Language and Societies

ANT/LIN 5320 at Wayne State University

Defense, Memory, and Land: Linguistic Analysis of the Destruction of Fort Shelby

Defense, Memory, and Land: Linguistic Analysis of the Destruction of Fort Shelby

John W. Cardinal

Memories of places and events can leave a deep impact on a society, but this can also change over time. This paper follows a trajectory similar to the work of of Craig Cipolla by examining various written accounts of Fort Shelby, leading up to and after its destruction, revealing how the interpretation of a site can vary among various perspectives, and changes through time. This in turn can provide a greater insight into the historical archaeology of the site. Built by the British garrison of Detroit during the American Revolution, it was one of the very few structures to survive the great fire of 1805, and was the site of surrender during the War of 1812, before being transferred to the city of Detroit in 1826 and subsequently dismantled. This discourse analysis examines the concepts of expediency, modernity, beauty, and loss, by examining official government and military documents, personal accounts, artifacts, and monuments, while exploring the narrative told of the fort as it changed throughout the history of Detroit.

April 20, 2022 - Posted by | abstract


  1. This is a good opportunity to examine the changing role and perception of a fort[ification] in an evolving social context. Fort Ponchartrain, sited on the Detroit River near the modern RenCen, was a hedge against British incursion into the French fur trade route, a trading post, and a defense against hostile natives. It was also the administrative center of the colonial regime.
    After the Fox Wars and Pontiac’s uprising, the new Fort Lernoult was built during the American Revolution, on the high ground overlooking the town, that Pontiac had used for his attack. Feeling secure in their command of the river, the British aimed their guns inland, anticipating attacks by Americans Daniel Brodhead and George Rogers Clark, and later, Anthony Wayne in the 1790s. The fort was thus symbolic of British control of the Old Northwest, even after they shifted their defensive perimeter southward into Ohio.
    The shift of Detroit as a strategic frontier outpost from its military to commercial roles appears to have been subtle, with symbolic identities inscribed in the landscape. Significantly, the dismantling of Fort Shelby in the 1820s was followed two decades later by the construction of the nominally superfluous Fort Wayne at Springwells. It may be that the strategic nature of the Strait had to be materially acknowledged. In the interim, the Arsenal at Dearborn filled the role of a military presence. The connection between military might, hegemony and legitimacy appears to have structured the center of power from a defensive fortification to a locus of identity and site of administration– the exercise of state power in peacetime.

    Comment by Daniel Harrison | April 20, 2022 | Reply

  2. I am very interested in reading your paper! Your abstract alone has taught me more than I knew before about Fort Shelby and I am certain your paper will educate me further on the topic.

    Comment by Casey Carter | April 28, 2022 | Reply

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