My Motor City Roots

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jan 25, 2019

I attended the North American International Auto Show in Detroit for something like 10 years in a row, only skipping it this year because automakers were bailing—and the dead-of-winter extravaganza (I froze every year) is slated to move to June next year.

Thomas Sully's portrait of my great-great-great grandfather, John Biddle. (Wikipedia photo)

For most of those years of schlepping around Cobo Hall, I was completely unaware I was descended from Detroit royalty. But, as I recently learned from my genealogist uncle, that is indeed the case. My great-great-great grandfather was John Biddle, who was the fourth mayor of the city, served in Congress and in the state House of Representatives, and founded the Michigan city of Wyandotte. They got a lot done back in those days.

Since Princeton graduate Biddle (1792-1859) was mayor in 1827 and 1828, he could scarcely have imagined the city Detroit would become. The first European settlers were French fur traders from Quebec, who had to contend with the English and the powerful Iroquois Nation for access to the beaver hides that were more valuable than currency in the 17th and 18th centuries.

The French built Fort Detroit in 1701 to protect their role in the fur trade. They improved it between 1758 and 1760 so as to better defend against British sallies. To no avail, because the fort was surrendered to the red coats in 1760, after the 1759 British defeat of the French on the celebrated Plains of Abraham in Quebec.

Detroit around 1885. (Wikipedia photo)

My great-great-great-grandfather was a military man who served in the Army during the War of 1812. He came to Detroit after that service to command Fort Shelby, later renamed Fort Detroit (though a different fortification from the first Fort Detroit). Major Biddle was out of the Army by 1821, and headed straight into politics, serving as an associate justice of county court, judge of probate and commissioner of Brown County. From 1823 to 1837 he was register of the land office in the Detroit district, overseeing the sale of property to the growing population of the city.

Mayor Biddle had a short time in municipal office, but from 1829 to 1831 he was a territorial delegate to the U.S. Congress. The city was growing fast, and the present-day grid was laid out (following the design of Washington, DC) after a major fire in 1805. There were traffic circles, wide boulevards, and graceful parks.

It’s gone now, but Mayor Biddle left his mark on the city by erecting Biddle House, a 500-room hotel at Randolph and Jefferson that became Detroit’s finest, proclaimed as “strictly first class in all its appointments.”

Detroit in the 1850s, looking east from Biddle House. (Wikipedia photo)

Biddle is perhaps best remembered for establishing Wyandotte, which was originally the name of the big white colonial summer estate he built on 2,200 acres in what had been the village of Maquaqua. The house was completed in 1835, and Major Biddle—along with my great, great grandmother, the former Eliza Bradish, moved in with the requisite retinue of servants, including one Elizabeth “Lisette” Denison Forth, a celebrated cook. This is where the story gets interesting.

Eliza Biddle, also painted by Thomas Sully. (Wikipedia photo)

According to the recent The Dawn of Detroit by Tiya Miles, a visitor to “the Biddles’ elegant new home in Wyandotte, Michigan (15 miles south of Detroit), commented that she ‘[did] not know how [Mrs. Biddle] would get on but for Lisette, who, notwithstanding her frequent threats of leaving, seems as firmly established as ever.”

Lisette, a former slave, was a shrewd investor, buying land in downtown Detroit, stock in a steamboat and shares in the Farmers and Mechanics bank (John Biddle, president). She didn’t spend her money, and remained in the Biddles’ employ when they relocated to Paris and into the 1850s. In 1855 she traveled with the family to France, where her buckwheat cakes became the talk of the capital city.

Lisette Denison Forth: A woman of means. (Wikipedia photo)

Eliza Biddle wrote, as recounted in Miles’ book:

Lisette is making us quite celebrated in Paris by her buckwheat cakes and I expect some of these days to be invited to come to the Tuileries [Palace] and bring my black cook & her griddle that the Empress may enjoy the American luxury.

The Ambassador himself requested Denison Forth’s cakes, and Eliza Biddle publicly fretted that her servant was getting above her station. “She thinks that when she is sent for by the Emporer she will not return to our modest ménage but remain at court & perhaps have a carriage of her own.”

