Deep Roots in the Motor City

Detroit, Michigan.  A city that, to many, represents the heart of the rust belt.  A poster child for urban decay and decline.  Yet this was once the place to be, as it was the birthplace of the mass-produced automobile and the home of some of the most stunning architecture in the country.  Detroit was the fifth largest city in the nation in the 1950’s, with a population of 1.8 million people.  And from a little two-story house on West Grand Boulevard, some of the greatest musicians of our time churned out hits at Motown Records, beginning in January of 1959.  A mere 6 months before that, just a few blocks to the west, I came into this world at Providence Hospital.  That building sat due north of the western tip of Windsor, Ontario, giving me the distinction of being born north of Canada.

My entire world revolved around the Motor City.

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My parental grandfather owned a Willys-Knight and Whippet automobile dealership in the suburb of River Rouge.  Dad himself started out working in the machine shop at Ford Motor Company before pursuing a career in business.  Mom’s dad built huge homes in Indian Village, structures that still command a high dollar to this day.  Mom’s maternal grandfather built all or part of some of the finest churches in the city at the end of the 19th century, along with Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse in Mackinaw City.

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Indeed, my Detroit roots go back quite a ways.

Being in the city has always made me feel grounded and safe.  That may sound odd to most folks, as Detroit has a reputation as being anything but safe.  Is it a place I want to live again?  Michigan’s winter weather quickly answers that for both of us, as we prefer to bask in the Florida sunshine in January.  Besides, we would much rather to be in natural surroundings over asphalt and concrete.  But there is some magnetic pull that has always been there for me…not so much beckoning me to come back, but more to evoke a calm feeling that I am home when I’m there.  A few years back, flying at night from Baltimore to Grand Rapids, I peered out at the unmistakable outline of Detroit from the air.

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As I gazed over the city, I started picking out landmarks.  Then I estimated where all of my relatives from long ago were buried, and I realized just why that pull was so strong.  I had people scattered over this entire photo…on both sides of the river.

Well, until recently, I had no idea of just how far back those roots went.  Digging into my lineage via Ancestry.com, I found many relatives born in the late 18th century in the region that is now Detroit.  Back then, it was mostly French explorers and settlers.  As I got back to my fifth and sixth great-grandparents, I made a several unique discoveries.  In 1775 my fifth great-grandfather, Claude Charles Moran, was farming his land in northwest Detroit when his brother-in-law brutally stabbed him.  Why, I have no idea.  Unfortunately, that was the fifth of many murders to come in Detroit.  Joseph Hecker, his assassin, was one of only 13 people ever executed in Michigan, being hung from the gallows in the center of the city.

But my family goes even further back than that…

St. Aubin, the street my mom’s grandfather built his house on , was named after an early settler and my sixth great-grandfather, Jean Baptiste Casse dit St. Aubin.  He was around in the first years that Fort Ponchatrain was there.  I can’t even begin to count how many times I referenced that street in my dealings with my maternal great-grandparents.

And the line goes back even further still…

On July 24, 1701, Antoine de Lamothe Cadillac stepped onto the shore of Rivere du Detroit with a party of a hundred or so men to establish Fort Ponchatrain.

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Within a week, the wilderness they landed on became a bustling trading post…and commerce has taken place there ever since.

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In the heart of downtown Detroit, in Hart Plaza, stands this plaque that commemorates the spot where they landed.  The sixth man down the list on the left, Henry Belisle dit Lamarre, is my sixth great-grandfather.  He was a surgeon and was hired to go along on the trip.  Only the Native Americans had set foot on that land previous to their arrival. Indeed, my roots run deep in the Motor City, and its no wonder I feel so grounded there.

As I dig further back, I am finding even more surprises in my lineage.  I will pass those along sometime in the future.  Do you have any interesting people you have found in your ancestry? Is there a place that inexplicably makes you feel grounded and safe? We would love to hear your stories in our comment section below!

26 thoughts on “Deep Roots in the Motor City”

  1. Fascinating read, Jim! The name Belisle can’t be too common, is it? What exciting finds you and Diana have made, and that you’re going to chase some down in the the U.K. and Ireland is beyond exciting!

