Following rivers and foraging deep forests, a Métis scout disappears into the wilderness to explore and trade. He makes his way to the Great Lakes, where he meets and befriends the Ojibwa people of the region.
It is the early 1700s in what is now Michigan. French colonists and explorers continue to move south from Canada into New France as part of the booming fur trade. Scouts and voyageurs play a critical role as geographers of experience, bridging the gap between French and native cultures as interpreters, negotiators and guides.
“Early on, the fur trade is what drove everyone wild. That mixed-blood culture provided the Great Lakes with voyageurs and scouts.”
— Genot Picor
This 300-year-old history — and tales of early exploration by French Canadians and Métis — lives on through storytellers and folklore. Genot “Winter Elk” Picor travels the state putting on performances at schools, festivals and libraries, both solo and with the musical group La Compagnie. Picor will portray a French-Huron Métis, or mixed-blood, during a French Canadian Heritage Day celebration Oct. 3 at Michigan’s Heritage Park in Whitehall.
“Early on, the fur trade is what drove everyone wild,” Picor says. “That mixed-blood culture provided the Great Lakes with voyageurs and scouts.”
French Canadian descendants continue to find ways to celebrate and honor their heritage, even though it’s a legacy of cultural influence and historical significance overlooked by many.
“The legacy of the culture that originates in the earliest days of Detroit, and in the pre-Detroit travels of voyageurs and explorers, and in the settlements of St. Ignace and St. Joseph (both predate Detroit) is that they are still inspiring original culture, art and public spectacles,” says James LaForest, a community activist and cultural advocate who writes “The Red Cedar” blog about French Canadian culture in Michigan.
Both the upper and lower peninsulas have been home to people of French heritage since the early 17th century, when the French arrived as colonists, missionaries, voyageurs, farmers and merchants.
“Not all French Canadians have Native American roots, but many do, and even for those who do not, the culture itself was deeply influenced by those early contacts based in trade, marriage and learning from each other,” LaForest says. “Contrary to what many people think of European colonization, it was not all alike. The French and Indians had a largely harmonious relationship.”
Picor enjoys bringing an interactive frontier history alive to audiences and carrying on the tradition of music, dance and revelry rooted in the French Canadians “joie de vivre,” or cheerful enjoyment of life.
“These people, my ancestors, whether French or Native-French mix, were hardy people. They found a way to survive,” Picor says. “We didn’t want that much: our families, our orchards, our gardens, our tracts of land. We wanted to celebrate life with card games, music, dancing and laughter.”
The U.S. Census bureau estimates 165,000 people in Michigan claim French Canadian heritage. Though genealogy records are sparse, in large part due to illiteracy, some Detroiters have traced their family ancestry back eight generations to the founders of Detroit. They were French-born and came to Detroit after years of living in Quebec.
Later immigrants who came for jobs in lumber and iron ore mines were not closely associated with native tribes. Most of these French Canadians settled in Houghton County, Marquette and the Soo in the U.P. or in the areas of Saginaw, Alpena, Bay City and Cheboygan.
These groups enriched the population of original habitants with a new spirit of cultural pride. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Michigan was home to more than a dozen French-language newspapers.
Today, it’s a culture kept alive through art, music and family-centered “heart and hearth” traditions of food and folklore passed from generation to generation, LaForest says.
In July, the Detroit Drunken Historical Society organized a celebration of early French Detroit history, art and folklore, including an auction curated by Corktown Studios featuring original artwork based on the 1883 book “The Legends of Le Détroit,” a compilation of myth and folklore from Detroit’s French era, to commemorate the city’s 314th birthday.
In 2013, LaForest called on Gov. Rick Snyder and the Michigan State Legislature to create an annual French Canadian Heritage Week in the fall. House Rep. Bill LaVoy from Monroe introduced the resolution. LaForest says it’s something he hopes becomes a standing proclamation.
• The French played a vital role in fur trading and frontier exploration, commercial and military activity in the Straits of Mackinac and even the founding of Detroit. French Canadians settled Frenchtown — present-day Monroe — in 1784.
• There were two distinct waves of French Canadian migration. The first occurred in the 1600s and 1700s, when French-born colonists and military leaders established Michilimackinac and Detroit. Another wave came to Michigan in the early 1800s to 1920s to work in the lumber and mining industries.
• Many Detroit streets still have French names and mark the location of ancient “ribbon” farms. These narrow strips of land, up to three miles long, gave each farmer waterfront property to farm, fish and travel the river.
• A legacy of Detroit’s early French beginnings, Ste. Anne’s Catholic Church was started two days after the arrival of Cadillac and his people. It is the second-oldest continuously operating Catholic parish in the United States.
• Events are planned around the state, including Whitehall, St. Ignace, Monroe, Marquette, Detroit and Lansing, to celebrate French Canadian Heritage Week. To learn more, visit habitantheritage.org or voyageurheritage.wordpress.com.