On deciphering fact from family folklore, or “Who was Anselm Petit, really?”

By Vicki Priest (c) 2018 (all rights reserved)

Often, researchers delving into the past of a particular person, family, or property, might find the record sadly sparse, and so when some tidbit of published information is found, pounce on it as if it was a tempura shrimp dinner. The problem comes about when it’s swallowed whole. Who doesn’t want to believe what someone has said about themselves or others, especially when it comes to the census or personal diaries or letters? It seems that in the case of the pioneering Petit family, story-telling was important to some of them and people like newspaper editors didn’t seem to want to question things; we don’t have access to any early family documents and can only investigate various published sources. The Petits were the first permanent settlers in what was to become Port Huron and Anselm’s son’s house is still standing—the same son who created the first plat of Port Huron and the same house where both of them died. Because of their importance, I’m going to present here an exercise in the consideration of various “facts” about Anselm (and a bit on his son Edward) Petit as they have been published in various sources.

Some background is necessary first, however, for the separation of lore and evidence to have context. Anselm Petit (1776-~1862), a French-speaking Canadian, is known as the first non-native (so, “white,” as the record so often points out) to settle in what was to become Port Huron. This happened in the late-1700s. He married Angelique (or Angelica) Campau, of Detroit, in 1804. They had at least 8 children, though not all survived to adulthood. Their son Edward is written about so much that one would think there were no other children, and he is sometimes said to be the oldest son, yet he was not.i Edward’s claim to be the first “white child” born in the area never seems to be questioned in newspaper articles relating to him, even though two others were born here before him (Miss Causely/Mrs. James Brandimore in 1802, and a son of Jean Baptiste Deschamps, in 1805, who is recorded as living in Port Huron in 1824. Of course, “half-breeds” are never counted.).ii

1818 survey map of the (future) Port Huron area. Anselm’s land is the almost 20 acre area indicated by the arrow.

Winston Churchill is quoted as saying that “history is written by the victors,” and “to the victor go the spoils” is a common saying. While more scholarly histories of the area have more accurate accounts (as referenced here), the stories given in the newspapers, reflecting what is passed on by those remaining (the “victors”) in Port Huron (as opposed to others who moved or died), are what has been reprinted in more popular publications and what is often retold by residents. Other sources have Denis Causely living here prior to 1790, and Brandamour/Brandimore coming second. This is the stuff for a future article. In any case, what year Edward was born—1812 vs 1813—is important not in relation to birth disputes among the light-skinned population, but in how it relates to the family’s activities during the War of 1812.

While Anselm came to own the land he settled on in Port Huron,iii it was Edward who platted it in 1835, calling it the village of Peru. Despite the family’s apparent delight in stories, no one ever learned why in the world Edward called the village “Peru.” Edward’s own children and grandchildren somehow never learned why that name was chosen (or else they kept it secret), yet had all kinds of tales about Anselm. As well to consider concerning the veracity of Petit family lore: William Jenks, who published a history of St. Clair County in 1912 and who even lived in the same city (Port Huron) at the same time as some of Anselm’s grandchildren, was unable to squeeze the Peru name meaning out of any of them. That Jenks both published Edward’s birth year as different than what the family saidiv and left out other seemingly fanciful claims made by the family, and that none of the Petits included a biographical entry in Jenks’ history, may be indicative of “factual issues.”

It is definitely unfortunate that the Petits did not include a biographical sketch of Anselm and Angelique in either of the published histories here (1883 or 1912).v The family even had a “Petit Block” (business building) early on, just like other business men, yet sources reviewed so far do not mention it and it’s not called out in the city directories. In the earliest directory (1870/1871) we find that Edward’s office is “over 17 Military” and Marshall, his son, is a produce dealer in the basement (Edward’s land, where his house still stands at 1426 Griswold, was known as the Petit Farm). From ads we know the building was brick, on Military near the bridge, was “opposite [the] new city opera house,” and had offices leased to attorneys and surgeons (The Times Herald, April 20, 1875, p 3). An ad from 1888vi has this building’s new address as 914 Military, which—amazingly—is still standing!

