About Cadillac and the Founding of Detroit
click for timeline

In the midst of a series of wars between England and France, Antoine de Lamothe Cadillac proposed that a French colony be established somewhere along Le Detroit (the Narrows). Detroits location was of strategic importance because it was the only water passage to Lake Erie from Lake Huron. On July 24, 1701 Cadillac and his men landed at the site that would become Detroit and immediately began to build Fort Ponchatrain. Toward the end of the French and Indian War British forces took control of this outpost from the French, and it was not until 1796 that the United States took charge of this frontier town.

At the time of its founding, Detroit was valued more for its military importance than for the economic reasons that had earlier prompted the establishment of fur-trading centers. Its strategic location made Detroit an inevitable zone of conflict. Cadillac, however, had envisioned a permanent settlement where farming might provide a needed resource for the area. Under his leadership the French created ribbon farms along the Detroit River, to attract settlers and created conditions that several Indian tribes found attractive. This posthole allows students to study many examples of conflict and cooperation. For example, the founding of Detroit, which was to begin an era of cooperation and cultural assimilation between the French and Native Americans in the region, created more conflict that peace. Detroit was a key staging area for military actions that were required to maintain France's claims to this territory and battles that took place during the French and Indian War.


1683 Cadillac landed in Nova Scotia, a penniless sailor, worked for Francois Guion, a privateer for the French, and gained extensive knowledge of the New England coastline

1684 While employed as a privateer, he formed business relationships and tried to alienate the priests by inciting people to refuse to pay a tithe to the church, thus earning him much criticism

1687 Cadillac married Marie-Therese Guion, daughter of Francois Guion

1691 Cadillac and his family retreated to Quebec after their home was destroyed

1692 Frontenac was directed to give Cadillac employment because of his knowledge of the coastline, thus Cadillac is given the job to reconnoiter and map the New England coast

1694 Frontenac and Cadillac become friends and Cadillac is awarded the coveted post of commander of Michilimackinac, the most important fur trading center in New France

1697 With Indian relationships in disarray and furs glutting the market in France, fur trade was halted and Cadillac was ordered to return to Canada

1698 Cadillac sailed to Paris to proposed to create a new colony on the strait between the Detroit and St. Clair Rivers

1701 Ville de troit was founded in 1701

1704 First recorded baptism after the founding of Detroit was that of Marie Therese, daughter of Antoine de Lamothe and Therese Cadillac

First known death was that of Father Constantine de L'Halle, who was killed by a Native American in the summer of 1706

Conflict between the Ottawa, Huron and Miami tribes almost started a war

1708 An investigator was sent to ascertain whether Cadillac was doing a good job. The report was highly critical and accused Cadillac of fraud, thievery, greed, and tyrannical behavior

1710 Cadillac was transferred out of Detroit to New Orleans, Cadillac convinced financier Antione Crozat to invest $600,00 livre to develop the mineral resources in Louisiana and trade with Mexico, and to permit Cadillac to administer the project

1713 Cadillac landed in Louisiana, but was unsuccessful in developing trade with the hostile Spaniards in Mexico

1717 The investor, Crozat, wearied of Cadillac's erratic personality and failures had him recalled. Cadillac and his family returned to France

1769 Lieutenant George McDougall bought Hog Island, now known as Belle Isle, from the chiefs of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians for "five barrels of rum, three rolls of tobacco, three pounds of vermilion, a belt of wampum, three barrels of rum, and three pounds of paint when possession was taken


Cadillac was born in 1658 in the southern French hamlet of St. Nicolas-de-la-Grave. Not much is known about Cadillac's life in France before he came the New France. It is obvious that he was well educated through examination of his numerous litters. He was considered one of New France's wittiest writers of letters and official dispatches. And exactly why he served as a sailor on a merchant ship is also unknown. Some of his contemporaries commented that he was not known for his honesty. However, he arrived in Nova Scotia in 1683 as a penniless immigrant and explored the New England coast. Eventually he was given a land grant in what is not the state of Maine.

The land of New France was surrounded by wilderness when Cadillac came there in the 1680s, and the forts and settlements of Quebec, Ontario and Michigan were wild and lawless. Most of the people who lived there were adventure-seekers engaged in the cut-throat fur trade and claiming new land for the Empire they represented. The rest were priests who tried to convert the Indians to Christianity. The court of King Louis XIV was months away by boat and by mail. There were few rules, and those that existed were enforced by a sense of self-survival rather than authority. Life in North America was extremely wild and unpredictable. Cadillac thrived in this atmosphere.

