The Making of ‘Pure Michigan’

This post is the fourth in the “Seeds: New Research in Environmental History” series cosponsored by NiCHE and Edge Effects highlighting the work of members of the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) Graduate Student Caucus. Follow the whole series here.

At some point, Michilimackinac disappeared. No doubt, the physical space remained—the watery straights where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron collided still lapped upon the shores of state’s two peninsulas. Boats persisted in navigating the nexus of the Upper Great Lakes and commerce continued to buzz. However, the significance of this watery world—a landscape that once served as a geopolitical landscape for trade and diplomacy amongst indigenous, colonial, American peoples—seemingly washed away into the very waters that gave Michilimackinac its prominence. Remnants of the landscape existed in the first half of the nineteenth century as seen in the image above. However, with the dissolution of Richard White’s “middle ground”, embodied by the 1836 Treaty with the Ottawa and the 1842 Treaty with the Chippewa, Americans would be most influential towards shaping the Michilimackinac landscape during the latter half of the nineteenth century. And while American diplomacy no doubt contributed to this disappearance, changing ecologies also contributed to this shift. Lumber companies cleared trees for market. Commercial fishing, too, utterly collapsed many once-thriving Great Lakes fisheries. Nineteenth-century industrialization played its part in altering huge swaths of northern Michigan environment. It was in this space, in the wake of environmental and diplomatic change, that a new cultural landscape emerged. The new landscape was defined by its scenic splendor, its distance from the cities, and its perceived healthful benefits.

A beach in the Michilimackinac as it appeared in the mid-19th century, before developers moved in. Public domain image.

A beach in the Michilimackinac as it appeared in the mid-19th century, before developers moved in. Public domain image.

Mapping Michilimackinac

Michilimackinac’s new landscape can be seen in the map at the top of the page. Printed in 1890 as an advertisement for the Detroit and Cleveland Navigation Company, this map depicts a landscape created to bring tourism to Michigan’s lakeside destinations. The advertisement embodies a burgeoning tourist landscape written onto many of the environments that lay north of Michigan’s 45th parallel. Landscape scholar J.B. Jackson defined landscape as “a composition of man-made or man-modified spaces to serve as an infrastructure or background for our collective existence.”1 In the closing decades of the nineteenth century, Americans rewrote the cultural meaning of the many of Michigan’s northern landscapes to be restful escapes from urbanity as well as the embodiment of pristine beauty. The transformation of these places is situated at the center of my article “Imagining a Pure Michigan Landscape: Advertisers, Tourists, and the Making of Michigan’s Northern Vacationlands,” published in the Fall 2016 Issue of the Michigan Historical Review. The piece outlines the ways in which tourists redefined the Northern Michigan landscape as a reprieve from an increasingly industrialized, commodified, and urban environment. In doing so, they redefined a northern Michigan landscape that would be celebrated in the late-nineteenth century, promoted by conservationists and governmental organizations, and reinvigorated in the twenty-first.

Signs of cultural transformation are visible on the 1890 advertisement. Stretching east, west, north, and south, rail lines and steamships began to market northern Michigan landscapes as iconic tourist destinations. Likewise, travelers sought out certain experiences such as swimming, hunting, and canoeing that were either unavailable or undesirable in cities such as Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, and Milwaukee. Tourists, equipped with money and romantic notions of nature, remade Michilimackinac, along with much of northern Michigan landscapes, in latter half of the nineteenth century to fit the needs of those worn down and made weary by industrialization, modernity, and urban life. The advertisement promised “from the hour of entering Lake Huron, your feelings will indicate that you have passed beyond the reign of miasma, fever, dyspepsia, blue devils, and duns.” The Detroit and Cleveland Navigation Company promised to take visitors “away from your perplexities,” claiming the landscape to be a healthful retreat to a dusty, dirty, and disgusting urban environment.

But the 1890 map shows another element of the new northern Michigan landscape. The vast territories of untouched and unlabeled land depicted proved essential to the northern Michigan tourist experience. Such advertisements highlighted bountiful fishing regions for recreational anglers and “plenty of dear, bear, also some wild duck, plover, squirrels, [and] mink” capable of satisfying all nature lovers. The Machilimackinac was a landscape with “virgin forests and streams” that advertisers claimed would be of “unusual desirability, both in pleasure, comfort and cost” for those interested in traveling to northern Michigan. Therefore, despite deforestation and mining activity, promoters still advertised the region as if it were untouched. Looking past these obvious signs of human activity, vacationers accepted the message transmitted by such advertisements and flocked to northern Michigan in droves.

Blending beauty with medicine, the cultural landscape that emerged in northern Michigan  during the late-nineteenth century continued to attract visitors well into the twentieth century. As cars enabled travel to a broader swath of the American public, the government of Michigan recognized the financial opportunities in cultivating tourism. Aaron Shapiro’s wonderful The Lure of the North Woods: Cultivating Tourism in Upper Midwest outlines the ways in which local communities and governmental organizations cultivated a tourism industry in the wake of an economic downturn caused by diminishing lumber and mining activity. My work responds to, and builds upon, Shapiro’s twentieth-century history. While I agree that conservation efforts, state campgrounds, AAA travel brochures, and family owned-and-operated rentals worked in harmony to cement the perception of healthful, and natural, northern Michigan landscape, they did so under a cultural framework established in the nineteenth century. Ultimately, it was the cultural shift in landscape appreciation during the nineteenth century that made it possible for so many residents and governmental organizations in the Midwest to champion a burgeoning tourism industry in the twentieth-century. As seen in many Detroit and Cleveland Navigation Company advertisements, Americans sought out opportunities to spend their time and money seeking out certain landscapes, and experiences, that the northern Michigan landscape seemingly promised to provide.

Marketing Purity

Even today the lure of this landscape and the cultural transformations that helped produce it remain. Following the 2008 recession, the Michigan government approved a large-scale revamp of its tourism industry primarily centered on Michigan’s northern landscapes. The “Pure Michigan” campaign aimed to reinvigorate tourism in many of Michigan’s scenic, and northern, destinations.

As celebrity narrator Tim Allen calmly appeals to viewers, a familiar message appears: travel north; rest; heal; enjoy the beauty of northern Michigan. This language associated with a ‘Pure Michigan’ landscape calls upon the long-held cultural belief that certain landscapes in Michigan can offer a healthful, and naturally beautiful, answer to the stresses and anxieties of the modern world. The same landscapes that rail lines and steamships companies called an escape from “perplexities” of nineteenth-century life are now being promoted as a place to “step-off” of the speed of everyday life in order “take in a big deep breath” of “Pure Michigan.” This continuity only strengthens J.B. Jackson’s claim regarding cultural landscapes. Both culturally and environmentally, the northern Michigan landscape grew to be a fixture of the Michigander, and Midwesterner experience by providing a scenic backdrop to (or retreat from) the anxieties of a modern world.

Featured Image: A bird’s eye view of the Mackinac straits produced in 1890 by the Detroit and Cleveland Company. Public domain image.

Camden Burd is currently a PhD student in the Department of History at the University of Rochester where he researches American environmental and cultural history. His dissertation follows the environmental, economic, and political impact of plant nurserymen through the nineteenth century. In addition to his historical work, Camden currently holds an Andrew W. Mellon Digital Humanities Fellowship at the University of Rochester. Website. Twitter. Contact.


  1. John Brinckerhoff Jackson, “The Word Itself,” in Landscape in Sight: Looking at America, ed. Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 305. 

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