Orlando Willcox (1823- ) the noted Civil War general was born in
Detroit, Michigan. He wrote this fictionalized autobiography under the
name of Walter March.
was a little antiquated city. Its inhabitants were mostly French. At
the time I came upon the stage of events, the transition to a modern
American town had scarcely commenced. The body of the population was
still of the ancien regime. The few Americans were officers, or
ex-officers, of either the general or territorial government, and their
families, relations, dependents, and friends, whom they had persuaded
to venture beyond the "jumping-off place," as Buffalo was then termed.
The spirit of emigration had not been fully aroused; and the spirit of
speculation, if felt at all, was confined to fur-traders, a class made
up of all nations.
I cannot compare the society more nearly than to that of
some principal East India Company station in a city of Hindostan. There
were the governor of the territory and his family, the judicial,
executive, and military functionaries, with their families and
dependents; like subahdar, nabobs, begums, and the lesser lights -
traders and natives, French, Indian, and half-breed. But one could not
well imagine a pleasanter state of feeling than mutually existed, with
sufficient distinction between the different castes or classes to
prevent wrangling, and yet sufficient community of interest, prejudice,
and pleasure to make everybody sociable. The French gave a tone of
gaiety - the military, both elevation and hospitality. There were balls,
where everybody danced with everybody's wife and daughter. There were
theatricals, where the most dignified gentlemen took parts. It may be a
mere whim, but I think I never have elsewhere met such easy polish and
affability among gentlemen. There was no touchiness about position in
the social scale, and consequently neither stiffness nor affectation;
and to this day, the same easy grace of manner is notable among the sons
and daughters of the good old city.
The traveller, journeying at that period from New York
westward, after leaving Albany, penetrated into regions where
civilization grew dimmer and dimmer as he advanced, until he became
quite certain of having passed the ultima thule, when he would
stumble with astonishment on our little community. There he would be
welcomed with a courtesy no less gracious, and a hospitality much warmer
than he would himself have extended to a stranger in the metropolis.
Yet there he would behold the Frenchman, riding in his
two-wheeled cart to market with white fish and onions, and screaming a
rascally patois. Or he might observe a wedding procession, of
the same mercurial race, driving through the principal - or rather only -
avenue, at full speed to church, two and two, in little antique caleches;
the bride, of course, dressed in white, but wearing no bonnet, though
rejoicing in a veil that sweeps the ground, and her bridesmaids driving
after, as bonnetless as herself - a happy state of things to which the
dear ladies of the present day are fast returning.
As he sauntered along up the street, he would see
old-fashioned buildings, stores and dwellings forming a promiscuous row,
with high gables and dormer-windows, roofs peaked like Vandyke hats,
with their edges notched and painted red, and doors panelled into four
parts, and opening by subdivisions, like modern window-shutters. Motley
groups, consisting of French, Americans, and Indians, sit with their
sociable pipes enjoying confabulations made up of words, nods, shrugs,
and the impenetrable "ugh! ugh!" of the taciturn red man. Peeping into
the halls and rooms as he passed, he might here and there discern a
carpet, but generally the floors were covered with Indian mats. The
shops would be filled with bales of fur, gaudy-colored calicoes - known
as Indian calicoes - mococks of maple sugar, broidered with painted
porcupine quills, deerskins, moccasins, and Indian trinkets; few such,
however, as are now palmed off upon the curious and credulous stranger
Often he may meet on the sidewalk an Indian - some dark
Potowattimie, or tall, painted Sac or Fox - one of Nature's own
noblemen, erect and martial in his bearing, and with a single ridge of
stiff, black hair, standing like the crest of a helmet on his head; or,
peradventure, groups of Winnebagoes, with blue blankets on their
handsome squaws, while their own arms, ears, and noses would jingle with
silver ornaments; or, skulking along, some thievish craven of a
Mennomonie, whose name was no less a term of reproach among the nobler
tribes, than hat of the Samaritan with the disdainful children of Judah.
Passing above the town, he might find large, conical, birch-bark tents
pitched on the long slope of the river bank, and graceful, light
pirogues drawn up in regular rows on the shore; these belong to the
Indians, whom he may, if it chance to be payment season, behold in
hundreds, or even thousands. Succotash is boiling in huge iron or brass
pots over the fires. A small army of famished, wolfish-looking dogs lie
around, winking lazily in the sun; and no smaller army of naked children
are running every where - some pitching bright coppers, other shooting
with their bows and arrows, and others swimming and diving in the limpid
water; while around on the trees or fence, or sides of the wigwams, he
may behold many infant papooses sleeping in their hanging cradles of
hide and birch; or with their heads strapped back, looking on the scene
with wise, unwinking eyes. They seldom cry, and are no inapt
representations of Patience on a monument.
