Cadillac named for early Louisiana Governor

By Dr. Terry L. Jones
Journal Correspondent

One hundred fifteen years ago this month the first automobile rolled out of the Cadillac Automobile Factory. A two-seat, single cylinder contraption, it was powered by a thunderous ten horse power engine.

Cadillac is the second oldest automobile brand name in America (Buick is the oldest), and it comes from Antoine de la Mothe, Sieur de Cadillac (1658-1730), the French official who founded what became the city of Detroit, Michigan.

But Cadillac has another place in history. From 1713 to 1717, he served as Louisiana's governor.

The son of a minor French judge, Cadillac settled in Canada and married the niece of a Canadian privateer. An ambitious, and rather unscrupulous, young man, he realized that only members of nobility amounted to anything in colonial Canada. Thus, Cadillac brazenly created a title for himself and signed his marriage certificate "Antoine de la Mothe, Sieur de Cadillac."

Apparently no one looked into the fraudulent claim, and Cadillac's fortunes began to rise. He acquired land in what is now Acadia National Park in Maine, and Cadillac Mountain on Desert Island still bears his name. An appointment to the French Marines and commandant of Michilimackinac in modern-day upper Michigan followed.

It was while serving in the latter position that Cadillac convinced Minister of Marine Comte de Pontchartrain to allow him to establish the outpost that would become Detroit. Accusations of misconduct and incompetence soon swirled around him, however, and Pontchartrain launched an investigation that concluded Cadillac was, indeed, a scoundrel.

Instead of arresting Cadillac, Pontchartrain appointed him governor of the struggling Louisiana colony. Why he promoted a known incompetent to such a position is not known, but it may be that Pontchartrain preferred that to admitting he had been duped by such a fraud. Whatever the reason, Cadillac arrived at his new post in 1713 with his wife and two daughters.

Cadillac had been told that Louisiana was a prosperous colony, but his first stop at Dauphin Island shocked him. After fourteen years of settlement, the island boasted just one shriveled garden with a scattering of fruit trees and vineyards with rotten grapes. "This is the terrestrial paradise?" he asked.

Things spiraled downward from there. Haughty, pompous, untrustworthy, and corrupt, Cadillac became the object of scorn when he settled in at the capital of Fort St. Louis de la Mobile (in modern-day Alabama). Fort St. Louis flooded regularly, and its inhabitants lived in small shacks with dirt floors and deer skin windows. Nonetheless, the tall, thin-legged governor insisted on wearing the large curly wigs and fancy clothes that were popular in France.

Cadillac clashed with the economic official known as the commissary and former governor Jean Baptiste Lemoyne, Sieur de Bienville, who now commanded the Marines. Both men despised Cadillac, the former because of the governor's corruption and the latter because Cadillac had replaced him as governor. Bienville also claimed that Cadillac unsuccessfully pressured him to marry one of his daughters to form a political alliance between the LeMoyne and Cadillac families.

No one seemed to care for the new governor. The settlers disliked his haughty manners and the fact that he ordered the men to stop wearing swords (a symbol of rank) and closed the taverns in an attempt to rein in the excessive drinking. The Indians also became angry after Cadillac refused to smoke the traditional calumet, or peace pipe, with them.

Cadillac, in turn, had nothing but disdain for his subjects. He claimed the settlers were lazy, violent, and immoral drunkards and once wrote, "If I send away all the loose females, there will be no women left." Louisiana, Cadillac declared, was "not worth a straw."

Although Cadillac was an unpopular governor, he achieved a great deal during his short stay in Louisiana. He established settlements at Natchitoches and Natchez, increased the population, and improved the colony's governing system by adopting the "Customs of Paris" as the legal code and establishing the Superior Council. The latter was an administrative body of about a dozen members that passed laws and held court.

Despite his achievements, Cadillac's unpopularity led to Bienville replacing him as governor in 1716. Cadillac's time in Louisiana is largely forgotten, but his name lives on in General Motors' most luxurious automobile.

Dr. Terry L. Jones is professor emeritus of history at the University of Louisiana at Monroe and has received numerous awards for his Civil War books and outdoor articles.