The French established a permanent presence at the Straits of Mackinac in 1671, which ended in 1761 with the conquest of Canada by Great Britain. The continued influence of French Canadian settlers was felt for decades after that. However, our understanding of the French experience at Mackinac and Michigan is very limited and few researchers are actively trying to find the pieces of the French past.
Dr. Joseph Peyser
One of the great barriers to understanding is language, because few researchers are fluent in seventeenth and eighteenth century French. Fortunately, the late Dr. Joseph L. Peyser was. Working closely with Dr. Keith R. Widder, Curator of History for Mackinac State Historic Parks, with strong support from Director David Pamperin, The French Michilimackinac Research Project was begun in 1991. The goal was to locate, copy, translate, and publish French language documents relating to Michilimackinac. Dr. Peyser’s diligent research in archives in Canada and France enabled the project to amass one of the largest collections of copied French Colonial documents in the United States. The collection of documents (1670 to 1783), consists of 470 reels of microfilm and dozens more volumes in microfiche. Mackinac State Historic Parks has placed the collection on long-term loan at the Western Michigan University Regional Archives in Kalamazoo. There the microfilm collection is available to the public. A Western Michigan University endowment has been created by Dr. Peyser’s son, J. Randall Peyser, to support New France research, including travel support for visiting scholars to use the collection. Detailed information on the endowment can be found at Peyser Endowment.
Dr. Peyser’s work has resulted in three volumes in this series, co-published with Michigan State University Press: Jacques LeGardeur de Saint-Pierre: Officer, Gentleman, Entrepreneur (1996), On the Eve of the Conquest: The Chevalier de Raymond’s Critique of New France in 1754(1997) and, with Dr. José António Brandão, Edge of Empire: Documents of Michilimackinac, 1671-1716 (2008). What has been published in these three volumes is only a portion of the assembled documents. More volumes will be issued in future years. Mackinac State Historic Parks’ Petersen Center in Mackinaw City houses the unpublished translations which are available to researchers at the Petersen Center Library.
The French Michilimackinac Research Project was managed skillfully for MSHP by Dr. Widder until his retirement in 1997, when the role was assumed by Dr. David Armour until his retirement in 2003. By that time about five volumes worth of documents had been translated and Dr. José António Brandão had become the principal researcher for the project. This assured a smooth transition in collecting and translating under the direction of Steven Brisson, Chief Curator of Mackinac State Historic Parks and with the enthusiastic support of Director Phil Porter and the entire Mackinac Island State Park Commission.
Partners such as the University of Indiana at South Bend and Western Michigan University have contributed their expertise. We are most appreciative of the ongoing partnership with our co-publisher, Michigan State University Press. Financial support has come directly from Mackinac State Historic Parks, Mackinac Associates, The University of Indiana, Western Michigan University, The National Endowment for the Humanities and especially the Florence Gould Foundation.
For more information on the collection materials, please see the inventory at Western Michigan University.