I’m standing on a bluff overlooking Lake Huron; considering this great thing of ours called America.
I imagine the ghosts of my ancestors paddling across the shoreline: the fur trappers, the runners of the woods, the lighthouse keepers.
I’m reminded that Detroit, Michigan, North America — none of it would have been if not for the beaver.
Some quick history here: it seems that Louis XIV, king of France, was fond of prancing about the streets of Paris wearing a beaver-pelt chapeau. The fur is waterproof. And Paris can be gloomy.
As it goes with Europeans, James II, king of England, decided he too enjoyed prancing about the streets of London in a beaver-pelt hat.
A rivalry ensued. Louis dispatched troops to the New World to keep Jimmy from snatching his beavers. Louis ordered a man named Antoine Cadillac to establish a fort in the lower Great Lakes to block the English advance on his fur monopoly. Detroit was born in July 1701.
My very great-grandfather, Joseph Baptiste Chevalier, a Frenchman, paddled into Fort Detroit a few years later. Detroit was a dangerous frontier town then with three bands of rival Native Americans living on its outskirts. In 1706, a priest and a soldier were killed in a native uprising, making my very great-grandfather Chevalier a witness to the first recorded murder in Detroit.
Like tens of thousands of murders in Detroit since then, the priest’s homicide remains unsolved. A cold case. For his part, Cadillac was imprisoned for a short time for selling contraband brandy to the natives, making him Detroit’s first convicted dope dealer.
Grandpa Chevalier’s kin intermarried with the Ojibway people. And everything was nice in my family. They trapped beaver, smoked fish and made babies.
All good, until 1760, when the English defeated the French in the Seven Years War and took control of what is now Michigan. The natives and the mixed bloods didn’t like the new landlords much. Chief Minavavana famously said: “Englishman, you have conquered the French, but you have not yet conquered us.”