- Fruits of Perseverance: The French Presence in the Detroit River Region, 1701–1815 by Guillaume Teasdale
Nineteenth-century visitors to the Detroit River region frequently remarked about the abundant orchards they found there. These orchards, planted by the region’s French habitant population, provide the central metaphor for Guillaume Teasdale’s Fruits of Perseverance. They symbolize both the literal and figurative rootedness of a distinctively French agricultural population in the area. Scholarly and popular narratives alike have often presented Detroit as a fur trade entrepôt and characterized French colonization in the Great Lakes region as a fleeting prelude to Anglo-American settlement that was primarily commercial. But Teasdale argues that the Detroit River region should be understood as a permanently settled agricultural area and “French population centre” (37). The figurative “fruits” of that permanence, moreover, persisted from the founding of Detroit in 1701 until the War of 1812 and left a permanent imprint on the palimpsest of the Midwest.
Teasdale makes his case in two ways: by reconstructing how French farmers sought to secure legal title to their farms and cultivated land in the region and, equally importantly, by emphasizing the connections between the Detroit region—an area that encompassed a fur-trading and military post and its hinterlands on both sides of the Detroit River—and the French settlements of the Saint Lawrence River valley, from which many of the French Detroiters migrated. By contextualizing Detroit within a colonial world where French influence and permanence were unquestionable, Teasdale shows that Detroit too had an enduring and stable agricultural population and that the French influence mattered more than later historians would suggest.
Teasdale first describes a decades-long struggle to recreate seigneurial practices and clearly define the legal basis for landholding in the Detroit region, a process that delayed the formation of a permanent agricultural community there for its first three decades. Without official sanction, Detroit’s first commandant, Antoine Laumet de Lamothe Cadillac, created a seigneurie particulière—a private fiefdom like those administered by noblemen and religious orders in France and Canada—and issued dubious grants in his capacity as a seigneur. The resulting confusion about the legitimacy of these grants “dissuaded many residents . . . from fully engaging in farming activities” (37) and [End Page 352] led French officials to vacate all such claims in 1716. Not until the 1730s, when colonial officials finally took an interest in encouraging agricultural settlement and established a seigneurie directe—administered by military commandants and royal notaries in the name of the French Crown—did residents secure clear legal title to lands and begin cultivating them in earnest. By 1750, Teasdale argues, the Detroit region had become an agricultural community “that resembled many of the rural settlements in the Saint Lawrence valley” (39) in its roughly equal balance between French men and women and its agricultural productivity.
The Royal Proclamation of 1763, issued in the aftermath of the British defeat of New France, created a conundrum that challenged but did not destroy the habitants’ commitment to farming in the region. To prevent costly conflicts between Native peoples and British subjects, the proclamation prohibited British subjects—including the former French subjects who had pledged allegiance to King George following the war— from owning land west of the Appalachian Mountains unless the crown had acquired it from Native peoples by treaty. Because French officials had not signed land cession treaties, the policy rendered the habitants’ existing land claims theoretically “illegal” (47) and denied them rights to use unoccupied land as public commons. The proclamation also made it impossible for them to obtain more land until the crown concluded formal land treaties. In testament to its “deep connection to the land,” the French population “stubbornly defend[ed] its land rights” (41), relentlessly pushing British officials to recognize their titles. Despite these efforts, the Francophone farmers would not completely settle the issue of land tenure until after the American Revolution—and, in some cases, until the...