Michigan’s Gettysburg? River Raisin kicks off $100 million redevelopment
Marc Daalder, Detroit Free Press Published 6:00 a.m. ET Aug. 27, 2018 | Updated 9:03 a.m. ET Aug. 27, 2018
Children learn to drill as soldiers did during a visit to River Raisin National Battlefield Park in Monroe.(Photo: National Park Service)
It’s one of the most important turning points in U.S. history – the deadliest battle in the War of 1812, helping shape American policy toward native nations and opening the way for westward expansion.
But in the history books and America’s national consciousness, the Battle of Frenchtown isn’t listed alongside Yorktown, Gettysburg, Omaha Beach, Okinawa or the Battle of Hue.
That may be about to change.
A $100-million redevelopment is launching Monday with the goal of turning the River Raisin National Battlefield in southeastern Michigan into a historical, cultural, recreational and ecological tourist destination.
River Raisin Heritage Corridor kicks off with purchase of 20 houses that will be demolished to make room for a re-creation of historic Frenchtown and a $20-million educational center. The project is predicted to bring more than 1 million visitors and $30 million annually to the city of Monroe.
In many ways, River Raisin hopes to be the Gettysburg of Michigan. Gettysburg receives around 1.2 million visitors annually, so it has a decent shot.
“Fourteen million people live within three hours’ drive of the park,” Monroe development coordinator Mark Cochran said. Even more could see it as a tourist destination if it successfully boosts the status of the Battle of Frenchtown.
The similarities extend beyond attendance. Both carry reputations among ghost hunters as prime spots for supernatural activity.
Bentley said that River Raisin “is frequently listed in the top five most haunted places in Michigan. We get asked (about ghosts) every day.” Bentley says that he tries to ensure everyone remains respectful. “I remind them this is a sacred place. It’s the final resting place for the souls of those who perished in the battles.”
Until 2011, the battlefield wasn’t even a national park. It was a historic site run by Monroe County and only placed on the National Register of Historic Places in late 1982. New legislation introduced in 2009 and championed by then-Congressman John Dingell, D-Dearborn, saw the site become one of only four National Battlefield Parks in the country.
That was only the beginning.
Scott Bentley, who has served as the national park’s superintendent since its creation, in 2011, recalled how Dingell wanted more.
Bentley recalled: “Dingell said, ‘We’ve created the park. It’s amazing – it tells the birth story for the state of Michigan, how we opened up the West and can tell the tale of forced removal and relocation of Native Americans. We’ve gotta do something with this other than just have open fields.'”
In April 2013, a team of researchers from Michigan State University released the River Raisin Heritage Corridor East Master Plan, a comprehensive document recommending how the park should be transformed over the next 20 years.
That process is finally beginning.
The money for the effort will come from the state’s Department of Natural Resources and private partners. At a 2017 conference announcing the donation of close to 100 acres of land by U.S. Silica, Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, called the public-private partnership “a reflection of our shared commitment to preserving both our history and our natural resources.”
A $4.8 million grant from the Michigan DNR, matched with about $1.4 million in private-public partnership funds, has allowed the city of Monroe and the park to start buying up houses from willing homeowners. About $2.9 million has been spent so far and the city still hopes to acquire around 45 more structures.
Toni Cooper is the executive director of the park’s foundation. Her job is to secure the funding, primarily from state organizations and private partners, not the National Park Service which manages River Raisin. “The National Park money is (only) for maintenance and preservation of the land,” Cooper explained.
“The foundation’s goal is to take this and bring it to life and create an amazing tourism and educational experience,” she added.
Once it’s fully developed, the new River Raisin National Battlefield Park expects to bring in more than 1 million visitors annually, including 100,000 school children. Currently, Bentley said, the park gets about a quarter-million visitors – 239,000 in 2017, to be exact, including 10,000 students. That’s already a significant increase from the 30,000 people who visited in 2011 and bodes well for the park’s future.
This is a major windfall for a city of just 20,000 that lies 35 miles south of Detroit. Cochran told the Free Press that “We’ve been working on gearing our economy more toward tourism. We’ve got Lake Erie, the River Raisin, the battlefield and a heritage trail.”
“We’re very fortunate to have the national park service in our community,” he said.
A former aide to Dingell who helped with getting River Raisin’s national park status, Cochran has since spearheaded the redevelopment project on behalf of Monroe. It is a large part of the reason he’s now with the city and his enthusiasm for it represents the hopes that people in Monroe have for River Raisin.
