“The Rocheleaus” is told in three parts:
Part One covers the arrival of Francois and Joseph Rochereau dit Lesperance of Beauport, Quebec, in the mid-1700s, making them among the first settlers in French Detroit.
Part Two covers the Rocheleaus working for Father Potier and marrying into the Pilet family — just one of several odd coincidences in this family history.
Part Three is action-packed, including the Rocheleau’s marital link to a family that got a little too close to Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1763, and Rocheleau ancestors who served (or avoiding serving?) on the British side of the War of 1812.
What drove or inspired the Rocheleau brothers to leave their family in Quebec? Before we explore that question, let’s go back a half century to get a sense of where they were going.
On July 24, 1701, French officer Antoine de La Mothe Cadillac, along with 100 French soldiers and 100 Indian men, women and children, in a flotilla of 25 canoes, established a settlement on the narrow passageway between lakes Erie and St. Clair he called “Le Détroit” (the strait). As Lajeunesse describes: “The next day they paddled upstream and chose a site on the north shore above the bend where the river is narrow and the banks are high on both sides” where a cannon could defend against “all the enemies of France.”
On that land, roughly where Cobo Hall is today, they measured out one square arpent of land (about 192 English feet of length) and built dwellings, a warehouse and a place of worship, later to be named St. Anne’s church. They surrounded the small village by a bastioned palisade 12–15 feet hight. They named it Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit, after former maritime minister and then-Chancellor of France, Count Jerome de Pontchartrain.
To prove the settlement was a suitable place for family life, Cadillac asked his 31-year-old wife, Marie-Thérèse Guyon, to join him at the settlement. In September 1701, she set off from Montreal in a canoe, with her nine-year-old son, the wife of Cadillac’s Lieutenant, Madame de Tonty, and a well-armed retinue of French soldiers and Indian guides. Thus the Cadillacs became the first family to baptize a child at St. Anne’s.
French explorers and Jesuits had been active in the upper Great Lakes for nearly a century. Father Marquette established a presence at St. Ignace, near Michilimackinac, in 1671. So why did the French wait so long to settle at such a perfect location as the straits of Detroit, which had milder weather and more direct access to both the Mississippi and the St. Lawrence?
The reason can be boiled down to one word: Iroquois. For most of the 17th century, the lower Great Lakes were a kind of no-man’s land, following decades of warfare between the Iroquois Five Nations Confederacy (Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga and Seneca) and tribes to the north and west, foremost the Wendat (or Huron, later called the Wyandot), whose historical base had been what is today Ontario, but also the Algonquin-speaking nations that included the Ottawa, Ojibwe (Chippewa), Potawatomi and Mississauga.
“The exploration of the Detroit River region was retarded by the warring expeditions of the Father of New France,” Lajeunesse wrote in the preface to his 1960 book. He was referring to Samuel de Champlain, whose brutal raids with Huron and Algonquin allies against their Iroquois enemies in 1609 and 1615 sparked decades of warfare. The Iroquois Confederacy, backed by the Dutch and English, waged a kind of retaliatory ethnic cleansing in the lower Great Lakes. By the late 1600s, most of the region that today is the lower peninsula of Michigan and western Ontario was basically emptied of human occupation, as the native population fled north to the Lake Superior region from their traditional villages and hunting grounds to escape the wrath of the Iroquois.
“For half a century the French explorers and missionaries could not follow the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario in their westward journeys,” Lajeunesse wrote. “As a consequence, all the upper lakes were explored before Lake Erie.”
Louis Joliet is said to be the first white man to canoe the straits of Detroit, in 1669. A decade later, a 32-man expedition in 1679, on a vessel called the Griffon, which included historian Father Louis Hennepin, also reached the region. But it wasn’t until after a peace treaty at Montreal in the summer of 1701, attended by 1,300 natives from the Iroquois Confederacy and native villages across the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence river valley, that the French felt it was safe enough to explore the lower Great lakes.
Shortly after, with the backing of King Louis XIV, Cadillac invited displaced native tribes to move south and settle along the straits of Detroit, offering them trading opportunities and protection from the Iroquois Confederacy. Stray bands of Huron, Miami, Ottawa and Ojibwe (Chippewa) took him up on the offer, building villages around the fort and along the Southern bank of the river. By 1704, Cadillac reported, 2,000 Indians lived in villages surrounding Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit.
But Cadillac’s ambitions went farther than native relocation: He also wanted to create the first civilian French settlement in the Great Lakes, which would open additional fur-trading routes and bolster France’s claim to the region against the British. In 1707 he began granting strips of land, called “ribbon farms,” along the river, to French Canadian settlers. Between 1707 and 1710, Cadillac made some 150 land grants, including 68 village lots to private individuals, 31 farms and 13 gardens. The original settlers on these lots had names still familiar to Detroiters from street signs along East Jefferson Avenue: St. Aubin, Campau, Rivard, Dubois, Chene.
The French farmers, from Quebec and the lower St. Lawrence River, would be highly rewarded for settling around Fort Pontchartrain. Each family would “receive free transportation [from Quebec] at the King’s expense, and every settler to receive as free gift one gun, hoe, axe, plowshare, scythe, sickle, two augurs large and small, a sow, six hens, a cock, six pounds of powder, twelve pounds of lead, and many other favors,” wrote historian Charles Elihu Slocum in his 1905 book, “History of the Maumee River Basin from the Earliest Account to Its Organization Into Counties.”
It was hoped about 250 families would settle from the St. Lawrence river basin. But, in addition to the threat of Indian attack, moving from Quebec to the new Fort was no small matter for settlers. It required weeks of travel, with Indian guides, by canoe up the St. Lawrence River, across Lake Ontario, over a land portage around Niagara Falls, and across Lake Erie to the straits of Detroit. Only about twelve families initially accepted the offer.
It’s likely the brothers Francois and Joseph Rochereau dit Lesperance arrived from Quebec in or just before 1743, when Francois was 25 and his brother 18.
It appears both brothers worked, perhaps for many years, for Father Pierre-Phillip Potier (1708–1781), a Jesuit priest who had just arrived in 1743 as an understudy to Armand de La Richardie, who established the first Jesuit mission in the area for the Huron and other tribes around Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit. Potier is a big deal in French Canadian history: In 1767 he would establish the church of Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption in present-day Windsor. From that year, until his death in 1781 he carried on his ministry to the Huron and the French as priest of this parish, the oldest in what is now Ontario.
Potier notes in his 1743 and 1749 account books payment to “Lesperance.”
“I gave Lesperance on his wages 100 livres. I still owe him 34 livres and 10 sous…I have finished paying Lesperance,” Potier logged in 1743. In 1749, Potier also wrote: “I paid Lesperance, the younger, the sum of 59 livres to be deducted from the 50 ecus that I owed him for the year that he worked for me. I have finished paying the aforesaid the 50 ecus that I owed him.”
The first reference is most likely Francois and the second (“the younger”) would be Joseph, seven years his junior. The records on French settlers in the region are pretty thorough, and no other settlers using the Lesperance name are registered in the area at that time. (A Jean Baptiste dit Patoca Bilau dit Lesperance appears in the 1768 Census, but he was born in 1735 and thus would have been only eight years old. Also references to him tend to say “Patoca Lesperance,” likely to differentiate from the brothers Rochereau dit Lesperance.)
If the brothers arrived in or prior to 1743, they came just before a mini population boom. In 1749, with Detroit’s population (north and south of the river) at about 900, the Governor of New France again offered animals and farm equipment to Frenchmen who settle in the area. This time, 46 accepted the offer, settling on the south shore. More came as additional lots were granted in 1751. A plaque on the Windsor waterfront today commemorates these pioneers.
The inscription reads: “Windsor is the oldest known site of continuous settlement in Ontario. The government of New France anxious to increase its presence on the Detroit River, offered land for agricultural settlement on the south shore in 1749. That summer, families from the lower St. Lawrence River relocated to lots which begin about 65 km downstream from here. Along with civilians and discharged soldiers from Fort Pontchartrain (Detroit), they formed the community of La Petite Cote. Additional waterfront lots, including this site, were laid out in 1751. These extended from the Huron mission located in the vicinity of the present Ambassador Bridge to the Ottawa village, situated opposite the fort. When the French regime ended in 1760, about 300 settlers were living here.”
Whether they arrived in 1743, 1749 or at the latest, 1753 (the year prior to Joseph’s marriage), the Rochereau brothers are clearly among the first settlers commemorated in the plaque, coming “from the lower St. Lawrence River” (Quebec and points east; the river flows from west to east) and drawn to the Detroit River region on the governor’s promise of land and livelihood.
It wouldn’t be an easy time to be there. An epidemic of smallpox and famine tore through the small community in 1752. This was also on the eve of the Seven Year’s War between England and France (known also as the French and Indian war), fought between 1756 and 1763. French soldiers and settlers alike were preparing to defend the fort from British attack: According to the Detroit Historical Society, the French also sent more than 400 militia and supplies in 1754 to support the fort.
It’s interesting to dwell for a moment on when and where Francois and Marie-Josephe, were married. An 1801 ledger titled “Detroit marriages — Record of Marriages, Assumption Church, Sandwich, Ontario, 1710–1801” contains an entry for Francois Rochelor (left column), reading “son of Jean Baptiste Rochelor dit Lesperance and Elizabeth Dery, married on January 13, 1755 to Marie-Josephe Meloche, daughter of Pierre Meloche and Jeanne Caron.”
