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?