The War of 1812
The War of 1812 saw British and Canadian soldiers ally with Native American tribes to fight against an ill-equipped U.S. military backed up by untrained militias. It famously involved the sacking of Washington, D.C., and the burning down of the White House in 1814, but the key action in Michigan took place the year before.
A British-Canadian force captured the tactically significant Fort Detroit in August of 1812 and later took over Frenchtown, 35 miles south of Detroit. The town, aptly-named, was founded in the 1780s by French-speaking settlers who then became American citizens.
American troops, made up of U.S. Army soldiers, Michigan militias and Kentucky volunteers, took the town back in January 1812. Just days later, the Canadians returned in force, surprising the lax Americans before dawn and capturing their general, James Winchester. An apocryphal tale even holds that Winchester was captured in his nightgown.
While the regular troops disintegrated, the Kentucky militiamen within the town’s walls held out for three hours after an offer of surrender, not trusting the native Americans that accompanied the Canadians in battle. Finally, though, they capitulated.
After the battle, the British general in charge of the Canadian forces repeatedly urged the native Americans to burn Frenchtown to the ground, but they refused. The Canadian and Native American troops then withdrew from the town, knowing they couldn’t hold it if the Americans decided to bring their full military might against it.
However, the Native American troops first committed what Americans would later refer to as a massacre – they brought the 500 or so American prisoners with them on their retreat and killed between 20 and 100 of those who couldn’t walk.
So they’d never forget, American soldiers would shout “For the River Raisin” and similar war cries throughout the rest of the war. The high number of Kentuckians among the 300 American dead also led to an influx of recruits from Kentucky.
Bentley said the Battle of Frenchtown was a formative moment in American history. “It was the greatest defeat for the U.S. in the entire War of 1812,” he said.
It was certainly the deadliest: more people died in the battle than in any other in the war.
The “massacre” wasn’t forgotten, either. “‘Remember the Raisin’ created U.S. Indian policy and led to the forced removal of native populations,” he said. It also “opened up the West for expansion and opened up the way for Michigan and for many others to become a state.”
A complex story
When it comes to creating the historic complex, weighing the various viewpoints of stakeholders in battles is a daunting proposition. Bentley was already expecting a nuanced narrative when he arrived at River Raisin in 2011.
“I thought we would be telling a story from four perspectives: the British and Canadian view, that of the United States government and Army, the native nations and of course the local French settlers,” he said.
He quickly learned that there were more than 20 native tribes involved in the battle, each of which had a slightly different perspective on it. Beyond that, the Native Americans and settlers had “deep personal relationships.”
Bentley compares it to the Civil War, which Americans commonly remember as a conflict in which brothers fought brothers and fathers fought sons.
“In many cases, settlers had married into the native tribes and so there were family bonds” to take into account.
In one case, an Ottawa chief named Waugon protected a boy from Native American reprisals. Waugon and the boy’s father had been friends, but the latter had been slain fighting for the Americans in Frenchtown. Waugon informed the rest of his tribe that he was de facto adopting the son as his own so that the child would be protected.
These are the sorts of stories and complicating narratives that the new River Raisin historic site will present, Bentley says.
The recreated Frenchtown will cost about $8.2 million and undergo construction from 2019 to 2021. It will be as historically accurate as possible.
“We’re getting into the nitty-gritties,” Bentley said. He rattled off details about how the architecture in Frenchtown was unique when compared to nearby settlements, so historians only have a few drawings for comparison.
Bentley said the project is committed to historical accuracy right to the smallest detail — even things like fencing.
Visitors will have the opportunity to make candles, trade furs and witness demonstrations of contemporary cooking. Michiganders will also be able to get a sneak peak of what the park will be like on Sept. 15, when River Raisin will host a rally with military demonstrations and contemporary events – Frenchtown without the buildings is how a spokesman described it.
Nearby, the Monroe Multi-Sports Complex, which used to play host to ice hockey teams, is being redeveloped into a state-of-the-art $20-million educational center.
“Think about it as the Imagination Station of Michigan, except more than that,” said Cooper, the executive director of the public-private partnership foundation raising the funds for the redevelopment.
The goal, Cooper said, is “to give visitors the opportunity to understand the story from all perspectives. It’s not just a museum where you walk through and read. (Visitors) have to engage, make decisions and see the consequences. They also get to build wigwams and experience what it was like to live in the French frontier world.”