As part of 101.9 WDET’s Book Club, we’re inviting the Detroit region to examine and discuss the text that impacts every resident of the United States: The Constitution. Whether you’re revisiting the documents or reading them for the first time, join us in reading along and engaging in civil conversations with your community.
In 1787, while America’s Founding Fathers gathered in Philadelphia to plan a government, Detroit was known as a fur trading post where French settlers founded a small village of 2,000 people.
“Michigan and Detroit were well-known to the European powers by the time of the revolution,” says Bill Wall Winkel, assistant curator at the Detroit Historical Society. “Detroit exists on a really, really vital trading point: It’s a small point between two major Great Lakes.”
The French founded Detroit in 1701 and the British troops took control of the area in 1763. Prior to the French, Indigenous people were here, primarily the Anishinaabe tribes: the Ojibwe, Ottawa and Potawatomi, known as The Council of Three Fires.
Winkel says when the British arrived, they brought bigger populations of settlers and started pushing out Indigenous communities. He says Americans adopted this tradition when the area that is today Southeast Michigan was ceded from the tribes to the Americans in 1807 with the Treaty of Detroit.
The names of the people who took control of the area should be familiar to metro Detroiters today: General Anthony Wayne and Colonel John Francis Hamtramck were both prominent military officials.
It may seem ironic that while the Constitution was being drafted to envision a just nation, other Americans were engaged in wars of conquest themselves. But there was one individual, Gabriel Richard, born in France in 1767, whose work realized the founders’ ideals.
Richard was a priest who came to Detroit in the late 1790s and was a staple here in the city. He coined the city motto, advocated for the city’s construction and founded an integrated elementary school that taught both native and white students.
Listen: Hear more about Hamtramck, Wayne and Richard in Detroit during the nation’s founding.