Why Is Lansing the State Capital of Michigan?

Written by Thomas Godwin
Updated: May 2, 2023
© Alexander Lukatskiy/Shutterstock.com
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Though Lansing is the state capital of Michigan, it’s surprising to know how often people associate popular cities with capitals. After all, Lansing is nowhere near as popular as Detroit, especially in the public’s view.

Detroit has a much closer association with being the capital of Michigan than any other city in the state. As is usual with capitals, the decision-making that goes into choosing them is political, strategic, and geographical.

When it comes to Lansing getting the job over Detroit, there are good reasons behind the ultimate decision. Some of the more intangible reasons include the fact that Lansing is a fantastic art and cultural centerpiece for the state. So, why is Lansing the state capital of Michigan rather than Detroit? That’s a history lesson all its own.

History of Detroit as Michigan’s Capital

Originally, there was no competition. Detroit was the capital of Michigan, and that’s all there was to it. Though Detroit has since lost that distinction, the city is still a historical landmark and current power in American ingenuity and innovation.

Detroit became the capital of Michigan in 1805. At the time, Michigan was just a territory, not a state. There were a few reasons to like Detroit as the capital, including its location as a major port along the Detroit River.

The Great Lakes are to Michigan what the Gulf of Mexico is to Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and, to a lesser extent, Alabama and Mississippi. The amount of trade established throughout the Great Lakes, the Canadian border, and the Detroit River, was exceptional and highly beneficial to the burgeoning manufacturing industry in Detroit.

The Detroit River served as a conveyor belt of sorts, connecting the Great Lakes and the northern, water-bound trade routes of the northern states. Even though Detroit would one day relinquish its status as the capital of Michigan, its 40-year existence in that capacity is why it’s still an industrial commodity today.

As a major port, the import and export of goods allowed Detroit to become one of the major manufacturing and industrial powers in the north. It was sort of a no-brainer when it came to the choice of capital. Except, an overlooked location problem came back to haunt the decision-makers of the day.

Downtown Detroit in Michigan, USA
Modern-day downtown Detroit, MI. The city served as the state’s capital from 1835 to 1847.


Detroit’s Proximity to Canada

Nowadays, Detroit’s positioning close to Canada is largely irrelevant. Back then, however, Canada was a major political and wartime power under the control of Great Britain — America’s archnemesis. This key flaw was only highlighted in the War of 1812 when the British army captured and occupied Detroit.

That was enough to create a dynamic shift in the hearts and minds of Michigan residents, as well as the government at the state level. In 1847, several new cities threw their hats in the ring, vying to become the new capital of Michigan.


Detroit could no longer stand as an example of both a strategic and economically sound choice for the capital of Michigan status. Now, Ann Arbor, Jackson, and Marshall threw their hats in the ring. The fact was, Lansing wasn’t even an option.

The debate between the three cities raged for days, with a hundred different points and counterpoints offered in favor of Marshall, Ann Arbor, or Jackson. In the end, however, Michigan’s government couldn’t make a decision. No matter what city or town, it should be in a safer location, farther away from the Canadian border than Detroit.

The Choice of Lansing as the State Capital of Michigan

The ultimate choice of Lansing was kind of a head-scratcher. There was precedence for no-name towns becoming the capitals of other states, but those states usually lacked better alternatives. It was not as if Michigan didn’t have better alternatives than Lansing.

At the time, Lansing was a hole-in-the-wall village with a minuscule population that many Michigan residents had never heard of. The population of Lansing at the time was fewer than 20 people. It barely qualified as a township.

Nevertheless, the legislature’s choice of Lansing as the new capital of Michigan was signed into law by William L. Greenly, the governor of Michigan at the time. Of course, once the label of “capital” fell on the head of the tiny township of Lansing, Michigan, everything changed quickly.

Lansing Capital sign for international airport
On March 16, 1847, the governor of Michigan signed a law naming Lansing, then a small, remote township, as the capital of Michigan.

©Dj1997 at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons – License

The Evolution of Lansing

It wasn’t just its new status as the capital of Michigan that caused Lansing to grow at an exponential rate, although that was certainly the catalyst. Like Detroit, Lansing also butted up against an important water trade route — the Grand River.

There was also a ton of unsettled territory surrounding the town proper. It was only a matter of time (once the governor’s manse and the capital building were constructed and the seat of power shifted) before people began to flood into the small town.

In a little over ten years, Lansing went from a population well south of 20 to a population well north of 3,000. At this point, the community grew to qualify as a city, and it was incorporated in 1859. The new capital building was completed in 1878, while a temporary building housed Michigan governors up to that point.

Lansing was then connected to the other major cities via the railroad, providing it with the dual benefit of two major trade routes — the railroad and the Grand River. Lansing is never going to be as big and well-known as Detroit. However, today, the city is large, boisterous, and a well-respected hub for arts, culture, and education in the state of Michigan.

Lansing is also home to many parks and attractions, adding tourism to the many sources of revenue for the city and the state together.

All Things Considered

Lansing was never the first choice and both the Michigan residents in the present and those in the past would probably never have assumed it would become the capital of Michigan under the given circumstances.

Fortunately, for Lansing, Michigan, war changes things, as it always does. Thanks to the British invasion in the War of 1812, Lansing became the capital of Michigan and is likely to remain the capital so long as Michigan is a state.

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A close up map of Michigan
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About the Author

Thomas is a freelance writer with an affinity for the great outdoors and Doberman Pinschers. When he's not sitting behind the computer, pounding out stories on black bears and reindeer, he's spending time with his family, two Dobermans (Ares and Athena), and a Ragdoll cat named Heimdal. He also tends his Appleyard Ducks and a variety of overly curious and occasionally vexatious chickens.

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