Ribbon farms alongthe Detroit river in 1796. Map by George Henry Victor Collot, wikicommons.

Tracing the Ribbons

Image: Ribbon farms along the Detroit river in 1796. Detail from 1796 map by George Henry Victor Collot, wikicommons.

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The story of agriculture in the city is a story that spans centuries of history, beginning in the 1700s with the French settlement of Detroit. The Detroit of the mid-18th century would have looked very different from the sprawling metropolis of today. Where the imposing skyscrapers of Detroit’s downtown now dominate the riverfront, there would have been a sparsely populated settlement consisting of humble farms built along the river and extending a few miles inland. These narrow, elongated, side-by-side farm plots with riverfront access known as “ribbon farms” may seem to be relegated to the historical imaginary as the complexity and density of land use in modern Detroit does not seem to betray any remnant of this pastoral history. However, the ordering logic of the ribbon farms can be seen through the modern infrastructure and development that has buried it. Like a palimpsest, the farms of the French settlers can be traced out beneath the streets of the city.

In a 1873 real estate atlas of Detroit, long after the ribbon farms had disappeared beneath an urban, industrialized landscape, the original boundaries of the plots are still marked on the margins of the map.  While this may at first seem counterintuitive given that these plots do not correspond with the land use of 1873 Detroit, a closer look reveals that many of Detroit’s streets roughly traced the boundary lines of the French ribbon farms. For instance, Dequindre Street extended from the river in a line that almost perfectly traced the eastern edge of the former Dequindre farm plot. Detroit grew up piecemeal from the ribbon farm plots as they were sold off through the 18th and early 19th centuries and thus, even after Detroit had long forgotten its agricultural beginnings, one could and still can trace the ribbon farms in the design of the urban fabric.

1873 from Atlas of the State of Michigan (David Rumsey Collection)

Map of the City of Detroit, 1873, from Atlas of the State of Michigan, David Rumsey Collection.

There is also a sense in which the modern day agricultural movement in the vacant lots of the city, the hardy individuals who work the land on plots zoned for now vanished houses, trace their collective history back to the French settlers.  Ask a Detroit farmer and they will probably have something to say about ribbon farms and French farmers and a pre-American lifestyle and land use that depended on the river as a lifeline to other settlements and to the distant seat of colonial power.  In this way then, the ribbon farms are as important to understanding the modern city of Detroit as the automobile factories or Motown.  The orientation of the streets, the centrality of the river, modern farm plots growing up in spaces that French settlers perhaps cultivated 300 years ago – this is Detroit.

  • George William Baist, Baist’s Real Estate Atlas of Surveys of Detroit and Suburbs, 2 (Philadelphia: George William Baist, 1915), Plan 5.
  • I. G. Simmons, “The Earliest Cultural Landscapes of England,” in Out of the Woods: Essays in Environmental History, ed. Char Miller and Hal Rothman (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997), 53-63.
  • “Roads and Roots: Some Famed Ancestors Found Among Settlers French Connection a Noted, but Faded Legacy of City,” Detroit, MI Free Press, August 24, 2000

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