by Bret Schnitzer
Originally founded as a village in 1854 (deeded by John Biddle to Eber Ward, et al. on December 12, 1854), Wyandotte was incorporated as a city, and granted a charter by the State of Michigan, on December 12, 1866, with the first city election held in April 1867 (the second oldest incorporated city in Wayne County outside of Detroit). The site where Wyandotte sits today in the 18th century was a small village called by the native Indians “Maquaqua” and by the local French “Monguagon”. This Native American tribe was known as the Wyandot or Wendat, and were part of the Huron nation originally from the Georgian Bay area of Canada. It was from near here, along the banks of Ecorse Creek, now a northern boundary of the present-day city, that Chief Pontiac plotted his failed attack against the British garrisoned Fort of Detroit, in 1763. The center of the village was nearly parallel to Biddle Avenue between Oak and Eureka streets near the river and its sandy beach, which was a welcome feature to the local tribesmen, as their main mode of transportation to the fort in Detroit was by birch bark canoe. The tribe was considered peaceable and friendly with the British, the remaining French in the area, and the newly arrived Americans. They were a farming tribe and were therefore fairly stable in their settlement, relying heavily on hunting in the local surrounding hardwood forest, fishing from the river, and trading with the nearby fort and associated settlers to supplement their existence. Between Maquaqua/Wyandotte and Detroit (a distance of roughly 10 to 12 miles (16 to 19 km)) there were numerous settlers living along the river who inhabited their ancient “Ribbon Farms”, some dating back to the time of Antoine Cadillac’s founding of “Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit”, in July 1701.
In 1818, the Wyandot signed a treaty with the U.S. government relinquishing this land, moving to an area near Flat Rock, Michigan, then to Ohio, Kansas and finally Oklahoma. The name somewhat lives on as Wyandotte County, Kansas.
One of the first white settlers to come to Wyandotte in the years after the Native Americans left was John Biddle, a Pennsylvania-born former Army major who fought in the War of 1812 and later went on to a prolific political career, serving as mayor of Detroit, delegate from the Territory of Michigan in the U.S. Congress, president of the Michigan Central Railroad, member and later speaker of the Michigan House of Representatives and one-time candidate for Michigan Governor. West Jefferson Avenue, which begins in downtown Detroit and runs south to Berlin Township, becomes Biddle Avenue within Wyandotte city limits.
Biddle purchased a 2,200-acre (8.9 km2) plot near modern Biddle Avenue and Vinewood Avenue in 1835 and created a farm he called “The Wyandotte.” He sold the plot in 1854 to Eber Ward of the Eureka Iron Co. for $44,000. In 1864, Captain Eber Brock Ward used a high-quality grade of iron ore (known as “Superior”) from the recently opened Marquette Range in the Upper Peninsula, and smelted it into the first Bessemer Steel commercially cast in America, using the patented Bessemer process. In 1865, the process created steel rails and allowed an explosion of iron-related businesses to open in the region. As a result, Detroit soon became a major center of iron production, especially for use in stoves. (Wyandotte was home to several companies as well, including the Regeant Stove Co.) It would be this technology that would give Henry Ford from nearby Dearborn the capabilities to create large amounts of steel for his automobile assembly lines.
John S. Van Alstyne, General Manager for Eber Ward of both the Eureka Iron & Steel Works and the associated Wyandotte Rolling Mills, laid out the master plan for the city. This plan was frequently called the “Philadelphia Plan”, with streets laid out on a north/south and east/west grid. Streets going along one axis were named after native plants and trees; the streets running away from the river, into the interior, were simply numbered. Van Alstyne was elected as the city’s first mayor in 1867. (A street along Wyandotte’s Detroit River is named after him – ironically on the site of the former iron works he managed, after it failed and was razed around 1904.) He would also go on to found the Wyandotte Savings Bank in 1871, which was housed in the Main Office building of the Eureka Iron Works (which still stands at the southwest corner of Biddle and Elm; though greatly remodelled it remains the oldest building in the city today).
Eureka Iron Works prospered through the late 19th century but suffered a shortage of raw materials. It closed in 1892, but not before Wyandotte became a major hub in the chemical production industry, possible because of the many salt mines deep below the city.
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