Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, was a French explorer and adventurer in New France, an area of North America that stretched from present-day Eastern Canada in the north to Louisiana on the Gulf of Mexico in the south. Rising from a modest beginning in Acadia in 1683 as an explorer, trapper, and a trader of alcohol and furs, he achieved various positions of political importance in the colony. He was the commander ofFort de Buade, modern-day St. Ignace, Michigan, in 1694. In 1701, he founded Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit, the beginnings of modern Detroit, which he commanded until 1710. Between 1710 and 1716 he was the governor of Louisiana, although he did not arrive in that territory until 1713.
His knowledge of the coasts of New England and the Great Lakes area was appreciated by Frontenac, governor of New France, and Pontchartrain, Secretary of State for the Navy. This earned him various favors, including the Order of Saint Louis from King Louis XIV. The Jesuits in Quebec, however, criticized his perceived perversion of the “Amerindians”, North America’s indigenous peoples, with his alcohol and fur trading. La Mothe was imprisoned for a few months in Quebec in 1704, and again in the Bastille on his return to France in 1717.
The city he helped found, Detroit, became the world center of automobile production in the 20th century. William H. Murphy and Henry M. Leland, founders of the Cadillac auto company, paid homage to him by using his name for their company and his armorial bearings as its logo in 1902. Various places bear his name in North America, in particular Cadillac Mountain,Maine, and the town of Cadillac, Michigan.
He was widely hailed as a hero in the popular mind until the 1950s and rethinking of the colonial enterprise. Since then Zoltvany finds, “he most definitely was not one of the ‘great early heroes’ and probably deserves to be ranked with the ‘worst scoundrels ever to set foot in New France.’