The Detroit River Connects Clashing Fur Trading Interests

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Robert La Salle

French voyageurs paddled down the river that they called “De Troit,” meaning the strait or the narrows, and propelled themselves into a different universe.

The French voyageurs who dipped their paddles smoothly in and out of its blue sunlit waters were the first non-natives to navigate the Detroit River and land on Detroit shores.

The Iroquois and the Dutch are Allies

The French came to trade furs and explore, but others had more sinister reasons to explore the Detroit River. The river and its adjacent lands crossed the warpath of the Iroquois, fierce warriors from the east. By the 1600s, the Iroquois had allied with the Dutch who had founded New Amsterdam. The Dutch bought furs from the Iroquois and shipped the furs on sailing ships to Europe to be used for hats, cloaks, and ornaments.

The beaver in what is now New York had been nearly all trapped by the middle of the Seventeenth Century, and the Iroquois ranged westward. They wiped out most of the Huron who shared their land with the Algonquin tribes called the Ottawa and Chippewa. The English arrived in New York, supplanting the Dutch, but maintaining the Dutch friendships with the Iroquois and giving them access to Lake Erie and the other Great Lakes. The French had established themselves in Montreal and the French voyageurs explored the vast forests to the west of the newly founded cities in Quebec.

Father de Casson Lands on the Detroit River

Traveling in Indian fashion, the voyageurs proclaimed their joy of life and the wilderness in exuberant songs as they paddled their way to the trading posts and towns. They could only transport furs and trading goods by water because there were no roads for horses and wagons. Father Dollier de Casson, the first priest to stand on the Michigan shore of the Detroit River, was a French nobleman who after a notable military career became a priest and explorer.

In 1670, he landed on the left bank of the River in what is now Detroit, somewhere between the mouth of the Rouge River and Fort Wayne. Father de Casson planted a large wooden cross covered with the French coat of arms on the site, prophetically demolishing a stone figure that the Indians worshipped. Then he continued on to Sault Ste. Marie, to serve a mission there.

The French and English Vie for Control of the Fur Trade

The French and the fur trade produced the first sailing ship on the Upper Great Lakes as well. The Griffon left Niagara in 1679, with Robert Cavelier LaSalle and a French and Native American contingent on board, including Father Louis Hennepin. La Salle hoped to use his advantage of being the first ship to travel the Detroit River to win a fur trade monopoly. The French and English along with a few soldiers and land seekers from the Thirteen Seaboard colonies began to congregate in Detroit.

By the end of the Seventeenth Century the French and English were jostling each other for control of the fur trade and the allegiance of the Indians. The Iroquois, still aligned with the English, had invaded French territory and the commander of the French fort at Michilimackinac vowed to protect French interests in Michigan. In Albany, the English offered better prices for pelts and enjoyed a shipping advantage because of their access to New York harbor through the Hudson River.

The French had only the St. Lawrence River to gain their shipping ports and the St. Lawrence season was so short that the French ships could make only a yearly voyage from Montreal up the Ottawa River across Lake Nipissing and the Georgian Bay and into the Great Lakes. The Ottawa River route to Detroit began in Montreal, passed over about thirty portages, and came down through Georgian Bay through Lake Huron to Detroit. The Niagara route over Lakes Ontario and Erie was shorter and contained one portage at Niagara Falls.

Clarence Burton Collects Fur Trading Contracts

Capitalistic fur traders in Montreal fitted out canoe loads of merchandise and sent them to the upper country under the care of a trustworthy voyageur, or if the load warranted, an expedition of voyageurs. After the canoe or canoes were loaded, agreements or contracts were negotiated with the required number of men to make the voyage. All of these agreements and contracts were written and notarized in Montreal. The men who could write signed their names to the agreements, and if they were illiterate, that fact was noted in the contract.

The notaries kept these contracts which provide valuable primary sources of early fur trading transactions. Detroit historian Clarence Burton collected what he estimated to be thousands of contracts and agreements, dating from1680-1760, containing the names of the early voyageurs, where they lived, their occupations, dates of their visits to the western country, and times and terms of employment. Frequently these contracts show the values of services and commodities and the volume of the trade.

The North West Company and the Ottawa Route

In 1798, the North West or Canada Company controlled most of the fur trade between Montreal and Lake Superior. The North West Company had been organized in the winter of 1783-1784, but had never become an incorporated company like its chief rivals, the Hudson’s Bay Company and the American Fur Company. The North West resembled a modern holding company, consisting chiefly of Montreal firms and partnerships in the fur trade.

The North West Company began during the American Revolution and in 1811 it temporary merged with the American Fur Company. In 1816, it established its posts over much of Canada and the northern United States. Its main line of communication was the difficult canoe route from Montreal up the Ottawa River, and through Lake Huron and Lake Superior to its chief inland depot, Grand Portage before 1804 and Fort William after 1804. In 1821, the North West Company merged with the Hudson’s Bay Company.

All too soon, the day of the free trader depending on his own resources had virtually passed into history. Only a few fur traders filed applications at Mackinaw to be free traders. The North West Company included all Indian trappers and traders and was practically free from serious competition at this time.

Dr. Charles L. Codding described a trip with the voyageurs in about the year 1800, using the Ottawa Route. The journey began about nine miles outside of Montreal on the St. Lawrence at La Chine. A guide responsible for all pillage and loss and having sole control of the fleet directed a birch bark brigade of three or more canoes. All of the men and their wages were answerable to him and he decided the times and places of the arrivals and departures of the fleet. When fur trader Antoinie de Mothe Cadillac journeyed from Canada to establish the French Fort at Detroit, he followed the Ottawa Route.