Wednesday, June 27, 2012


The City of Detroit celebrates 311 years of settlement this July 24th. 

As a child, growing up near Detroit, I thought the river that ran between Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie had always been lined with smokestacks, factories, mountains of coal, and warehouses. Eventually, genealogy sparked an interest in the history of Detroit.

Research led me to the Clark Historical Library's exhibit, "I arrived in Detroit" and Antoine de la Mothe's 1702 Report describing the Great Lakes and his new settlement at Detroit.

It is difficult to imagine the Detroit River in 1702.  Who would have thought fruit trees and grapevines once grew wild along its banks and that eventually it led to a prairie where bison, or wooly oxen as he called them, grazed. 

"On the banks and round about the clusters of timber there is an infinite number of fruit trees, chiefly plums and apples. They are so well laid out that they might be taken for orchards planted by the hand of a gardener.

On all sides the vine is seen; there are with some bitter and rough grapes, - others whose berries are extremely large and plump. There are also white and red grapes, the skins of which are very thin, full of good juice."

"But 15 leagues from Detroit, at the entrance to Lake Erie, inclining to the south-south-west, are boundless prairies which stretch away for about 100 leagues. It is there that these mighty oxen, which are covered with wool, find food in abundance."

Grapevines and apple trees? Tall grasses with bison?  I thought about this description as I looked for a book cover.

The closest I could find to what Cadillac might have seen was the Nature center at Lake St. Clair Metropark, a marshland, and forest, and beautiful place to visit any time of the year.

South of the lake, on the other side of the Detroit River in Windsor Ontario, is  the Ojibway Prairie Provincial Nature Reserve. I've made a note to visit there soon. It appears to have the tall grass prairie that Cadillac spoke of but sadly no buffalo. 

Detroit-River Nature-Preserve
Below are some photos of the Detroit River today. I snapped these from the Canadian side during a visit to Windsor Casino.

Detroit-River from Windsor-Casino
Detroit River facing North, as it surrounds Belle Isle

Detroit-River Freighter
Freighter heading south, down river

Detroit-River Detroit-Skyline
Detroit's Renaissance Center, now GM Headquarters, and downtown
Thanks to Vito Palmisano for this great photo

Amazing what 311 years can do to a place.


Friday, June 15, 2012

Looking over the map I posted below, I began to understand why I enjoy researching the Detroit River French. I like their modesty, their simple lack of vanity.

Modesty? There's a word we don't hear in these days of narcissistic celebrities and self glorifying social media. But the Detroit River French were a modest people––practical, hardworking, and down to earth as the river they settled. No ego on the banks of the Detroit River, not in 1701.

Detroit's founder, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, a minor aristocrat, adopted many different names and titles to further his personal advancement. He had a grand plan for a new fur trading post on the Detroit River, yet he did not name his settlement Cadillac. He called it Fort Pontchartrain after the French Count who helped him gain funding for his mission from the King of France.

No one claimed the glory of discovering the Detroit River by giving it their own name. It was always called Rivière du Détroit, or River of the Strait. And that is exactly what the river is, a narrow, channel of water that connects two larger, bodies of water, Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie.

The French habitants named all their surroundings for just what they were. North of the fort was Presque Isle, (almost an island) and the Grand Marais (big swamp). In the river lay Isle de Cachon. Named Hog Island, because they used pigs to trample the many snakes there, today it is Belle Isle (beautiful island). Farther south on the river was Isle de Dindes (Turkey Island). The largest island was called Grosse Isle (Big Island).

There were few claims of glory among the first habitants of Detroit, at least for themselves. In their eyes only God deserved glory. French mapmakers called the northern lake that fed the river Mer Douce or sweet sea, until the French explorer René Robert Cavelier named it Lac Sainte-Claire in 1679. St. Anne de Detroit Church, the first log building in their settlement, was named after Ste. Anne, whose feast day fell on the date they landed in Detroit.

The hearts and struggles of Detroit's first settlers always belonged to God.

Click the link below to enlarge and explore a great map of the  Detroit River from 1812. Though it was made by a British engineer you can still see many of the old French names, from River Rouge (Red River) to Bois Blanc Isle (White Wood). 

And if you like historic maps check out the David Rumsey Map Collection at: 

David Rumsey Map Collection

There is also an excellent Wikipedia article listing all the islands of the Detroit River. I count twenty eight. How about you?

Saturday, June 2, 2012


Image from:

The twin steeples of Ste. Anne de Detroit Catholic Church, and the gothic pinnacles of Our Lady of the Assumption Church, are like two sisters looking at each other across the jade current of the Detroit River. They are the grande dames of French Detroit.  

My grandparents were married at Assumption Church in Windsor Ontario and so it's always been special to me. Assumption is the slightly younger sister that's held up well these last two hundred and eighty four years. Surrounded by a campus of trees and gardens today, this parish was established in 1728 as a mission to the local native tribes, and was first called, "The Mission of Our Lady of the Assumption among the Hurons of Detroit."

In 1765 the mission grew to include the French settlers on the south shore of the river and was renamed, Parish of Our Lady of the Assumption. A frame church was erected near the river in 1767 and in October of that year a new Register of Baptisms and Marriages was opened.

The cornerstone of the current church was laid in 1842 on land donated by the Hurons. Since then the original French settlers were joined by people from around the world, and Assumption Church Windsor remains an important part of the community. It is the oldest continuous parish in Ontario.

I found the information for this post at the Assumption Church website.

There is also a webpage for donations toward the preservation of this very special church.

And, if you'd like to see some wonderful photos of Assumption's interior: