Detroit: The Founding of the City

Detroit was referred to as the Paris of the West for more than its Parisian landscape and architecture. It had as much to do with the earliest founding of the city, its early settlers and its location. This early French influence can be seen reflected in Detroit’s city flag, one of three flags that Detroit has existed under since its founding.

The city’s name originates from the Detroit River (French: le détroit du Lac Érié, meaning the strait of Lake Erie), linking Lake Huron and Lake Erie; in the historical context, the strait included Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair River.

Traveling up the Detroit River in 1679 on the ship Le Griffon with Cavelier de La Salle, Father Louis Hennepin noted the north bank of the river as an ideal location for a settlement.

There, in 1701, the French officer Antoine de La Mothe Cadillac, along with fifty-one additional French-Canadians, founded a settlement called Fort Ponchartrain du Détroit, naming it after the comte de Pontchartrain, Minister of Marine under Louis XIV.

Cadillac marked village borders. The southern border was present day Jefferson Avenue. The northern border was between present day Larned Street and Jefferson Avenue. The eastern end was approximately where Griswold Street is today. And the western border was along present day Shelby Street. France offered free land in order to attract families to Detroit.

Cadillac began handing out land in 1707 and between March of that year and 1708, he granted 68 lots to private individuals which grew to 800 people in 1765, the largest city between Montreal and New Orleans.

As the population of Detroit grew, the western border was moved out to present day Washington Boulevard; and the northern border nearly to present day Larned Street. This increased the village size to 720 feet (east-west) by 250 feet (north-south). A new street, St. Louis, was added to the south of Ste. Anne Street.

Despite these measures, the odds were heavily against the French. Most of the settlers who accepted the governor’s offer used or sold their “incentives” and returned to Quebec where life was more secure and stable.

Detroit’s fate was decided on September 8, 1760, when General Amherst captured Montreal and the Articles of Capitulation stipulated that all remaining French holdings, including Detroit, were to be part of the spoils. With Quebec having been taken by British forces on September 13, 1759, there was little point to trying to defend Detroit.

François Marie Picoté, sieur de Belestre (Montreal 1719–1793) was the last French military commander at Fort Detroit (1758–1760), surrendering the fort on November 29, 1760 to the British. Detroit’s city flag reflects this French heritage.

During the French and Indian War (1760), British troops gained control and shortened the name to Detroit. Several tribes led by Chief Pontiac, an Ottawa leader, launched Pontiac’s Rebellion (1763), including a siege of Fort Detroit.

On July 11, 1796, the American flag was first flown over Detroit after the British evacuated. Some consider this date to be the “real” birthday of Detroit.

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