The Great Lakes: Gateway to American Expansion

Intrepid explorers from every colonizing country in North America pushed ever westward in search of routes into the rest of the wild country awaiting them.

Moving west from what became the state of New York and the Canadian province of Ontario, French explorers were the first to find what became known as the Great Lakes.

This natural treasure played a central role in the European colonization of the United States and Canada and became a dominant part of the physical and cultural heritage of North America.

Just the Facts

Formed and filled as the last North American glacier — the Wisconsin Glacial Stage — melted and receded some 14,000 years ago, the Great Lakes encompasses five individual lakes near the northeastern border of the United States and Canada. From east to west, they are:

Together, these lakes represent the largest body of freshwater on the surface of the planet. In fact, the Great Lakes account for one-fifth of the global surface freshwater and 84% of North America’s. This amounts to roughly 6 quadrillion gallons of freshwater.

The lakes are dotted with over 35,000 islands. Several are small and uninhabitable, while one, Manitoulin, is the largest island in an inland body of water in the world. Lake Superior is easily the deepest, with depths maxing out at 1,333 feet. Lakes Huron, Michigan and Ontario have depths between 750 and 925 feet, while Lake Erie is considerably more shallow at just 210 feet. 

The Great Lakes Basin

These waterways provided transportation, enterprise and food for early peoples, and the possibilities for science, industry and recreation continued to attract people through the years. The basin includes more than 30 million residents in areas in the Canadian province of Ontario and the states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Indiana, Illinois, New York and Ohio. The Great Lakes border nearly 7% of American farm production and 25% of Canadian.

Historical and Cultural Significance

As the first gateway to the West, the Great Lakes played an enormous part in the history of the United States. For the indigenous people who called their shores home for centuries, the lakes represented more than bodies of water; they were the essence of life as they knew it. The cultural impact of these lakes and the area’s earliest inhabitants colors every community within the Great Lakes Basin. Each lake has some cultural relevance or historical footnote as well.

Lake Superior was the site of one of the last and most famous shipwrecks on the Great Lakes. On November 10, 1975, the Edmund Fitzgerald sank in a storm with all 29 crew members aboard. Canadian singer Gordon Lightfoot recorded a song that memorialized this wreak.

Lake Michigan honors those who lost their lives to shipwrecks on its waters with the Straits of Mackinac Underwater Preserve. Here, divers can explore the 12 sunken ships and pay homage to those who went before them.

The Battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812 was fought off its north shore in September 1813. The U.S. navy beat the British to reclaim Detroit.

Lake Huron has long been a popular summer recreational spot, and Lake Ontario has a long history as a center of commerce before railroads took over the landscape.

Today, the Great Lakes are central to the $5 trillion regional economies that they support. Recreation opportunities that include world-renown fishing, hunting and boating help to generate over $52 billion for the area each year.

As well as providing unmistakable beauty and recreational pleasure, these lakes are critical to the economy, culture and environment of the communities within the Great Lakes Basin and beyond.