"Before the Dutch came to Western Michigan, there were French traders. And before the French traders, there were Catholic missionaries. And before the Catholic missionaries, there were Ottawa Indians. It is said that Pontiac, the great chief of the Ottawa who conspired against the English in the French and Indian War, held council on the high land overlooking the rapids of a river that wound through Western Michigan toward its mouth at Lake Michigan. Major Indian trails crisscrossed near the rapids. The Ottawa called the place Owashtanong, “the Faraway Waters.” But the white people who came later gave it the name Grand Rapids.
The Reverend Isaac McCoy was among the first white settlers who came to the area of the rapids — in about 1820. Overlooking the rapids of the Grand River one day in 1825, he wrote that it was “a place of great importance.” Why he called it such is uncertain — except that it was beautiful, fertile, inviting, and full of promise. The first permanent settlement began when Louis Campau established a trading post there in 1826. Grand Rapids was incorporated as a village in 1838 and as a city twelve years after that. And by that time the Dutch had arrived. A place of great importance.
Immigrants from the Netherlands made their first landing on the Lake Michigan shore in 1847. The group, led by Dr. Albertus Van Raalte, called the place Holland. From Holland it was only a short distance to Grand Rapids, and some of the Dutch settlers soon ventured the journey and made their home there. Later came Poles, Scandinavians, Latvians, Lithuanians, blacks, Greeks, and Syrians, among others. But it was the Dutch who exerted the most lasting influence on Grand Rapids’ culture, lifestyle, and reputation.
The city’s location, well off the main commercial routes and rail lines running between Detroit and Chicago, might have undermined the Reverend Mr. McCoy’s prediction, but it did not. Grand Rapids’ population eventually grew to 200,000 and became the biggest and most important commercial city in all of Western Michigan. It came to enjoy a varied industry — farming, metal-working, printing and graphic arts, and the manufacture of automobile parts. It was once “the gypsum capital of the world” because of the mining operations that still continue on a small scale. And it is forever nicknamed the Furniture City, even though, as historians point out, “that fame came to rest more on quality than on quantity.”
Grand Rapids can also rightfully be called “the religious-book capital of the United States.” Five of evangelical Christianity’s most respected book publishers are located here, listing as many as four hundred new titles a year. They all have their roots in the Dutch heritage that set the tone for many communities in Western Michigan — Calvinistic, pious, conservative. Grand Rapids became a city of churches — more than five hundred of them at last count. It became the headquarters of the Christian Reformed Church and the home of its two leading educational institutions, Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary. And it nurtured three other Protestant colleges, two Protestant seminaries, and a Catholic college." From The House of Zondervan, Copyright © 1981, 2006 by the Zondervan Corporation
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