Cadillac, Pontiac, Ford, and My Hometown

The story of Detroit, the city where I was born, is, at heart, the story of trade routes, roads, automobiles, and eventually the Saint Lawrence seaway and shipping. It has always been about transportation and commerce, and Americans to this day drive automobiles named after great figures in its history.

US_commemorative,_Antoine_de_la_Mothe_Cadillac_(1951)On July 24, 1701 Antoine de La Mothe Cadillac went ashore along a stretch of water connecting two of the great lakes with approximately 50 French soldiers and 50 trappers, two French priests, and 100 native companions.

The French called the waterway le détroit, the straight. A number of earlier European missionaries and explorers had passed through it, including Étienne Brulé and Adrien Joliet, brother of Louis Joliet who would later follow Father Marquette to the mouth of the Mississippi. Marquette and the Joliet brothers traveled the upper great lakes extensively in the second half of the seventeenth century.


The Dutch edition of Louis Hennepin’s 1688 book.

Louis Hennepin, a Recollet Franciscan priest, accompanying La Salle, passed through le détroit in 1679, and provided the first European description of the place in 1688. His book, Description de la Louisiane, also has the first description of Niagara Falls and the Upper Mississippi, and is the first to use the name Louisiana. He writes:

This strait is finer than that of Niagara, being thirty leagues long, and everywhere one league broad, except in the middle, which is wider, forming the lake we have named Ste. Claire. The navigation is easy on both sides, the coast being low and even. It runs directly from north to south. The country between these two lakes is very well situated and the soil is very fertile.

In colonial North America, France focused its primary interest on the fur trade, strategies to monopolize that trade, and the protection of trade routes during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, rather than on cities and settlements. Why fur? First nations people used fur as a trade item in their earliest encounters with Europeans. Jacques Cartier traded in bits of various furs for trim and adornment in the 1530s and 40s. He ignored what would later be the heart of the trade: beaver pelts. The trade might have stayed there.

Chapeaux_en_peau_de_castorHowever, in one of history’s odd quirks, Basque fishermen, who worked the grand banks fishing for cod in the 1500s, discovered that beaver pelts, sewn together into robes, kept them warm and dry on their long voyages. It turned out used beaver pelts—yes used pelts such as those worn home by the fishermen—were prized by hat makers in Europe. There were two reasons for that. Wearing the pelts made them soft and pliable, and wearing them also wore off the outer guard hairs leaving the softer inner hairs that made the best felt for hats. When beaver pelts from the fishermen entered the market demand grew and they began to flood the market causing the cost of beaver hats to drop. At the lower cost, demand for the hats skyrocketed, and the rush for premium  pelts was on. Great quantities of beaver skins, both the highly praised “coat” pelts and less desirable, but more quickly harvested and shipped, new pelts were sought.

France quickly transitioned from coastal trading with native peoples to a permanent interior fur trade. They spread their exploration and settlement along rivers and lakes from the mouth of the Saint Lawrence, across the Great Lakes to the mouth of the Mississippi often led by the coureurs des bois, independent unregulated traders who pushed into the interior in search of the best furs.

Hudson's Bay Company Voyageurs

Hudson’s Bay Company Voyageurs

Sitting as it did in the strategic link between the upper lakes (Superior, Huron, Michigan) and lower lakes (Ontario and Erie), le détroit was important militarily, but also perfectly situated for trade. By Cadillac’s time the government of France had created a system of licenses for the fur trade, and the massive canoes of the voyageurs (sometimes called the long-haul truckers of their day) paddled the lakes in service to large enterprises. The best route to Montreal and Quebec passed through le détroit. Cadillac was a man who knew an opportunity when he saw one. He sought permission and sponsorship and set out to stake a claim.

Cadillac named his settlement Fort Ponchartrain du Détroit after his sponsor in France and the waterway next to the fort. He had more than an outpost in mind. While the first task consisted in erecting palisade walls around the fort, he ordered a village laid out inside the walls and city lots assigned to early settlers. Two days after landing, work also began on Sainte Anne’s, the second oldest continually active Catholic Parish in what is now the United States. Cadillac was building a city, not a trading post.

(A side note: this story is already personal to me at this point. My mother ice-skated across Hennepin’s one league breadth in the 1920s before the seaway was dug. Her parents were married at Sainte Joachim, created when the original Ste. Anne’s split in half in the 1860s. Her first Detroit ancestor, Jean Casse dit St. Aubin, held one of those first lots.)

By fall that first year wheat had been planted; by spring the wives of Cadillac and his second in command arrived. Soon babies were born. Things did not go smoothly, however. As with much of New France, the next sixty years saw graft, corruption, greed, disloyalty, ambition, and more along le détroit. While Cadillac invited native peoples to camp and/or build permanent villages around the fort, they didn’t always get along with each other or the French.

Even as Mme. Cadillac arrived, Louis XIV gave control of the straights to the Company of the Colony of Canada. Cadillac left Detroit to contest that and regain control, the first of several such trips. In his absence embezzlement, disputes, and skirmishes with the Ottawa made life miserable. Cadillac finally lost control in 1710 when he was appointed governor of Louisiana, a post he apparently viewed as a step down. It was at very least one of those sideways moves offered someone to get them out of the way.


Plan of Fort du Détroit 1749

Fort Ponchartrain had a dozen commanders, and many temporary acting commanders between 1710 and 1760 when Maj. Robert Rogers arrived to take the fort for Great Britain. By that time it was known as Fort Detroit, or simply Detroit. It had actually been formally given to the British after the fall of Quebec the year before. Treaties written in Europe to end the Seven Years War handed New France to Great Britain.

