- Frontier Seaport: Detroit’s Transformation into an Atlantic Entrepôt by Catherine Cangany
In the current era, when Detroit has become a byword for environmental decay and urban poverty, it is both fascinating and heartening to read about the city’s pre-industrial past, to be reminded of the complexity and richness of its eighteenth-century commercial and cultural life. The story of Detroit told by Catherine Cangany in Frontier Seaport focuses primarily on the period from about 1760, when the city was transferred by the French to the British, to about the 1820s, when Michigan was a territory of the United States and the Erie Canal gave the East Coast suddenly easy access to Detroit. The town changed imperial hands a number of times during this era, when it was no longer a small French trading post and not yet a strong American manufacturing base.
Readers will certainly recognize Detroit’s eighteenth-century location on the remote frontier, and those familiar with its early fur trading history will be unsurprised by its status as an emergent entrepôt where a variety of goods were collected, exchanged, and distributed. So it is not the words “frontier” or “entrepôt” in Cangary’s title that are a surprise, but rather their companion words “seaport” and “Atlantic.” Detroit’s geography has always been defined by its proximity to lakes and rivers, not seas or oceans, and its primary relationship to the Atlantic would seem to be one of distant inaccessibility. Yet the connection Cangary establishes between the continental interior and America’s oceanic Eastern Seaboard is perhaps the most compelling and original contribution of this volume, which offers at once a rich local study filled with textured details about early Detroit life and a tentatively global story about the city’s interconnection with and similarity to a wider cosmopolitan Atlantic world. Although these two facets of Detroit’s history and identity do not always coalesce throughout the book, Frontier Seaport is at its best when the relations between them are most developed and articulated. [End Page 125]
The first three chapters emphasize commercial history, and make a compelling case for Detroit as an outpost of the Atlantic world. Beaver pelts brought there by Native Americans, for example, were traded for manufactured goods and raw materials that came from around the world—including vermilion from China, tobacco from Brazil, and rum made from Caribbean sugar (13). The pelts then made their way in canoes piled high with cargo destined for Montreal or Quebec, where they were transported by ship across the Atlantic to France. From there, they made their way around Europe and as far as China, where they provided the materials for high-quality hat brims. Participating in this Detroit trade was a strikingly diverse population of French Canadians, Native Americans, African descendants, and East Coast merchants, including the successful part-Oneida fur trader Sally Ainse, who left her métis husband and became a “woman of property” (19) in the late 1770s and early 1780s.
The early fur trade not only brought traffic in transnational merchandise to the region, but also the banking and shipping mechanisms necessary to run such commercial and transportation networks. Cangary goes on to illustrate the surprisingly cosmopolitan features of early Detroit society, where luxury goods and European fashion trends often mixed with local products and Native or French Canadian styles. The transatlantic letters from a married sister living in England to her siblings and merchant father in Detroit, for example, could carry fashion news and drive imports half a world away. Much as they were elsewhere in the empire, fabrics, books, and dinnerware were purchased by Detroit physicians, shoemakers, women, and military and government officials as symbols of gentility.
At the same time, local Detroit products made their way to the Atlantic, as Cangary shows in one chapter devoted to a case study of moccasins. Adopted from Native Americans in the region, moccasins in several styles were manufactured and worn by Detroiters. They began to be commodified by Euro-Americans...