The names are still familiar on street signs in Detroit:
Rivard. St. Aubin. Dubois. Chene. Dequindre. Charlevoix. Cadieux. Riopelle. And many others.
A legacy of the city’s French beginnings, several of the streets mark the location of ancient family “ribbon” farms, narrow strips of farmland that ran from the Detroit River north for several miles. Many of these early-18th-century settlers are long forgotten but today some of their descendants are on a quest to discover them again.
The U.S. Census bureau estimates that 165,000 people in Michigan claim French Canadian heritage. Some of them can connect their family ancestry back eight generations to the founders of Detroit, who were French-born but came to Detroit after years of living in Quebec. The second wave of settlers was largely French Canadian.
Centuries of St. Aubins
St. Aubin Street east of downtown runs from the Detroit River north through Hamtramck. It was once a farm owned by the St. Aubin family. Jean Casse dit St. Aubin arrived in Detroit from Quebec in 1708 with his wife Mary Louisa Gaultier. His name was originally Jean Casse. The “dit” can be understood to mean “also known as” and St. Aubin refers to the region in France the family originates from. He and his descendents farmed or lived on the narrow strip of land at the current location of St. Aubin Street until Louis St. Aubin passed away in 1895.
The St. Aubin family is still going strong. Thomas St. Aubin, 61, lives in St. Clair Shores and has memorabilia going back hundreds of years. He jokes, “I live 17 miles from the original farm downtown. After 300 years, I’m only 17 miles away!”
The original St. Aubin farm ran from the river to Alexandrine Street, he said. “The farm was really developed by Jean Casse’s great-great-great-grandson Francois. He was well-known in Detroit. The property was four arpents wide (an arpent is 0.85 percent of an acre) and 40 arpents deep. If you couldn’t cut across somebody’s property you had a long walk around!”
Ribbon farms were used by the French throughout Quebec and the U.S. They lined both the Detroit and Windsor side of the Detroit River. The unusual shape of the farms offered some advantages. It gave each farmer waterfront property so they could fish and also travel on the water instead of hiking over marshy land. It also provided some security; houses were within shouting range of each other in case of trouble with Indians.
Over the years family members sold off the farm in pieces, beginning with a tract south of Jefferson Avenue in 1836. The auction announcement described it as “a beautiful place for a country residence. Persons looking for a spot to make a home, combining advantages of town and country, are invited to this.”
In the 1890s Thomas’s great-great-grandfather, Louis St. Aubin, described as a “retiring gentleman,” sold off most of the remaining farm. According to Thomas, the last of the property was sold in 1946 or 1947.
“If I hit the lottery,” Thomas speculated, “I would open a Moulin Rouge on Jefferson Avenue with champagne and dancing can-can girls as a tribute to French Detroit. I think people would like it.”
'Kind of obsessed'
Jacob L’Ommesprou de Mersac was a sergeant in the French Army and accompanied Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac, to Detroit in 1701. According to Detroit French family historian Marie Hamlin in her book “Legends le Detroit,” published in the 1880s, de Mersac resigned from the army and was granted a farm in Detroit. “… It was no unusual sight to see him plowing with his sword at his side.”
Kevin Lucey is a direct descendent of de Mersac. He is also related to the Groesbecks and Campaus. Lucey, 31, lives in the University District of Palmer Park and has become “kind of obsessed” with not only his Detroit French Canadian ancestors but with Detroit’s former French culture. He’s a business consultant but in off hours studies French language. “I never studied it in school but now I even travel to Windsor for tutoring,” he said. Lucey is on the board of Alliance Francais de Détroit (http://www.afdetroit.org/), a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting French history and culture.
Lucey believes Detroit is missing out by not emphasizing its French beginnings. “Our French history is not much different than that of Quebec or Montreal or even New Orleans. Look at the tourism and money they generate from that heritage.”
He added, “Recently Detroiters began celebrating the banning of the Nain Rouge. It’s now drawing hundreds of revelers. That’s good. We need to promote it, because it’s unique to Detroit.” The Nain Rouge or “red dwarf” was in French Detroit superstition an evil figure who created mischief and bad luck for Detroiters. In late March, someone dressed as the Nain Rouge is hounded from the streets of Detroit by bands of hecklers.
“I feel a sense of responsibility to Detroit and to honor my ancestors by promoting old traditions. I participate in a few groups and work to promote and restore the city. I’m proud of what we’re doing.”
Lucey created a sub group of Alliance Francaise called Encore Detroit to stage events to attract younger people to all things French in Detroit, such as Bayou Detroit, a music event held Sept. 21 that brought Cajun and Zydeco music to Detroiters at the Alley Deck of the Majestic Theatre.
As Lucey and others see it, by remembering who we once were in Detroit, we can change who we are.
