Three Centuries of Michigan’s “Frenchtowns”
By James LaForest
Rural Northern Michigan remains an almost idyllic place to raise a family, a place where memories that last a lifetime are created. But this is increasingly rare as more families live their whole lives in suburban areas. The fraction of Americans who live in small towns and rural areas is getting smaller. Today, according to the US Census Bureau, only 1 in 5 Americans lives in a rural area. This means that 20% of the population lives on the 97% of America that is considered rural. While living full time in what Michiganders call “Up North” isn’t possible for everyone, there are many people who have been fortunate to vacation there year after year, or even to spend entire summers at family cottages. The rivers and lakes, the biking and hiking trails, kayaking, fishing, and hunting all attract generation after generation of families for whom “Up North” becomes a part of cherished traditions.
The heritage of summer tourism and outdoor pursuits in Northern Michigan reaches back to late 1800s when places like the Bay View cottages near Petoskey and the mansions of Harbor Point off Harbor Springs were built. These gilded age legacies are emblematic of Northern Michigan. Grayling’s Hartwick Pines, Alpena’s Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, and other natural sites educate travelers about the role of industry in the region’s development, particularly of the lumber era and fishing. And as well, local community life also has a long and complex history, in ways that many people might find surprising. While Father Marquette, Fort Michilimackinac, and the story of the fur traders are generally well known, the French history of Michigan actually extends much further back in time and appears in unexpected places throughout the centuries.
The impact of French and French-Canadian culture in Northern Michigan for example can be seen as early as the mid-1600s when Father Marquette and explorer Louis Joliet were soon followed by voyageurs who sought to trade and form alliances with local Native American tribes. The Straits area quickly became an important center for the fur trade, a strategic military site, and a well-known rendezvous location. But this era was long ago — conventional wisdom tells us that the French era ended with the coming of the British and the Americans even before the 19th century. However, this does not tell the full story in the case of Northern Michigan’s French connections.
Michigan’s early French-Canadian communities in places like St. Ignace and Sault Ste. Marie were already deeply rooted when the change in territorial ownership made them citizens of new countries. But local residents, including some families in which French-Canadian men and Native American women married and raised families, sometimes remained. Their descendants share a unique heritage to this day, a heritage that is part of family life and local tradition. Many are members of local Indian tribes, while some have only French roots. Practically all are cousins.
In addition to the 17th and 18th century newcomers, a second wave of French-Canadians arrived in Michigan during the lumber era. These Catholic French-speakers quickly formed new ethnic communities. Along with the older communities mentioned earlier, these enclaves found within larger towns throughout the Great Lakes often (although not universally, as will be shown) became known as “Frenchtowns” where communal life played out in the French language, and French-Canadian traditions were practiced for decades.
A short drive from the Straits of Mackinac, three such Frenchtowns existed in three different locales, over the course of 250 years, populated by three unique groups of French-Canadian settlers. Onaway, for example, a small town in Presque Isle county about 25 miles east of I-75 and as far from Lake Huron, had a Frenchtown beginning around the turn of the 20th century. I know this because I grew up outside Onaway and my grandfather’s family lived there. For this reason, Onaway’s Frenchtown had a special place in my imagination as a child and I always asked my mother to drive out there when I had a chance. If you’ve never been to Onaway’s Frenchtown, you might be confused if you went to see it. It’s mostly empty land now (as it was in the 1970’s.) But it held some mystique for me. I had to go there, even if there was nothing really to see. I knew there was something there that I was connected to, some heritage that belonged to my family.
Vide Poche or ‘Veepush’ in Mackinac county and Little Canada in central Cheboygan county are two other French-Canadian communities that are not widely known to the general public but remain a point of reference for current residents or descendants and were home to the families of many Michiganders today.
Vide Poche, locally known as Veepush, is found in the Third Ward of St. Ignace on the north side of town. This is where Father Jacques Marquette founded a Jesuit mission in 1671 and where he is buried (although his burial place is a subject of controversy and there are other claimants to his resting place.) Vide Poche is a small warren of streets leading from what is now the highway down to the shoreline. Vide Poche is French for ’empty pocket’ and an uncommon place name in North America, referring to the idea of not having much. In a word, it refers to poverty. In St. Louis, Missouri the neighborhood (then a village) of Carondelet was known during the colonial period by this name, as the inhabitants were quite poor. There is also a Vide Poche in Quebec. It is a name obviously rooted in the French North American experience.