Cadillac settled in Quebec after marrying Marie-Therese Guion. The Cadillac's formed friendships with the noble families there, including Count Frontenac who the governor-general of New France. Frontenac made Cadillac a lieutenant in the colonial army. In 1694, Frontenac appointed Cadillac military commander of Michilimackinac which was an important fort at St. Ignace.

Since Michilimackinac was the most important military and fur trading station in the entire western country, command of this post very important. Cadillac came to Michilimackinac, at the peak of the Iroquois war. He was responsible for keeping all the western tribes allied to France and for keeping them stirred up enough to continue fighting against the Iroquois. Perhaps he was so distracted by making money; or perhaps it was incompetence, but he was unable to prevent the Iroquois and Herons from making peace with each other and unable to keep the western tribes harmoniously allied to France.

During Cadillac' time at Michilimackinac, he managed to amass an enormous amount of money by selling liquor to the natives and fleecing the fur trappers and voyageurs. His single-mindedness to make money made him an enemy of the Jesuits who filed reports critical of his practices to the French government. A 20th-Century Belgian-American linguist and historian, Jean Delanglez, who was also a Jesuit priest, is an expert on Cadillac. He doubted Cadillac's sanity and called him "an impudent liar." He believed that he was tolerated by the royal court mostly because the court itself was corrupted and asserted that "perhaps the outstanding characteristic of Cadillac was his stupidity."


At the turn of the 18th Century, New France was constantly threatened on the south and east by the Iroquois and English who had banded together. The French alliances with other Indian tribes were in questionable because the beaver trade had collapsed. With the beaver market in France glutted with excess pelts, the Indians were threatening to take pelts to the English at Albany. In 1696, Paris suspended the fur trade and ordered the closure of several western forts, including Michilimackinac, where Cadillac had amassed his fortune.

Cadillac was obviously an inventive man. He devised a strategy where he would not only stay in New France, but he could attract even more Indians and trappers to a place that he supervised. Cadillac traveled to Paris in 1699. He wanted to get permission from the King to establish a new settlement along the strait that connected Lake Erie and Lake Huron - the site of Detroit. This new settlement was to be a civilized community with families and farms and their western Indian allies would regroup there as well.

Cadillac marketed his plan convincingly. The advantages he outlined were:

  1. The location of this settlement could prevent the British from expanding into the Great Lakes
  2. The location of this settlement could prevent British trappers from traveling northward via the Detroit and St. Clair Rivers into the Great Lakes, and prevent raiding parties from entering Lake Huron and disrupting the fur trade
  3. The location was on the doorstep of the Iroquois nation so military action could be taken against the Iroquois at a moment's notice in case of war
  4. The relocation of the western tribes would cause such a distraction that they would have no time to hunt, thus the supply of pelts would decrease
  5. A large European settlement located so far west would aid in the conversion of western tribes to the white man's ways
  6. The exploitation of the Indians would decrease because this settlement would not be located in the unsupervised wilderness
  7. Both religious and governmental agents would be on hand to supervise transactions between the trappers and the Indians and better protect the Indians

Cadillac's proposition satisfied the military, economic, cultural and moral concerns of the French king and the Jesuit priests. Cadillac also hoped, no doubt, that it would enable him to stay in New France to accumulate more wealth.

Cadillac understood that the French did not have the colonizing spirit of the English. Their concerns pivoted around whether they were currently at war with England, what the current price of beaver belts was, and the amount of pressure the Jesuits were applying at the time. At times of war, the French harassed the English as much as possible and aggressively extended her territory. Yet at peacetime, the French were very neutral on the subject. When fur prices were high, all the high ranking ministers of the government benefited greatly. But when the market price was low, they understood that the law of supply and demand necessitated cutting off the importation of pelts, and expansion meant more fur pelts. Finally, the Jesuits saw the raison d'etre was to minister and convert the Indians to Catholicism. Expansion meant, in most cases, more contact with the traders and corruption, not greater opportunity, for Jesuit success. The Jesuits wanted to limit the contact the traders had with the Indians.

