🔒 The complicated history of Michigan’s Harsens Island

Harsens Island (Google Maps)
Harsens Island (Google Maps)

Harsens Island has a complicated history - dating back to the 1700s.

The island made the news in late 2019, when the only working dock on the island collapsed as a ferry was trying to pull in. For several days, automobiles were unable to get to and from the island.

To me, a native of Western Wayne County, Harsens Island feels like another world -- hundreds of miles away. But it’s really not that far -- and its history is incredibly complicated and interesting.

Harsens Island history

First off, if you’re not familiar with the location, Harsens Island sits at the mouth of the St. Clair River on Lake St. Clair. It’s technically part of Clay Township, although it’s mostly home to birds and other wildlife. There’s another island to the west, referred to as Dickinson Island.

This area where the St. Clair River meets Lake St. Clair is commonly known as the St. Clair Flats. The St. Clair River is an integral part of the Great Lakes’ water system, transporting water from Lake Huron to Lake St. Clair down to the Detroit River and into Lake Erie. Here’s a map from Lake St. Clair Guide:

It’s actually not easy to find the history of this place. Weirdly enough, Northland College, a private university in Wisconsin, has some great background.

Harsens Island was first called home by the Indigenous peoples of this area. The island was named after its first Euro-American settler, James (or Jacob) Harsen. He was of Dutch descent and migrated from New York State around 1779 during the American Revolutionary War with his family. He bought the island in 1783.

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The jurisdiction of the island has been disputed over and over again throughout history. The 1783 Treaty of Paris, which marked the end of the American Revolutionary War, drew imprecise international boundary lines in several area, including the mouth of the St. Clair River, because it hadn’t been surveyed yet. In fact, the map from 1755 doesn’t even show islands.

Because of this, the British claimed the islands. But in the 1814 Treaty of Ghent, the end of the War of 1812, the boundaries were clarified, and Harsens Island -- and it’s neighboring Dickinson Island -- became U.S. territory.

By the late 1800s and throughout the early 1900s, steamboat traffic was used to travel around the island from elaborate hotels to an amusement park known as Tashmoo Park, which closed in 1936.

Tashmoo Park dock, St. Clair Flats, Mich.

Harsen worked in the Fur Trade and became closely associated with the Walpole Island First Nations people just across the border in Canada. (They also claim the island belongs to them).

These days, Harsens Island is a part of Clay Township and is in close proximity to the international boundary between the United States and Canada that lies within the St. Clair River. It’s a very popular fishing and hunting destination -- and a prime location for bird watchers. The state owns about 75 percent of the island.

Wildlife on the islands

Besides being the largest freshwater delta in the Great Lakes Basin (and one of the largest in the world), the St. Clair River Delta contains the greatest area of unaltered coastal marsh in southern Michigan and perhaps the State. It is a well-known stop-over for migrating waterfowl, and provides nesting habitat for other birds, including the state-threatened common tern. Only four other delta wetlands are known in Michigan.

On Dickinson Island, small areas of wet prairie exist between the oaks on the ancient delta formation and sedge meadow of the younger delta wetland. Wet prairie sites on both Dickinson and Harsens Islands provide habitat for rare plant species. Other animals species include great blue heron (which nests on the islands), the eastern fox snake (state-threatened and restricted to coastal marshes of Saginaw Bay, Lake St. Clair, and Lake Erie), king rail (declining and listed as endangered in Michigan), and the rare Forster’s tern (nests on the channel levees that extend west from Dickinson Island).


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About the Author:

Ken Haddad is the digital special projects manager for WDIV / ClickOnDetroit.com. He also authors the Morning Report Newsletter and various other newsletters. He's been with WDIV since 2013.