Anselm: Fact vs Fiction

Let’s start with an old newspaper article published by a granddaughter (Louise Petit Smith, oldest daughter of Edward, and with the help of Amelia Petit Probett) (The Times Herald, March 19, 1921, p 6). It is an example (or comedy) of errors, or at least conflicts in the record, of Anselm’s early life. I don’t mean to be overly critical of Anselm’s descendants. This is probably typical of at least some families’ historical recollections and I would hope that Anselm himself would get a good laugh out of it all. If we use our imaginations a bit more we could use family lore regarding Anselm as a base for a “Paul Bunyan” of our very own, and by doing so not only have some creative fun, but possibly draw out proof about this family that someone may have stashed in a drawer somewhere.

The article includes these claims:

  1. Anselm (spelled Ansolem in this article, but nowhere else) was born in 1764 in France and came to Canada with his parents shortly thereafter. However, based on the parish records of Cap Sante in Quebec, Anselm was born there in 1776. His father Nicolas/Nicholas was also born there, and not in France. It was his great great grandfather Charles who immigrated to Canada from Roen, France. He had only one son, Nicolas, born in 1674. According to one online genealogical source, Anselm’s father immigrated to Detroit in 1774 and apparently went back and forth between the Detroit area and Quebec until his death in 1794.vii If this is true, the people in those days were hardy travelers!
  2. Anselm had been a medical student for awhile before joining the Hudson Bay Fur Co. There is no evidence of Anselm ever being a medical student, and one wonders how he could have fit this in when he had traveled to Detroit prior to 1794, perhaps even prior to 1790, when he would have been only 14. (To Louise and Amelia’s credit, if they thought Anselm was born in 1764 this would have seemed more plausible.) His connection, if any, with the Hudson Bay Fur Co. is not otherwise known, but working away from home as a teen would not have been unusual for that time.
  3. During the War of 1812 Anselm left his family in the wilderness and through government employ—because he was a master ship builder—helped build Captain Perry’s ships that won the Battle of Lake Erie. He is also said to have been “aboard of [sic] the Detroit at the time of Perry’s victory.” This is all too much, as one wonders how he managed to fit in the time to become a master ship builder, and why (or how, being in an enemy-held city) he would have gone to Erie Pennsylvania to help build Perry’s ships (most or all of the ship-building crews were from New York and Philadelphia), and why being on board the British HMS Detroit would’ve been a good thing! (Perry was victorious while commanding the Niagara.)viii
  4. After the events above, Anselm traveled back to Quebec to retrieve an inheritance but lost most of it on the way back due to a “clever scheme of a stranger.” After all that, THEN they returned to Port Huron following the war. The sad inheritance event may be true, and certainly the family came back to Port Huron after the war. There is just the discrepancy of leaving the family in the wilderness (3) but then coming back from Detroit.
  5. His mother had a dangerous encounter with Indians after her twins had died and while Anselm was away, with the result of Angelique’s hair turning white all at once. None of that story seems to be true, as Anselm and Angelique never had twins. This story has been reprinted in the paper many times, and columnist Dorothy Mitts repeated it in her book of articles.ix
  6. His mother was the daughter of Barnabas Campau and relates some information about that family, but Angelique was a daughter of Simon Campau and Veronica Bourdeau (see note v).

Whew! What we don’t have in the newspaper account is what Anselm actually did for a living after he got married. That is, for most of his life. I suppose that might’ve been too boring! Without writing a whole history of early St. Clair County and Port Huron, which could take up a lot of space, we’ll consider what Anselm may have done with his time, which also may help explain why he chose to settle where he did.

Anselm and Early Settlement

A group of French-speakers came here in about 1790 or so, and Anselm is said to be among them, or he may have arrived a little later (by 1794). Mrs. Farrand in her 1872 talkx said that the group came to the area with their families for the purpose of making a settlement. Andreas (1883, p 262) referred to it as a “courier settlement” (coureurs traded goods for furs with the Indians, although there were also coureurs of wood), writing that “Denis Causlet and Peter Brandemour, settled at the mouth of Black River previous to 1790. Anselm Petit, Francois Lariviere, Baptiste Levias, J. B. Duchesne, Michel Jervais, J. B. Courncais, and Peter Monreaux, located in this vicinity previous to 1794.” Pierre Brandimore (Brandemour) testified in 1821 that he took possession of what became known as the Campau tract along the south side of Black River in 1791, having cleared and fenced two acres of it.xi Whichever the year (and for whatever reason), Anselm came to the area when he was only 14 to 18 years of age (his birth year of 1776 is confirmed), and is claimed to be the first “permanent settler” since he is remembered for having built a home more permanent than “shanty.”