He would meet pretty, fawn-faced young squaws who glance
coquettishly at him, and no less so at themselves, or rather some
ornament, or little rude mirror half-concealed on their persons. Now and
then one peeps at him from behind the blanket at the tent-door.
Respectable elderly women would be sitting around, at work on mococks,
mats, or moccasins, or cooking game, or pilfered chickens in the
sugar-boiler, or smoking fish, depending from a stick sustained over the
fire by two forked uprights. Shame to the Pale Faces! - he might hear
drunken noises issuing from a lodge here and there; or worse, see an
Indian and his wife, or several squaws by themselves, alternately
caressing each other and quarreling, moved by the demon that lurks in
There must be dark shadows in every picture, especially in a picture of human life.
Gratefully, now, let him turn, at the soft sound of an
Indian flute, played with no great skill or variety of cadence, but
plaintively, by some young dandy. It is a reed, into which holes are
burned for the gamut of notes, and around it are wound deerskin thongs
to prevent splitting. Possibly, your Indian Pan may be joined by a
musical brother on the drum, which is naught else, after all, than a
species of rude banjo - a skin drawn over a hoop, as everybody knows.
Then fortunate the Gothamite might deem himself to witness an Indian
dance at that comparatively primitive period.
As he strolls out further from the town, he is struck with a
peculiarity in the divisions of the farms; for each one is but a narrow
strip of land running back into the woods two or three miles, so that
every farmer may have a front on the river. A hundred or so yards from
the beach stands the farm-house, similar to those already described,
with only more amplitude of dimensions, and a broad, indolent,
sun-loving porch, on which sleeps an old dog - practised no less in
raccoon lore than experienced in swimming after wild-ducks. In cozy
familiarity, and old cat is blinking by his side, or purring as she rubs
her electric coat against his shaggy hair; or perched on his back, a
piping chicken is with difficulty balancing itself, as it picks at the
flies which buzz around his nose, or alight with a tickling mischief on
his lazily-flapping ears.
In front of the house are the cherry-trees, and in the rear
the pear and apple-orchards; and the traveller is surprised to find the
best of fruit thus far beyond the pale of civilization - fruits brought
from sunny France, and planted by the skillful Jesuit; apples, red to
the core, large and luscious; cherry that rival nectarines; and pears of
every variety, and of every season, from July to November. Nor will the
patch of onions escape his notice: it is a Frenchman's flower-garden -
the invariable concomitant of every family who may claim a foot square
of mother earth. The fish-net or seine is stretched on the
fence. The long, flint-lock duck gun, with leathern pouch and
powder-horn, is hung on wooden hooks in the hall. The canoe is drawn up
on the beach.
But hark! you hear the sound of distant voices come stealing
over the water. Turn towards the river. See a long pirogue, or more
ample Mackinaw boat - perhaps a little fleet of them in a single line,
manned by voyajeeurs, or courreurs de bois, and loaded
with packs of peltries. The oarsmen have fitted out at Mackinaw, to
appear in style at Detroit - the greater station, and nearer
civilization. Probably the present is the glad occasion to which they
have looked forward, and they have talked over their plans concerning it
for many, many months. Each garcon has a sash around his
waist, and pulls a red oar. They keep perfect time - and it is joyous
quick time - with the notes of a French song which was chanted in France
a century ago:
"Malbrooks s'en va t'a guerrah!"
Or perchance the air is one you may not recognize:
"A Lon-don day.
S'en va coucher!"
No music could be more lively or inspiring. It comes over the
water - is accompanied by the plash of oards. It is roared out with the
utmost spirit, too, by that most glorious of all instruments, the human
voice. It has pealed through the woods, and over the river and lakes,
for thousands of miles. It has animated those brave adventurers in camp,
at portage, through summer and winter, rain and snow,
sickness, peril, and death; and now, joy! joy! it greets the steeples of
St. Ann! The children run out of the houses, down to the river shore,
to hear it; the maiden turns pale, and blushes, and hurries to the door;
the old man hobbles out and waves his hat. Troops of people rush down
to the wharves to see them land; and such shouts of welcome and
rejoicing never were known before.
Ah! that was a happy time for everybody. Our little
community was not yet divided on the question of Bibles in schools, or
wine on the side-boards. Slavery was little talked of, and as for
disunion - the mere word was considered, by the veriest Kenuck, as a profanation of human language.
But as settlers from New England began to thicken among us - Bostonians
they were indiscriminately denominated - it gradually came to light
that our lively little community were scarce a grain better than the
wicked, nay than the very heathen; witness the fiddling and dancing on
Sunday evenings (and pleasant Sunday evenings they were deemed by us, in
our dreadful ignorance), wherever there was any little neighborhood of
French people - on the great wide porch, or beneath the trees on the
grass; or, if in the house, with the doors and windows thrown wide open.
