Subject of the Month: 2020

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French Detroit, December 2020

Chaussegros de Léry, Joseph Gaspard, 1721-1797. “La rivière du Détroit depuis le Lac Sainte Claire jusqu'au Lac Erié” (1764). University of Michigan Library Digital Collections. William L. Clements Library Image Bank.


Selector: Michelle LaLonde

"French Detroit" used to be thought of as the isolated military outpost of Fort Ponchartrain, with a few European soldiers & fur traders and their Native American neighbors, which lasted from the city's founding in 1701 to 1763, when the British took control of Detroit at the end of the Seven Years' War. Contemporary scholarship (including groundbreaking work by Wayne State University faculty) is revealing "French Detroit" was part of a complex society, deeply connected to far-flung trading communities across North America. The entire Detroit River region was an important meeting point of these networks of peoples: French traders, soldiers, and farmers, multiple Native American tribes, British merchants and soldiers (after 1763), American settlers (after 1796), and both Native American and African slaves. 

The influence of the French community was felt from Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie on both sides of the waterways and was the predominant culture of the area until after the end of the War of 1812. The region later became home to Francophone peoples from eastern Canada in the late 19th / 20th centuries, many marrying into the original French community. Today, hundreds of thousands of people in Michigan and southwest Ontario can trace their roots to those early French settlers. Cultural traces of the French are still evident in the "ribbon" streets of Detroit and Windsor, the "twin" 18th century Roman Catholic parishes of Ste. Anne de Detroit and Windsor's Our Lady of the Assumption, the chasing of the "Nain Rouge" each spring in Midtown, and in the name of Wayne State's "Barodeur" summer biking event.


Books in Print

Wayne State University Press

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Videos, December 2020

PBS, "Finding Your Roots": Actress Patricia Arquette finds her Detroit French ancestors

Digging Detroit: "Detroit's Nain Rouge" legend (Episode 5)

Michigan Arts and Humanities Council: Genot Picor performs "Stories and Songs of French Michigan", Rendez-vous at the Soo (Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan), 2017.

University of Manitoba Press, Book Launch talk: WSU Professor Karen Marrero discusses her new book, Detroit's Hidden Channels, and is joined by Kathryn Magee Labelle and Guillaume Teasdale.

Special Collections in the WSULS

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Electronic Journals, December 2020


18th century map of the Detroit River & settlements


*These articles are available to WSU faculty, students, and staff through the Library System's JSTOR database, with user name and password.

Websites, December 2020

Ontario heritage sign, 18th century "French Settlement on the South Shore" of the Detroit River

Windsor, Dieppe Park heritage sign, "French Settlement on the South Shore".
Photo: Michelle LaLonde, 2015.