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A History of the River Raisin

The River Raisin is located in the Lake Plain (SE Michigan and NW Ohio) of the Central Lowlands (Michigan, Wisconsin, N. Ohio, N. Indiana, N. Illinois, E. Iowa and E. Minnesota), an area comprised of former lake bottom. It flows into the Lake Erie Basin, which lies in the Central Lowlands Physiographic Province between the Appalachian Plateau and Laurentian Upland, or Canadian Shield. The River Raisin watershed is the product of geologic processes of the Wisconsin ice sheet, known as the Pleistocene glacier, which formed a series of glacial lakes before modern Lake Erie was born.

The former lakes Maumee, Arkona, Whittlesey, Warren, Wayne, Grassmere and Lundy are all ancestors of Lake Erie. Each had a different outline and elevation above sea level. Lake Maumee was 800 feet above sea level. Drainage was westward through Fort Wayne, Indiana, into the Wabash River.


It was during this time the River Raisin was born. Gradually, the Niagaran escarpment rebounded from the weight of the glaciers creating a dam at the eastern end of Lake Erie and the water rose from 470 feet above sea level to its present elevation of about 570 feet above sea level.

The headwaters of the River Raisin are 1,200 feet above sea level on the steeper, forested slopes of the Irish Hills and winds southeast through glacial moraine topography to a lake plain dominated largely by agriculture.


The River is 135 miles long and covers 1,072 square miles, roughly the size of Rhode Island. Eighty percent of the watershed is zoned for farmland. There are 50 dams or impoundments in the watershed. The River has many tributaries such as Macon Creek and the Saline River, along with a south branch at Adrian and the Little River Raisin at Britton in Lenawee County. There are 5 counties, 6 cities, 10 villages and 40 townships in the watershed.


The Frenchman, Louis Jolliet, was the first to record seeing Lake Erie in 1669. By that time water levels were the same as they are today. In 1670, on a trip across the Lake, the famous explorer LaSalle passed by the River Raisin on his way to Detroit. He marveled at the beauty and richness of the country that reached away on each side of the passage. Groves of black walnut and wild plum trees and oaks festooned with grapevines stood like islands on the fine prairies.


The native people called the River “Nummasepee,” or River of Sturgeon. However, French settlers impressed with the grapevines that covered its banks called it “Riviere Aux Raisin,” or River of Grapes.


France controlled the area until 1763, when it was ceded to Great Britain. The first settler was fur trader Joseph Pulier Benac, followed by Colonel Francis Navarre and the Jerome brothers, Charles and John Baptiste. The first American settlement was established at Frenchtown in 1793, and in 1796, Captain Porter raised the first American flag on Michigan soil. Monroe County was established on July 14, 1817, and included all of Lenawee County and a portion of present Wayne and Washtenaw counties.

On June 1, 1819, John Anderson, Oliver Johnson and twelve others were authorized to build a toll bridge across the River Raisin. This followed the famous battles on the River Raisin fought in 1813 during the War of 1812, when American forces from Kentucky under the command of General James Winchester were defeated at Frenchtown setting the stage for a British retreat and American takeover.​

Boats docked in the River Raisin, Monroe
River Raisin passing through
Downtown Monroe
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The River Raisin
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