Cadillac's vision was of a colony of French families, religious men and soldiers who would help civilize the Indians and build their trust and loyalty to the French. Cadillac saw Indians moving to Detroit from across the Great Lakes. This new community would keep the English and Iroquois at bay on the east, keep the Indians supervised, and keep control of the fur trade. French court, expecting to go to war with England soon, saw the strategic advantage of a defensive post in the strait, so they gave Cadillac approval in 1700, and an amount equivalent to about $12,000, to establish the outpost. Cadillac received royal authority to found the colony Detroit and through it control the river for France's benefit. Thus Detroit was founded as a vehicle through which to control the endless conflicts between France and the English and their Iroquois allies.

Founding Detroit

In June of 1701, Cadillac left Montreal with a company of about 100 traders and craftsmen, two priests, his 9 year-old son, Antoine, and Alphonse Tonty. Their voyage took them north on the Ottawa River, a portage across to Lake Nipissing to the French River and on to Georgian Bay to Lake Huron. From there, they traveled south. Their trip took them 600 miles. When they arrived, Cadillac had an idea of the military requirements for the fort and selected a site that was elevated, offered a clear view both up and down the river, and his cannon could reach across the river. The site is at the foot of Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit. The group quickly built a small fortress and a chapel. The fort was called Ft. Pontchartrain, the settlement was called Ville de troit (village of the strait) and the Church was called Ste. Anne's.

Cadillac was appointed both commander of the military and seignior of the settlement. As seignior he had the power of a feudal lord, collecting taxes from the business operation. He stood to personally benefit from the enterprises of the community. The presence of Indians meant that he would see a share of each pelt traded. And each artisan who made a bucket or kettle or axe head paid Cadillac an additional fee when it was traded. Having a large group of men, both white and Indian, assured the protection of the settlement. And since he also controlled the trade the flowed through the strait by royal edict, Cadillac could have ended up an immensely wealthy man. But Cadillac started his community at a bad time. The glut of furs and a recession did not turn around fast enough.

In addition to the bad economic environment, it was Cadillac's greed, lack of moderation, and unfair treatment of virtually everyone that prevented him from being successful in Detroit. He seemed to be universally disliked by everyone and Detroit suffered because of his shortcomings. He seemed to have no common sense about the obvious tension between native tribes with longstanding animosities whom he encouraged to live in close proximity to each other around Detroit. As early as 1703 tribal conflict led to a small portion of the fort being set afire. Fighting between rival tribes began in 1706 and in 1708, intertribal violence forced Cadillac to march against the Miami.

Bad publicity travels fast. In 1707, Pontchartrain, France's military leader sent an envoy to Detroit to assess the problems. The envoy concluded that the colony was generally a failure. An assembly of Indians could not possibly live together. He further noted that Cadillac "is generally hated by both French and Indians alike." He also revealed that Cadillac had told several lies about the number of inhabitants and acres being tilled by the colony. Furthermore, the Indians seemed to be uniting against the French. For his greed and poor performance as a leader, Cadillac was actually promoted. He was sent to run New Orleans in 1711, a successful colony in the south.

The final break happened during the winter of 1711-1712 when Cadillac's successor revoked an invitation issued by Cadillac and kicked about a thousand newly arrived Fox tribe members to leave. It was a pretty thoughtless invitation to have issued initially since the Fox were enemies of many of the tribes already living in the area. The Fox refused to leave and a nineteen-day siege on the fort ensued. Once the siege was lifted, the French-allied Indian tribes followed and massacred the retreating Fox. This experiment of blending tribes and white men could not have gone worse. The four Indian villages that remained near Detroit were those that were compatible - the Ottawa, Chippewa, Huron, and Potawatomi. But two groups, the Miami and a band of Huron, became permanent enemies of the French as a result of their treatment at Detroit. Cadillac had failed at two of his most important missions, to keep peace with the Indians and isolate them from the Iroquois, and maintain control of the fur trade in the region. A new network of Indian alliances developed out of Detroit that shifted trade through the English /New York commercial centers via the Iroquois. The conflicts resonated throughout the Indian world and helped the British develop friendlier relations and make alliances with other tribes.

The settlers in Detroit did not pursue agriculture. Since trade was active between the new settlement and Montreal, they relied on their French associates to supply them with the raw materials to make their products and imported grain for bread. The French did plant beautiful fruit orchards that were admired by farmers for generations. Otherwise the focus was on hunting and fishing, which was quite effortless.

