The Storykeepers Project #17: Liberty and Innovation


The story of New France is closely bound up with the story of religion. Officially open only to Catholics, historians show that early New France also saw Huguenots trickle in quite regularly. However, Roman Catholicism remained the dominant faith. But with the 19th and 20th centuries French Canadians, like all groups, became more free to break with tradition. Susan Colby’s ancestors are an example of French Canadians changing their practice and moving to America for a greater freedom of religion. —ed.

More than 150 years after Cadillac founded Detroit, nearly all the interior of Michigan was still wilderness.  The forest seemed impenetrable.  Trade and settlement stuck to the shores.  Carving farms out of the heart of The Thumb was a daunting task, but some hardy French-Canadians and others took on the challenge.  Arriving in 1856, my ancestors Gregoire Desjardins and Marie Trudeau, along with their five children and their extended family of Trudeaus and Filions, were among the first to establish prosperous farms in Huron County’s Bingham Township.

I learned their story mainly from a 1903 Huron Tribune newspaper article the family has passed down which included Marie’s obituary, entitled “A Pioneer Gone.”  The family had crossed Lake Huron from Goderich, Ontario with $500 in gold concealed in a kettle and landed in Sanilac County, Michigan determined to make a fresh start.  Originally from Terrebonne, Quebec, they resented the authoritarianism of the Roman Catholic Church and were receptive to the teachings of Swiss Congregationalist missionaries.  Like so many other immigrants to America, they sought land and religious freedom.

Marie’s obituary described Gregoire’s state of mind:  “Being a man of peace, domestic and somewhat studious in his habits, he found the disturbed condition of affairs in his native land little to his liking; and seeking a less perturbed environment, pushed his way across the border into the United States, where, at Tyre, Huron County Michigan … he made a clearing and established his home, bringing to the latter the taste and ingenuity which marked his race.”

Lacking churches and schools, the Desjardins held classes, church services, and Sunday school in their home for their family and neighbors.  “Their log cabin was open for religious worship by the first itinerant ministers who visited the neighborhood.” Gregoire conducted services in French and Marie read from her French Bible.  They always spoke French in the home.

Gregoire supported the family by farming, but he had the soul of a scholar.  And it was said of Marie in her obituary that she inherited her executive traits from her Trudeau heritage and that “she exerted an influence upon the children that not only formed steady habits and inspired each one with a deep sense that it was their duty not only to succeed but to accomplish some definite thing.”  Dissatisfied with the poor educational opportunities for their children in Tyre, Gregoire and Marie moved to the settled coastal towns of Port Austin and Port Crescent.

In 1875 sons Paul, Samuel, and Benjamin each set out to continue his education and enter professions.  Paul attended Albion College and became a Methodist minister serving in various Michigan cities.  He went on to Boston University School of Theology, working in Massachusetts and New York before returning to Michigan to serve on the Detroit Conference Board of Examiners.

Benjamin impressed his minister at Port Austin who encouraged him to work his way through Kalamazoo College.  He earned his passage to Kalamazoo binding oats for a farmer in Port Crescent. While working on the daily newspaper he became interested in press machinery and felt he could increase efficiency by creating a typesetting machine, ultimately inventing a type justifier.  In 1888, the Desjardins Type Justifier Company was financed by William Rand McNally Company of Chicago.

Samuel’s destination in 1875 was Toledo in order to study with architect O.E. Fallas. He continued his education in Cincinnati where he partnered in 1890 with A. W. Hayward to establish Desjardins & Hayward.

The other children of Gregoire and Marie stayed in Michigan, including my father’s grandmother, Marie Dorimene, who married James Shepherd in 1863.  Their farm was a 1 1/2-mile trek through the thick forest from her parents’ land.  They were still living there when Marie Trudeau died forty years later.

Marie Dorimene and James raised nine children of their own, including my grandmother, Adelaide Shepherd, who was just one year old when the Great Fire of 1881 swept The Thumb.  All was lost but their lives.  James saved his family by lowering them into the well and covering them in wet quilts for several hours until the fire passed.  Then the family started again from scratch––hardy French-Canadian Michigan pioneers!

(This is an abridged version of an article I published in 2007 with my cousin Judy McAuliffe, now deceased, as “Michigan Pioneers: Gregoire Desjardins and Marie Trudeau Desjardins” Michigan’s Habitant Heritage, Vol. 28, #3, July 2007).

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