Two waves of French speakers
James LaForest, 47, also is a descendent of the St. Aubins. He actually lives in London, England, but from there he writes a popular blog on French Canadian culture in Michigan called “The Red Cedar,” http://theredcedar.wordpress.com. He is also author and editor of the Michigan French Canadian Heritage Day blog, http://voyageurheritage.wordpress.com. He and others recently started a Facebook group called Great Lakes French Canadians which draws in participants from Minnesota to Maine to discuss culture, language and history.
“There are actually two waves of French speakers who came to Michigan,” LaForest explains. “The first in the 1700s were referred to as ‘habitants.’ When the Easterners came to settle the Michigan Territory in the 1830s many of the French habitants in Detroit moved east to St. Clair Shores or downriver to Monroe.
“However, another wave, lesser known, came to work in the lumber and mining industry from about the early 1800s to 1920. Most of these French Canadians settled on the eastern side of Michigan and in the U.P. Since they worked in lumber and mining, they lived in the Thumb area, Saginaw, Alpena, Bay City (singer Madonna claims French Canadian heritage) and Cheboygan. And in the Upper Pennisula in Marquette and the Soo.”
LaForest, who was raised in Onaway, Mich. in a home built by his great-grandparents, confirmed Detroit ancestors in baptismal entries at historic Ste. Anne’s Church in Detroit. One relative was his 4th-great-grandfather Ignace Moras dit Toinichinx. He was baptized at St. Anne’s on Aug. 21, 1776. He married twice, first to a Sauteuse (Ojibwe) woman with whom he had children, and then again to Francoise Chauvin.
Among his other ancestors are a voyaguer, employed by fur trading companies to transport furs by canoe throughout New France, and a coureur de bois, an entrepreneur who traded European goods for furs with Indian tribes, who lived with his wife, a member of the Weskarini band of the Algonquin Indians, in Sault Ste. Marie in the 1680s.
LaForest recommends the French Canadian Heritage Society of Michigan in Royal Oak as a place to start one’s family research. “Churches are a great resource since they take meticulous records of births, deaths, marriages.”
He also uses networking but suggests when you are starting out to avoid using experts on genealogical research. “They tend to dump just a ton of information that can be difficult to sort through, especially if you are inexperienced. Do the research on your own; it’s more fun.”
'The problem was illiteracy'
Suzanne Beauregard’s family home was in Roseville. Her parents met in Detroit — her mother was French Canadian and her father was Polish and Prussian. “My father’s family had all the photos and stories of the old country and the immigration experience so those stories sort of dominated our family heritage. I would see my French Canadian cousins and great aunts only at funerals.”
Beauregard, now in her 50s, was a history major at the University of Michigan and has always had a hankering for research, but it was not a clear trail. “I remember my mother telling me that my French Canadian great-grandpa would not let my dad speak French. ‘You’re American now — speak English.’ A lot of people wanted to assimilate, fit in.”
But about 12 years ago she read about a Canadian family reunion for all Beauregards and it intrigued her. “All I knew was we were not related to the General Beauregard of Civil War fame. That was the only question that ever seemed to come up!
“I started by going through Detroit city census records that list everybody in the city and looking for anyone with the name Beauregard. I started in 1860 then checked every list from each decade up to 1920.”
She kept hitting brick walls. “The problem was illiteracy. My great-great-grandparents could not read and write French or English, so could not sign their names.”
Then came a breakthrough — a hand-written entry of Beauregard that was spelled “Borgur” in the 1860 U.S. Census for Wayne County. From this record and others in Quebec she learned that they arrived in Detroit in the year 1854.
“I was choked up,” Beauregard said. “This to me was now a real person. It was that feeling you get when you read a recipe card in your mother’s handwriting. It all comes back to you.”
Beauregard’s earliest discovery of a Detroit Beauregard relative was a carpenter. “He was a tradesman who made houses,” she exclaimed proudly. “He lived in the Tenth ward on Dubois Street and other streets nearby in the 1850s through the 1870s.”
Jacques Campau was born in 1677 in Montreal and arrived in Detroit in 1708 at the request of Cadillac. He was an officer and a secretary to Cadillac. By the 1740s Jacques Campau developed a thriving merchant store, buying and selling wheat, corn, and especially furs. He died in Detroit in the year 1751. His descendents, especially his son Joseph Campau, for whom the street is named, would become the richest man in the territory, also as a merchant.
Dawn Evoe Danwoski is half French Canadian. Her French ancestry comes from her mother’s side of the family. Her family name was Yvon but for her branch of the family tree it was anglicized to Evoe in the 1920s.
She laughs, “I think they made the name even more confusing!”
She and her family now live in Rochester Hills but her family came originally from Quebec in the early 1700s.
