The Voices of Detroit: French Detroit

Antoine de La Mothe Cadillac, the Founder of Detroit in 1701.

Antoine de La Mothe Cadillac, the Founder of Detroit in 1701.

Those who know the history of the City of Detroit know that our City was founded three hundred and thirteen years ago in 1701, by French explorers. Our Area Code is also “313”, so we have been really celebrating this year! “De-troit” can be roughly translated from the French to “the straits”.

French explorer and trader Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac established a fort on the Detroit River in 1701; it was named Fort Ponchartrain du Détroit. Cadillac brought with him to establish the original settlement 5- French-Canadians. That number of “new Detroiters” was increased to 800 after the French government offered free land to attract French families to the area, making Detroit the largest city between Montreal and New Orleans by 1765. Cadillac remained the outpost commander until 1710 when he was removed for “ill conduct”; e.g., lining his pockets with government funds. (See, corruption by government officials in Detroit goes way back…even to the founder of our great city.)

Map of Fort Ponchartrain du Détroit: 1708

Map of Fort Ponchartrain du Détroit: 1708

The French controlled Detroit until 1760 when the British took control during the French and Indian War. In 1796, Detroit was taken over by the still-new United States of America as part of the Jay Treaty. In 1815, Detroit was incorporated as a city.

When you look at a map of the streets of Detroit, you will quickly notice that the majority of street names are of French origin. This graphic of an original list of Early Detroit street names has some that are familiar to us:

French Names in Detroit

French Names in Detroit

Arnault, Beauregard, Bourbon, Cadeiux, Cadillac, Campau, Charlevoix, Chavet, Gratiot, (de) Lamothe, LaSalle, Livernois, Rivard, Dequindre, Guyon, Hubbard, Montagne, Navarre, Radisson, Renaud, Richard (pronounced “Ri-CHARD”)

Do you remember or live on or near any of these streets?

As we move further north in Detroit, the street names start to represent those who bought or were awarded land tracts in the City; and those who were also very, very rich and very influential.

The El Moore is located on West Alexandrine, named after Alexandrine Macomb Sheldon Willis, who lived in Detroit in the mid-1800s. Willis Street, named after her 2nd husband, is one street over from Alexandrine.

You can find out more about Mrs. Alexandrine Sheldon Macomb Willis in this previous El Moore blog post.

El Moore