Bilodeau on Peyser, 'Edge of Empire, 1671-1716: Documents of Michilimackinac'

Joseph L. Peyser
Christopher Bilodeau

Joseph L. Peyser. Edge of Empire, 1671-1716: Documents of Michilimackinac. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2008. xliii + 192 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-87013-820-1.

Reviewed by Christopher Bilodeau (Dickinson College)
Published on H-French-Colonial (April, 2011)
Commissioned by Jyoti Mohan

Trade, Law, and Society in the pays d’en haut

This compilation of documents is one volume in a more ambitious project organized by the Mackinac State Historical Parks to preserve the history of the area of the Straits of Mackinac, which separates Lake Huron from Lake Michigan. In 1991, Joseph L. Peyser began to compile seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French-language material pertaining to the French trading post/mission settlement of Michilimackinac, which existed between 1671 and 1716 on the southern tip of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. These sources have been culled from thousands of documents in France, Canada, and the United States, and have become part of the Mackinac State Historic Parks’ French Michilimackinac Research Project Collection. The book is the third volume of French documents translated by Joseph L. Peyser, who died in 2004.[1] Several years before his death, Peyser enlisted the expertise of José António Brandão, who has taken over the management of the project.

This volume looks at the fur trade and the attendant legal system that was created to protect the interests of those who engaged in it. Therefore, the documents are mostly legal in nature. However, the fur trade encompassed an assortment of human activity, ranging from the roles that Indians and women played in the trade, the legal apparatus set up to deal with controversies and contestations that arose from it, and a slice of colonial New France society as a fluid space of social rank. Most of the documents here are being published for the first time.

The book opens with an introduction that contextualizes the documents within the history of New France, and shows where Michilimackinac fit into the fur trade. New France, a marginal colony by most measures, relied heavily on the post. “Few places,” the editors argue, “were as important in the overall scheme of things as the pays d’en haut,” or the Great Lakes region, and Michilimackinac was at its center (p. xxvi). By the height of the fur trade in 1755, Michilimackinac (founded as a Jesuit mission in 1671), Detroit (which was founded in 1701), and St. Joseph (founded in 1691) saw 38 percent of all of the furs traded in Canada, and 29.3 percent of the those traded in all of Louisiana, Canada, and Hudson’s Bay. Their importance to the economy of New France, therefore, was significant.

That trade, of course, necessitated good relations with the Indians in the region. The area around Michilimackinac was a space of Ottawas, Huron-Petuns (or Wyandots), and other groups who had moved there by 1671 due to warfare and disease. When Michilimackinac was established, the French and Indian populations lived separately but in close proximity. A fort was soon created, ultimately known as Fort de Buade, and was built in 1687. That fort gave way eventually to a later fort, built on the south side of the straits, by 1716, where the village soon moved (hence, the time frame of these documents). The ban on the fur trade in the late 1690s led to the French abandoning the fort in 1698, and creating another at Detroit when it was founded in 1701. The Jesuits left soon after, in 1705, when they were frustrated with the amorality of its society, but Louis XIV insisted that Michilimackinac have a mission, and the Jesuits returned in 1706. By 1716, the French had abandoned the old fort again, but built the new one, just as (or was it because?) the French were engaging in conflicts with the Fox Indians, which would last, on and off, for decades.

The editors cover this embryonic phase of Michilimackinac and the fur trade with sixty-two different documents. Peyser, as indicated in the previous two volumes, had a tremendous grasp of the documentary evidence on Michilimackinac, and his choices here reveal the same eye for detail, the same ability to choose documents that reveal the complicated life of a French frontier post. Although some of the documents rest on their own, most of them are clustered in small groups, giving a sense of short, specific narratives that have the benefit of touching on numerous dimensions of Michilimackinac society.

For example, the first group of documents (Documents 2-8, pp. 3-21) outlines the Montréal court case of Charles de Couagne, who accused Louis Ouakouts, a Huron also known as the “Lame One,” Marie Félix (du Bocq), a female Indian trader, and other Indian trade associates of embezzling Couagne’s goods at Michilimackinac in 1683. Couange, a “merchant-entrepreneur” from Montréal with political connections, had given three Indians 3,304 livres, 19 sols worth of goods to trade, and had made them a loan of one thousand livres on top of that. He had not seen any returns on these formidable sums, and demanded to know why. The court agreed to hear the case, and Couagne was permitted “to seize canoes, furs and other things that belong to the said debtors wherever they may be, with their right to legal recourse maintained,” but the court insisted that witnesses come and testify (p. 4). Although this ruling was passed by a Montréal magistrate, he had the authority to claim that the seizure of the goods of Ouakouts, Félix, or any other associate could occur anywhere in Québec. This case highlights a number of issues: that Couagne was a relatively powerful man who had business transactions with those much lower than him on the social scale, hinting at the flexibility of social order in such a community; that the amounts that were being traded and exchanged by merchants were substantial; that these accused Indians would legitimately have their day in court under the system in Montréal, even against a fairly prominent member of the community, but his prominence could mean that punishment, at least in this instance, could be immediate, even before the facts of the case were ascertained. The defendants were brought before the court, as well as a number of witnesses, and the trial’s reach included not only traders--many of them women, such as “a merchant” named Simone Côté--but also Hurons, Ottawas, and Jesuits. Louis Ouakouts seems to have been the culprit, taking furs from the trade and spending them in numerous ways, all unbeknownst to Couagne, while Marie Félix was deemed innocent of any wrongdoing.