Why did Anselm settle here? It was a complete wilderness, and with much Native American activity. Anselm’s indian name was Ciscesit, meaning “cut feet,” which tells us that the dangers from general pioneer living could perhaps be higher than from the natives themselves (Anselm was given that name by his native neighbors because he had some toes amputated due to frostbite).xii Besides the claim from his granddaughter, some have said that Anselm was a fur trader. However, Edward, as a teenager, was actually working as an indian trader for others and not his own father.xiii So, if Anselm ever did participate in fur trading as a business endeavor, it would seem odd for him to be still involved in it while his own son worked for others doing the same thing. He farmed, as early and prominent settler Judge Bunce recalled seeing Anselm “plowing wheat with a bull and a horse side by side.”xiv The first tax assessment occurred in 1821, when the county was formed, and Anselm was assessed only for one horse, two cows, and some house furniture (he was not assessed for either wild or improved land), perhaps because he hadn’t received the patent yet for the land.xv

Reverend O. C. Thompson wrote that several french-speaking families settled at the mouth of the Black River (then La Riviere Delude), where they were permitted by the Indians to build shanties and cultivate the land. This appears to be a description of the land Anselm came to own. It was this group of early french-speakers that named the area Desmond, but also called it by the river’s name, La Riviere Delude.xvi So, according to this author, the settlers did the typical settler thing: farmed. Port Huron (and other parts of St. Clair County) was an early lumber milling area and it wouldn’t be surprising if Anselm at one point or another, in one way or another, was involved in the timber industry, especially since one of his co-settlers (Michel Jervais/Gervais) built a mill upstream at Indian Creek (according to Jenks, page 365, this mill was built in 1800 or a little earlier).xvii

Looking at land claims awarded by the US government before and after the county land was surveyed (most in 1818), and the summaries of testimonies given for such awards, one can see that it is likely that Anselm had relatives that were active in the region early on. The following are (only the) Petit-related claims and testimony.xviii (It is unknown as to why Anselm himself did not go before a land board in order to receive his land for free from the U.S. government, having instead paid for it later.)

Portion of the 1818 survey of township 3 north, range 16 east, indicating claim 206 awarded to A. N. Petit. Online at the Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office documents.

A. N. Petit lived on claim No. 167 “before and after 1796” (until he sold it to the awarded claimant, Joseph Rowe); Antoine N. Petit rented the land of claim No. 192 from Meldrum & Park “previous to 1796”; Antoine Nicholas Petit was awarded claim No. 206, which he had purchased from the previous settler in 1807 (this is in Cottrellville Township, somewhat north of Robert’s Landing); Louis Petit was awarded claim No. 175, which he had purchased from the previous settler in 1797; Jean Baptiste Petit was awarded claim No. 505, which he had purchased at some point from a previous settler (someone referred to, perhaps mistakenly, as “Louis Petit Clair” owned it for a short time previous to this); prior to 1797 an M. Petit tenanted the land (claim No. 539) owned by Meldrum & Park. M. Petit seems to have worked for Meldrum & Park since Farrand said he built the second saw mill in the Port Huron area for that Detroit-based partnership (many of their other “employees” were slaves).xix

As noted, Antoine Nicholas’ claim of 206 was downriver from Port Huron, and it was sandwiched in amongst many other such claims in that area. Perhaps when Farrand stated that the settlers “came up the river in canoes,” it was more specifically from this area that they came rather than Detroit (and as mentioned in endnote i, Anselm Jr is buried in Cottrellville). Of the Petit claims listed above, only A. Nicholas’, Anselm’s, and Edward’s (for the area where he built his house along Griswold Street in Port Huron), are within the online database (of St. Clair County) of the General Land Office Records.xx

Anselm and the War of 1812

For most people, the events of the War of 1812 are probably pretty murky, but the war figures prominently in Anselm’s life and the in the history of the Port Huron area. We already read of some of what Anselm’s descendants wrote of his War of 1812 exploits, most of which seem closer to fiction than fact. If only we knew what it was really like for the settlers here at that time regarding their relations with the natives. Tensions were building in the territory as natives saw more and more settlers coming in, taking their lands. Natives did sell their lands to settlers, as they did in this county with the earliest of those that came in, but later agreements in the wide territory often were made in corrupt fashion and/or most Indians were upset over not being represented. Many in the U. S. believed the British were fomenting the natives against the Americans, and so this growing problem was one of the reasons for the war.