“When the British took control of Detroit in 1760 we moved to ‘Frenchtown,’ now Monroe. We were among the founders of Detroit with connections to Jacques Campau. Several of my ancestors were buried at the original St. Anne’s church graveyard, then later disinterred and moved to Elmwood.”
Dawn has gotten the genealogy bug and gets excited just talking about it. “Tracking your family roots and your ancestors is contagious! I got into this later than a lot of the people I meet but I now get so excited. People are very kind and very helpful. I recently exchanged email with a distant cousin of mine and she showed me how our family is connected to the Campaus.”
Michelle Lalonde, 44, has a law degree and is a librarian at the Wayne State University Law School. Her roots in Detroit run very deep. “My family is from Quebec. Three out of four grandparents are French Canadian. Even my grandmother who was not French Canadian has a French Canadian branch in her family. My ex-husband was French Canadian,” she laughs.
She is connected to Jacques Campau of 1710 and several other Campau branches, the family Reaumes, the family Renos (Renaud) and Jean Casse dit St. Aubin, the same ancestor as St. Aubin and James LaForest.
“Oh, James and I have talked about this a lot,” she says. “We are related several times.” She notes, “It was a small village and the families are big.”
Lalonde started taking an interest in her ancestry back in elementary school. “I was a real history geek. The book ‘Roots’ came out back then and that got me started. People heard my name ‘Lalonde’ and thought it sounded exotic or rare. I would tell them ‘No, there’s lots of us!’”
She continued, “But as I got into things it got much more complicated. Especially since many early ancestors were illiterate.” She added, “Survival winter in Quebec and later Detroit didn’t depend on reading or writing very much. Just not a priority.”
Having a deep history in the area makes for strong bonds. “Knowing your family goes so far back in Detroit, it gives you a stronger sense of ownership,” she said.
“I work in Detroit. I’m a taxpayer. I don’t want to see it fail. I feel very connected and want to help people where I can.”
Ste. Anne's Church, a 300-year-old fixture
Over and over, Detroiters of French heritage find their ancestors belonged to Ste. Anne’s Church. The beautiful church in southwest Detroit is second-oldest continuously operating Catholic parish in the United States, according to Father Russ Kohler, pastor of Ste. Anne’s. Today at Ste. Anne’s, you hear Spanish spoken since the congregation is primarily Mexican and Central American from nearby neighborhoods; services have been offered in Spanish since 1940. However, the French origins of Ste. Anne’s are unmistakable, and the history of Ste. Anne’s is a history of the French settlers of Detroit.
It is a terra cotta Gothic cathedral that sits in a quiet, shady spot near the Ambassador Bridge at Ste. Anne Street (formerly 19th Street) and Howard. Built in 1886, this church is actually the eighth version of Ste. Anne’s; previous structures caught fire, were burned by Fox Indians, or were removed to make room for progress. The cornerstone of the prior 1818 church is fixed among the bricks of the new church. The current Ste. Anne’s was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
The church was founded on July 26, 1701, two days after the arrival of Cadillac and his people at Detroit. The construction of the church began on the Feast of Ste. Anne’s Day and it was named in honor of the patron saint of France, Saint Anne, the mother of Mary and grandmother of Jesus. The original wooden church, basically a log cabin, stood within Fort Ponchartrain near what is now Jefferson and Griswold streets downtown.
Today’s Ste. Anne’s contains many other French touches: Fleur-de-Lis are found in the tile of the floor and in leaden glass windows. Wooden pews are carved with small Gothic towers at their corners. The chancel is 85 feet high with the oldest stained glass in the city showing figures of French saints.
Fr. Kohler noted that not all the church’s stained glass saints can be found in the Bible. “Sometimes a wealthy parishioner who typically was a lumber baron, industrialist, or mine owner in the 1870s, decided to donate money for a stained glass window featuring one of his daughters.” He pointed out a window labeled “Ste. Josephine.” “There is no such saint — that is the daughter of one of the first parishioners and she modeled for the artist.”
Of particular interest on the exterior of the building are the flying buttresses, a feature common in Gothic cathedrals in Europe, but unusual in the New World. Four gargoyles guard the main entrance on the north facade.
Records of the church have been faithfully maintained since 1704. As Marie Caroline Watson Hamlin wrote about Ste. Anne’s in her book “Legends le Detroit”: “To the student of genealogy these old records with their musty yellow paper, blurred writing and odor of antiquity, are most eloquent epitomes of the brevity of human life. Each generation, like a wave of the sea rises, swells, and bursts on the shores of Eternity.”
To help support Ste. Anne’s, Father Kohler suggests contacting the Father Gabriel Richard Historical Society, 1000 Sainte Anne St., Detroit, MI 48216, or call (313) 963-1888.
Your French history
Are you a descendant of early French-speaking residents of Detroit? Tell your story in the comments below.