Roy and Pelletier: Oral Tradition and French Detroit

by James LaForest

In the introduction to her seminal work of early Detroit folklore Legends of le Détroit, Marie Caroline Watson Hamlin, a descendant of the old Detroit French families who passed the legends down from generation to generation in the telling of them, writes:

“The word ‘Legend’ explains itself. Historical and romantic souvenirs hang liked tattered tapestry around the fair City of the Straits [Detroit]. Interest and curiosity have only to shake its venerable folds to scatter fragmentary history and legendary lore.”

In these few lines, Hamlin sought, I believe, to reassure the reader that not only did she hope to perpetuate the lore of old Detroit, but that she understood the quality of the material she had to work with. For Hamlin, It had been nearly two centuries since the first recorded European explorers peered from their vessels to the banks of the Rivière Détroit. When she lamented in another essay that it was mainly through the pens of the Englishmen that much of French Canadian history has come down to the present time, she was perhaps conceding that the French history of Detroit in her time was “fragmentary and legendary” indeed. But in undertaking to contribute so much time and effort to this work, she was also being quite explicit: French Detroit’s history and folklore was no less worthy of recording.

Yet in Legends, which continues to inspire people today, she also presented what was the first extensive, local account of the genealogies of the French families of the Detroit River region. Drawing on the work of Abbé Cyprien Tanguay (who she refers to as “my friend” and whose research is known for its own flaws) she introduced the genealogical section this way:

“It is not the intention of the writer to give a detailed history of the French families….but to furnish such chronological data as will be of value and interest…”

It should be enough to alert the reader, from her introduction and in this section on genealogy, that the real value of her work lay in the folklore on the one hand, and on the other hand preserving for posterity the family information that she had to hand. And that, in fact, is what much of family history is all about. Sure, we call her section on the French families “genealogy”, but in fact the word genealogy never appears in Legends at all. She was recording for future generations oral tradition and family history, as she knew it.

And that brings me, once again, to Pierre Roy and François Pelletier, the subject of much conjecture and controversy today as to their bit parts in the founding of Detroit. The names of these two men appear twice in Legends of le Détroit: in the folk story The Nain Rouge and in the section on the Pelletier family at the end of the book. Our contemporary controversy over the men is centered on whether or not they were present ‘on the banks’ of the Rivière Détroit when Cadillac and his company arrived in July of 1701.

As I have established in this essay, Hamlin’s main task was presenting folklore that came down through her family. She was recording, in other words, French Detroit’s oral tradition. It is not outrageous to assume that, while her section on family histories was based on many documentary sources, oral tradition played a part in establishing the family narratives as well. I know of no one in my nearly 40 years of interest in family history who has not relied at some time on unverified family stories and oral tradition to fill out their family trees or to uncover factual events. In my own research, oral tradition passed on to me by my grandmother’s generation was vital in extending documentary family research beyond recent generations.

However, today oral tradition is regarded as mere fantasy. The subjects of oral tradition are considered almost fictional and the use of oral tradition is disdained by genealogists and most academics alike. Were it not for earlier times, such as Hamlin’s day, when oral tradition was held like a family heirloom, we would know next to nothing of the lives of the founders of Detroit.

It is fair to assert that in each successive generation of researchers there are those who must puff themselves up by denigrating contemporaries and the previous generation as incompetent. It is a sad approach. Where once we might hear a person say that he or she is “standing on the shoulders of giants” we are more likely to hear today the bitter sobriquet “dinosaurs” aimed at retiring professors and long-dead writers who cannot defend themselves.

Roy and Pelletier are part of French Detroit’s oral tradition, part of the oral tradition that Marie Caroline Watson Hamlin preserved for many generations. It is debatable whether or not she herself was convinced they met Cadillac when he landed to found Detroit. But it is also irrelevant to the value of her work. Anyone who takes up a book with “Legends” in the title should be aware of the meaning of the word. The awareness and value of Roy and Pelletier as either putative or semi-folkloric figures in the founding of Detroit should not be censored due to the outrage of researchers who believe that the only way to understand our history and culture is through their own methods.

Roy and Pelletier, as marginalized figures, have become more relevant today than ever. The unfolding of Detroit’s French, Native, and Métis history to a much broader public is in a sense really only beginning. Roy and Pelletier, who were real individuals with real Indian family members, who were really coureurs des bois, cannot be erased from history simply because we have no proof that they were or were not in a certain place and time. If we allow that, I ask why researchers would be so adamant in diminishing them? In erasing Roy and Pelletier, is the attempt really to erase the lives of those who lived outside the control of church and state: coureurs des bois, Métis children, and Native women?

If marginalizing Roy and Pelletier is an attempt to emphasize the Norman French character of Detroit, it must be asked: who will defend of the history of “Norman Detroit” when another generation of researchers, with another ideology, who care not for French Detroit at all, comes along to erase the French names (‘slaveholders and colonists’) from the streets of Detroit?

4 thoughts on “Roy and Pelletier: Oral Tradition and French Detroit

  1. Thanks for sharing this post and your knowledge of the local French history. But I don’t share the sentiment of your last comment on “erasing the French names”. Acknowledging an injustice does not need erase the past. Unfortunately I feel as the last paragraph steals from the strength of your post. Both have a place and both are a conversation to be had.

    • i appreciate your point, but to be fair, frankly, recent history shows that there are plenty pf efforts being made to erase that which is offensive to some. Efforts are already being made which was the point of my last paragraph.

  2. Family history (note story in that word), folklore, legends are the images that make history come alive. For me, the tales of great great grandparents, of my father and mother, of their forebears, siblings, relatives near and far, are the “warm fuzzy” adjuncts to the geneological history. They may be exaggerations or non proveable, but they color my world.

    • Thanks for commenting Ann. I agree – i think of the many people I’ve encountered who didn’t know their grandparents or extended family and they really missed something, and they know it. It’s tough to not have those stories. Those of us with access to that tradition in our family are very fortunate.

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