Situations at an Upper Post – Detroit

By Daniel B. O’Connell

Previously published

A French community and society under the control of the British during the American Rebellion, Detroit receives little attention to its role during the conflict. Occupied by the British from 1760 to 1796 the British at this upper post had many of the same as well as unique concerns as other British posts and communities throughout the conflict. I have found several interesting returns that provide a bit of a snapshot of the Detroit community during the American Rebellion.

A Mixed Detroit Community

One striking example of Militia at Detroit, or what elsewhere might be termed “loyalists”, was the surprising amount of French doing service. The numbers of men living at Detroit were overwhelmingly French. Like the other colonies under British rule Governor Haldimand required the Canadian communities to serve in the Militia. At Detroit the 30th of August 1779 was the following return:

“General Report of the Militia and of the Company of Volunteers of Detroit
30th August 1778

Distribution Major Capt Lieut Adj Serj Corp Soldiers

Present for service …………………………….1 6 18 1 15 4 423
Absent with permission………………………………………………………………………….60
Total of Militia ……………………………………1 6 18 1 15 4 483

Company of Volunteers
Present ………………………………………………………………………………… 3 3 31
Absent with permission at Montreal…………….. 1 5
Deserter 22nd Sept 1777…………………………………………………………………………….1
Total of volunteers………………………………………. 1 3 3 37

Total of volunteers and militia……………1 7 18 1 18 7 520

William Lamothe Captain absent with permission*”

Like militia companies at Rebel and British communities there was a total number of men registered and available for service as well as those who were currently serving in order to rotate communities and counties militia service. However it is not clear if the Detroit “Volunteers” were indeed volunteers or if any man’s active service was in the militia company named Company of Volunteers. *Captain Lamothe’s Company served with Lieut. Gov. Hamilton on the ill-fated Vincennes Expedition in 1779

As far as Regular British Troops at Detroit during the 1778 period an excerpt from:

“A Return of Troops at Detroit and Michilimackinac King’s (or 8th) Regt of Foot 1st May 1778:

Officer Commanding Post
Capt. Lernoult Detroit
Major Capt Lieut Ens Chap Adj QMstr Surg Mates Sjt Drum Present On Command
0 1 4 0 0 0 0 0 0 8 4 102 2
Total 110

Artillery: 1 Second Lieut 1 Bombr 1 Gunner 5 Mattrosses 1 Conductor Total 9”

Ribbon Farms at Detroit
Ribbon Farms at Detroit

Detroit was considered a frontier community, but unlike Michilimackinac and Niagara Detroit had a thriving farming community established by the French in 1701. The French system of farming at Detroit closely followed those systems established at Quebec and Montreal early in the 18th century. Farmers established their farms on what is often termed as “Ribbon Farms”: narrow but long properties located with water frontage on the available rivers. Like Quebec and Montreal, the Ribbon Farms at Detroit stretched on both sides of the Detroit River covering approximately ten miles on the North side of the river and 1 mile on the South side or what is now Windsor Ontario. (yes… Canada is South of Detroit!)

1709 plots near Quebec showing experimental ‘radial’ farm plots
1709 plots near Quebec showing experimental ‘radial’ farm plots

Frontage of French Ribbon Farms at Detroit were usually a minimum of 250 feet wide or 1.3 French Arpents, although early in the French regime at Quebec the minimum had been established at 1 Arpent (192 feet) and for a brief period a experiment to have the Inhabitants live in a central village with plots radiating in the shape of wagon spokes failed due to the French farmers wanting their own water frontage. One 18th century chronicler described his water journey from Montreal to Quebec City as akin to one continuous village!

French farm plots east of Quebec City
French farm plots east of Quebec City

Lengths or the depth of these Detroit Ribbon Farms were approximately one mile. Many of the family property lines that you see in the above map of Detroit are the street names of present day downtown Detroit streets running North from the Detroit River named after the French property owners and any one of the following French names can be found on British census of the period: Campeau, Beaubien, Dequindre, St Antoine, Riopelle, Orleans, St Aubin, Dubois and Chene. As a testimonial to the aforementioned property frontages St Aubin to Dubois Street is a near perfect 500 feet as is Riopelle to Orleans Streets.