There is no clear evidence of when the St. Ignace Vide Poche became known by that name. My hypothesis is that it came to be known as such in the decades following the closure of Fort. de Buade in 1681. The trappers and traders who remained there when Fort du Buade closed formed the fledgling community of St. Ignace that was later eclipsed by Fort Michilimackinac across the strait. It was, however, a name that was well established by the late 1800s. In 1888, a report in the St. Ignace News recounted the poverty of the area, detailing sad events in the home of a man named Hyacinthe Chenier, an elderly fisherman faced with five sons incapacitated by fever. The newspaper report painted a grim picture of an impoverished household. But despite a tragic turn of events in the Chenier home, life in Vide Poche was not always so grim. Another news story from February 4, 1893 noted that “There has been sixteen dances in “Veepush” this week and there are to be 23 more before next Wednesday.” By my reckoning the dates were undoubtedly dances held for Mardi Gras, French fêtes in advance of Ash Wednesday which fell on February 15 of that year.
References to Vide Poche in St. Ignace are also found in the 1890 edition of Annals of Fort Mackinac by Dwight Kelton and the book The Missionary Labors of Fathers Marquette, Menard, and Allouez in the Lake Superior Region published in 1886 by Rev. Chrysostom Verwyst. The area is still known today by local residents as Vide Poche. It includes lanes named for early residents, Lajoie, Antoine, Morneau, and Paquin that slope down to the waters of Lakes Huron, facing Mackinac Island, just above East Moran Bay and south of Rabbit’s Back Peninsula. It is accurate to say that Vide Poche was as much Métis (intermarried French and Indian families) as it was French, truly emblematic of the early fur trade settlements of the Great Lakes. Quebecois researcher Jean-Pierre Gendreau-Hétu has done further research into Vide Poche and an excerpt of his work can be found at “Vide Poche: A French North American Toponym.”
Just across the Straits of Mackinac, in central Cheboygan county, another French-Canadian neighborhood arose in the mid-to-late 1800s. Little Canada was a small settlement of migrants from Montreal, who arrived in the area via Green Bay, Wisconsin. In this era, it was not unusual for lumber companies to appeal for labor from Quebec, and many families from the same community might relocate en masse and form a new community elsewhere, sometimes recruited or accompanied by a Catholic priest. In the case of Little Canada, according to an article by Audrey Casari in the Cheboygan Tribune (circa 1980), these eighteen families who had migrated to Green Bay were dissatisfied with life there and moved to Cheboygan county in 1880 setting up farms and working in the lumber industry.
I suspect Little Canada might have begun as “P’tit Canada” because these new Americans spoke French. Local businesses, such as the Moloney Bottle Works of Cheboygan, advertised their wares to the Cheboygan French-speaking community in Michigan’s French language newspapers of the day. The observance of French-Canadian customs took root here, such as the marriage tradition the charivari. This custom later became the basis of the Sturgeon Shivaree on Black Lake in Cheboygan County, a reconceptualization of the custom as a winter festival.
With an entire French-speaking community, there was no rush for the new migrants to quickly assimilate into American culture. They formed their own Catholic Parishes and had their own cemeteries. However, they did take part in local civic affairs serving on township committees, just as they were equally passionate about French-Canadian life. The Cheboygan area, like Alpena, Muskegon, Escanaba and towns throughout the Midwest, had an active chapter of the Societé St. Jean-Baptiste, a French-Canadian nationalist organization founded in Montreal around 1830. This movement sought to unite French-Canadians throughout North America, to promote French, and to instill cultural pride. This organization lead ultimately to Quebec’s independence movement.
Today along Little Canada Road, the verdant countryside is reminiscent of the Québécois landscape, and I suspect the early residents felt quite at home there. All along Little Canada Road, St. Antoine Road, and Bourdeaux Rd mailboxes still bear French names. My research in the US Census American Community Survey shows that Cheboygan County remains home to one of the largest concentrations of people who claim French-Canadian heritage in the state.
