Cadillac Builds a Fort at Detroit and Assigns French Ribbon Farms

French Fur Traders in Canada

French Canadian voyageurs paddled up and down the Detroit River, singing songs and pulling colorful sashes over their heads when it stormed.

French Canadian voyageurs used the Detroit River as a connecting highway to Green Bay to buy furs. Detroit pioneer Alexander Lewis lived in Sandwich, Ontario, for many years and recalled that the voyageur stopped at the bay there. They wore brown coats and red sashes and had capes sewn on their coats to pull over their heads when there was a severe storm. The fur canoes of the French voyageurs measured up to 36 feet long by six feet wide and could carry eight to ten men, 1,000 pounds of provisions and 60 large packs of furs.

Lewis recalled that the parties “usually consisted of about forty men and I have seen them come up through the streets of Sandwich, singing their French boat songs or smoking their pipes. Their arrival always aroused about as much interest as the coming of steamers did later on.”

Cadillac Searches South from Mackinac

The French post at Mackinac had been established as an Indian mission and a rendezvous for voyageurs and a supply depot for the Indian trade years before the settlement at Detroit was even imagined. The Indians friendly to the French mostly lived in the north, because the Iroquois in a long series of wars had driven them north from their ancestral lands. The French never envisioned Mackinac as a colony because of its northern location and the more strategic importance of the Detroit River to the French.

According to Clarence Burton, the far north location of Mackinac made a yearly corn crop questionable, and since Indian corn was essential for bread, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, commandant at Mackinac from 1694-1698, looked southward for a suitable location to found a colony. A sophisticated, skilled diplomat, Cadillac felt that locating a permanent colony on the Detroit River would curtail the English from trade among the French Indians. He reasoned that once established and properly managed, a post at Detroit would enable the commandant to attract the Indians of the west and their numbers, and combined with the strength of a French garrison, would force the fierce Iroquois to negotiate a peace agreement.

Both the English and French coveted the land west of Lake Erie, but temporarily the English gained the upper hand when on July 14, 1701, the Iroquois ceded all of the land east and west of Detroit from Lake Ontario to Lake Michigan to the English, even though the land was not theirs to cede.

The Fort at the Straits

On July 24, 1701, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac stepped ashore on the bank of the Detroit River and directed his men to start building a fort that he hoped would halt the westward expansion of English commercial interests. He had convinced the French King to open a fort in the lower lakes to protect French interests and the King granted Cadillac permission to come to Detroit from Montreal to establish a trading post.

Taking the Ottawa Route because the French government feared that the Iroquois Indians would attack him if he followed the Niagara route, Cadillac arrived at Detroit from Montreal on July 24, 1701, with 25 bark canoes holding enough provisions for three months. His men at once set to work building palisades for the post which enclosed an arpent of land, an arpent being a French acre of 192 feet on a side.

Cadillac’s post at Detroit proved to be a revelation that produced a revolution. By the end of his first week at Fort Pontchartrain, the name that he gave his post, Cadillac and his men had created a city without houses but with a population of 100 people. Native Americans flocked singly and in nations to witness the building of the fort on the straits. Cadillac encouraged them to settle around the fort, and they established four or five villages above and below the palisaded fort. There were already villages a few miles down the river.

During the next three years Cadillac and his men built up the fort and strengthened its foundation. The lots within the walls were usually small, about 20 x25 feet, and probably covered by buildings. Soldiers had small half acre gardens, fenced off and fronting on the east side of Randolph Street between the river and what is nowFort Street.

Beginning in 1707, contradicting the contention of some historians that the French did not deal in land, Cadillac began granting land on both sides of the Detroit River to French settlers who wanted to farm. The 1707 date is the organization date decades before George Washington was inaugurated as first president of the fledgling nation called the United States. Some local historians even argue that in 1699, two years before the founding of Detroit, a Pottawatomie chief scratched his mark on papers granting the first French settlers claim to land at the mouth of the Riviere aux Ecorces, French for the River of Bark.

Because water transportation was essential in these early times of dirt trails and dense forests, every farmer wanted to own land rights on the Detroit River and near Fort Pontchartrain. Cadillac gave each farmer land on the riverfront, which followed the shoreline for two hundred to one thousand feet and extended from the Detroit River back two to three miles. Because the plots were long and narrow, they were called ribbon farms.

The French Ribbon Farms

The ribbon farms lined both sides of the Detroit River from Monroe to Lake St. Clair, including Ecorse, and River Rouge. The farmers used their canoes on the Ecorse River, River Rouge, and the Detroit River to visit other farmers and friends in Fort Pontchartrain and to take their farm produce and furs to market. The proximity of the farms to the fort provided protection and allowed the farmers crucial access to the river which provided them with a transportation and a communication highway.

When Cadillac granted land to the farmers they had to agree to certain things. The farmer could trade, hunt, and fish on his property, but he had to pay rent to use the land and a fee for trading privileges. The ribbon farmers had to pay another fee to Cadillac for the use of his mill for grinding corn and other grain that he grew on the farm. The ribbon farmers grew corn, wheat, and vegetables and also pears, apples and other fruits and kept cattle, pigs, and a few horses. The entire family worked on the farm. The housewives baked bread in outdoor ovens made of clay, wove their own cloth and sewed their own clothes. They traded with the Native Americans to get maple sugar.

In 1748, the French offered settlers special bribes to come to Detroit. These bribes included a spade, an axe, a plough, a large wagon, a small wagon and seed, and a cow and pig, which had to be returned by the third harvest. By using this system, the French hoped to build up the settlement and strengthen their forces in the new land. By 1760, about 600 people lived within the walls of the fort and the population along of both sides of the river numbered 2,500 people.