Roy & Pelletier: Frontier ‘Canadiens’

by James LaForest
on estWho were these mysterious men, Roy & Pelletier? Attorneys at Law? NHL Hall-of-Famers? Québécois folk singers? You are not alone if you are unaware of these two men and their place in the history of Detroit. Recorded by 19th century writers such as François Rameau de Sainte-Père and Marie Hamlin as coureurs des bois living in the area of Detroit prior to its founding, Pierre Roy and François Pelletier have been the subject of debate and controversy for over 150 years. The questions about Roy & Pelletier range from, ‘Did they exist?’ to ‘What was their importance and did they indeed precede Cadillac in founding the settlement?’ In essence, the questions can often be distilled to ‘Was there life at Detroit before the agent of the King arrived?’

Jay Gitlin has shown how St. Paul, Minnesota founder Pierre Parrant has been cast as a “comic representative” providing a story of “local color,” trivializing the French history of the area. (Gitlin, 219) Indeed, Parrant is presented today as a figure in folklore. Roy & Pelletier have likewise largely been written into the periphery of history. In her article “Encountering Cadillac: Detroit before 1701” Karen Marrero describes how previous historians have depicted men such as Roy & Pelletier: “As a group, the French inhabitants at Le Détroit are regarded in the same manner as are Native Americans, namely as being in need of direction and organization by Cadillac. They are neither self-conscious, nor in control of the direction of their own lives and are at the mercy of more powerful and willful historical agents.” (Marrero, 41)

In other words, for important early historians such as Clarence Burton, personal agency among the common Voyageurs was non-existent. He and subsequent generations of scholars negate folklore, oral tradition, even the voices of earlier historians. Early voices sympathetic to the French-Canadian history of the Pays d’en Haut, such as Bela Hubbard, are accused of romanticizing the past. Scholars who have examined the French/Métis/Indian kinship networks of the fur trade have been criticized as over-stating the roles of such networks. Genealogists routinely undermine the continuity of French Canadian and Métis culture and community by attempting to refute well-documented cultural practices in the Great Lakes, insisting that French-Canadians stole cultural practices from Native Americans, that the practices did not exist at all, or that they originated elsewhere: once again, negation.

In the search of a more a worthy or desirable foundation story for places like St. Paul and Detroit, in the search of a pure Norman village arising from the banks of the Detroit River, real people are relegated to the periphery, or simply eliminated from the story. It is in this way that history is lost, stereotypes replace real human personalities, and partial histories are enshrined as full sacrosanct truth. And it is through this process that “Pierre Roy, Marguerite Ouabankikoué, François Pelletier, and Joseph Parent, along with other Frenchmen and Native Americans become props placed in the hands of the mythic Cadillac” as Marrero writes. (Marrero, 40)

With the 2015 film The Revenant, the idea of French-Canadian voyageurs as ‘props’ in the broader American or British historical narrative should not surprise anyone who saw it. If there was ever a depiction of French-Canadian fur traders as “intemperate and licentious” this film delivers. I will grant the supporters of this film one thing: it is the story of a particular man and his struggle to survive against all odds in an unforgiving environment. Yet to take the era of the fur trade, in which French Canadians, Métis, and Native Americans made up the vast majority of traders, workers, canoemen, outfitters, and engagés and to make a movie about it in which an Anglo American is the main character, is without question enshrining a particular chapter (and understanding) of history to the detriment of the vast majority of others.

If The Revenant was simply a movie about a man and survival, it could be appreciated as an average movie. Yet that was not enough. In the four scenes of the movie in which French Canadian or Métis voyageurs are featured, we meet Toussaint, a feckless, vulgar trader who in one scene is seen raping a Pawnee woman (a captive of the French party); they are presented as wantonly murdering any Indian who they cross paths with (“on est tous des sauvages”); the final appearance is of a disoriented voyageur who stumbles into the American camp, providing a plot bridge to the end of the film. Intemperate. Licentious. Murderers. Rapists. Props.

In Toussaint those of us who listened closely, heard the echo of history: Are we not to identify him with Toussaint Charbonneau, the real-life French Canadian explorer, trader, and member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, as well as husband of Sacagawea? Many will not have made the connection. But for those of us who study French Canadian history, his presence in the Rocky Mountains in the era of The Revenant is an obvious reference.

But back to Roy & Pelletier, those French Canadian traders who lived in the Pays d’en Haut and possibly at some point in Detroit with their Indian wives and Métis children. Genealogists and historians work in documents. They can’t be faulted for predicating their ideas with phrases like “there is no documentation to suggest. . .” or “inconsistences in the historical record make it difficult to understand. . .” Yet over and over again we see that they cannot stop there. Roy & Pelletier have become their ‘intellectual props’ in a way: marginal people used to “prove” that Métis culture never existed in Detroit, that ‘founding’ something means controlling it, that life outside the fort was an undifferentiated, savage existence (better) lost to memory.

In scholarly and genealogical narratives about early Detroit, these families aren’t far removed from the way we see the Nain Rouge or Pierre Parrant: folklore. I love folklore. And I am proud to be connected to an area of the world where so many interesting people left a legacy that thousands of people identify with and whose history they can recount like it was yesterday. But while to some researchers Roy & Pelletier are ahistorical figures whose appearance in records proves where they weren’t and what they were not, for me Pierre and François are something far more valuable. They are the story of free men, the story of those who came and the story of those who they met. They are the story of the people, the land, and the water before the forts. They are not folklore, sprites inhabiting an imagined primeval landscape. They are our honorable ancestors, Detroit’s beginnings, “pioneers”, and founders.

Sources:
Karen Marrero, “Encountering Cadillac: Detroit before 1701”
Jay Gitlin with S. Heath Ackley, “Freemasons and Speculators: Another Look at the Francophone Merchants of Detroit, 1796-1863.”

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