March 28, 2013 by LeVoyageur
Note to readers: Those who follow my blog will know that this posting is a bit longer than usual and involves citations, which is something I have generally tried to avoid. Thank you for reading and I hope this format, which I will use occasionally, will be of interest to some of you.
Several times in the past year I have turned to Legends of le Detroit to research a story. For those who are interested in early Detroit, this book is a unique treasure rooted in French Canadian culture, which formed the basis of the city’s cultural fabric from its infancy. It is something that, were it not for one woman, may never have surfaced and all its lore, a record of oral traditions stretching into past centuries, might have been lost.
Marie Caroline Watson Hamlin, the author/redactor of Legends of le Detroit, is largely unknown beyond this volume. A one line citation in Allibone’s Critical Dictionary of English Literature (1891) affirms simply that she was the author of Legends of le Detroit. There are no other major works that bear her name.[i]
Born to John and Elizabeth Watson, her story is deeply enmeshed with Detroit’s French Canadian heritage.[ii] Through her mother she traced her ancestry to the earliest habitants (residents) of Detroit, among them the Godfroy, Marentette, and Navarre families.[iii] From her birth in Springwells, Michigan in 1850, records indicate that she grew up and spent much of her life living within close proximity to her extended French Canadian family.[iv]
In Legends of le Detroit, Hamlin transmitted oral tradition and lore, recording for posterity the ‘ancient history’ of Detroit. She did so with the knowledge that in her time there were many traditions at risk of falling into obscurity. In the introduction to Legends, she wrote that the stories were a “sacred trust” to her, passed down from generation to generation, but which hung like “tattered drapery” around the city.[v]
Rather than a symptom of nostalgia, her work in recording this folklore suggests a living connection to French Canadian culture and a deep concern with maintaining it. This was a culture she understood as her own and that she identified not only with Detroit, but also Quebec, to which she had personal links, and ultimately France.
To understand how Hamlin saw the role and reputation of French Canadian culture in late 19th century Detroit, we are able to turn to another work by her: “Old French Legends.” It is the only other publication I have found to date that she authored. This short piece is an address which she delivered before the Wayne County Pioneer Society in 1878, subsequently published in The Report of the Pioneer Society of the State of Michigan, volume 4.[vi]
At the age of 28, Hamlin delivered this paper before a heritage society which, to judge from the list of officers published in The Report, was largely bereft of French names. For the Society as a whole, it can be generalized that ‘pioneer’ meant the descendants of Anglo-Americans who relocated from the East early in the 19th century rather than the original French inhabitants of the area. Her address covers customs, documents the lives of notable figures in early Detroit, and attempts to give the reader a sense of the life of French Detroit.
First, I will highlight her remarkable introductory statements.
Referring to the domestic life and character of the early French Canadian residents, she writes (emphasis mine):
“It is to be regretted that we are indebted to the pen of the Englishman for the few written records that we possess. They came as conquerors with but little sympathetic feeling for the vanquished, nor just comprehensiveness of the character of the gay, pleasure loving Canadian. They thought ‘nothing good can come out of Nazareth,’ especially when that Nazareth was so far removed from civilization, and in the wilds of a new country, peopled by the French, their hereditary foes.”
On the use of French language, she leaves a similar impression, set under the heading of “National Pride”:
“The old French Pioneer clung with great tenacity to the traditions and customs of La Belle France…The French language was spoken with all the purity and elegance of the time of Louis XIV. After the conquest it lost much of its purity by the mingling of the two languages.”
On the practice of French customs among the British and Americans:
“The fair hostess [note: in French Canadian homes, on New Years Day] always presented her rosy cheek to be saluted by the caller; . . . The wives of English officers at first objected to the custom of being thus saluted, but soon adopted the style, though in trying to improve upon it, rather vulgarized it by kissing on the lips.”
On style and honor:
Having made distinguished preparations for a community honor, “the Canadian lady was not so far back of the English dame who on some great court levee had her hair arranged days before, and was consequently deprived of the luxury of sleep.”
The intent of this passage is somewhat unclear, although in context it can be read as a defense of the French Canadian woman. Is this an assertion that when it came to beauty and style, she and her compatriots would not be seen as second to the English or American? It raises questions about how the British and Americans viewed French Canadian women in general.
Hamlin included two documents for the address, transcribed and translated from the French: records of a marriage and a property deed. With regard to the property deed, which stipulated the transfer of property from one generation to the next, she indicated that a certain property in question still [in her day] remained in the Godfroy family, which was “five generations removed” from the original inhabitants. It is conceivable that this was a subtle provocation of her audience, a comment directed at “pioneers” who were one or two generations in Detroit, on land settled and farmed for a century prior to their arrival by French Canadians and in some areas much longer by Native Americans.
The subtext of her address seems to be: here was a community that valued family, good behavior, and tradition all of which have since been debased by the “conquerors.” Scholarly studies of early Detroit have revealed the scorn with which the French Canadian was viewed by the British and Americans when they encountered each other.
As Hamlin indicated, the British and Americans were not magnanimous in victory nor did they see any honor in French Canadian culture. In effect, they saw nothing worth saving. They were true to the aphorism, “history is written by the victors.” Hamlin’s work shows that a young woman, within the context of a large, French Canadian family in late 19th century Detroit, had a visceral understanding of the mentality that was slowly erasing the culture of her family and the city they had helped to found.
M. Caroline W. Hamlin’s short lifetime (she died at the age of 35) was spent living with and near an extended French Canadian family. Her family background and her understanding of history and culture led to a strong sense of ethnic pride. This facilitated the process she undertook to record the folklore and customs that became Legends of le Detroit and “Old French Traditions.”
These, her written legacy, were predicated on her French Canadian identity and her family’s links to Detroit’s earliest history. They frame a recognition that her family stories, which were drawn from the wider French Canadian culture, would likely disappear if responsibility for recording them was left to the new Anglo-American majority.
Hamlin’s work has been described as “avocational” ie, a hobby. However, I believe her works suggest a deeper engagement with the material than that.[vii] In her work with French Canadian folklore, Hamlin became an activist for her culture and a figure in wider Detroit society, someone whose public works promoted integrity in understanding the many layers of Detroit’s history. Without her work nearly 150 years ago, this dimension of folklore and tradition might have disappeared from our collective culture forever.
[i] Allibone’s Critical Dictionary of English Literature: A Supplement. British and American authors, v. 2 1891
[ii] Family Stories: Three Hundred Years of Oral Tradition. Hall family narrative, http://storiesfrommimi.wordpress.com/2012/06/11/our-family-were-wolf-le-loup-garou-26/
[iv] United State Federal Census, 1850, (via Ancestry.com) Michigan>Wayne>Springwells>image 12 of 31; 1860 (via Ancestry.com) Michigan>Detroit Ward 3>image 65 of 94; 1880, (via Ancestry.com) Michigan>Wayne>Detroit>272>image 7 of 49
[v] Legends of le Detroit, Hamlin, Marie Caroline Watson. Detroit: Nourse, 1884. http://archive.org/details/legendsofledtr00hamluoft
[vi] “Old French Traditions.” Hamlin, M. Carrie W. Michigan Pioneer and Historical Collections, IV, 70-78, 1879. http://archive.org/stream/michiganhistoric04mich#page/70/mode/2up
[vii] The Folklore of le Detroit/Le Folklore du Detroit. An online exhibition of the Virtual museum of Canada. Reviewed by Hilary Joy Virtanen, Museum Anthropology Review 1(2) Fall 2007