The military garrison at Detroit was supplied with standard British stores and delivery of these stores was subject to the conditions on the lakes, weather and clear passages from Quebec into the upper country and posts. Military food stores were accounted for separate of the community food and livestock. French farmers at Detroit have been characterized by British accounts as low producers. Nonetheless they did produce food and livestock in significant quantities as recorded in a 1779 Detroit Census:

“A Roll of Inhabitants 31st March 1779 – Detroit

Men 1,011 Women 265 Lodgers hired or young men 253 Lodgers hired or young women 100 Boys 484 Girls 402 Male slaves 60 Female Slaves 78
Pounds of flour 141,517 Bushells wheat 3,273 Bushells for seed 2,123 Indian corn 3,177 For seed 20 Pease 772 For seed 71 Oats 744 For seed 1,505 Oxen 413 Cows 779 Steers 619 Hoggs 1,076 Horses 664 Sheep 313 Pounds pork 91,790 Pounds beef 570 Pounds oatmeal 17,000 Pounds butter 7,700”

The following November Major Arent De Peyster of the King’s or 8th Regiment compiled the following Census:

“State of the Settlement of Detroit, taken the 1st of November 1780

374 Heads of families 374 married & young women 324 Young & married men 100 Absent in the Indian Country 455 Boys from 10 to 15 years 385 Girls 79 Male slaves 96 Female slaves 772 Horses 474 oxen 793 Cows 361 Steers
279 Sheep 1,016 Hogs 13,306 Bushels of Wheat 5,380 Indian Corn 488 Pease 6,253 Oats 3,580d Flour 2,028 Bushels Wheat sown last fall 2,885 Bushels Potatoes 828 Barrels Cyder 12,083 Acres of Land under Cultivation.”

With an average community of +-2,500 persons (including garrisons) 12,000 acres of land is equivilant to 18 square miles of cultivated farmland. Modern rule of thumb is 1/8th of an acre will feed one person. Not accounting for 18th century methods 12,000 acres would account for 96,000 people. Modern methods or 18th century methods of farming this writer believes there were some safe margins with the available and cultivated farmlands in 18th century Detroit to safely maintain it’s populations at the time.

A Modern Situation

And now on to a modern situation with British, French and Native reenactors based on the above snapshot. These are my personal observations:

I’ve always been puzzled by the seemingly modern age begrudging of the British by French and Native reenactors in the hobby as well as the retaliatory British reenactors’ replies to the Native and French historians and reenactors. It’s distracting, unproductive, not friendly and it reminds me of modern day sports teams and sports bar snobbery and personal barbs that seems out of place if we are all historians. The fact that the British and French, as well as the Natives, all seemed to cooperate at Detroit during the rebellion only makes this empty modern bear baiting seem all the more ridiculous. At best one could admit that perhaps the French were not proactive with their support of the British but they were motivated enough to work with the English. Likewise, the British trusted the French at Detroit well enough to integrate them with the defense of the post as well as using them as troops on expeditions out of Detroit primarily in the Ohio and Kentucky regions.

A simple listing of only the first 30-odd names on the 1782 Detroit Census clearly indicates the French were in the majority at an officially so-called British Post: Prudhome, Fontaine, Bissere, Soumande, Meloche, Fouquerau, Lavoilette, Cotte, Montmorency, Giganac, Antilliya, Pagotte, Renaud, Nomme, Gerard, Reveau, Lesperance, Roux, Rousseau, Bernier, Boufard, Cloutier, Roy, Mouton, Jacob, Sousore, Bissounette, Begras, Belcaire, Campau, Lajenness, Pouget, Taureujau, Monforton, Lebeau, Nattade, Parent, and the French family names go on and on by the scores. Such was the state of affairs at Detroit during the American Revolution.

When I visit Old Quebec City I marvel at the names on the doors of the homes in the historic districts, many the same family names found in Detroit. I feel like I’m home in Detroit and with family members of my friends.

Detroit was a French community cooperating and thriving under British rule. Call it occupation, rule, subjugation, the simple fact is the British and the French in Canada were working together during the later half of the 18th century and they had left the antagonism of the French and Indian War far behind them. I suggest that those whom portray British and French during the Rev War whom are continuing “Last of the Mohicans” rivalry and resentments should study up on what was actually taking place at Detroit, Michili, Montreal and Quebec during the Rev era. The English and French had decided, for one reason or another, to work together to defend Upper and Lower Canada.

Like the defense of Upper and Lower Canada, I suggest that we as historians and reenactors drop standing in our respective corners of the very same room (i.e. Rev War history) and stop behaving like characters in a Monty Python Holy Grail skit and begin working together to better understand and portray the Anglo-French-Native Rev history and also “defend” the challenges that are upon us, the hobby and our “search” for real history, NOT the Holy Grail. D.O.


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