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The Founding of Detroit

In 1701, as he made his way down the Detroit River, Cadillac had a clear idea of the military requirements for an appropriate site. The place he chose was a defensible position where the channel was about one-half-mile wide and his cannon stood "one gunshot across" the river. Cadillac also justified the settlers and Indians who accompanied him in military terms. He had argued that a community that included artisans would be better able to support military operations. Similarly, the Indians in his group created a ready pool of warriors to supplement the French soldiers.

Although this military justification for including settlers and Indians in the new community was perfectly true, their presence also supported Cadillac's personal agenda. Cadillac hoped not only to further the cause of France but also to profit personally from the new settlement. When Cadillac had served as commander of Fort Michilimackinac from 1694 to 1699, he had profited substantially from the fur trade. Thus, when documents were drawn up for his new settlement, Cadillac took care to be appointed both commandant of the soldiers and seignior of the settlement. As seignior Cadillac exercised the feudal rights of royal France over the land and its settlers. His most lucrative right, however, was not based on feudal custom. It came from Cadillac's royally granted control over Detroit's fur trade. It was this provision that the spokesmen for the traders from Montreal had objected to in Paris. But the provision had been included nonetheless. In order to profit from the fur trade, Cadillac needed a large number of Indians to serve as trappers as well as a smaller group of merchants and artisans to supply the Indians with the goods and services that the furs would be used to buy. Including settlers and Indians in the community made military sense and also forwarded Cadillac's personal ambition.

Neither Cadillac nor any of the settlers who came to Detroit in its first century of existence came primarily to exploit the site's agricultural potential. Detroit was a military outpost and fur-trading center, not a center for crop production. Thus Cadillac did not bring European grain seeds among the supplies brought when he founded the settlement. It was not until five years later, in 1706, that he finally asked to have seed sent to grow wheat. The settlers relied largely on hunting for food. In addition, many of them planted small gardens near their homes. These foodstuffs were supplemented by the produce of a common field and pasture, Indian corn, and supplies shipped west from Montreal. Perhaps the only French agricultural activity admired by later generations of farmers who settled in Detroit was the fruit orchards planted by the French. These gained much favorable comment over the years. The orchards, however, were more ornamental than working farms and Detroit would rely on outside sources for much of its food well into the nineteenth century.

Cadillac's military plans and economic aspirations were logical, but personal shortcomings often clouded his judgment and ultimately led to his leaving Detroit. His effort to amass a personal fortune was so single-minded that the settlers soon came to greatly dislike him. Even his patron in France, Count Pontchartrain, whose influence as one of the King's senior ministers had likely made possible royal permission for the settlement, wrote to Cadillac, "you show too much greed." Pontchartrain recommended to Cadillac that he "use more moderation."

Cadillac's lack of moderation is most evident in his policy toward the Indians. In an effort to persuade as many Indians as possible to live near the community, Cadillac ignored common sense and brought into close proximity tribes with longstanding animosities toward one another. Predictably, this led to conflict. As early as 1703 tribal conflict led to a small portion of the fort being set afire. Significant fighting between rival tribes began in 1706. In 1708 intertribal violence led Cadillac to march against the Miami. During the winter of 1711-1712, Cadillac's successor revoked an invitation issued by Cadillac and ordered approximately one thousand newly arrived members of the Fox tribe to leave, since they were enemies of many of the tribes already living in the area. The Fox refused and a nineteen-day siege of the fort ensued. When the siege was lifted, the Indian tribes who had aided the French followed and massacred the retreating Fox. In the end, four Indian villages remained near Detroit, those of the generally compatible Ottawa, Chippewa, Huron, and Potawatomi. Two groups, the Miami and a band of Hurons, became permanent enemies of the French as a result of their treatment at Detroit.

In 1711 Cadillac, none the richer, left a dispirited Detroit. After his departure the community continued to serve France as a minor military outpost that had not demonstrated great value as a fur-trading center. The long peace, 1720 to 1744, between France and Britain left Detroit struggling to survive. As was typical during times of peace, the French government paid little attention to Detroit and the other minor garrisons along its North American frontier. There were no substantial military expenditures in the city, that could trickle down to the local merchants and residents.

Equally troublesome, the fur trade, which Cadillac hoped to make the economic centerpiece of Detroit, remained insignificant compared to more established French fur-trading locations. From the French perspective Detroit was not well located. It could not challenge already established fur-trading centers. Pelts from the northern lakes were collected at Michilimackinac while furs from the south and west were sent to Fort St. Joseph, near what is today the city of Niles. Detroit's fur traders gathered pelts from the relatively small area of southeastern Michigan and southwest Ontario. Eventually the income derived from Detroit's role in the fur trade would become substantial, but that would not occur for half a century.

The community clung to life, but reports in Montreal spoke of fewer residents and decaying buildings. In 1727 the French government decided to abandon the colony, but the decision was never acted upon. In 1740 Detroit's population was not much different from what it had been in 1701. About one hundred artisans, about five hundred braves, and about 1,500 family members of the braves lived in the area. The major change was in the number of soldiers. Cadillac had arrived with one hundred fighting men. Only seventeen remained in Detroit in 1740.