Tuesdays with General Friend Palmer: Goose Yokes

(This occasional series on passages dug up in Early Days in Detroit used to run on Fridays. Then I changed my mind.)

I am a little in love with this story tonight. General Friend Palmer begins a chapter dedicated to the early business men of Detroit with the story of Peter John Desnoyers, born in Paris in 1772 and enticed to the United States by a swindler:

Just previous to the French Revolution, a company had been formed in America known as the Sciota Land Co., which opened an agency Paris and offered large inducements to mechanics and artisans of moderate means to invest in its lands. It was represented that they were eligibly located on a large stream called La Belle River, abounding with fish of an enormous size, embracing magnificent forests filled with wild game, that there were no military enrollments and no quarters to find for soldiers.

… After a voyage of 60 days reached Havre de Grace, Md., and thence proceeded to Gallipolis, Ohio, which was said to be within the company’s domains. They arrived there in 1790. Upon reaching this spot they found that the title deeds which they held were worthless, the company of whom they purchased not owning a foot of the land they had sold.

Wow. So, the Desnoyers get all the way here, having sold most of their worldly possessions, without speaking much if any English, without knowing a soul. And they’re completely stranded. Peter J. Desnoyers is 18 years old.

The Desnoyers spent some time with a small community of other French settlers in Ohio, then moved to Pittsburgh, where Peter J. makes the fortunate acquaintance of Michael Dousman. Dousman had heard good things about Michigan and convinced Peter J. to join him en route to the territory, along the same trail covered by Mad Anthony Wayne’s army. (Michael Dousman would later get rich as a fur trader on Makinac Island; during the War of 1812, he was captured by the British, and when he continued to sell goods to their garrison upon his release, he was branded a traitor. More here.) Michael Dousman and Peter J. Desnoyers arrived in Detroit in 1796, when they were both 24.

detroit 1796

(A map of the city in the year Peter Desnoyer came here. Source.)

After some time as an enlisted armorer, Desnoyers — a silversmith by trade — opened a shop with John Piquette in 1803. Two years later, the entire city burned down. According to an article in this Pioneer Society report, Peter Desnoyers hauled all of furniture out to the city limits, near the corner of Jefferson and Woodward, then plunked his five-year-old son Peter under a table to keep an eye on the goods. When that story was reported in the Free Press in 1876, the table was still in good condition and in the younger Peter’s possession.

In the land auction that happened after the fire, Peter bought a lot at the corner of Jefferson and Bates street and re-opened his shop. And what a shop it must’ve been, according to the General:

Mr. Desnoyers was about the first merchant here (that I remember) to keep marbles, the delight of the average boy’s heart in the early days, and I presume they possess the same charm for those of the present day. All the boys attending the old University School on the corner of Bates and Congress Streets nearby used to patronize him extensively. I myself squandered many a penny for marbles at the old gentleman’s store.

Aside from marbles, Mr. Desnoyers kept in his store as great a variety of articles as possible. It was a common remark when a citizen was in quest of an article that was difficult to be obtained elsewhere, that it could be found at Desnoyers’s, which generally turned out to be true. This became so proverbial that on one occasion, a gentleman made a wager with another that he could name an article that Desnoyers could not furnish. It was agreed. They entered the store, and one of them very seriously inquired of the salesman of versatile resources if he had any goose yokes. “Oui, monsieur” was the prompt reply, and he proceeded to a drawer and produced the article asked for. The merriment of the party was beyond reasonable bounds, Mr. Desnoyers entering as heartily into it as his customers.

(ASIDE: In my efforts to find out what a goose yoke is, I have come across this same story about the outrageous wager that a general store would carry goose yokes, one from James Hike’s general store in 1850s Illinois, the other from the Historic Howell Works Company and General Store at the Allaire Village in New Jersey. This must have been some sort of proverbial legend, like an elaborate way to say “everything and the kitchen sink.” Only it’s everything and … goose yokes. And for the record, this is what a goose yoke is.)

The General remembers Mr. Desnoyers as a man of “great perseverance and industry and strict integrity” who nonetheless was not afraid of a really good joke. In 1877, someone whose memory we must take with a grain of salt wrote this of Peter J. Desnoyers, 31 years after his death:

Monsieur Pierre Desnoyers, that fine looking, smiling, sweet-voiced old gentleman whose bon jour! bon jour! would arrest you as the voice of a lute, whose rosy cheeks, fine mouth, pure teeth, and large blue eyes, with that drooping lid, present the portrait of a fine old Frenchman …

The elder Peter J. Desnoyers, who came to Detroit after he lost everything, then lost everything again in the fire, spawned a whole dynasty of high-society Desnoyers with their “elegant, old-fashioned furniture and costly wines” admired by the pleasant company they kept (including the Palmers, by the General’s recollection). In 1835, Peter J. Desnoyers’ daughter Elizabeth married James A. Van Dyke, who served as mayor of Detroit in 1847. Together they bred a whole bunch of Desnoyers Van Dykes.

And it all started with a land scam. So there you have it; now go out, take some chances and make those lemons into ade.

#early days in detroit#french settlers#general friend palmer#goose yokes#john piquette#mad anthony wayne#michael dousman#peter j. desnoyers

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