The war began on June 18, 1812 and Detroit was taken by the British on August 16, 1812. The Battle of Lake Erie was won by the U.S. on September 10, 1813 and Detroit re-occupied by Americans after the British burned the public buildings and left on September 26th. Our capital was burned by the British in August 1814, but we came out victorious in the end (not because we were so great, but because Britain had to focus on Napoleon) and the Treaty of Ghent was signed at the end of December. Fort Mackinac was not relinquished until later in 1815, however.xxi

So what happened with Anselm and the others during this conflict? The story goes that a friendly native woman warned them of upcoming hostilities, so Anselm and the others left. All accounts say, too, that they left a few months after Edward was born. So while Edward and his family always passed on that 1813 as his birth year, it doesn’t make much sense in the light of historic events. It is more likely that he was born in 1812 (February 7), and that the family fled to Detroit around the time the war started. We know that the family had been living in a log home at this time since Edward was born in their log house. The family had also reported that that same home had been burned down by the Indians,xxii so it seems reasonable to guess that it was during the war and their absence that it was thus destroyed. In any case, Angelique, at least, still had family in Detroit so it probably wouldn’t have been too strange or difficult for them to live there for awhile. As stated earlier, it seems doubtful that Anselm was a master shipbuilder and that he was part of Perry’s shipbuilding team. Americans or American sympathizers were most likely not free to move about while the British controlled the city.

But did the Petits run back home as soon as they could, after Detroit came under control of the Americans again in September or October, 1813? Maybe, but the natives were still a danger along the St. Clair River at this time. It’s been passed down that Anselm helped build Fort Gratiot, and since it was built with a large crew of French speakers from Detroit,xxiii it would seem likely that he was among them. He was from the area, after all, and doing this task would’ve put him in a position to decide whether or not it was safe to bring his wife and small children back to the area. Having the fort built and garrisoned would’ve made the place safer, too (seemingly, anyway). The fort’s location had been decided in May 1814 and so it was built after that.xxiv So if Anselm didn’t linger in Detroit after it was built, he may have moved back to Port Huron in the fall of 1814. But then again, with winter coming on and having no produce from farming or anything else while he was gone, and perhaps not even having a house, they may have stayed in Detroit until the spring of the next year. According to the history printed in the 1873 city directory, “During the war of 1812, the settlers were obliged to leave their homes, but they returned in 1815 with reinforcements, and again took possession of their homes” (p 11).

Maybe this is entirely true, maybe it is not. What is less likely to have transpired, however, is the shortened history of events relating to the Petit family during the War of 1812 that one senses after reading much that is in print about this subject. They probably did not leave for Detroit in 1813, but earlier, and they probably did not return to their land at the mouth of Black River soon after Detroit was regained; Anselm probably did not help build Fort Gratiot after he was back living there, but probably when he came with the other French hired from Detroit to do it. The shortened scenario would have Anselm gone for maybe a year-and-a-half. This is a long time to be away from home, yes. But it is more likely that he was gone from at least June 1812 to perhaps sometime in 1815, which is about three years.  One item that could prove that they were back in Port Huron earlier than 1815 is the time and place of the birth of their son David.  If he was really born in Port Huron, in the year 1814, then that would settle one end of the matter.  This article will be updated if more such evidence is found.

If you enjoy reading about Port Huron’s past, I hope you found this a fun and informative read. Many sources were used and stacked against one another to try and discern an accurate picture of Anselm Petit and his times. Not all of my research is presented here, however, and there are more sources of information out there. Reading about all the things that Anselm supposedly learned and did put a smile on my face, but it’s saddening that the harsh life of settlers and all the hard but “ordinary” work they did seems to have been dismissed and forgotten.

