The Fenchtown Community

 Frenchtown (Courtesy of Ralph Navaeux)
 
  Charles Lanman's Painting of the Lasselle Farmstead ca. 1819 in Monroe, Michigan (Courtesy the Morris Museum, Morristown, New Jersey) 

Area of the Battle of Frenchtown or River Raisin during the War of 1812, January 18-22, 1813

Hutro Navarre-John Anderson House (1789-1813) with summer kitchen (right) and summer bake-oven (right) at the Frenchtown Village in Monroe, Michigan

Reconstructed French barn (ca. 1795) at Frenchtown Village in Monroe, Michigan
 

Map of the Western Lake Erie Region During the War of 1812

Presentation of Brigadier-General James Winchester by the Wyandot Leader Roundhead to Colonel Henry Procter at the Battle of Frenchtown on January 22, 1813

Massacre of Kentucky Volunteers at Frenchtown by Native Americans on January 23, 1813 

Pierre S. Beaugrand (1805-1905), son of Jean-Baptiste Beaugrand (1863-1823). J. B. Beaugrand was the only person indicted for murder of a Kentucky Volunteer at the massacre of the River Raisin on January 23, 1813 (Courtesy of the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library, Fremont, Ohio)

Marguerite (Chabert) Beaugrand (1783-1859), wife of Jean-Baptiste Beaugrand and mother of Pierre S. Beaugrand (Courtesy of the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library, Fremont, Ohio)

War of 1812 veterans reunion on Guyor's Island, Monroe, Michigan, in 1872. George A. Custer Master of Ceremonies (top row center) and famous scout Peter Navarre (bottom row extreme left) (Courtesy Archives, Monroe County Historical Museum, Monroe, Michigan)

The Frenchtown Community
 
   The River Raisin settlement, also known as Frenchtown, between 1785 and 1817 was one of the most visible French-Canadian communities of the Great Lakes in North America. Frenchtown, named Monroe (Michiogan) in 1817, is located in southeast Michigan, halfway between Detroit and present-day Toledo (Ohio). With few exceptions, French-Canadians of Monroe County (Michigan) can trace their heritage to northern France. Their ancestors left France for Canada during the seventeenth century bringning with them their language and traditions.
   
Early Settlement
 
   Between 1750 and 1776, the Detroit area underwent a steady growth in the French population despite the British conquest of New France in 1760. Increased population and immigration of the Detroit area by English, Irish, Scotch, Dutch, and German merchants forced the young French of Detroit to petition Colonel John Campbell, commandant of Detroit, for grants of land to establish farms in 1766. Under British rule, land grants on both sides of the Detroit River were severely restricted requiring permission of the King of England, and private grants between French settlers and Native Americans were generally outlawed under British rule with few exceptions. Young French habitants left Detroit in great numbers between 1763 and 1801. By the mid-1780s, the French of Detroit with some from Quebec City and Montreal began to settle on the River Raisin seeking to establish new farms and families. They negotiated with Native Americans (principally Potawatomi, Wyandot, Ottawa, and Chippewa) of the western Lake Erie region for deeds to land tracts. Here they found a way to preserve their French culture, religion, and traditions in the face of British dominance. For the King's law moved with King's muskets, where there was no British fort or garrison with soldiers, the French made their settlements with little prospect of British molestation as long as the Indians were content.
   During the late eighteenth century, some 442 new farms were carved-out of the rugged wilderness by mstly French habitants along rivers, streams, and the lake shore from Lake St. Clair, north of Detroit, south to Rìviere-aux-Loutres (Otter Creek), ten miles south of River Raisin. The first to secure land in the River Raisin area was Jean-Baptiste Romain dit Sanscrainte in 1779, Joseph Porlier Bénalque or Bénac in 1780, François-Marie Navarre dit Heutreau and brother Robert Navarre dit Tonton in 1784, and François-Marie Navarre dit Tchigoy, the proclaimed founding father of Monroe, in 1785.
   