Occupations at Detroit included the Post Surgeon, a Chaplain, merchants, traders. Blacksmiths, gunsmith, stonemason, harness maker, tailor, cartwright, shoemaker, farmers, slaves, Indian interpreters, keeper of the Kings woods, Kings Gardener, Sub-Intendant/Royal Notary and Commandant. In 1754 the military strength of Detroit included the Marines, 200 Militia (Milice) and about 300 Indians from the surrounding towns. The armament of French Detroit consisted of several iron breech loading swivel guns, 2 iron three Livre (pound) cannons and a few small mortars. There was a ship-building yard in the Rouge River area near Detroit.

Some people had small gardens near their homes and there was a large communal garden as well. Crops were not planted and fields tilled until 1706. When fields were eventually planted, the tilled fields were made into long strips that radiated out from the river's edge. There was no market for the few crops that were grown, except to passing traders. And there were a few Indians and black slaves that did domestic work. Slavery did not fit into the economic system of the fur trade in New France.

After Cadillac left Detroit in 1711, the colony continued to serve France as a minor military outpost. It had never become a great value as a fur-trading center. Its strategic position was of no benefit to the French since France and Britain had a "long" peaceful period, from 1720 to 1744. Usually, military activity and war benefited communities because the soldiers and army needed goods and services that the colonists could provide. France paid little attention to Detroit and garrison subsisted, but did not grow and prosper. By 1740 only 17 soldiers were stationed in Detroit.

The population of Detroit declined after Cadillac left. The constant conflicts dispirited the inhabitants and discouraged new settlers to the area. By 1720 the population climbed to about two hundred. But in 1727 the French government decided to abandon the colony, although the decision was never acted upon. By a governmental proclamation in 1749 promising tools, feed, livestock and seeds stimulated some movement of settlers there. Detroit was established because Cadillac believed it could be a great fur trading settlement. It was not for two reasons. First, the best quality fur pelts were found in Northern Michigan and around the Sault. Second, it was more expeditious for those pelts to be collected at Michilimackinac and travel eastward from there. Only a small number of pelts were traded out of Detroit.

Detroit and the French and Indian War (Seven Years' War)

Although the French had claimed an area that included all of present day Michigan and the Ohio valley, they had done little to change the landscape. Their forts were successful trading outposts, but were not developed as growing communities of settlers. Detroit was in exactly that same condition. However, in 1744, the French again became interested in Detroit because friction with England was leading to war. Detroit was much too far west to play an important part in the French and Indian War, called the Seven Years' War by the European. Events that led up to the war were:

  1. A Huron band who had formerly lived at Detroit, and the Miami Indians helped the British move west and divert many furs to New York where they had formerly moved through Ft. St. Joseph (near Niles, MI,) to Montreal
  2. The British built strongholds in the camps of their Huron allies along Sandusky Bay (Ohio)
  3. British instigated the Iroquois to launch attacks and to kill people they found near Detroit
  4. The British pushed their military into the southern borders of New France

With new conflicts on the horizon, Detroit suddenly became a valuable asset to the French. By 1747, Detroit began launching Indian expeditions and became an important as a strategic military site. A truce was called in 1748, however both France and Britain knew this was temporary and both sides began gathering strength for the future war. During the truce, both France and Britain worked to enforce their claims on the Ohio River valley south of Detroit. Both countries claimed ownership of the area for many years, but little effort had been put into resolving the conflicting claims. In 1749, and again in 1751 and 1754, France gave special supplies and concessions to groups of settlers who agreed to come to the community and strengthen it.

The British stepped up their claim by offering Virginia speculators up to 500,000 acres of land if they began to settle it. Added to the already strong presence of British fur traders and soldiers in the area, France felt increased anxiety. In 1749 the French at Detroit organized a raid on Pickawillany, an English fort in Ohio. After the defeat of the fort, all of the Indians allied to the British were savagely attacked. In 1754 a formal declaration of war was sent.

The British believed that if they concentrated their attacks on the eastern strongholds of New France, and were able to achieve decisive victories there, the rest of the French garrisons would surrender. The first part of the war favored the French. With their help of the Indian allies, they defeated the British in many battles. Some Tribes who had been loyal to the British came to Detroit to make peace with the French. However, the French began losing more and more consistently. Detroit prepared feverishly preparing for an attack from the British, but it never came. The war, which became a global conflict, never moved to the western territories and ended after 7 years without engaging the garrison at Detroit.

When the British captured Montreal, the governor-general of New France surrendered all of Canada, including Ft. Ponchatrain and Ville de troit, to the British. As a result of the surrender, British soldiers took charge of Detroit on November 29, 1760, without firing a shot.

back to top