Friday, November 2, 2018

The French in 19th Century Michigan

The French in 19th Century Michigan
By Frank Boles

On October 2nd, CMU Professor Amy Ransom gave an interesting presentation discussing the ongoing presence and influence of the French in 19th century Michigan. Professor Ransom, who has a particular interest in Quebec, used the lecture to talk about the long history of French-speaking people in our state.
Michigan was originally part of New France. And although the British took political control of Canada in 1763, the Europeans who lived along St. Lawrence River valley and near the Great Lakes remained a French-speaking community largely populated by the descendants of French settlers or Metis, people of mixed French and Indian descent. Similarly when the English ceded Michigan to the newly formed United States, the residents of Michigan, located in Detroit, Monroe, Mackinac Island, and Sault Ste Marie, remained a French speaking group of communities, whose political establishment consisted of a dusting of English speaking officials.

Map of Michigan in French from
France at Mackinac; a pictorial record of French Life and Culture 1715-1760 by Eugene T. Paterson 

One of the most interesting points about these French communities during their formative years was the determined independence of the residents. French “habitants” were clear in their own mind that they were not “peasants” under the thumb of some nobleman, but rather free residents of the land, who controlled their own fate. As such they were quite capable of standing their ground against French authorities, and later against British or American political leaders who crossed well established boundaries.

A depiction of Cadillac's Landing at Detroit from
Lingering Shadows of the Fleur De Lis by
Edith Watkins Worley Ash
Professor Ransom also noted that while the great wave of “Yankee” immigration which began to arrive in Michigan during and after the 1820s did much to dilute French influence, it was mixed with  a smaller wave of Quebecois immigrants, who left French speaking, and British governed, Quebec to seek their fortunes in Michigan. The quick ferry ride between cities like Detroit and Windsor made crossing the border between British governed “Upper Canada”, today’s Ontario, and the United States a simple matter. More to the point, no one would ask questions of a French speaking person boarding a ferry in Canada and getting off it in the United States. And a habitant would not be bothered much about something so superfluous as an international boundary drawn on a map he or she had not been consulted about.

From Cadillac's Village: Detroit under
the French Regime by the Detroit Historical Museum
As Professor Ransom easily demonstrated, there remains a longstanding French presence today, seen most notably in a host of generally town and street names. Although contemporary pronunciation of the words would make a true French speaking person shed tears of sorrow regarding what we have done to the language.
It was an interesting talk.