Just across the county line in Presque Isle county, another French-Canadian community arose around the turn of the century. As I noted above, a quarter of Onaway came to be known as Frenchtown around 1900. In the early part of the 20th century, lumber mills and the local Lobdell steering wheel factory (Onaway was known as the steering-wheel capital of the world for a brief period of time) brought migrants from the French-Canadian communities near Windsor, Ontario, River Rouge, Michigan, as well as from Quebec. Their settlement was concentrated in the northeast quarter of town, where the most obvious physical feature is a lowland area with a creek running through it. This would be a familiar landscape to many families that had lived along the shores of Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River and its tributaries for two centuries before relocating north.
Numerous French-Canadian families lived in Frenchtown. In my own family, my grandfather lived there with his parents and siblings. They had moved north from River Rouge in about 1902 along with an extended family including grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, all hailing from the villages of Pointe aux Roches, Belle Rivière, and Tecumseh outside Windsor, Ontario. They had moved as a group to River Rouge and then, again as a group, up north. At times some returned to Ontario, before settling permanently in Michigan.
They, along with other French-Canadian migrants, were also known as ‘Muskrat French’ a term used in reference to the Detroit area French-Canadians. Some had been commercial fisherman and trappers and continued their traditional lifestyle in Northern Michigan. It made sense they would live along a creek, and eventually inhabit homes near the Black River, a renowned trout stream.
In Frenchtown, they lived alongside boarding houses full of transient workers and, according to the 1910 census, one local family identified as Yiddish/Polish/Jewish, suggesting that the ward was comprised of residents who were perhaps on the margins of society. There were approximately 25 French-Canadian families living in Frenchtown in 1910, comprising over 160 men, women and children. A small minority spoke only French (less than 5%), but based on interviews with descendants of Frenchtown residents, the majority were perfectly bilingual. My numbers are based on a review of the 1910 census, focusing on French surnames and place of origin. The members of the Frenchtown community departed over the years for other areas and eventually it became Frenchtown in name only. Today a small commemorative display in the heart of Frenchtown can be seen on the cottage of a seasonal resident. An abundance of apple trees and lilacs bushes in the area are possibly rooted in the era when its French-Canadian residents came north.
Frenchtown in Onaway, like Little Canada and Vide Poche, is an historic area that tells a unique story about the Great Lakes region. We commemorate these communities in story as we remember that our ancestors passed some or all of their lives there. Some people remain whose ancestries stretch back to the generations when French was spoken on their porches and along their lanes. But little else is done to ensure that these unique Michigan stories are perpetuated. An exception is Monroe’s Frenchtown, which is widely known as an important early French settlement in Michigan.
Onaway’s Frenchtown, Cheboygan’s Little Canada, and Saint Ignace’s Vide Poche are fascinating parts of our history. There may not be much there to see, but the question for me is what potential do they have? When I drove down to the end of one of the lanes of Vide Poche some years ago, it reminded me of Onaway’s Frenchtown. I saw a dilapidated old hotel sitting on a piece of Saint Ignace with a beautiful view and I thought, ‘this is a diamond in the rough.’ I saw an old house along the highway, in need of work, that looked like it had seen those early days in Vide Poche.
I saw an historic district where there should be at the very least, a permanent reference to its history — maybe someday one of those green historical markers that tell the story of other places in town. In Onaway, there used to be a sign along the highway pointing out to Frenchtown. It’s gone now. You just have to know where it is. There are those of us, myself included, who like visiting these places, who like to walk in the footsteps of our ancestors, to see the lay of their land, to see the views they saw – even if there’s not much more to do than that.
Vide Poche, Little Canada, and Frenchtown represent three settlements, three eras, and three unique expressions of the French-Canadian and French Métis experience in the Great Lakes. Yet these are place names that you won’t find on any map. Their memory and stories are passed on by descendants of the original migrants or by people who live there today. They are no longer the center of French-Canadian social life. You would be hard pressed to find a Québécois nationalist living in Little Canada, or a French speaker in Vide Poche. Onaway’s Frenchtown offers little more than small reminders of a distant past where the fiddle music of my grandfather Sam and his brother Louis, and their Detroit French patois, could be heard in their family homes.
Yet these French-Canadian neighborhoods found from Monroe to Iron Mountain (and actually, across the country) remain a part of our collective Michigan and French-Canadian stories. They are part of our cultural landscape, places that tell us of our ancestors and their lives; places that tell the broader community about the contributions of French-Canadian and Métis traders, trappers, and loggers; they are places and landscapes that help orient us and connect us to the great history of Michigan that so many of us share as a heritage.