Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Detroit - A True Colonial City

New York (New Amsterdam), NY 1625
Boston, MA 1630
Charleston, SC 1670
Philadelphia, PA 1682
Detroit, Mi 1701
Trenton, NJ 1719
Concord, NH 1725
Baltimore, Md 1729
Richmond, VA 1733

The above list shows the years these well-known colonial American cities were founded. And right smack dab in the middle is Detroit.
Wait! Detroit? A colonial city?
Yup. Ha! It's even older than Baltimore, and only 19 years younger than Philadelphia!

Here's a quick history from Wikipedia:
The city name comes from the Detroit River (French: l'étroit du Lac Erie), meaning the strait of Lake Erie, linking Lake Huron and Lake Erie; in the historical context, the strait included Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair River. Traveling up the Detroit River on the ship Le Griffon (owned by La Salle), Father Louis Hennepin noted the north bank of the river as an ideal location for a settlement. There, in 1701, the French officer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, along with 51 additional French-Canadians, founded a settlement called Fort Ponchartrain du Détroit, naming it after the comte de Pontchartrain, Minister of Marine under Louis XIV. France offered free land to attract families to Detroit, which grew to 800 people in 1765, the largest city between Montreal and New Orleans. Francois Marie Picoté, sieur de Belestre (Montreal 1719–1793) was the last French military commander at Fort Detroit (1758–1760), surrendering the fort on November 29, 1760 to the British. Detroit's city flag reflects this French heritage.
Joseph Campau built this house before 1760 - his farm consisted mostly of fruit trees.
The church was built for use of the people who lived along the Detroit River.

During the French and Indian War (1760), British troops gained control and shortened the name to Detroit. Several tribes led by Chief Pontiac, an Ottawa leader, launched Pontiac's Rebellion (1763), including a siege of Fort Detroit. Partially in response to this, the British Royal Proclamation of 1763 included restrictions on white settlement in Indian territories. Detroit passed to the United States under the Jay Treaty (1796). In 1805, fire destroyed most of the settlement. A river warehouse and brick chimneys of the wooden homes were the sole structures to survive.
From 1805 to 1847, Detroit was the capital of Michigan. As the city expanded, the street layout followed a plan developed by Augustus B. Woodward, Chief Justice of the Michigan Territory. Detroit fell to British troops during the War of 1812 in the Siege of Detroit, was recaptured by the United States in 1813 and incorporated as a city in 1815.

As you can see, Detroit played an important role in the history of our nation - much more important than let on by the history books.
And here's some descriptions from primary sources of everyday life in the late 18th century on the streets of old Detroit (taken from the book "Michigan Voices" by Joe Grimm:
The first I have here are of two offenses by a couple of residents: Two cows belonging to Mr. Wm. Scott were found in the street, and a Mr. G. McDougal left his cart in the street all night. Also, a number of hogs are running in the street daily, to the great detriment of the public.
Speaking of streets, they tended to be in just as bad a shape in the 1790's as they are today:
The street opposite the church was in bad order, and there was a log missing in front of George Leith & Co. And poor Mr. Hand had no logs at all in front of his house!
Neighbor troubles are nothing new, just ask the local tanner, Mr. George Setchelsteil. He was assaulted while on horseback by Simon Girty. It seems Mr. Girty seized Setchelsteil's horse by the bridal, making use of abusive words in doing so. Mr. Setchelsteil found some means to turn his horse away and was able to distance himself from Mr. Girty. Girty, however, was throwing stones at the man, one of which struck him in the head and gave him a wound from which much blood gushed out. Setchelsteil claimed there was no provocation given to cause this.
Ah, city life. Not much has changed, eh?

It is sad that when colonial settlements are spoken of, Detroit is never on the list - never.
And it doesn't help that Detroit very rarely celebrates its colonial past. In fact, nearly all history books I have of Detroit spends very little on pre-Civil War era Detroit. For example, in the book "Echoes of Detroit - A 300 Year History" by Irwin Cohen, only 8 pages out of 131 are dedicated to its first 100 years - the colonial period - and the next 18 pages takes us all the way up to 1874! Nearly 200 years in 26 pages and just over 100 pages to cover the last 125 years.
Another book, "Detroit: A Motor City History" by David Lee Poremba does a much better job by giving the city's early history nearly 60 pages out of 149.
But, "A Motor City History" is a rarity. Most others that I have looked at while browsing in the book stores tend to forget the founding years and concentrates mainly on the automobile years.
I would like to know why Detroit does not celebrate its colonial past. I mean, even it's 19th century past is rarely celebrated; if it wasn't for those of us who do Civil War reenacting, I believe most of Detroit's pre-20th century history would be forgotten. Even Greenfield and Crossroads Villages no longer celebrate Detroit's colonial heritage - both Village's have done away with their colonial festivals.
I would love to see Detroit mentioned on the national stage as more than just a blip on the pages of history until the automobile era.
And, unless we celebrate that here locally, it will never have a chance nationally.

(If you are interested in reading about the way our colonial ancestors lived, please click HERE)


1 comment:

Stephen Boyle said...

Watch for the 313 Energy Fest to celebrate the city's 313rd anniversary. The main event will be at Roosevelt Park and we'd love historians present to discuss the city's development.