- Frontier Seaport: Detroit's Transformation into an Atlantic Entrepôt by Catherine Cangany
The ongoing project to more fully incorporate the story of French communities into colonial and early national American history takes another step forward with Catherine Cangany’s Frontier Seaport: Detroit’s Transformation into an Atlantic Entrepôt. As the subtitle indicates, however, Cangany’s monograph also places the story of Detroit’s early history within the framework of the burgeoning field of Atlantic world history. But lest we categorize this work as principally imperial in its orientation, Cangany reminds the reader early on that, “The town’s close proximity to Native groups, its physical separation from apathetic imperial powers concerned only with maintaining the settlement’s financial viability, and repeated political upheavals made Detroiters resistant to full assimilation into the broader Atlantic World” (p. 4). In six chapters that are at once thematic and chronological, we learn that despite the regime changes that occurred during Detroit’s first century, the continuities of its culture, economic, and political “localisms” reveal as much or more about the history of this specific place and its people. Comparatively, the strength of its culture allowed it, by the 1730s, to transcend its location in North America’s interior to become connected to the Atlantic world’s consumption-based economy.
The book’s first two chapters trace the ways by which Detroit’s first settlers used the fur trade to forge connections both to Native Americans in their vicinity and to suppliers of the growing number of consumer goods that were crossing the Atlantic by the 1730s. Cangany uses a wide array of sources that includes merchants’ records, probate and criminal court records, French, British, and American military correspondence, travel [End Page 593] narratives, and newspapers, to demonstrate the “cultural hybridity” (p. 5) that developed in Detroit during the eighteenth century. Demonstrating again the usefulness of histories that look at change over time in specific geographic places, we are able to appreciate Detroit’s unique development as both a cosmopolitan and provincial community.
In chapter three Cangany uses moccasins as a case study to demonstrate even more specifically how something that might be simply categorized as an example of cultural appropriation became something more important both to Detroiters and to the wider Atlantic world. The first Europeans to wear moccasins were “priests, farmers, and soldiers living in any number of borderlands” (p. 75) who simply found them a superior form of footwear for local conditions. But in Cangany’s telling we see how moccasins gradually became part of Detroit’s hybridized culture — “a collaboration between Native artisans and small-scale Native and white suppliers” (p. 94) — before becoming commodified by Euro-Americans who began producing them for consumption on the American East Coast, helping to develop, as part of the production process, a local tannery industry.
In the book’s final three chapters the focus shifts to the changes in sovereignty that accompanied the Seven Years War and the American war for independence. Here the focus is on the persistence of local cultural, political, legal, and economic traditions in the face of changes in sovereignty. Cangany deftly shows that persistence required resistance — that took many forms, ranging from petitioning to smuggling. Over time Detroit and its shifting demographic mix of peoples were assimilated into the young American republic, but not until a protracted give and take between local actors and distant (and not so distant) officials worked out the terms of that assimilation.
Central to the process on assimilation that Cangany traces was the fact that, “In 1796, when Britain ceded Detroit to the United States, the Detroit River became for the first time in its history an international boundary” (pp. 170–171). The book might have benefitted here from even a brief reference to St. Louis, another American city with French roots built alongside a river — in this case the Mississippi — that was an international boundary for part of its colonial period but ceased to be such after the Louisiana...