The Muskrat French (also known as the Detroit River French Canadians) are an ethnic group and language found along the Detroit River and around Lake St. Clair in southeastern Michigan and southwestern Ontario. Like many Franco-Ontarians, this group is characterized by a common history as descendants of the area's earliest European habitants, voyageurs, and coureurs des bois who settled in the Pays d'en Haut, often forming relationships with local Indigenous women. Their name comes from their tradition of eating muskrat during Lent due to a special dispensation by the bishop.
In the context of the North American fur trade, French traders and settlers established vast networks of trading posts for trade with the Native Americans. Many voyageurs and coureurs des bois entered into formal or informal unions with Native women, fathering a large population of Métis across many parts of New France. Most of New France is now part of the United States.
Contemporary expressions of the Muskrat French culture and community can be found both within the "Muskrat French" population, a subculture that is not widely known beyond the region or outside of its members, and within the broader community of Detroit residents who draw on local history for events. Within the general community, the Marche du Nain Rouge, an annual early Spring festival draws on the early Detroit folkstory of the Nain Rouge (Red Dwarf) to "expiate" bad influences from the city. A local historical society, the Detroit Drunken Historical Society, used the collection of folklore Legends of le Détroit to create a community event celebrating Detroit's birthday in 2015. In the community of French Canadians, annual dinners featuring muskrat are held around Detroit, Monroe, and Windsor, continuing a tradition stretching back to the earliest days of settlement. In Monroe, Michigan the folklore figure Loup Garou has been featured in events for children sponsored by the Monroe County Museum at the early French site, the Navarre Trading Post. Monroe, Michigan community organizations have long featured a muskrat as mascot, highlighting the local Muskrat French culture and its prominence in the area.
While the Muskrat French culture is associated mostly with the Detroit River region, Indian fur trade culture, in which many Muskrat French families originate, was widespread in the Great Lakes. Families associated with the Fur Trade were part of kinship networks that often had members in towns throughout the region, such as in Green Bay, Cahokia, Kaskaskia, St. Ignace, and Michilimackinac as well as Detroit. Some scholars use the term Muskrat French to refer to the widespread articulation of French Canadian and French Métis cultures as expressed in the Great Lakes. French Canadian culture in other parts of the Great Lakes is often undifferentiated from the Muskrat French culture, tapping similarly into folklore, cuisine, rural culture, and hunting for popular events. For example, in St. Ignace, Michigan, the local community draws on a different traditional food, glissants, to bring together the local French Canadian community.
Beginning in 2013, cultural advocates successfully sought resolutions from the State of Michigan Legislature naming the last week in September French Canadian Heritage Week in Michigan. Promoted by volunteer advocates around the state, the heritage week is an example of the continuity of French Canadian culture in the Great Lakes region, particularly in Michigan where events in 2015 were scheduled from Houghton to Monroe. The House and Senate Resolutions were submitted by Representatives Bill LaVoy, Andrea LaFontaine, and Senator Jim Marleau along with a coalition of several dozen co-sponsors.
French-Canadian cultural advocacy is exemplified by a loose collective of volunteers whose work is published in the community journal Voyageur Heritage, an online publication that began in 2013. This journal contains folklore, traditions, recipes, and an array of articles on art, the environment, language, and history. "The Storykeepers Project" contained within Voyageur Heritage is a collection of family stories and first-hand accounts of French Canadian and French Métis culture rooted in Detroit and the rest of the Great Lakes.
Not all people of French-Canadian heritage in the Detroit River region identify with this regional subculture and may identify as simply French Canadian or French. Muskrat French people might describe themselves or legitimately identify as French Canadian, French, French Métis, "Part Indian" and Métis. The genealogies of many descendants of French settlers of Detroit and the Great Lakes region include Indigenous peoples. The community organization Voyageur Métis founded in Canada in 2013 underscores the Muskrat French community's roots in both French Canadian and Indigenous cultures, emanating from the cultural métissage that was a hallmark of the fur trade.
While most local families of French origin eventually became monolingual English speakers, there is a local French dialect also known as Muskrat French, as well as unique culinary traditions, musical traditions, folkways, and folklore that are associated with the expression of this culture. The first known use of the term Muskrat French is found in an 1877 essay by Detroit naturalist, historian, and writer Bela Hubbard.
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