However, Potier did not establish Assumption Church until 1767. This entry, apparently written in 1801, is not the actual marriage registry. In fact, Francois and Marie-Josephe were married across the river, in St. Anne’s church in Fort Pontchartrain du Detroit. This would make sense: Her family, after all, lived on the north side of the river at that time. And proper French families would never marry in Potier’s Huron Mission.
Here’s the actual marriage registry for Francois and Marie-Josephe, according to a recent settler genealogy study by Diane Wolford Sheppard and Gail Moreau-DesHarnais, historians who run the French-Canadian Heritage Society of Michigan. You can see signatures of father Pierre Meloche, sister Therese and witness Jacques Campau:
The story of the creation of Assumption Church is fascinating and deserves explanation. It starts with Potier’s predecessor, Richardie, who established what was called the Mission House among the Huron in 1728 across the river from Fort Detroit, at the foot of today’s Ambassador Bridge in Windsor.
On the run for decades in the 17th century against the onslaught of the Iroquois Confederacy, the Huron for generations migrated as refugees around the Great Lakes. In 1702–03 they were encouraged by Cadillac to leave the Jesuit mission on the Straits of Mackinac and settle at Detroit. Converted to Christianity, for the next quarter of a century they relied on St. Anne’s in the nearby Fort Pontchartrain for their spiritual needs, but eventually they drifted away from religion as the fort’s parish fell under the control of the Recollet (Franciscan) order rather than their traditional sponsors and friends, the Jesuits. They asked for a new “black robe” to work more directly with their village across the Detroit River, and Richardie was brought for that purpose. By 1735 the Mission House he built served 600 newly minted Huron Christians.
In an unsuccessful attempt to keep his flock from dispersing, amid general mistrust of the Huron by the other tribes, Richardie in 1742 transferred the mission, including 33 Huron lodges, some 20 miles downstream from the fort to Bois Blanc Island (Boblo Island today) at the mouth of the Detroit River. Potier arrived in 1743 as an understudy to the ailing Richardie.
In May 1747 some disaffected Huron residents burned the mission to the ground. Richardie reestablished it at the edge of the river in Windsor, just before Potier replaced him as the head priest.
So when Potier paid Francois Lesperance for his services in 1743, he was acting as Richardie’s understudy at the Huron Mission. After Richardie returned to France for health reasons, Potier soon also took responsibility for the newly arrived French settlers on the south bank of the Detroit River. It was in this capacity that Potier in 1767 founded the parish of Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption.
So while Assumption played an important role in the lives of subsequent generations of Rocheleaus, the original Rocheleau brothers were married at St. Anne’s in Fort Detroit. “They later moved to the south shore,” notes an entry on Francois and Marie-Josephe’s marriage, in Christian Denissen’s “Genealogy of the French families of the Detroit River Region, 1701–1936.
Here are two entries from the 1762 Census of Detroit, confirming both brothers married their spouses at St. Anne’s in the fort.
As settlers on the south bank of the Detroit River, Francois and his young bride wasted no time filling out the next line in the family tree. She bore 10 children in 15 years. The first four died at or near childbirth, but six others lived to adulthood. Sadly, Marie-Josephe died in 1770 when she was 31, on the day their 10th child, Pierre (and our direct ancestor), was born. Francois never remarried.
Joseph and Catherine Pilet had four children. Also very sadly, Catherine died on June 5, 1763, at age 27. While it’s intriguing that Catherine passed away at the time of Pontiac’s siege of Fort Detroit (more below), we have no information that the two events were in any way related.
Three amazing things about the Pilets (a digression)
Catherine Pilet’s last name rings a bell on the family tree: Some 180 years later, Jean Rocheleau (my mother’s sister) would marry David Pilette (1934–2000). As it happens, Catherine Pilet was the sister of Dave’s third great grandfather Joseph Pilet (1754–1828), another pioneer of New France. The name of Jacques Pilet, Joseph’s father (and David Pillette’s sixth great grandfather), appears on a list of inhabitants granted land in 1749.
That means Jean and Dave were fifth great cousins when they married, each being the direct descendant of the other’s fifth great aunt or uncle (don’t worry, Pillette kids, this is okay because Jean and Dave were not themselves directly descended from the same family lines).
But the Pilet connection gets even weirder. Catherine’s brother, Joseph Pilet (1726–1764), is Hillary Rodham Clinton’s fourth great grandfather. That makes Dave Pilette (Sr.) and Hillary fifth cousins and my generation’s Dave Pillete Jr. a sixth cousin once removed to Hillary Clinton.
And, for a final dose of the incredible, read below about Jacques Pilet’s role in persuading the British not to give up the fort during Pontiac’s siege in 1763.