Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Campau, Joseph

Joseph Campau, born in Detroit on February 20, 1769, was the largest landowner in Detroit in the 1800s. Campau was the grandson of original settler, Jacques Campau, who came from Montreal to Detroit in 1708, seven years after Detroit’s founding.

Educated in Montreal, Campau returned to Detroit to open a general store in the 1790s. His account books were kept in French for the duration of his business life, the language he knew best. Simultaneously, Campau was a fur trader and land speculator while serving as a trustee of Detroit, among other political posts. He learned several Native American dialects and was known as Chemokamun (Big Shot). His house on Jefferson Avenue between Griswold and Shelby streets had a dock on the river to accommodate his trade, and Native Americans were frequent visitors to his store.

Along with his uncle John R. Williams, he owned the Democratic Free Press and Michigan Intelligencer, today’s Detroit Free Press. Campau was also a slaveowner and is described as a slumlord in contemporary literature.

Campau was married to Adelaide Dequindre and the two had twelve children. He died on July 23, 1863, and at the time of his death owned over $10 million worth of real estate, making him the largest landowner in Michigan and one of Detroit’s wealthiest citizens. Campau is buried in Detroit’s Elmwood Cemetery, separated in death from his wife Adelaide, who lies in the adjacent Catholic, Mount Elliott Cemetery. Campau was excommunicated in 1817 for being a member of the Masons and selling alcohol to the Native Americans. A Detroit street bears his name, running from the Detroit River through Hamtramck.

 


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