Elizabeth Denison Forth's chapel still stands. (Wikipedia photo)

Indeed, when Lisette Denison Forth died in 1866, she was a wealthy woman. The Biddles tried to get her to spend more of her money while she was alive, but she preferred to live modestly. William Biddle, John’s son, having graduated from Harvard Law School, became Denison’s executor along with his brother James, and in her will (the only surviving document generated by an ex-slave in Detroit) directed that her money, $1,500, be used to erect “a fine chapel for the use of the Protestant Episcopal Church.” And so it went.

The church was erected on Grosse Ile, the largest island in the Detroit River and a wealthy area in 1867. It’s still there. The Bishop Samuel Allen McCoskry told the diocese, “This church is the fruit of a life of toil and service of a faithful colored servant of Christ. She had, for years, husbanded her earnings for this purpose, and, long before she was called away from her life of probation, had solemnly devoted them to the Church of Christ.” The building stands, he said, “in all its simplicity and beauty, as the joint act of a Christian household, to provide a house of prayer for the rich and poor.”

Mayor Biddle's Wyandotte in a period view. (Courtesy Wallace Hayden)

Mayor Biddle sold Wyandotte for $44,000 in 1853, and the building survived a fire in 1860 to be moved to its current location at 2114 Biddle. The mayor lived until 1859, and is buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit. Biddle's son James (my great-great-grandfather) fought in the Civil War, and witnessed the sacking of Atlanta (seen Gone With the Wind lately?). A letter from James to his wife records that scene:

Yesterday the 9th I got a pass and paid a visit to the city to see what effects our shots and shells had had on it. Some parts of the town was untouched but others were knocked all to pieces. Those places which suffered most were near the railroad depot. Some of our batteries having directed all their shots at that building. Having seen all I could of the inside of the town I went out on the (?) road to see the places where Hood blew up his ammunitions. Such a scene of destruction I never saw. The ground for hundreds of yards around was covered with pieces of shells, grape shot and canisters, pieces of small arms, camp and garrison equipage and everything else you can imagine.

Major James survived the war and settled at 730 Jefferson Avenue in Detroit. According to my uncle, family historian Henry D. Chadwick, "He was sick of fighting in the war. He wanted to go home to Detroit and sit under a tree and never leave." And that's exactly what he did, with family money making it unnecessary for him to practice his trade as an architect. He sat around for the rest of his life (which ended in 1905). My grandmother’s sister offers remembrances of the domestic sphere:

Grandpa James Biddle had a big, brownish red sandstone house with a wide veranda and lots of porch chairs, a lawn in front and back, and a fancy cast iron fence around the front yard. The back yard had a stable, no longer used, a pergola, flower and vegetable gardens, and of course a croquet set. Grandpa would watch us play outside dressed in his black suit, his white hair and mustache well trimmed, and with a cigar in his mouth or hand.

My grandmother, who must have witnessed this scene—she’s in a Detroit family portrait I have with James Biddle—was a great character. She played the piano and church organist, headed the altar guild, was an avid gardener, married a career military officer (my grandfather), survived Pearl Harbor, lived in occupied Japan, and drove an ambulance during World War II.

James Biddle, left: He saw Atlanta burn. The two women are my great-grandmother Katherine and her unmarried sister Louisa. (Motavalli/Chadwick/Mark archives)

For us kids, Katharine Biddle Barrette’s ability to recite limericks and old song parodies from the turn of the century was unparalleled. Here’s one:

Benji and some other brats

Ate up all the [poison] Rough on Rats

Father said, when mother cried

Never mind they’ll die outside

She spoke French (from the governess) before she spoke English. She would let her cigarette ash extend to impossible lengths, and it never fell down. Oddly enough, she didn’t talk about her family much, though she had spent time as a child at Andalusia, the Biddle family seat on the Delaware River near Philadelphia.

Andalusia: Grandma slept here. (Wikipedia photo)

So does all this change how I report on Detroit? Nah.

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