Mobility and Sedentariness in Pre-Industrial French North America: Voyageurs and Farmers in the Lake Erie Strait, 1734–1854

Guillaume Teasdale (University of Windsor)

Our study is an extension of the project titled “Aller faire souche au-delà des limites de la vallée laurentienne: l’émigration « canadienne » vers les Grands Lacs à l’ère préindustrielle (1760-1840),” which was supported by an Insight Development Grant (2016–2018). This earlier research established that French-Canadian emigration from Quebec began long before the mid-nineteenth century, when railroads were first constructed across northeastern and midwestern North America. In fact, push factors had already been present in many seigneuries in the St. Lawrence Valley at the turn of the nineteenth century. As the French presence along inland North American waterways developed in tandem with the expansion of the fur trade starting in the seventeenth century, this earlier phase of emigration served to connect Quebec with the Great Lakes region, where hundreds of French-Canadian families settled between 1760 and 1840. Within the framework of the larger partnership project, we are seeking to achieve a deeper understanding of emigration not only from Quebec to the Lake Erie Strait, but also from the Lake Erie Strait to remoter parts of the Great Lakes region.

The Erie Canal, which connected Boston and New York to the Midwest, was completed in 1825. By that time, there were already four thousand Catholics living in southwestern Michigan (in the region’s four existing counties: Wayne, Monroe, Macomb, and St. Clair). This overwhelmingly French-Canadian population was divided among four parishes, the oldest and by far the largest of which was Sainte-Anne de Détroit, founded in 1701. By 1830, a strong French-Canadian presence had also been established on the Canadian side of the Detroit River (Essex County, Ontario), where settlements were laid out similarly to the seigneuries of the St. Lawrence Valley (long, narrow strips of land aligned perpendicular to the river).

Like their counterparts who remained in Quebec, those French Canadians who settled along the Lake Erie Strait tended to have large families, often with more than ten children reaching adulthood. By the 1820s and 1830s, younger generations were finding it impossible to secure land along the Detroit River or any neighbouring river. Beyond these already settled areas, American and British authorities prevented any more lands from being subdivided according to French-Canadian practice. Instead, they created townships composed of square parcels. Many young French Canadians settled in these townships. For instance, on the US side, some families moved north to settle in present-day Flint, Michigan. Meanwhile, on the Canadian side, several families moved east to settle along the shores of Lake St. Clair.

Our research considers not only these smaller-scale migrations, but also the larger-scale migrations from Quebec that were still underway. We aim to produce multiple scholarly articles, at least one of which will be co-authored with William Chassé, a doctoral student in history at Université Laval. Our contributions to the TSMF project will also include a book published by Éditions Prise de Parole, titled Mobilité et sédentarité dans l’Amérique française préindustrielle : voyageurs et laboureurs au Détroit du lac Érié, 1734-1854.