The Beginnings of a City: The French Fur Trade of Early 18th Century Detroit

Created by: Emma Galvin
Time Period: 18th Century, Colonial
Topic: Foundations, Remaking Urban Space


Detroit Places | Fort Ponchartrain

Detroit is one of the most well known cities within the United States, especially in the first half of the 20th century with the rise of the automobile industry. When people visualize Detroit, that is what they think of in their heads. But I want to go back in time a bit and talk about Detroit’s beginnings. It wouldn’t become the car capital of the world without it first being built up through the fur trade in the early 1700s. While Detroit was most successful under British and American hands, especially after the age of Industrialization and into WWII, the French were the ones who settled the area. Through the fur trade and other growing economic ventures, Cadillac transformed Detroit from being a small outpost, to a large settlement with various opportunities to those who settled there.

Detroit was initially settled in 1701 by Frenchmen Cadillac and Tonty after the Peace Conference that occurred between the Indigenous Fox peoples and the French, officially ending the Beaver Wars of the 17th century. This led to a tentative peace between the Fox and the French for the next 15 years. In that time, Cadillac started making grand plans for this new fur trading town as it was a great location for trade due to its proximity to Native groups and the Canadian border. Not to mention its location along the Great Lakes, making for easy transportation of furs and other goods. 

Due to the growing success of the fur trade in the beginning of the 18th century, various Native American groups started to see the benefit of having the French as their allies. They were skilled with hunting and acquiring pelts the French wanted to trade in exchange for goods like guns and ammunition. With this came growing tensions between various tribes such as the Fox and Iroquois. They all wanted to trade with the French, but the fur traders could only ally themselves and trade with so many groups of people. This is part of why Detroit became the center for the Fox Wars in the 1710s and 1730s.

Fox Wars – CPN Cultural Heritage Center

Fox Wars- CPN Cultural Heritage Center 

The French ended up aligning themselves with the Iroquois. Due to the strong Iroquois presence and the strength of the French military, the Fox people were decimated in the Fox Wars. Most of the Fox were slaughtered by 1733 which marked the end of the Wars. This forever cemented the Fox and their allies, the Sauk, as enemies to the French and proved to be a great opposing force during the French and Indian Wars.

Eventually in 1760, the French lost Detroit to the English in the French and Indian Wars. While Detroit was under British control, and subsequently American control, industry and the population flourished. The English wouldn’t have found Detroit so appealing to acquire without Cadillac making it a self-sufficient economy and building a fort that was backed by the fur trade. Detroit has been known as the “motor city” for over a century, but before then, Detroit was founded and flourished due to the fur trade that boomed under Cadillacs control of the area.