Encyclopedia Of Detroit

Ribbon Farms

Ribbon farms are long, narrow land divisions, usually perpendicular to a waterway. In North America, ribbon farms are found in various places settled by the French, particularly along the Saint Lawrence River, the Great Lakes, the Detroit River and tributaries, and parts of Louisiana. In and around Detroit, the ribbon farms were ultimately about 250-400 feet wide and up to three miles long.

French explorer Antoine Laumet de La Mothe Cadillac sailed up the Detroit River in 1701 and established Fort Pontchartrain and was given authority to appropriate and grant land to settlers. Beginning in 1707, he awarded farms that extended a mile and a half inland on both sides of the Detroit River, giving each farm a narrow river frontage. 

The ribbon farm layout gave multiple landowners access to the waterway so necessary for transporting goods and travel. The length of the lots ensured a variety of terrain and also made plowing of the fields easier, as fewer turns were needed. Many farmers built houses on the riverfront ends of their lots (as opposed to living in the central village) making communication and socialization easier.

The farm grants came with stipulations such as improving the land, paying dues to Cadillac, and not selling alcohol to Native Americans. Land grants continued after Cadillac left for Louisiana in 1711. When the British took over Detroit in 1760, Native Americans sold their land to settlers who followed the ribbon farm pattern. The first farms ranged from Lake Ste. Claire to Riverside Park (east of the Ambassador Bridge) and eventually spread north to the Clinton River and south to Lake Erie.

Land owners were required to apply for a land patent when the U.S. government took over from the British in 1796 and a land grant office was established in Detroit. The first application granted was from Elijah Brush whose ribbon farm was just east of Fort Pontchartrain. Beginning in 1812, land owners were allowed to double the original mile and a half length of their farms if the land was unoccupied.

In Detroit, farms along the Detroit River were owned by families with names that are familiar today, St. Aubin, and Beaubien, for example. Many streets running from the Detroit River follow ribbon farm boundaries and carry the names of the farm owners.



Map showing the original land claims and ribbon farm layout of Detroit, 1945 - 1950.164.028

Map of Detroit, listing the names and plots of former ribbon farm owners, 1863 - 1961.282.007

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