Glaciers may have written the first chapter of Harbor Springs’ history book. When the glaciers receded thousands of years ago, they carved the northern Michigan landscape including the deep harbor surrounded by steep bluffs. Whether it was the Native Americans, Jesuit missionaries, French fur traders or lumber speculators, each group was drawn by these distinctive natural features.
Although migrant tribes of Native Americans likely moved through this area earlier, the first permanent settlement of Odawa Indians began north of Harbor Springs circa 1740. They called the land Waganakising, meaning “it is bent” in reference to the oddly bent pine tree that jutted out of the steep bluff along the Lake Michigan shore. Later, the French named this area L’Arbre Croche and the English called it the Land of the Crooked Tree. The Odawas’ presence brought the Jesuit missionaries who encouraged the Indians to join them at a new mission they called New L’Arbre Croche in 1829. The mission would later become Holy Childhood of Jesus Catholic Church and Indian School. The 1892 church still stands today at the west end of Main Street.
When Richard Cooper established a trading post along the waterfront in 1854, it marked a gradual transition from the Odawas’ trading to organized commerce. The small town continued to grow when, in 1874, Emmet County was open to settlement. By 1878, resorts were being formed at Harbor Point and Wequetonsing. By 1881, the small town called Little Traverse had been organized as the Village of Harbor Springs with its citizens electing their first village president.
In its history, Harbor Springs has been a center of trade, a lumbering boom town, a destination of ships and trains from the Midwest and beyond. And although the industries have changed over the years, the natural beauty of the area continues to make Harbor Springs a destination.
For more information about the unique history of Harbor Springs, please contact the Harbor Springs Area Historical Society at 231.526.9771. (Our thanks to Harbor Springs Area Historical Society for providing this editorial.)
When visiting Harbor Springs, make sure to check out "Walking Past: A Harbor History Tour." Use your smart phone to scan QR codes throughout the town to learn more about the area's history or borrow printed packets of information from the Harbor Springs Library.