If you take the time to observe what is around you, sometimes surprising events can be uncovered. We operate a luxury hotel barge (called the Saint Louis) in south-west France, in the Garonne Valley. This area is known for deep countryside, fruit orchards, sunflowers, wine and Armagnac, ancient mediaeval villages, and a turbulent history throughout the centuries. The area is not known for a character who was born in this area as Antoine Laumet, yet most people in the world will know the name that he later adopted.
Antoine was born in a small bastide village in south west France on March 5th, 1658. He was the son of the local judge, he had ten siblings, and he was educated by the Jesuit school. He was a man of great ambition, and he became a great adventurer in the negative as well as the positive sense of the word. He went off to La Rochelle where he enlisted in the army of Louis XIV, before sailing west to fight the English in Nouvelle France (part of what is now the USA and Canada). However, before sailing Antoine decided to adopt a more prestigious name, in order to better his career in the army. And so he became “Antoine Sieur (Lord) de la Mothe Cadillac”.
Not only did Antoine adopt a new name, he also adopted a coat of arms, and he adopted and modified his new coat of arms from that of an aristocratic gentleman who lived only fifteen kilometres away, and who has his arms displayed in stained glass in his local church.
Thanks to his ambition, his drive, and his ruthlessness, Antoine succeeded as a military commander, setting up numerous forts as strongholds against the English. That earned him favour with the King. However, Antoine also carried out his own extensive business trading with the Indians, and it was because of the fact that his main trade was for furs against alcohol that he developed many enemies, particularly among the very influential Jesuits.
On the personal side, Antoine married the daughter of a pirate, with whom he had thirteen children. With her background we may assume, perhaps, that his wife was also born an adventurer.
The last fort Antoine established was in a strategic spot in a narrow valley of the River Détroit – in French détroit means narrow. Antoine held this fort with around a hundred men for some nine years until finally his enemies on his own side managed to prevail and he was relieved of his position and distanced from the Indians with whom he was continuing to trade illegally, and he was given the job of Governor of Luisiana.
Seven years later Antoine returned to France, and he was imprisoned in the Bastille while he sought to clear his name with the King. Eventually, he was released from prison, and with the back-pay that he was given he purchased the Lordship of Castelsarrasin, a town that is also a port on the Canal Garonne, and one in which we moor the Saint Louis for a night most weeks in our cruising season. Antoine finally died in 1730, but his name did not die forever.
In the early days of the motor industry, General Motors in Detroit decided to name a marque of car after the founder of the city, and hence the Cadillac range was born, named after Antoine Sieur de la Mothe Cadillac! Better still, Cadillacs all carry a coat of arms on their bonnet (hood?) – and this of course is the coat of arms that was “borrowed” by Antoine, and which is to be found in stained glass in a church window near here.
The Historical Society of Detroit funded, some twenty-five years ago, the purchase of the house in which Antoine was born, and they funded the establishment of a small museum inside the house. We often take our guests on the barge for a visit to the Cadillac Museum, and we sometimes also take them to the very stained glass window that inspired the coat of arms that ended up on all Cadillacs.
It is amazing to ponder on the timelessness of these events. We today in 2012 can visit a stained glass window in south west France that inspired a false coat of arms around the year 1680, and which has been on the front of every Cadillac made in the USA since the early 1900’s! It is strange to think that a Slow Travel Tour, such as ours, can lead to a fast car!
[boilerplate plate = “Saint Louis Barge”]