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Before European settlement of lower Michigan, this area was the homeland of indigenous people of the Great Lakes. In the Treaty 1807 in Detroit, the tribes agreed to exchange large tracts of land for annual payments, which signaled the end of their control of their traditional homelands. Their land became the property of the U.S. government, which began surveying the land and preparing to sell it off in 1816. After the War of 1812, veterans were offered the opportunity to buy land at a discount of $1.25 an acre as an incentive to settlement.
The first land in our vicinity became available in 1818, and Elijah Willits was one of three entrepreneurs who came up with a brilliant scheme for their land purchases. They could maximize their investment by buying good farmland that also would give them access (and some control) of the main land route through the wilderness--the Saginaw Trail (later Woodward Avenue). By buying adjacent sections that came together at the point that the Rouge River crossed the Saginaw Trail, they would also have valuable water access for the purposes of milling, watering livestock, etc. The Willits parcel ran along the north side of what is now Maple Road east toward downtown, including the east bank of the Rouge, which includes our present day museum site. When visitors come to our park and look to the treetops over the valley, they are essentially seeing the same sight that Willits would have seen two hundred years ago.