the detriment of important beach and wetland systems that depend upon these processes. The development of areas susceptible to flooding and erosion has caused considerable public reaction. There is pressure to manage lake levels to prevent changes that are part of natural weather patterns and processes. Pollution from recreational sites and boats has also caused water-quality degradation.

Recreational uses are a threat to the quality of the Great Lakes ecosystem, but also provide a basis for protecting quality by attracting and involving people who recognize that protection of the ecosystem is essential to sustain the recreation that they value. People who use the water for its fun and beauty can become a potent force in the protection of the ecosystem. Naturalists, anglers and cottagers were among the first to bring environmental issues to the attention of the public and call for the cleanup of the lakes in the 1950s and 1960s, when eutrophication threatened favored fishing, bathing and wildlife sites. Today more people than ever use and value the lakes for recreational purposes.

Recent years have seen a major resurgence in recreational fishing as the walleye fisheries recover and the new salmon fisheries develop. Lake Ontario now sports a very important salmon and trout recreational fishery. The water-quality recovery in Lake Erie has been complemented by record walleye reproduction in recent years. In many areas, Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago and Toronto particularly, there have been urban renewal movements with the lake front as a primary focus. Developing public access to the water is a key element of these renewal projects.

Urbanization And Industrial Growth

Nearly all the settlements that grew into cities in the Great Lakes region were established on the waterways that transported people, raw materials and goods. The largest urban areas developed at the mouths of tributaries because of transportation advantages and the apparently inexhaustible supply of fresh water for domestic and industrial use. Historically, the major industries in the Great Lakes region have produced steel, paper, chemicals, automobiles and other manufactured goods.

A large part of the steel industry in Canada and the United States is concentrated in the Great Lakes because iron ore, coal and limestone can be carried on the lakes from mines and quarries to steel mills. In the United States, ore is carried from mines near Lake Superior to steel mills at the south end of Lake Michigan and at Detroit, Cleveland, and Lorain in the Lake Erie basin. In Canada, ore from the upper lakes region is processed in steel mills at Sault Ste. Marie, Hamilton and Nanticoke.

Paper-making in the U.S. occurs primarily on the upper lakes, with the largest concentration of mills along the Fox River, which feeds into Green Bay on Lake Michigan. In Canada, mills are located along the Welland Canal as well as along the upper lakes. Chemical industries developed on both sides of the Niagara River because of the availability of cheap electricity. Other major concentrations of chemical production are located near Saginaw Bay in Lake Huron and in Sarnia, Ontario, on the St. Clair River, because of abundant salt deposits and plentiful water.

All of these industrial activities produce vast quantities of wastes. Initially the wastes of urban-industrial centers did not appear to pose serious problems. Throughout most of the 19th century industrial wastes were dumped into the waterways, diluted and dispersed. Eventually, problems emerged when municipal water supplies became contaminated with urban-industrial effluent. The threat to public health from disease organisms prompted some cities to adopt practices that seemed for the time to solve the problem.

In 1854, Chicago experienced a cholera epidemic in which 5 percent of the population perished, the rate of death due to typhoid fever had reached a high of 124 per 100,000 population. To protect its drinking water supply from sewage, Chicago reversed the flow of the Chicago River away from Lake Michigan. A diversion channel was dug to carry sewage effluent away from Lake Michigan into the Illinois and Mississippi River system. In Hamilton, in the 1870s, water could no longer be drawn from the harbor or from local wells because of contamination. A steam-powered water pump was installed to draw deep water from Lake Ontario for distribution throughout the city.

Many of the dangers of industrial pollution to the Great Lakes and to human and environmental health were not recognized until recently, in part because their presence and their effects are difficult to detect. In recent years this has become especially evident where aging industrial disposal sites leak chemicals discarded many years ago into the environment or where sediments contaminated by long-standing industrial activities continue to contribute dangerous pollutants to the waterways. Now the region must cope with cleanup of the pollution from these past activities at the same time that the industrial base for the regional economy is struggling to remain competitive.

Use of Great Lakes resources brought wealth and well-being to the residents of Great Lakes cities but the full price of the concentration of industry and people is only now being understood. The cleanup of the Great Lakes region will require continuous expenditure by, and cooperation among, state, provincial and federal agencies, local governments and industry. Through this cooperation, combined with public involvement, contaminant levels in the Great Lakes ecosystem have declined dramatically since the 1970s. Because many pollutants tend to persist in the environment, levels must continue to be reduced. Pollution-prevention measures are being combined with cleanup to deal with pollution in the Great Lakes.

Levels, Diversions And Consumptive Use Studies

The responsibilities of the International Joint Commission (IJC) for levels and flows of the Great Lakes are separate from its responsibilities for water quality. Water quality objectives are set by the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, but decisions about levels and flows are made to comply with the terms of the l909 Boundary Waters Treaty.

Only limited controls of levels and flows are possible and only for Lake Superior and Lake Ontario. The flows are controlled by locks and dams on the St. Marys River and in the St. Lawrence. Special boards of experts advise the IJC about meeting the terms of the treaty. Members of the binational control boards are equally divided between government agencies in both countries. Until l973, the IJC managed levels and flows for navigation and hydropower production purposes. Since then, the IJC has tried to balance these interests with prevention of shore erosion.

The IJC has carried out several special studies on levels issues in response to references, or requests, from the governments. In l964, when water levels were very low, the governments asked the IJC whether it would be feasible to maintain the waters of all the Great Lakes, including Michigan and Huron, at a more constant level. After a 9-year study, in l973, when water levels were very high, the IJC advised the governments that the high costs of an engineering system for further regulation of Michigan and Huron could not be justified by the benefits. The same conclusion was reached for further regulation of Lake Erie in l983.

Two human activities, diversion and consumptive use, have potential for affecting lake levels, although they have had relatively little impact to date. Diversion refers to transfer of water from one watershed to another. Consumptive use refers to water that is withdrawn for use and not returned. Most consumptive use in the Great Lakes is caused by evaporation from power plant cooling systems.

At present, water is diverted into the Great Lakes system from the Hudson Bay watershed through Long Lac and Lake Ogoki, and diverted out of the Great Lakes and into the Mississippi watershed at Chicago. These diversions are almost equally balanced and have had little long-term effect on levels of the lakes.

In l982, the IJC reported on a study of the effects of existing diversions into and out of the Great Lakes system and on consumptive uses. Until this study, consumptive use had not been considered significant for the Great Lakes because the volume of water in the system is so large. The study concluded that climate and weather changes affect levels of the lakes far more than existing human-made diversions. However, the report concluded that if consumptive uses of water continue to increase at historical rates, outflows through the St. Lawrence River could be reduced by as much as 8 percent by around the year 2030.

Lake levels vary from year to year and can be expected to continue to do so. Following the period of high lake levels in the 1980s, the IJC conducted another study of levels and the feasibility of modifying them through various means. In 1993, the study concluded that the costs of major engineering works to further regulate the levels and flows of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River would exceed the benefits provided and would have negative environmental impacts. Instead, it recommended comprehensive and coordinated land-use and shoreline management programs throughout the basin that would help reduce vulnerability to flood and erosion damages.

Introduction: The Great Lakes
Natural Processes in the Great Lakes
People & The Great Lakes
The Great Lakes Today - Concerns
Joint Management of the Great Lakes
New Directions for the Great Lakes Community

U.S. EPA Great Lakes National Program Office