The Detroit River: Cadillac & New France

Fort Pontchartrain du Detroit - 1701
Fort Pontchartrain du Detroit - 1701

The following is Part 2 in a series about the Detroit River. To view Part 1, click here.


French Colonies circa late 1600s

In the late 1600s the Empire of France dominated the New World from the mouth of the Mississippi in the south to the Straits of Mackinaw in the north and all the Great Lakes in between. Before the 1690s the economy of the French colonies was driven mainly by the beaver pelt trade, which were used to make hats in Europe. However, in 1697 French trading posts were experiencing a 10-year overstock in beaver pelts. With the colonial economy in near shambles, the French monarchy, Louis XIV, chose to close all but a few western forts.


Cadillac leads French soldiers to “la Détroit” (Image credit: Rue des Archives)


In response to the monarchy’s decision Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac (pronounced Kad-ee-ak) , commandant of Fort de Baude (present day St. Ignace), lead 100 French soldiers along with 100 Algonquins to “la Détroit” (the strait in French). There, in 1701, Cadillac established Fort Ponchartrain du Détroit to control and protect French trade on the Great Lakes from the British. Today Hart Plaza rests atop the fort.

Cadillac gazes upon the city he founded from the Book-Cadillac Hotel

Cadillac gazes upon the city he founded from the Book-Cadillac Hotel

Cadillac encouraged Native Americans (the Ojibwa, Odawa, Potawatomi, and Algonquin) to settle near Fort Detroit for protection and trade. This relationship with the Native American tribes made Fort Detroit extremely prosperous. At one point 2,000 Native Americans were reported to be living in the area around Fort Detroit, including an Odawa Village across the river which would eventually become the City of Windsor.


Fort Pontchartrain du détroit (Image credit: Bellin, Jacques-Nicolas 1703-1772)

The first major conflict between the French and Native Americans came after a French farmer’s dog bit an Odawa tribesman. The conflict escalated until 30 Odawa and a French priest were left dead. A year later, Cadillac began to lease land around Fort Ponchartrain du Détroit to French farmers. Cadillac acted as the landlord to these new farmers and would demand rent & a portion of their crops each year. More conflict began to to arise over the rates Cadillac was charging the farmers until, in 1710, the French government removed Cadillac from power and sent him to the Colony of Louisiana. Legend has it that Cadillac’s misfortunes were caused by stumbling upon the Nain Rouge– a red devil that is said to have plagued Detroit with bad luck to this day. The colony continued to prosper until war was to break out between the French and the British in 1754….


To Be Continued…


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