Census Data
 
   A census taken in 1796 counted 92 families (450 men, women, and children) living in the vicinity of River Raisin. Of this figure, 98 percent or 441 had French family surnames. 51 percent of the men counted claimed Detroit as their birthplace. The majority of those not born in Detroit had a long association with that place. The community's existence centered on the fur trade with Native American populations living in the Sandusky  River (Ohio), Maumee River (Ohio), Wabash River (Indiana), Fort Wayne (Indiana), and Vincennes (Indiana) areas. Traders wintered in native villages and exchanged trade goods for furs and skin in the early spring eventually being shipped to Detroit then Montreal. Others supported traders and Indians in the fur trade as specialists like a blacksmith who repaired firearms, kettles, and traps; a silversmithwho made a variety of articles like broaches, armbands, and ear bobs; engagés who transported both trade goods, furs, and skins by pack horse and boat; and an incipient class of merchants and store tenants who worked for the Detroit and Montreal mercantile houses. Some residents intermarried with native women known as métis forming bonds of extended family networks iwhich included native leaders, but most were Canadiens who married colonial women of French-Canadian ancestry.
   A tax list for Frenchtown prepared in 1802 shows 152 heads-of-family who owned property in the River Raisin area. A conservative estimate of the population is 628. 91 percent (139 families) had French family surnanmes and 9 percent (13 families) were other than Canadien such as Scot-Irish, Welsh, German, and British. The tax list also shows there were twenty employees (tenants), 109 horses, 447 cattle, 9 trade houses, 6 grist mills, and 3 distilleries.
   Michigan territorial census data for 1811 shows there were 1,340 people (free white males and females) living in the District of Erie which included Frenchtown. Of this figure, 590 were men and 750 were women.
 
Settlement Data
 
   While the fur trade and occupations that supported the fur trade was the community's primary means living, nearly all families practiced subsistence farming to support their livelihood. The layout of Frenchtown was cadastral consisting of rotures or long-lots (long and narrow ribbon farms) which usually measured between 3 or 4 arpents in width and 80 or 100 arpents in depth oriented perpendicular to the River Raisin and smaller streams. This form of settlement was typically French-Canadian found at Detroit, Montreal, and Quebec. This settlement system ensured all familes or farms had access to water transportation. A dirt road or trail paralleled each side of the river or stream . The settler's house and out-houses (barn, stable, smokehouse, summer kitchen, etc) were located close to the river or stream. The narrow width of the farm tract facilitated communication by placing houses within shouting -distance of each other, and within walking-distance for nightly dances and euchre games. News originating at one end of the settlement could easily be communicated up-and-down and on both sides of the water course. Within a matter of minutes the entire Frenchtown community allong the river or stream course could be alerted to danger to fight or take flight in case of war or Indian attack. Settlers were considered "freeholders" working their own land, or as a tenant of a wealthier farmer or merchant house. Major trade houses kept smaller stores at Frenchtown like Detroit's John Askin Sr.; George Meldrum & William Parks and Montreal's Forsyth, Richardson, Co.; and Todd & McGill.
 
The War of 1812
 
   The Detroit-Frenctown-Maumee River rapids was one of the major routes for military operations by the British and American armies of Upper Canada and the Old Northwest Territory. The Native Americans predominatly supported the Britsh and were their allies in campaigns and battles under the guidance of the British Indian Department at Fort Malden (Canada). After the fall of Detroit on August 16, 1812, Frenchtown surrendered four days later. The battles of Frenchtown or the River Raisin between January 18-22, 1813, resulted in a major loss of life and property by the Americans. This was followed by American victories at the first and second sieges of Fort Meigs on the Maumee River (Ohio), Fort Stephenson on the Sandusky River (Ohio), and the naval battle of Lake Erie. By the middle of September 1813, the British and Indians evacuated Michigan and Ohio. Shortly thereafter the British and Indians evacuated Fort Malden retreating along the Thames River in Ontario, Canada. On October 5, 1813, the American northwestern army engaged the British and Indians at Moraviantown where British General Henry Procter was defeated and the Shawnee Tecumseh, leader of the British Indian allies, was killed. The battle of the Thames at Moraviantown secured the American northwest from British and Indian threat essentially ending the war in this region.
   The horrors of war reaped upon Frenchtown were enumerated in a letter by Judge Augustus B. Woodward of Detroit to American President James Madison in 1813. There was no meal or flour to feed the cattle. More than half of the population was destitute of animals for agricultural and domestic purposes. The streets of Frenchtown were overgrown with weeds and grass. Farm fences were totally destroyed used for fuel by British and American armies. Houes were left without glass in their windows. and wooden flooring was ripped-out and burned for fuel. Settlers resorted to boiling and eating chopped hay for their subsistence. Many citizens who were not physically and emotionally prepared to withstand such a calamity sank into a deep depresssion. John Anderson, former commander of the 2nd Regiment of Michigan Militia at Frenchtown during the war, stated in his memoirs "it was distressing to see that flourishing and rich settlement abandoned by man & beast, the streets gown over with wild weeds & grass." President Madison brought the distressed situation of Detroit and Frenchtown inhabitants before the United States House of Representatives and the Senate on February 28, 1814, which Congress authorized the release of government stores and provisions at Detroit for their relief.
   Later that year Father Gabriel Ricahrd told Michigan Territorial Governor Lewis Cass that there were no fewer than 40 widows and their families living near Frenchtown. Richard asked Cass to permit the widows and their families to draw provisions and rations from the public stores at Detroit. Cass was able to persuade the federal government to award $1,500 to the inhabitants, and Richard distributed the money. It took approximately 10 years for Frenchtown to recover from the effects of the War of 1812.
 