Documents 9-15 (pp. 22-40) are also related, discussing a similar court episode, but with a different ending. In 1683, Claude Tardy accused two men, Anthoine Villedieu and Joseph Loisel, whom he employed, of embezzling beaver and diverting the proceeds of their Michilimackinac trade elsewhere. The ensuing petitions for an investigation led to the court exonerating the accused. But the issue did not stop there, as Villedieu and Loisel, alarmed and shocked by Tardy’s accusation, proceeded with a counter suit of sorts, one that castigated Tardy’s false accusations and defamation of character. Tardy officially apologized, recognized both men as good and honorable people, and he was charged by the court to pay all of the fees associated with the investigations and the trial--a sum of thirty-seven livres, nineteen sols. This trial as well tells us much about the court system in New France: not only about the types of expenditures that a court proceeding necessitated, but also the fact that false accusations were not without explicit legal repercussions within such a small frontier community in the late seventeenth century. These types of narratives within the documents could be used in classroom settings to get students to think about the myriad ways that court proceedings reflect social, political, and cultural values within any given society.

Even documents that stand alone, such as a list of expenses for a captain in New France’s military, are wonderfully illuminating. Captain Olivier Morel de la Durantaye, the commandant of Michilimackinac between 1683 and 1690, compiled a expense report in 1685 that covered the years 1683 and 1684. He not only listed the goods purchased and their prices, but he also gave small but rich descriptions of social interaction and historical events that contextualized the expenses, such as the sixty-four livres he gave to eight Potawatomi Indians “whom I was obliged to take along in order to take me to the village of the outagamis [the Fox] who wanted to flee with the mascoutins and quicapous [Kickapoos] after the murder of 60 of the aforesaid mascoutins by the Iroquois about which I was notified by the Reverend Father Alloez [Claude Allouez] of the Company of Jesus on August 26, 8 shirts at 8# each” (p. 41). Indian allies under stress, Indian enemies on the attack, Jesuit missionaries as conduits of information (or misinformation?), the obligations of French officers to Indian groups he knows he cannot do without, the price of a shirt in the middle of the North American continent in 1685--all can be found in this offhand annotation in a list of goods.

Each document is amply annotated, explaining terms, names of places and people, and other useful information, such as inconsistency in spelling or nuances in language. The notes are extensive and appropriate. There are two useful modern maps, as well as eleven plates which illustrate, among other things, three seventeenth- and eighteenth-century maps and four engravings of Indians in their village life. Translations, all done by Peyser, are minimal in their manipulation of the original language, at least without resorting to literal translations. Some words, for instance, were not translated at all, as doing so would corrupt their meaning, so the editors have published a series of helpful appendices with definitions: one appendix is devoted to general terms and phrases, another to specialized legal terms.

A drawback of the volume has to do with organization. The introduction works well at contextualizing the documents, but, after that, all sixty-two documents are grouped together in one large section. As noted, some of the documents are in a series, but there is no indication of that fact. Documents 2-8 (or 9-15, or 23-27, and so on) are all related, and could have their own, small introductory paragraph or statement, one that puts them into context in a clearer way. It took me a read-through to figure out that these documents were related in any way. Teachers will have to assign certain documents together, doing the work that might have been more profitably done by the editor, who knows how these documents hold together in ways that the average reader or teacher might not.

Overall, however, this volume is an excellent way to delve into the documentary evidence of early Michilimackinac, and New France in general. I will certainly use all or some of these documents in my courses on colonial North America, the first half of the U.S. survey, and any other appropriate courses.


[1] The two other volumes are: Joseph L. Peyser, ed. Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre: Officer, Gentleman, Entrepreneur (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1996) and Joseph L. Peyser, ed., On the Eve of Conquest: The Chevalier de Raymond’s Critique of New France in 1754 (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1997).

Printable Version:

Citation: Christopher Bilodeau. Review of Peyser, Joseph L., Edge of Empire, 1671-1716: Documents of Michilimackinac. H-French-Colonial, H-Net Reviews. April, 2011.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.