Saturday, December 27, 2014

Antoine Cadillac--Detroit's First Godfather

Bust of Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac
An expedition financed by the French monarch--King Louis XIV--and promoted by his Minister of Marine--Comte de Pontchartrain--appointed Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac as their agent to establish a fur trading post and fort in New France. In return, Cadillac was granted generous riverfront real estate. He envisioned a permanent French colony controlling the fur trade routes through the upper Great Lakes, with him at the helm.

Commander Antoine Cadillac led a fleet of 25 large canoes--with 50 soldiers, 50 empire builders, 2 Roman Catholic priests, and his 11-year-old son--on a 52 day trip westward from French-controlled Montreal to the western bank of a swift running river that connected Lac Erie with Lac St. Clair.


This site was chosen because it was the narrowest point of the strait--de troit--which is how Detroit earned its name. There was an eroded 40' clay bluff leading up from the river bank to a flat clearing. Once a fort was built on the plain, anything moving up or down the river could be seen and was in easy range of their cannons. This was a defensible position to discourage the British and control the fur trade.

The empire builders arrived on July 23, 1701 and began work on a log fort Cadillac named after his benefactor--French Minister of Marine--Comte de Pontchartrain. Two days later, a mass was said in honor of Ste. Anne--the patron saint of France and mother of the Virgin Mary. After the service, the foundations for the church were laid. Catholicism had come to the wilderness.


Fort Pontchartrain contained a warehouse which doubled as a store. There were also two guard houses, Ste. Anne's Church, and about 15 houses within the fort. Lots could be no larger than 25 square feet and some were smaller.

In a report about Detroit to his superior officers, Cadillac noted, "Especially attractive was the region that lies south of the pear-like lake to which they gave the name of St. Clair, and the country bordering upon that deep, clear river, a quarter of a league broad, known as Le Detroit.

"On both sides of this strait lie fine, open plains where the deer roam in graceful herds, where bear, by no means fierce and exceedingly good to eat, are to be found, as are also the savory poules d'Indies (wild duck) and other varieties of game. The islands are covered with trees; chestnuts, walnuts, apples, and plums abound; and in season, the wild vines are heavy with grapes.

"Le Detroit is the real center of the lake country--the gateway to the West. It is from there that we can best hold the English in check."

French trade with the local Native American tribes went well for the most part. Cadillac encouraged the Ottawa, Huron, Pottawatomie, Miami, and Wyandotte tribes to cluster together in villages near the fort for protection from their mutual enemies--the Iroquois and the British. In total, Cadillac estimated that there were about 2,000 Indians in and around Fort Pontchartrain allied with the French.

In 1702, the first European baby born in Detroit was the daughter of Alphonse de Tonty--Cadillac's second-in-command--and his wife. Not to be outdone--in 1704--the Cadillac's gave birth to Marie Therese, who became the first recorded baptism christened in Ste. Anne's Church registry.

Cadillac wanted the settlement to grow rapidly, but few if any unattached women were available to single men, so he proposed that christened Indian women be allowed to marry French settlers. The Jesuit priest strongly objected on moral and religious grounds, and the plan was soon rejected. This is likely the first official instance of discrimination in Detroit's long history.

In 1707, Cadillac began issuing farm grants--known as ribbon farms--to attract new settlers. These farms ranged from 200' to 1,000' wide and extended from the shoreline for 2 or 3 miles. Each farm had waterfront access. Many of Detroit's current street names derive from the original ribbon farm grant holders--for instance--Beaubien, Campau, Livernois, Riopell, Dequindre, and others. Cadillac plotted out 68 parcels. 

Cadillac acted like a feudal landlord requiring farmers to pay him an annual rent and a percentage of their grain to use the windmill he had built on the waterfront north of the fort. He was the mill's sole proprietor and could charge whatever he wanted. Renters were also required to work on Cadillac's farm for a specified number of days each year.

To engage in any kind of trade, settlers had to pay a licensing fee and annual taxes. Cadillac grew rich by padding the fees and taxes and skimming off the top. When he withheld the allotment of imported brandy behind padlocked warehouse doors, it was discovered--and reported--that he was trading it to the Indians for beaver pelts. He had defied a Royal decree not to provide liquor to the native population.

When complaints about Cadillac reached Montreal and Paris, King's Deputy Francois Clarembault went to survey Detroit area holdings in 1708 and found they did not match Cadillac's reports. After nineteen days in Detroit, Clarembault returned to Canada and sent his findings off to France. In 1709, Count Pontchartrain wrote to Cadillac complaining that he showed "too much greed and little moderation in his dealings with the settlers."

In 1710, Cadillac was called to Quebec to answer charges against him brought by his detractors. He was acquitted of extortion and abuse of power charges but was removed from his post--never to return to Detroit. The following year, Cadillac was promoted to the governorship of the Louisiana Territory.