Monroe City and County
 
   In 1817, Frenchtown was officially named Monroe and Monroe County was organized. Both were named in honor of President James Monroe who had recently visited the village and Detroit. A new land office was established in Monroe in 1823. New settlers of Anglo-American, Irish, German, and Italian heritage arrived to settle in Monroe after the war changing its character from French-Canadian to a multi-ethnic composition. In 1825, the opening of the Erie Canal connecting the Great Lakes with cities along the Atlantic seaboard ushered in a new era of immigration, settlement, and commerce. In response to the opening of the Erie Canal, a port was established at La Plaisance with a ship channel dug at the mouth of the River Raisin to handle large vessels in the 1830s. After 1830, French-Canadians of Monroe were becoming minor political and social players within the community. In fact, many French-Canadian moved elsewhere to retain their French culture, language, and religion.
 
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Additional Reading:
 
 Dennis M. Au,  "The River Raisin - a Comparative Portrait ," Le Journal 27, No 3 (2011) : 1-8.
 
Dennis M. Au and Joanna Brode, "The Lingering Shadow of New France: The French-Canadian Community of Monroe County, Michigan," In Michigan Folklife Reader, eds., C. Kurt Dewhurst and Yvonne R. Lockwood, pp. 325-328. Michigan State University Press, Lansing, 1987.
 
Dennis M. Au, The Significance of Charles Lanman’s Painting of the French-Canadian Farmstead in Michigan. Folk Life Research, FC 301, May, 1975.
 
Dennis M. Au, "Best Troops in the World: The Michigan Territorial Militia in the Detroit River Theater during the War of 1812," In Selected Papers from the 1991 and 1992 George Rogers Clark Trans-Appalachian Frontier History Conferences, pp. 105-126, Vincennes University Press, Vincennes, Indiana, 1994.
 
Dennis M. Au, French Architectural Influences in the Detroit River Region. Paper presented at the Western District Historical Conference, October 13, 1979, Windsor, Canada.
 
Dennis M. Au, Maps and Archaeology: The French Colonial Settlement Pattern in the River Raisin Community in Southeastern Michigan. Paper presented to The French Colonial Historical Society, The Newberry Library, May 10, 1991, Chicago, IL.
 
Dennis M. Au, "The Mushrat French: The Survival of French Canadian Folklife on the American Side of Le Detroit," In Le Passage du Detroit: 300 ans de presence franchophone, ed. by Marcel Beneteau, pp. 167-180. Humanities Research Group, vol. 11, University of Windsor, Ontario, Canada, 2003.
 Dennis M. Au, The River Raisin: Portrait of a Southern Great Lakes Fur Trade Community. Paper presented at the seventh North American Fur Trade Conference, May 1995, Halifax, Nova Scotia.
 
Dennis M. Au, War on the Raisin: A Narrative Account of the War of 1812 in the River Raisin Settlement, Michigan Territory. Monroe County Historical Commission, Monroe, Michigan, 1981.
 
Edgar E. Brandon, "A French Colony in Michigan," Modern Language Notes 13, no. 4 (April, 1898): 121-124.
 
David C. McCauley, The River Raisin Settlement, 1796-1812: A French Culture Area. M.A. Thesis, Department of Geography, Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, MI, 1968.
 
Ralph Naveaux, Invaded on all Sides: The story of Michigan’sgreatest battlefield scene of the engagements at Frenchtown and the River Raisin in the War of 1812. Walsworth Publishing Company, Marceline, MO, 2008.
 
Patrick M. Tucker and Laurel E. Heyman, "Welcome to Hard Times: Two French Merchants and Militiamen in the Detroit River Region During the War of 1812.," The Michigan Historical Review 38, no. 1 (Special Issue: The War of 1812), Spring 2012: 53-81.
Comments