And there were the prettiest and most mischievous-eyed French girls,
dancing away for dear life with the good-looking, frank-mannered voyajeurs, or courreurs de bois,
in their red, yellow, or green sashes, long black hair, and blue calico
shirts. Such abominations attracted the "growing attention" of the
strict sober-sides from the land of Jonathan Edwards, as he passed these
dens of Apollyon, on his way to the place where prayer was wont to be
made. Then was there not racing to church the year round, and racing
home again? And were there not regular trotting matches on the
afternoons of the great days of the church, which brought the people in
from the country, up and down the river? Especially, was there ever
anything like it in the winter season, when the wicked river would even
wink at these atrocities by freezing over, so that nothing was seen on
Sunday afternoons but carioles turned up in the front, in a curl like a
skate, gliding, or rather flying, over the ice, two and two? The little
Canadian ponies held their tails up in the air like banners, and their
noses protruding into the clouds, or snorting between their legs - they
trotting like made, while the garcons whooped like Indians, shouting, whey! avance! arriez! ever and anon stealing a flashing kiss from the bright demoiselles at their sides.
Then on Easter morning, was not the church-yard of St. Ann's
fairly riotous with boys cracking painted eggs? Nay, in the same
precincts, were not idolatries frequently committed? Was not the Host
carried in procession by chanting Jesuits and nuns, to a high mound
called Mount Calvary, where there was a huge cross , and beneath which
lay the tomb of our Savior? Doubt not that these abominations smelt in
the nostrils of the sons of the Puritans.
But, in the time of my boyhood, the feud had not taken any
religious turn among the boys, who, I must confess, were very far behind
the boys of the present day, and knew little of religious
controversies, and talked not dogmatically of these, nor of the various
ologies in which the present juvenile generation are so good and wise.
There was, however, a feud; it was the boys of one schoolyard against
the boys of another schoolyard, and easily waxed warm, in consequence of
any collision, invasion, or interference. It might occur over a game of
ball, or the schism might arise over a combat between individuals of
the two opposing schools, which would always lead to a choice of
champions, and wager by battle to settle the respective merits; but
which generally raised new grounds of controversy, and involved greater
numbers, till each and every member of one community stood ready to
thrash each and every member of equal size on the other side.. . .
The Vicar of St. Ann's was the pious and polished old
missionary, Father Robert. Where this son of the Scarlet Lady hid his
cloven foot, I never knew; for of all men he was beloved in our
community - even among the unco good Protestants. He was
celebrated in the Catholic annals of the Northwest for his learning,
self-devotion, and enthusiasm. He was the first to do honor to the
neglected remains of Father Marquette, the explorer of the Mississippi.
He established the first newspaper; though, whether this was an act of
grace and Christian charity, some of the Berkeleys of the day may be
disposed to doubt. He was likewise entrusted without interests at the
seat of the Federal Government, as our territorial deputy to Congress,
and was acknowledged by everybody at home as the best-hearted and most
agreeable of men. He did good Protestants the honor to respect their
heretical prejudices, and was a frequent visitor at their houses.
"Ah, Mrs. March," he would sometimes say to my mother with
great politeness, "if all Protestants were as good Catholics as you,
there would be no trouble in the world." . . .
There was yet wanting in our cup another element of happy
discord considered now indispensable in every well-organized city - the
foreigner question. We scarcely knew what foreigners were, except as
brethren in pursuit of fortune and happiness. The Frenchman who left his
cherries to the birds, his sheep to the dogs, and his fish-seine to le diable,
for the purpose of shouldering his musket at the call of General Hull,
would have been astonished to have been branded as a foreigner. And as
for the English or Scotch fur trader, whose packs had been pillaged by
the British at Mackinaw, whose money had flowed freely as his blood
would have flowed in defence of the town, and who cursed "Old Hull" as a
traitor, or pitied him as a coward - no one ever thought of him as a
foreigner. In fact we all dwelt together harmoniously, to the best of my
recollection, and knew no more distinction of blood or nationality than
they are innocently supposed to know in heaven.
From: SHOEPAC RECOLLECTIONS: A WAY-SIDE GLIMPSE OF AMERICAN LIFE. By Walter March. New York: Bunce & Brothers, 1856: 1 - 23.
Hamil, Fred Coyne. The French Heritage of the Detroit Region. Michigan History 1963 47 (1): 41-46.
Willcox, Orlando. Forgotten Valor: The Memoirs, Journals, and Civil War Letters of Orlando B. Willcox. Edited by Robert Garth Scott. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1999.