Skip to main content

Frontier Seaport

Detroit’s Transformation into an Atlantic Entrepôt

Detroit’s industrial health has long been crucial to the American economy. Today’s troubles notwithstanding, Detroit has experienced multiple periods of prosperity, particularly in the second half of the eighteenth century, when the city was the center of the thriving fur trade. Its proximity to the West as well as its access to the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River positioned this new metropolis at the intersection of the fur-rich frontier and the Atlantic trade routes.

In Frontier Seaport, Catherine Cangany details this seldom-discussed chapter of Detroit’s history. She argues that by the time of the American Revolution, Detroit functioned much like a coastal town as a result of the prosperous fur trade, serving as a critical link in a commercial chain that stretched all the way to Russia and China—thus opening Detroit’s shores for eastern merchants and other transplants. This influx of newcomers brought its own transatlantic networks and fed residents’ desires for popular culture and manufactured merchandise. Detroit began to be both a frontier town and seaport city—a mixed identity, Cangany argues, that hindered it from becoming a thoroughly “American” metropolis.

288 pages | 19 halftones, 1 map, 2 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2014

American Beginnings, 1500-1900

History: American History, Discoveries and Exploration


“In this thoroughly researched and well-written study, Catherine Cangany shows how the people of late-eighteenth-century Detroit participated fully in a vibrant Atlantic economy.  Indeed, she demonstrates persuasively that traditional notions of a simple life on the frontier do not hold for this settlement.  Detroit’s entrepreneurs—Native Americans as well as Europeans—developed exciting new trade goods, such as moccasins, that sustained a sophisticated level of commerce. Frontier Seaport is an impressive and challenging accomplishment.”

T. H. Breen, author of Marketplace of Revolution

“Catherine Cangany’s marvelous new book on Detroit excavates a previously unappreciated history of a fascinating place.  Across a period of more than a century, Cangany traces the evolution of Detroit’s economic and political activity in a series of fine-grained layers.  In the process, she succeeds in detailing the distinctive character of a unique community: an inland frontier seaport that was tied to Atlantic patterns of cosmopolitan culture but was also shaped by its location in a border region that brought together Native Americans, French and British colonists, and Americans across shifting political boundaries in fluid patterns of exchange and adaptation.  It is an impressive achievement.”

Eric Hinderaker | University of Utah

Frontier Seaport tells the story of Detroit’s evolution from an isolated fur trading post to an inland seaport that dominated commerce on the upper Great Lakes.  Cangany stretches our notions of Atlantic history to include a community 650 miles inland from the coast, reconstructing the flow of people and commodities that gave Detroit its unique intercultural and cosmopolitan character.  Although nominally subject to five different regimes between 1701 and 1837, the native and colonial peoples of Detroit persistently defied imperial pretensions to sovereignty over them.  Cangany’s skillful reconstruction of their economic, social, and political lives forces us to reconsider what it meant to live on a colonial borderland in early America.”

Timothy J. Shannon | Gettysburg College

"Catherine Cangany’s wonderful new book explores the tensions between localism and cosmopolitanism in early Detroit by creatively juxtaposing the concerns of recent scholars of North American borderlands and Atlantic commerce. Delineating Detroit’s extensive connections with places far beyond the Great Lakes, Cangany gives us merchants, consumers, and smugglers whose behavior subverts familiar categories of analysis and demands that historians think in fresh ways." 

Andrew Cayton | Miami University

"Cangany is one of a trio of young historians who are finally providing a new portrait of one of colonial America’s most fascinating places—Detroit!  At once a frontier town, a seaport connected to the Atlantic World, and a bustling trading center with an incredibly diverse population, Detroit at the end of the eighteenth century was a city-in-waiting where one might see a bear ambling down the main street or find the latest Paris fashions. Anyone interested in frontier history, native studies, urban history, and the period of transition from empire to republic (territorial government under federal appointees) will profit mightily from reading this sparkling portrait of early Detroit. Chapter three relates the history of the moccasin trade, which begins in Detroit as a local cottage industry reflecting the city’s hybrid culture and develops into a national fad from the 1790s to the 1830s. Marketed as a ‘health aid’ as well as a quintessentially American, western, and native fashion statement, moccasins reinforced Detroit’s continuing integration into the Atlantic-World marketplace. This brilliant and fascinating chapter alone is worth the price of admission. This is history at its best: surprising, entertaining, fresh, and informative. It will challenge your stereotypes about Detroit and reaffirm your interest in the frontier. Enough biographies of the same old political figures! Buy several copies of Frontier Seaport and give them to your friends. You’ll be glad you did. Highly recommended for all students, young and old, of American History."

Jay Gitlin, author of The Bourgeois Frontier: French Towns, French Traders & American Expansion

“An excellent monograph that positions the history of French, British, and American Detroit during the 18th and early 19th centuries within the historiographies of continental and Atlantic history. . . . Highly recommended.”


“Cangany offers a stunning new way of understanding the hybrid character of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Detroit. . . . through intensive archival research, Cangany arrives at a sophisticated conceptualization of the city’s historical character. . . . a fresh, illuminating, and most welcome addition to the study of early Detroit.”

Journal of American History

“Cangany uses masterful research to recover this forgotten chapter of Detroit’s past. . . . Cangany’s clever historical detective work results in at least two genuine breakthroughs. . . . Frontier Seaport is easily the most important study of Detroit from the mid-eighteenth century to Michigan statehood in 1837.”

American Historical Review

Table of Contents


Introduction: “The Appearance of the Settlement Is Very Smiling”

1. “In Time This City Will Become Conspicuous”: The Development of Non-Fur-Trade Commerce

2. “The Inhabitants Are Well Supplied with Provisions of Every Description”

3. “Altogether Preferable to Shoes”: The Fashioning of Moccasins

4. “Detroit, Politically . . . Remains . . . an Isolated Moral Mass”

5. “Advisable to Improve the Arrangement of the Town”:  Rebuilding after the Great Fire of 1805

6. “Sinister Conduct”: The Pervasion of Staples Smuggling

Epilogue: “Exceedingly Well Situated for a Commercial Port”




North American Society for Oceanic History: John Lyman Book Prize
Honorable Mention

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press