In the U.S. the Seven Years War is known at the French and Indian war because the French were supported by their Native American allies. Many of them had never trusted the British and found the British authorities much less conciliatory. The French paid tribute in exchange for the forts they occupied (a sort of “rent” on the space they occupied), and generally treated Native Americans with respect, at least when compared to the new British commander of Detroit, Jeffery Amherst.

In 1763 Pontiac, an Ottawa chief, led an alliance of Ottawa, Ojibwa, Potawatomi, Shawnee, and Delaware who refused to accept the terms of the Treaty of Paris. What did a paper signed in Europe ahve to do with them? They determined to push the hated English back across the Alleghenies and soon took most of the forts around the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley,  but failed to take Detroit. During the 153 day siege of the city French loyalties were divided, some sympathizing with the Native Americans, others with the recently triumphant English. Eventually news of a treaty between France and Great Britain made it clear no help would be forthcoming from the French and Pontiac’s forces began to drift away, but not until some ugly guerilla style warfare.

Pontiac's Seige of Detroit, by Frederick Remington

Pontiac’s Seige of Detroit, by Frederic Remington via Wikimedia Commons

The English may have believed they had hoisted their flag over Detroit  to stay, but the era didn’t allow such stability. They attempted to improve relations by forbidding the American colonials from settling across the Allegheny mountains, and by resuming the French custom of paying tribute. The American Revolution followed quickly on the heels of the previous war, and loyalties often ran in confused streams. Some Native Americans, believing the American colonials to be even more greedy for land than the British, conducted raiding parties dispatched from Detroit to attack forts and settlers from Illinois to Pennsylvania, Virginia and Kentucky, often accompanied by French militia.

Whether “hair hunter” Henry Hamilton actually paid for American scalps in the 1770s is unclear. Hamilton, commander of Detroit, however, did remain suspicious of French loyalty. His letters outlining  distrust of one of my own ancestors, Jean Baptiste Chapoton, have been used as documentation to establish membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution. He accused Chapoton of aiding George Rogers Clarke at the siege of Fort Vincennes in Indiana. There is no question French militia from settlements in Illinois accompanied Clarke.

In the treaty that ended the revolution and confirmed American independence, territory south of the lakes went to the new United States. Treaties are one thing, however, and possession is another. Control of the straights and of key rivers such as the Maumee and Wabash was no less strategically important than it had been when Cadillac arrived. There were no roads; trade moved on water and trade drove Detroit.  The British sat tight.

The Jay Treaty

The Jay Treaty

In the period between the Treaty of Paris in 1783 and the Jay Treaty of 1795, Detroit remained under British control even though nominally a possession of the United States. A look at the names of the residents: French, Scots, English, German, and Native American shows the diversity of background and, one suspects, loyalties and point of view. In the meantime, trade continued to flourish. The Scots and English traders who came in the 1760s prospered alongside the French. Some of them married into the established French families, and mixed loyalties continued throughout the rest of the century. Business, one suspects, trumped national loyalties for some.

After Anthony Wayne confirmed American ownership by marching up to the gates of Fort Maumee after the Battle of Fallen Timbers and the defeat of the Shawnee, the British withdrew and the citizens of Detroit were required to swear their loyalty to the new country, ownership having been solidified by the Jay treaty. Some did. Some chose to move across the river to Amherst and Fort Malden, Upper Canada. Some came back. George Meldrum, Chapoton’s son-in-law and a Scot, refused the oath, but apparently came back. Detroit residents set up a corporation to govern the city with the approval of the Northwest Territory government in Chillicothe, Ohio. In May 1802 Meldrum was elected an officer in the corporation. His descendants still live in greater Detroit.


Ten years later, Detroit fell briefly into British hands during the War of 1812, before the treaty ending that conflict settled boundaries once and for all. In the peace and stability that followed, canals, highways and shipping flourished, transportation helping fuel the industrial revolution, which for Detroit culminated in the development of the automobile industry.

Henry Ford and his Model T, 1912

Henry Ford and his Model T, 1912

Henry Ford didn’t invent the automobile, but he did develop the affordable car for the common man to run on the growing network of roads and highways. Transportation once again drove Detroit to prosperity. Prosperity brought jobs and jobs brought masses of immigrants pouring in to fill them, including the rest of my ancestors who prospered with the city.

In 1900 Detroit was a boom-town. Now it struggles to come back from bankruptcy. When I look at the long arc of history, I see strength, diversity, initiative, and pure determination to succeed. I  can only hope those qualities may see the city and surrounding region out of its current situation and propel it into the rest of this century.

There is much fodder in this history for fiction. The WorldCat lists hundreds of fictional titles about New France, the exploration of the lakes and the conflicts I’ve described. There are even fictionalized biographies of Cadillac, Pontiac, and Ford.

The heroine of my next book, The Renegade Wife, which will be out in October, grew up along the straights. Her name is Meggy Campeau and she lived on the Upper Canada side of the Detroit River near Fort Malden in the 1820s and 30s. During an early run-in with the hero she loses her temper and shouts, “My grandmother is Ojibwa; my father was French; and my husband was a Scot. You can despise whichever one of those your English heart chooses, or even all of them, but I am not a thief.” As I tried to say, it’s a complicated place.

For more see:

Detroit History

The Detroit Historical Society

The Virtual Museum of New France

A Brief History of the Beaver Trade

The History of Felt in Hat-Making

Pontiac’s War

More on Pontiac’s War

Caroline Warfield

Caroline Warfield’s published works