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Guest post by Jonathan Quint, University of Michigan Department of History PhD candidate and Clements Library Intern 

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In the wake of British military forces who took formal possession of Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit (Detroit) on November 11, 1760, came peddlers, merchants, and would-be fur traders from all corners of the Thirteen Colonies, Great Britain, and the wider British Atlantic world. Drawn westward by the allure of fur trade profits, these men entered as newcomers a vast region populated by Potawatomi, Ojibwe-Chippewa, and Ottawa communities, French habitants, and Black and Native American slaves. Great Britain’s defeat of New France in the Seven Years War ensured Detroit’s inclusion into the British Empire, but on the ground, Detroit remained an overwhelmingly Native and French space, and British or Anglo-American newcomers needed to tread carefully to make a place for themselves.

Irish-born merchant and fur trader James Sterling, a veteran of the Seven Years War, was one such newcomer. His arrival in Detroit with a canoe load of trade goods and rented accommodation in the town befit his status as minor partner in a trading partnership based in Albany. But Sterling would not stay minor partner for long. After just three weeks in town Sterling boasted to “sell more every day than any two merchants in the place.”[1] He soon hired clerks and began diversifying into military contracting, real estate speculation, and farming. In 1763, when Pontiac and allied Native communities sieged Detroit for roughly six months, Sterling led a militia company of Anglo-American merchants. Sterling reached such heights that French customers affectionately labelled him “un gros marchand” (a great merchant).[2]

Sterling’s social climb is documented in outgoing correspondence he penned from Detroit and other fur trade sites like Mackinac, Fort St. Joseph, and Niagara between 1761 and 1765. The James Sterling Letter Book at the William L. Clements Library contains these letters, which are rich in material on not just the fur trade but ordinary day-to-day life in a frontier post, as well as cross-cultural interaction between European and Native American societies. One of Sterling’s first letters recounts a “Council held at the Wiandot Town near Fort Detroit.”[3] There, Sterling witnessed firsthand the assembly of Iroquois, Ottawa, Wyandot, Chippewa, and Potawatomi communities as they engaged in dialogue with British officers from Fort Detroit.

Sterling participated in many Councils and as a fur trader naturally came into contact with Native Americans in variety of different settings. He also employed Native men as guides and interpreters to navigate through the Great Lakes wilderness. What is clear is that his ultimate success or failure as a merchant and fur trader hinged on maintaining reciprocal relationships with Native communities, and through them, access to furs. To that end, Sterling needed to hear and respond to Native customers’ demands, and quickly. In requesting a shipment of gunpowder from a distant suppler he noted that “[Indians] are very curious in the Choice of their Ammunition, for which Reason we should be as particular in buying it, fail not to send it soon.”[4]

A successful fur trade operation required French habitant labor, meaning Sterling came to depend on hired oarsmen and guides from Detroit to transport his wares. Complaints about the cost of labor, and supposed incompetence and theft by workers, appear frequently in his letters.[5] In Summer 1762 he complained that “it is rare to get a Frenchman here that can be depended on or entrusted with goods” and suggested acquiring slaves as an alternate strategy.[6] Yet, while Sterling sneered at his workers and lower class customers, he strove for incorporation into Detroit’s elite social circles. His 1765 marriage to a local French woman from a prominent family, Angélique Cuillerier, signaled some success and matched his rising commercial power.

These portraits of cross-cultural interaction, cooperation, and conflict on a distant frontier of the British Empire are just some of the fascinating material within the James Sterling Letter Book. As Parliament, King George III, British Indian Department and military officials debated what would become of territories like Detroit, Niagara, and Mackinac, individuals like Sterling were on the ground, taking advantage, and working to enrich themselves and their families. At Detroit, Sterling met and encountered Indigenous villagers and warriors, elite French merchants and habitant farmers and laborers, Swiss mercenary officers, Jesuit priests, British soldiers and their families, Black and Native slaves, and Jewish and Anglo-American competitor merchants. Sterling’s letters bring these characters to life and reveal how his own fortunes hinged on Native and French-Canadian labor, as well as connections to Native and Atlantic World partners.

John Montrésor, Plan of Detroit with its environs. ca. 1763.

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This first blog post in a three-part series titled “Empire and Encounter at Detroit” uses Sterling’s letter book to enter the world of early 1760s Detroit, as the British Empire sought to exert power and influence in territories newly won from New France in the Seven Years War. From mundane packing of fur bales to a dramatic narration of Detroit’s siege by Native forces, Sterling’s letters cover many topics and are of great interest to historians. Most interesting are Sterling’s relationships with local French and Native communities, often fraught but ultimately central to Sterling’s commercial and social success.


— Jonathan Quint, PhD Candidate
University of Michigan Department of History
Clements Library Intern


[1] James Sterling to John Duncan, 20 July 1761, James Sterling Letter Book, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan.

[2] James Sterling to James Syme, 8 June 1762, James Sterling Letter Book.

[3] Proceedings of Council held at the Wiandot Town near Fort Detroit, James Sterling, 3 July 1761, James Sterling Letter Book.

[4] James Sterling to James Syme, Detroit 17 June 1762, James Sterling Letter Book.

[5] James Sterling to George Etherington, 31 May 1762, James Sterling Letter Book.

[6] James Sterling to James Syme, Detroit 8 June 1762, James Sterling Letter Book.