The St. Joseph Valley was long occupied by Native Americans. Some of the earliest known groups to occupy what would later become northern Indiana were the Miami tribe. Later, the Potawatomi moved into the region, utilizing the rich food and natural resources found along the river. The Potawatomi occupied this region of Indiana until most of them were forcibly removed in the 1840s. The main reason for the popularity of the South Bend area was that it was closest to the Kankakee River. The South Bend portage was the shortest overland route to the Kankakee River. This route was used for centuries, first by the Native Americans, then by French explorers, missionaries and traders. The French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle used this portage between the St. Joseph River and the Kankakee River in December 1679.
The first permanent white settlers of South Bend were fur traders who established trading posts in the area. In 1820, Pierre Frieschutz Navarre arrived, representing the American Fur Company (AFC) of John Jacob Astor. He settled near what is now downtown South Bend. Alexis Coquillard, another agent of the AFC, passed through South Bend in 1823 and returned in 1824 with his family to make it his home. At the time, the post was known as Big St. Joseph Station. In 1827, Lathrop Minor Taylor established a post for Samuel Hanna and Company, in whose records the name St. Joseph's, Indiana was used. By 1829, the town was growing, with Coquillard and Taylor emerging as leaders. They applied for a post office. Taylor was appointed postmaster, and the post office was designated as Southold, Allen County, Indiana. The following year, the name was changed to South Bend, probably to ease confusion, as several other communities were named Southold at the time.
In 1831, South Bend was laid out as the county seat and as one of the four original townships of St. Joseph County. Soon after, design began on what would become the town of South Bend. The town was formally established in 1835 and rapidly grew. In 1856, attorney Andrew Anderson founded May Oberfell Lorber, the oldest business in St. Joseph County. He compiled a complete index of South Bendӳ real estate records.
During the late 1830s through the 1850s, much of South Bend's development centered on the industrial complex of factories located on the two races (man-made canals along the St. Joseph River in South Bend). Several dams were created, and factories were built on each side of the river. On October 4, 1851, the first steam locomotive entered South Bend. This led to a general shift of businesses from the river toward the railroad. In 1852, Henry Studebaker set up a wagon shop in South Bend. Studebaker became the world's largest wagon builder and the only one to later succeed as an automobile manufacturer. The Singer Sewing Company and the Oliver Chilled Plow Company were among other companies that made manufacturing the driving force in the South Bend economy until the mid-20th century.South Bend in 1866
South Bend benefited from its location on the Michigan Road, the main north׳outh artery of northern Indiana in the 19th century. Another significant development occurred near South Bend in 1842, when Father Edward Sorin founded the University of Notre Dame just north of the town. It became a major factor in the area's economy and culture. On May 22, 1865, South Bend was incorporated as a city, and its first elections were held on June 5, 1865.
Other industries developed in South Bend in the early 20th century, including Birdsell Manufacturing Company, the Bendix Corporation, Honeywell, AlliedSignal, South Bend Lathe Works, the O'Brien Paint Corp., the South Bend Toy Company, South Bend Range, South Bend Bait Company, and South Bend Watch Company. Fast development led to the creation of electric rail transportation throughout the area and, in 1925, the South Shore interurban streetcar service was established from downtown South Bend to downtown Chicago. South Bend was the first community in the United States to have an electrified trolley system (even though it was a few years before it was usable and profitable).
On June 30, 1934, the Merchants National Bank in South Bend was the last bank to be robbed by the notorious "Dillinger gang".
By 1950, more than half of all employment was in the manufacturing sector. Due to economic difficulties, Studebaker closed its automotive manufacturing plants in South Bend in December 1963. A general decline in manufacturing soon followed as industry was being restructured nationwide. By the year 2000, manufacturing was only 16% of the local economy. Due to the severe loss of jobs, the city's population decreased by nearly 30,000 during that period.
In 1984, South Bend community leaders began seeking a minor-league baseball team for the city. A stadium was constructed in 1986 and a 10-year player-development contract was signed with the Chicago White Sox. The team would be known as the South Bend White Sox. In 1994, the team's name was changed to the South Bend Silver Hawks. The Silver Hawks changed their name to The South Bend Cubs in 2015. They are a Class A minor league affiliate of the Chicago Cubs in the Midwest League.