The French successfully established colonies in the Caribbean in the Sixteenth century. Indeed, Guadeloupe and Martinique are now full-fledged departments, albethey far from Paris. Those early Caribbean colonies supplied the motherland with sugar and other agricultural products. The French were less successful with their northern colonies. The early settlers in Canada found it difficult to raise food crops and did not have the skills the Indians had of supporting themselves from their environment. They depended upon shipments from France. Furthermore, the Iroquois Confederacy frequently attacked the small French settlements. Québec must have been an unpleasant and dangerous place for the few French settlers who tried to survive there in the 1600s. Nevertheless, the French population of Canada grew slowly. Eventually, there came to be at least three groups of migrants whose interests sometimes overlapped and sometimes conflicted. French governmental officials and the military wished to secure the land for France and prevent the English, the Spanish or any other nation from evicting them. Priests from France wanted to convert the American Indians to Roman Catholicism and French civilization. And then there were traders—many of their former soldiers—who wished to get rich by trading with the Indians for furs that they could sell at great profit in France. These were known as the coureurs de bois since they “ran in the woods” with the Indians.
Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut, was born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye in 1639 or 1640 and served in the French military. He rose to the rank of lieutenant in 1657 and was appointed a member of the King’s Guard seven years later. Members of his family had migrated to Canada and he joined them in New France in 1678. He quickly became an explorer, joining with members of the French military who explored the upper Great Lakes region. He may have been the first European to reach the western end of Lake Superior—in 1679—and then went on to explore the upper plateau area north of the headwaters of the Mississippi River. He also explored the Red River Valley and claimed the lands of the Sioux for the French crown.
The French knew they had two enemies they might need to fight in North America. The British had a presence on Hudson Bay to the north and had colonies along the Atlantic shore line. In addition, the Iroquois still threatened the French. As he continued to travel throughout the Great Lakes region, Daniel Greysolon realized that the mouth of the St. Clair River would be an excellent location for a fort. Should the British try to pass through Lake St. Clair or Lake Huron, they could easily be stopped by French forces stationed at this key junction. Thus, Greysolon established Fort St. Joseph at this point in 1686. St. Ignace was the first location in Michigan where the French established a permanent settlement. This fort was the second such location, although it was not to remain established for long.
The Governor of New France, Jacques-René de Brislay de Denoville, decided that the summer of 1687 was time to bring the Iroquois Confederacy under control for once and for all. He intended to amass as much force as he could to force the Iroquois and their allies to make peace with the French. This would make it possible for French traders to obtain furs throughout northern America and would allow the missionaries to spread their beliefs. Jacques-René de Brislay assembled a substantial force for Fort St. Joseph that may have included as many as 500 Algonquians, 200 coureurs de bois and 30 French soldiers for the summer of 1687. They did not, however, see any military action and quickly moved away when winter approached.
Louis Armand de Lom d’Arce, Baron de Lahontan, commanded Fort St. Joseph in 1688. Apparently, he did not share Daniel Greysolon's idea about the importance of this location so he abandoned this fort and moved to Fort de Baude at St. Ignace with his forces. This ended the first permanent French settlement at present day Port Huron.
Daniel Greysolon was highly significant in the exploration of the Upper Great Lakes and the Midwest. In addition, he apparently was quite successful in building productive relationships between French settlers and the Indian tribes who lived around Lake Superior. Apparently he devoted much effort to trying to convince the various Indian tribes to cease fighting with each other and to trade with the French. Unlike the British, quite a few French administrators promoted peace with the Indians. The French missionaries, of course, wanted to convert the Indians and the coreurs de bois wished to trade European products to Indians for the furs they supplied. Many French men, but few French women, came to the most remote areas of Canada so many of the French traders and trappers formed families with Indian women. Greysolon died in Montréal in 1710 and is an honored figure in Canadian history. The second largest city in Minnesota and an interesting thoroughfare in Montréal bear his name, at least an Anglicanization of his name, the city of Duluth and Rue Duluth.
During the latter months of the War of 1812, West Point graduate General Charles Gratiot of St. Louis, who served as Chief Engineer for the Army of the Northwest, recognized what Daniel Greysolon appreciated 128 years previously. Thus, he built an American fort at this location—Fort Gratiot. This fort was abandoned in 1822, but then put back into use in 1828. It was used sporadically by the military until 1879.
This Fort St. Joseph that was once located where Lake Huron flows into the St. Clair River should not be confused with the Fort St. Joseph that French officer Augustine LeGardeur de Coutmanche established at the most inland navigable point on the St. Joseph River in 1689. That Fort St. Joseph was located within present-day Niles, Michigan. That is the only component of Michigan that was ever colonized by the Spanish and they held it for no more than a brief span. There are no presently standing traces of either of these French forts.
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Places: P 24,661 Listed August 23, 1956
State of Michigan Historic Marker: Put in place April 5, 1957
National Register of Historic Sites: Not listed
Website for Port Huron Historical Museum: http://www.phmuseum.org/
Photograph: Ren Farley; July 25, 2010
Description prepared: August, 2010
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