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On July 24, 1701, Antoine de La Mothe Cadillac, accompanied by approximately one hundred fellow Frenchmen and an additional one hundred Algonquian Indians, established Fort Pontchartrain du Detroit on a site that is today in downtown Detroit. This essay reviews the history of that settlement from its founding until Michigan was admitted into the Union as a state in 1837.

Although organized chronologically, this essay places the city's time line in the context of national and international events that shaped its destiny. Four themes from Detroit's past are stressed: the community's political history, Detroit's military importance, the area's economic history, and finally its social history. In reality, each of these four narratives, the context created by national and international events, as well as many other factors come together to create a complex whole. This essay examines many, but not all, of the threads that, when woven together, help to explain the events which occurred and the people who lived in the community founded by Cadillac in 1701.

Detroit's origins rest in the international politics of late seventeenth-century Europe. In 1699 Cadillac traveled from Canada to Paris. He hoped to obtain from King Louis XIV permission to found a new settlement along the strait connecting Lake Erie and Lake Huron. In presenting his case to the king's ministers, Cadillac stressed the military necessity of his proposed settlement. A French outpost along the narrows could stop raiding parties of Englishmen or their Indian allies from entering Lake Huron and disrupting the valuable fur trade. Such raids had happened in the past. In 1653, for example, France's Indian allies had fought a pitched battle in the vicinity of the straits of Mackinac against a large Iroquois raiding party.

In making his military argument Cadillac addressed a French government that was sharply divided over Canadian expansion. French colonial policy shifted back and forth between expanding or containing Canadian territory depending on which of three variables was uppermost in the ministers' minds: war with England, the market price of furs, or the Jesuits' influence.

Whenever war with England was imminent or declared, the French government routinely sought to harass the British colonies in North America by both expanding its Canadian territory and by supporting aggression against the British by France's Indian allies. In times of peace, however, the government in Paris was far less likely to promote expansion or support Indian aggression. Although it was less common, Paris occasionally curtailed Canadian expansion and Indian aggression to avoid the "minor provocations" against the English that increasing the territory of New France would inevitably entail.

When fur prices were high there was great economic incentive, voiced by the French trading community, to expand the number of pelts taken by pushing farther into the Great Lakes region. The consequences of expanding the fur trade went beyond national concerns because senior French government officials, both in Canada and Paris, fully expected to gain personally from this trade. However when the market was flooded with furs, the incentive shifted to harvesting animals from a more limited area, to cut back on supply. Thus the market price of furs greatly influenced the opinions of the French government's ministers regarding expansion.

Finally the Jesuits, who felt it their special mission to convert the Indians to Catholicism, consistently opposed the expansion of French military and particularly French economic activity in Canada. They believed the "corrupting" presence of fur traders among the Indians, and especially their promiscuous use of liquor, made "God's work" far more difficult. To further the conversion of Native Americans to Catholicism, the Jesuits used their influence at the French court to establish or maintain policies intended to keep fur traders in a limited area to ensure that they had minimal contact with the Indian population.

It was the prospect of war with England that persuaded the French government to allow Cadillac to found his new settlement. In 1699, when Cadillac argued his case, France was technically at peace. However, Louis XIV was determined to put his grandson on the vacant Spanish throne and the British were equally determined to stop him. The king and his court knew that as Louis came closer to accomplishing his goal, Britain would declare war. Thus, an outpost at "detroit" seemed advantageous. The straits offered both a useful defensive position and an advanced post from which to supply raiding parties to attack the British colonials. In 1686, for similar reasons, a short-lived outpost had been established near Port Huron. The French now saw an advantage in reestablishing a garrison in the straits area. Thus, despite the opposition of traders, who opposed the economic implications of Cadillac's plan, and the Jesuits, who simply opposed the idea in principle, Cadillac received royal authority to found Detroit and through it control the river for France's benefit.