Antoine Laumet de La Mothe Cadillac, Detroit, and a Lasting Legend

Antoine Laumet de La Mothe Cadillac, a French explorer and soldier, founded the City of Detroit in 1701. “Detroit” means “strait” and this strait between Lake Erie and Lake Saint Clair was called Fort Pontchartrain du Detroit after the minister of colonies in France. We at BootheGlobalPerspectives wanted to share some history and pleasure related to Antone Cadillac. 

Antoine wanted to be known as "somebody," and he came with a coat of arms and stories of his family heritage from France.  

His crest had ducks and alternating color stripes of black, red and yellow.  He seemed to have had the crest designed similar to his neighbor’s crest in France. 

How could he know that his name, even remnants of his crest, would go on to be one of the most recognizable symbols on Earth?

He was an innovative salesman, and while in command of the Great Lakes post of Michilimackinack in 1694 became successful selling brandy to the Indians and went on to found Fort Detroit, to control the river trade traffic between Lake Erie and Lake Huron.

He later became Governor of Louisiana and retired thereafter in France.

In 1902, 201 years after he founded Detroit, a new company carrying his name, the Cadillac Automobile Company was established on 22 August 1902, re-purposing the Henry Ford Company factory at Cass Street and Amsterdam Avenue. Antonie Cadillac would have been pleased to know that the car manufacturer used Antonie Cadillac's coat of arms to create the Cadillac crest:

It was to be the luxury car of the new company, which became GM. It was to be the innovative car of power and luxury, and it evolved as the "quality" automobile of America. Cadillac had the first metal-covered roof and the first electric starter. Its innovations included the V-8, V-12 and even V-22 engines. The Cadillac was considered the quietest and most powerful auto of its day in America.

Antoine Cadillac would have smiled, as he once exaggerated that his coat of arms was centuries older than America, even though it looked similar to his homeland neighbor Baron Sylvester of Esparbles de Lussan. Like the automobiles that carried his name, it became a creation of his exuberance that evolved to the most recognized automotive crest and hood ornament in America. London had their Rolls Royce, the USA had Cadillac!  


Today, the “ducks” are gone but the seal is undeniably “Cadillac.”



In West Texas, where fortunes were made in agriculture, land, oil, ranching and later in industry and high technology, the sheer idea of a Cadillac became an idea of success and achievement. Every Texan wanted a ranch, an oil well, a nice home with plenty of room for entertaining, and of course a Cadillac in the garage. Every business leader in the western states of Arizona, California and New Mexico considered the Cadillac crest a badge of success. Cadillacs would be driven by a variety of "successful" people ranging from people marked by oil and manure stains, men wearing boots and carrying everything from cowboy hats to medical bags. In the heritage of the West, you often judged a man by the quality of the horse he rode. Cadillac was the best "horse" available in those days. If you noticed the Hollywood scene, the big producers and celebrities rode in long black Cadillac limousines, while actors typically bought a "Caddi" when they got a "hit" production. 

From 1940-1960, my grandfathers had settled in West Texas, in the newly discovered agricultural bonanza of “cotton land” in the Texas Panhandle. The land, formerly ranch land and buffalo grazing country, turned out to be highly productive cotton land. My grandfather, “Dewie Middleton,” managed to get some land, do the backbreaking work of clearing it, and after years of hard work struck it rich. During one year, the rains, the crop and the prices all hit just right. He made a huge crop of 2.5-plus bales of cotton per acre on his dry-land farm.

That year, he made so much money that he paid off his bank debts, bought a Cadillac and got a new set of suits. From then on he assumed the role of a “gentleman farmer.”  The Cadillac was his message to all that he had arrived. From that time on, he did not wear Levi's, nor did he drive a pick up truck. He had stepped up. 

My other grandfather, Noel Boothe, was a merchant in the same area. When WWII came, merchants could make a fortune. There was good retail demand, everyone was working in the defense industry, farm crops and food prices were high, retail goods of all kinds were in demand. No wonder that merchants did well marking up prices to meet the demand. The war economy allowed his business to do so well, that he, too, bought a big, long, black Cadillac with tail fins. It was his announcement that Lamesa, Texas, had a new arrival to the world of successful citizens.

I recall my grandfather Noel keeping that big black Cadillac covered with a tarp in the garage, and he and grandmother would take it out and drive it the eight blocks to church in Lamesa. And after church put it back under the tarp. Oh yes, they drove it to funerals and special occasions, like going to market in Fort Worth or Chicago and on an occasional road trip to New York or California. But that car looked and drove like new for the rest of the years of his life. If Grandpa Noel disappeared from the house, he was probably out in the garage dusting off his big black Cadillac. After Grandpa Noel died, I got a gift of a 22 automatic Remington rifle for Christmas. This brought a new element to the luxury of the Cadillac. My Granny lived alone now and always was eager for company, so I would go and stay with her for weeks at a time. She and I discovered that the Cadillac had eight cigarette lighters in it, perfect for plugging in a hand-held spotlight, and that was perfect for night hunting. When we blew the fuse on one, there was always another place to plug that spotlight in. One night we blew out five cigarette lighters in that Cadillac. I loved that car.