Endnotes

i Even Farrand (see note vii) wrote this; did her family informants really forget Anselm Jr?? The children were: Veronica (b 1805), Anselm (b 1807), and Francis (b 1809), who were all born in Detroit (Anselm and Angelique traveled there specifically for the births of their children), while Edward (b 1812), David (b 1814), Madeline (b 1819), Simon (b 1820), and John (b 1825), were born in Port Huron—except for John, who was born in Disco, Macomb County. Very sadly, Anselm (Jr) died in 1834 of Cholera (buried in Cottrellville), shortly after his marriage to Emily Gervais.

ii Jenks, William Lee, St. Clair County, Michigan; Its History and Its People (2 vol.s) (Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1912), pp 140-141. Andreas has a Mrs. Peter Brandamour as being born March 10, 1803 (p 494).

iii While no one doubts he was living on the land earlier, the government patent was not granted to Anselm until April 1st, 1825.

iv Reverend C. Denissen and H. F. Powell, in Genealogy of the French Families of the Detroit River Regions 1701-1911 (2 vol.s) (Detroit: Detroit Society for Genealogical Research, 1976), also give the year 1812 and not 1813 (as reported by William Doyle in his 1986 booklet (Port Huron: Acorn Press) An American Pioneer: The Story of Early Port Huron and its First Settler.

v Jenks (1912), and History of St. Clair County, Michigan (Chicago: A. T. Andreas & Co., 1883). While there is a time gap between these two histories, they still would both have solicited funds for the costs of making the publications through paid biographical entries.

vi Jacob Jacobi clothing is listed in the prior year at 17 Military, and being across from the Opera House. Not long afterwards, Jacobi is found in a different location on Huron Ave. The Times Herald, June 6, 1888, p 1.

vii http://www.geni.com, Nicolas Petit page, managed by Nancy Ann Frantz and others (accessed January 1, 2018). Jenks (1912) had stated as such in his history, but Doyle (1986) provided a detailed assessment of the Campau family issue, based on Denissen (above).

viii Denys Knoll, Battle of Lake Erie: Building the Fleet in the Wilderness (Naval Historical Foundation Publications, Spring 1979) http://www.navyhistory.org/battle-of-lake-erie-building-the-fleet-in-the-wilderness/

ix Dorothy Mitts, That Noble Country (Philadelphia: Dorrance & Company, 1968), pp 75-77. Doyle (1986) discusses in detail how this story cannot be true.

x Farrand, Mrs. B. C., “A Historical Paper Prepared by Mr.s B. C. Farrand, of this City, for the Pioneer Society of Detroit” (Port Huron Daily Times, June 17, 1872).

xi Jenks (1912) p 76; this 612 acre claim, at the north end of the Chippewa Indian Reservation, included about 1/3 of the reservation. Another pre-1794 settler on record was Pierre Lovielle, who had a house and farm close to Fort Gratiot beginning 1792. This land area was smaller than Brandimore’s and was directly across from it along the Black River, but also had water front along the St. Clair River at its northeast end. Part of Fort Gratiot was actually within this claim, and in any case, the US Government simply had taken it over as part of its military reservation (Plat MI 190060N0170E0 online, Bureau of Land Management).

xii Andreas (1883). p 265.

xiii Farrand (1872) reported that he had worked for Gurdon (Gordon?) and Ephraim Williams.

xiv Andreas (1883), p 271.

xv Jenks (1912), pp 132, 135.

xvi Andreas (1883) p 496. According to Farrand, it was more commonly known by the river name.

xvii Sadly, this creek, also called Jervais or Gervais Creek, has long since been plowed over. The same is true for Baby, or Bunce Creek (Marysville), where the earliest saw mills in the county had been built and operated (see Jenks, 1912, pp 362-374 for a history of early St. Clair County saw mills).

xviii The Denissen book is online at the Detroit Society for Genealogical Research—if you’re a member. Queries for volunteer help are made through their Ancestry board, which one also has to be a member of. Donations to PHAHPA would allow us to have memberships in order to access more research materials.

xix Andreas (1883), pp 222, 227, 228, 230-231. Jenks (1912), p 74.

xx Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, General Land Office Records (https://glorecords.blm.gov/search/ . . .).

xxi Willis Frederick Dunbar, Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1965), and Rober L. Rosentreter, Michigan: A History of Explorers, Entrepreneurs, and Everyday People (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2014).

xxii “Death Ends Community Service of M. N. Petit,” The Times Herald, May 15, 1939, pp 1-2.

xxiii Bruce Hawkins and Richard Stamps, Odyssey Research Monographs (Vol. II, No. 1): Report of the Preliminary Excavations at Fort Gratiot (1814-1879) in Port Huron, Michigan (Oakland University, 1989), p 14.

xxiv William Jenks, “Fort Gratiot and Its Builder Gen. Charles Gratiot,” Michigan History Magazine (Vol. IV, No. 1), January 1920, pp 141-155).

Advertisements