Detroit, a strategic location between two Great Lakes

Plan of Fort du Detroit, Charles-Nicholas Bellin, 1764 (Archives of Ontario)

In May 1700, King Louis XIV of France authorized the founding of a colony in the strait (détroit in French) between Lake Erie and Lake Huron and 1500 pounds ($ 300) for the construction of a large fort. Antoine de Lamothe Cadillac, born in Saint-Nicolas-de-la-Grave, France, was appointed commander in chief.

After leaving Lachine in Montreal on June 5, 1701 with about 100 Quebec colonists in 25 canoes, he landed in downtown Detroit where he planted the flag of the French royalty in July 24th. The landing site was strategically chosen with a view to control the strait where cannonballs could reach the opposite shore.

Fort Pontchartrain du Detroit

Fort Pontchartrain, named after France’s Minister of Marine and Colonies, was erected in 1701 on the site of the current Hart Plaza. The total area of the fort was a vast quadrilateral with a two-storey blockhouse at each of the four corners. The first church of Sainte-Anne-du-Détroit was the first building built. It was named in honor of the patron saint of Québec. The first streets of Detroit were named St. Louis, St. Anne, St. François, and St. Joseph. Native Americans were encouraged to settle around the fort. The first house constructed outside the palisade was built in 1740 by the farmer Jean Baptiste Beaudry, a farmer from Trois-Rivières, Québec.

Land grants attracted many French-Canadians to Detroit, which quickly became an important trade center exporting furs around the world through the ports of Montreal and Québec City. After 1751 the colony took the name of Fort du Détroit and quickly became the largest French speaking community between Montreal in the St. Lawrence River Valley and New Orleans on the Gulf of Mexico. Since 2013, Michigan has been celebrating French Heritage and Métis Heritage Week annually every fall.

Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit in 1701
Downtown Detroit today (photo Shawn Wilson)

In the 17th century, before the founding of Detroit, French and Canadian priests traveled with woodsmen (coureurs des bois) and explorers to their foreign missions, some of them made use of the strait which gave its name to Detroit. It is said that 12 Jesuit pear trees, called “The 12 Apostles”, were planted by colonists in the early years of Detroit on the site of what is currently Waterworks Park in memory of these missionaries.

On Wednesday June 25, 1687 in Québec City (currently nicknamed America’s accent) Cadillac married Marie-Thérèse Guyon, a 17-year-old Quebecker. From their union 13 children were born, many in Detroit. Between 1710 and 1716, Cadillac was the governor of Colonial Louisiana, although he took office in New Orleans only in 1713.