French explorers, looking for a passage to China through the unexplored North American continent, visited what is now Michigan in the early 1600s. The native people gave the visitors some much-needed assistance during their journeys, building and navigating canoes, protecting and teaching them about the environment, and helping them forage and hunt for food. The Indians also traded animal furs for guns, powder, ammunition and other tools that moved their culture into the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.
In 1679, the French explorer Robert Cavelier de la Salle and French missionary Père Louis Hennepin entered a body of water while sailing on the Griffon up from Lake Erie on what is now the Detroit River. The date was 12 August 1679, which was the day of the religious festival of Sainte-Claire, who founded the order of Franciscan nuns in the 13th century. Ste.-Claire was a contemporary and friend of St. Francis of Assisi. Père (Father) Hennepin held a mass, during which the newly-discovered lake was given the name Lac Sainte-Claire. In time, the river leading north out of Lac Sainte-Claire, the county that developed along it, and a city on the river all took the same name St. Clair. (The name was often spelled St. Clare in English in the 1700s, but most mapmakers had settled on the current spelling by 1840.)
The profits being realized by the French traders prompted British traders from New-York and Hudson's Bay to try to get a share of the business themselves. In response, French governeur Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac established Fort Ponchartrain and the Détroit settlement in 1701. (The name Detroit comes from the French d'étroit, meaning "at the narrows.") The French and British fought four wars, primarily over the valuable fur trade in the Great Lakes regions, ending with the eventual withdrawal of the French from Forts Pontchartrain, St.-Joseph in western Michigan, and Mackinac in northern Michigan.
The British garrisoned these forts, but some Indians, many followers of Chief Pontiac, attacked in hopes of returning their friends, the French, to power in the region. After the Seven Years War ended with a peace treaty in 1763, the native people learned to accept the British, who in turn realized the value of protecting the fur trade from encroaching settlers, much as the French had. The British built Fort Sinclair near the entrance to the St. Clare River at the southern end of Lake Huron in 1765. During British rule, little changed culturally: fur trading, farming, religion and place names remained mostly of Indian or French origin, and those two cultures influence would continue to be felt in Michigan well after the American nation was established.
CDuring the Revolutionary War, what is now Michigan, then part of the British province of Québec, remained loyal to King George III. Although the popular view of the war of American independence is that George Washington's army defeated the British, in fact it was a war of attrition that the much better equipped British could have prolonged indefinitely. In the Great Lakes region, the British were superior in numbers, in fortifications, in supplies and in knowledge of the terrain, plus they had the Indians as their allies. But the king's military advisors told him the facts: while the Americans probably couldn't win, neither could the British. Tiring of the expensive war, King George gave in and granted independence to the 13 former colonies, although the British resisted giving up their Great Lakes forts until 1796.