Mission as Moving Target: Cadillac and the Founding of French Détroit, 1690s–1701

Thursday, January 2, 2014: 3:50 PM
Wilson Room B (Marriott Wardman Park)
Sara E. Chapman Williams, Oakland University
In the 1690s, Antoine de Laumet “Cadillac” a commander at Fort Michilmackinac situated on the northern shore where Lakes Michigan and Huron met on the frontier of New France, drafted a series of proposals for a new settlement at a site significantly to the south, at a place he called “Détroit” along the Strait of Lakes Erie and St. Clair. Cadillac’s goal was to persuade Louis XIV and ministers in charge of colonial polices back in France that establishing this fort aligned perfectly with a host of greater French political, economic, and religious aims or “missions,” in the immediate region, New France, and the wider Atlantic world. This paper examines Cadillac’s evolving arguments about the “mission” of Detroit and his clashes with a host of other political actors as he sought to secure royal approval to forge ahead with its establishment. In placing these debates within a larger historical context, it becomes apparent that the process of making colonial policy in this era forced the melding of central royal colonial administrators’ interests with the often clashing or competing goals of various historical actors, such as Cadillac, who were living and operating in colonial borderlands. This paper, then, challenges the notion that the king and royal ministers of the French “absolute” monarchy dictated colonial policies and activities. Instead, it traces how a process of extended debate and negotiation, involving a diverse collection of those “on the ground” in frontier regions (fur traders, colonial officials, Native Americans and missionaries), along with intermediaries at colonial hubs, and royal officials back in France, all shaped the production of “official” colonial policies in this era.