Granny and I would go out after dark in search of jackrabbits on those old, rough, dirt farm roads. She would drive and hold the spotlight out the window while I aptly used the electric buttons to lower the windows, pointed my trusty Remington out the windows, and shot at rabbits. When they ran, I kept shooting and Granny chased after them in that Cadillac. We bounced through the cotton fields of West Texas, going fast to keep from getting stuck in the West Texas sand. Granny and I spotlighted jackrabbits all across Dawson County in that Cadillac. Often we hunted until midnight. We both found it far more entertaining than watching TV at home, night after night. Grandfather Noel would have frowned on bouncing that Cadillac through those farm and ranch roads, or getting his fins dusty, but Granny and I had a ball. Her idea: "If we are going to have fun, let's do it in class!" What fun for a bored, lonely, widowed Grandmother and a lonely child of unhappy parents. We found a lot of joy together, outrageously bouncing a long black Cadillac across pastures chasing rabbits, shooting and hooping and laughing. Granny and I were in a place of creative escape and a kind of heaven. It was good for both of us. We aroused curiosity as well as a good deal of conversation among the local farmers and ranchers. Often the mornings after, they would drop by Granny's five-and-dime store on the town square of Lamesa and ask, "Lena, was that your Cadillac shooting up my cotton fields last night around midnight?" They would laugh and shake their heads and say, "Only Lena Boothe and her grandson Ben would hunt jackrabbits in a Cadillac." 

We had never heard of Antoine Laumet de La Mothe Cadillac, nor did we know that his flamboyant life and innovative style became a pattern for later businessmen to make a car of the ages. We didn't know that he had founded Detroit. Nor did we know that it was his family crest on our hood ornament. But thinking back now, it is appropriate to think back of what the Cadillac message has been in America's history. It truly became a symbol of success or affluence. For years, Cadillac dealerships discouraged black people from buying, but then in a change, they opened it up. When they did, company sales skyrocketed, because black people by the droves wanted a car showing that they were also successful.  

The Cadillac has touched our national mindset in other ways, too. Remember when Elvis Presley had his first hit record, and he bought his mother a new house and himself a Cadillac. Remember the Cadillacs of Hollywood that western stars put "Longhorns" on?  I remember the Cadillac that John F. Kennedy rode in Dallas that fateful day. I recall President LBJ and the photos of him driving his convertible Cadillac across his ranch with a beer in hand, scaring his cattle as he created a cloud of dust. I recall Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor riding in their Cadillac in the movie "Giant," as they drove to that cafe where Rock Hudson fought a bigoted café owner because he wouldn’t serve their “Mexican” daughter in law. Do you remember the Cadillac’s of celebrities at the great golf tournaments or leading the parades on the Fourth of July? Remember each of our presidents have driven special Cadillacs as they travel the USA?  I once was in a meeting in Fort Worth, and an important national political candidate was coming to town. One of my friends was assigned to pick him up at the airport. He said, "I have to pick him up in an American made luxury car, a Cadillac."  Yes, special cars. But none have been as special as my two grandfathers' Cadillacs. Those cars were more than cars, they were ideas and statements, which meant a lot to them in many ways. 

Cadillac -- its story, its crest, its nod to quality and luxury, has lived well with it’s branding of excellence. Now I have driven Rolls Royces, BMW's, Mercedes Benzes, owned two Lincoln Towncars, owned a Lexus and three Jaguars. One day, I was driving a beautiful Jaguar that I had just bought, and a guy came up beside me on the interstate, 100 miles south of Dallas, in a Cadillac. So, we decided to have a little race, and to my surprise that Cadillac left me so quickly behind that I could barely catch a glimpse of  him shooting a finger at me through his rear view mirror. Oh, the Japanese and Europeans make wonderful cars, but just from my experience, they simply are not a "Made in the USA Cadillac." Dollar for dollar, for performance and comfort, but also for history and heritage, I'll take a Cadillac any day. 

My lovely wife said recently, “Ben, you work so hard. Why don’t you buy a car just because you like it. Get something just to enjoy.” So I started thinking of my grandfathers. I bought a black Cadillac. Now I think I have touched a bit of understanding of both of my grandfathers.  I have actually taken pride in, and enjoyed driving that Cadillac.  Oh, no doubt,  it is just a car, something available to anyone who can come up with the funds. But when I think of starting that machine with my cell phone, or checking the tire pressure or my fuel level by a glance at my I Phone, or  letting the car tell me how to be a better driver, or having enough speed and power so that no one can pass and cut me off, or listening to the best quality sound of music that BOSE can create . . . I really appreciate the quality. I think I know more about my grandfathers now.  Now, my Cadillac is not as long as theirs were, and it doesn't have tail fins. But it is good looking to me. It is a real pleasure to drive. 

Come to my house, and I’ll take you to the Sonic or a drive-in café. We will sit in the Cadillac and eat a banana split and talk about good things of life. We'll share stories of the Cadillacs we have seen and known. We may get out on the highway, open up all of the windows and speed past every car in sight, as if to say: "Catch us if you can!" No, we will not hunt jackrabbits in it. But we will find some nice place to stop and have a meal and drink a toast to old Antoine Laumet de La Mothe Cadillac. Cheers Antone!  Thanks for Detroit, for your namesake that it gave birth to.