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    1. Thanks, Linda! Back in the 1980’s, I took a look-see in the Montreal phone book. There was a page and a half of them! Problem is, there is a mixture of names as I go along; LeVasseur dit Belisle, Belisle dit LaMarre…they are not consistent. Belisle means ‘beautiful island’ in French, so that is more likely than not where they are from. Henry came from Angers, France originally, and I haven’t identified his parents yet. I’ve had much more success with my other peeps, going back (so far) to 11th great grandparents in France.

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  2. Baby brother, if you go through the registry at St. Anne’s, under the Ambassador bridge, you will see that the doctor was the first to sign. Dad told me that long ago. Also, I remember our maternal grandparents taking me to Providence Hospital and waving to Dad in an upstairs window where I was told Mom was holding a new baby brother!

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    1. Thanks, Steve and Dianne! Be sure to stay tuned for my post on the Canadian relatives. I’m still sorting that out, but I can say I’m finding some pretty cool stories. Our future trip up the north side of the St. Lawrence will be a gold mine of information, for sure. We will, no doubt, use your blog as a reference in planning that journey!

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  3. This is an interesting exploration and you’ve done well to get back so far. My maternal grandmother followed the Loomis line back to France in the 1400s. On my paternal side, Dad always said, “The Olmsted family motto is beget them and forget them.” Great stories you are finding.

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  4. While I do not have as much info on my ancestors as you, I definitely feel “home” and “grounded” when we head back to NJ. As you said – we will probably never live there again, but it will always be home. Bill feels it as well, especially when we visit the lighthouses that overlook Sandy Hook, Sandy Hook Bay and Raritan Bay. His family has a long history of being lighthouse keepers and telegraph operators in that area. History is so much more interesting when there is a personal connection!

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    1. That is so true, Kelly! We’ve felt it in other places where relatives have spent time also. It should be interesting to see what Diana finds overseas when we go there this fall.

      New Jersey is so rich with history. We definitely will be visiting there in the next few years.

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  5. Hey Jim, I was also born in Providence Hospital. All three of our kids were born in Providence, but after it moved to Southfield. How neat to track your heritage back that far. My Great-Great Grandfather immigrated from Norway to Ludington in the 1800’s so my Michigan roots are pretty shallow compared to yours. Growing up in Allen Park (like you) I have fond memories of Detroit and surrounding area, like visiting my Dad where he worked in downtown Detroit and eating lunch with him at the Rockin’ Chair Buttery.

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  6. Thanks for stirring up some great memories of my family too! My mother was raised on a farm in Detroit back in the early part of our last century. My dad went to Cass Tech High School in the early 20’s. So much history to discover!

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    1. Most folks wouldn’t think of farming in Detroit in the 20th century, but there were a LOT of farms! And Cass Tech…Kat, there have been some great folks that went through that place. John Delorean, Della Reese, Diana Ross, Lily Tomlin, Jack White…just to name a few. Even Evangeline Lodge Lindbergh, Charles Lindbergh’s mother, went there. My paternal grandfather built her house in Grosse Pointe, which still stands today.

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  7. “The sixth man down the list on the left, Henry Belisle dit Lamarre, is my sixth great-grandfather.”

    That’s big find…. Wonderful to know your family dates back to early America and paved the way for so many of us to come from Europe or wherever. If you have not already thought of it, you can get a lot of this added to Findagrave.com if it’s not already on there. Figure getting it posted on as many electronic forums as possible will better ensure future generations will learn of it.

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  8. My great great great great great uncle was Davy Crockett. When I was working as a wedding photographer in Gatlinburg at Cupid’s Chapel of Love we had a groom with the name of David Crockett. I asked him if he was a descendant and he said yes. So I guess he must’ve been some long distant cousin! I know you guys are history nerds so you must be having a lot of fun doing the research.

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    1. It would be interesting to see how your family trees tie in together, Kathy. It’s fun when you actually see it in front of you in print. Ancestry actually puts a by-line under the persons name, describing their relationship to you.

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  9. So cool to find such a long lineage all in one area!! I really need to dig deeper on my dad’s side to see how far back we go in nearby Kalamazoo! Even with it’s sketchy reputation, I loved the feeling of proud history on our quick visit to Detroit.

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  10. What a wonderful family history. Digging up dead relatives, so to speak, is a great pastime. Ancestry.Com has a way of sucking me in and not letting go. No famous souls found in my line to date. Mostly miners and farmers, but I believe their lives matter as much as the well to do.

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