Image: Created by Hurd Wheeler Co. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, [LC-D419-153]
When surveyor and explorer Bela Hubbard traveled down the Detroit River with David Houghton in the 1830s, he did not see a bustling city bent in gleaming steel, brick, and concrete.
Instead, he saw trees.
It may be surprising to those familiar with Detroit as it stands today to imagine it as it once was, a massive prairie with wild grape vines and orchards abundant with fruit trees. Of these trees, it was the massive pear tree, often mistaken for an oak, which captured the attention and inquiry of the explorer.
The size of the Detroit pear tree was its most notable quality. Said to grow up to eighty feet, these trees were virtually disease resistant, low maintenance, and produced such a profusion of fruit that one tree could feed a large family for months. Moreover, they were known to triple their crop every three years.
“The fruit,” Hubbard wrote, “ is of medium size, ripening about the end of August…the flesh is crisp, juicy, sweet, and spicy. For stewing and preserving it is quite unrivalled.”
In his work, “Memorials of a Half Century,” Hubbard recorded his first impression of this tree, noting that the river shoreline was lined with numerous ribbon farms, and every farm grew a variety of fruit trees. Throughout his account, Hubbard consistently called the tree the French pear, never mentioning the name Jesuit or Mission, which is what the tree is known as today because of the ongoing story that the French Jesuits planted the trees in the eighteenth century.
But although Hubbard was aware of the suspected origin of the tree, he wrote he would hesitate to say it was a fact.
It was often stated by settlers that the pear trees were brought from Montreal and those specimens were cultivated from seeds brought from France. But Hubbard pointed to the fact that trees cultivated from seed tend to produce the original wild variety, and he added that the Detroit pears were not wild specimens. He concluded the exact origin of the pear trees should be accepted “with hesitation” as equally he did not see how fragile pips could have managed a long voyage in a boat from Normandy.
J. C. Holmes, a Detroit horticulturist at the time, agreed. In his essay, “The Early History of Horticulture in Michigan,” Holmes wrote that he too would hesitate to say these stories about the French heritage of the pear tree are fact, but that it was a common story among the settlers.
“I have seen it stated,” he wrote, “that several pear trees were brought from France in 1749 and planted along the river side from the Brush to the Witherell farm in Detroit, a distance of nearly one mile. How correct this statement is I do not know, but it seems to be a well ascertained fact that in no other locality in this country can such trees be found as the ancient pear trees that are now standing on the banks of the Detroit River.”
In argument to the settlers’ suspicion about the Detroit pear’s heritage, Hubbard noted that grafting the trees was an art seldom practiced in Michigan and not at all in Canada, and he added that no specimen like the Detroit pear existed in Montreal or along the St. Lawrence, which was where the tree supposedly originated after its journey from France.
“I am informed by an old resident that in 1812 or 1813 he saw one cut down which was in the way of a battery that was being built just above the city, and which measured nearly two feet diameter of trunk. Such a growth could hardly have been acquired in less than a century.”
Another telling piece of evidence which discounts the species’ arrival in 1749 and may even debunk the Jesuit Pear’s French heritage all together, is the account of Father Louis Hennepin, who died in 1701. He accompanied Robert Cavelier Sieur de La Salle, a French Jesuit and explorer, during his expedition down what is now known as the Detroit River in 1679.
Hennepin claims that his journey down the riverwas preceded by French Jesuits, but the proof of this is muddled. It has also been noted by historians Frank Woodford and Arthur Woodford that when Hennepin and Cavelier came to the area of Detroit, they did so to “beat” the Jesuits, because they had been told by another explorer, Detroit’s first “tourist,” Adrien Jolliet, that they would find a rich native population ripened for Christian conversion.
The vessel Hennepin and Cavelier sailed, the Griffon, was the first ship beside canoe to travel down the Detroit River. In Hennepin’s journal he describes the bank of the river to have many fruit trees. Add to this the written account made by Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac around the time Fort Detroit was established in 1701:
“The banks of the river are so many vast meadows where the freshness of these beautiful streams keeps the grass always green. These same meadows are fringed with long and broad avenues of fruit trees which have never felt the careful hand of the watchful gardener, and fruit trees, young and old, droop under the weight and multitude of their fruit.”
Whether Cadillac was noting the pear tree is uncertain, but it takes up to twenty years for the Jesuit pear tree to produce a crop, and both Hennepin and Cadillac remarked on the abundance of the fruit trees. Later in his account Cadillac does mention both the apple and plum. The apple trees were also thought to be brought from France. The apple trees Cadillac mentions shed its fruit in piles up to the height of six inches on the ground. A tree this generous would take ten to twenty years of undisturbed growth.
Silas Farmer, Detroit’s first historiographer, wrote in his work, “The History of Detroit and Michigan,” that the Mission Pear was “probably” brought from France since he had yet to find evidence that the mission pear was mentioned specifically in any document prior to Cadillac’s arrival.
These historical accounts, and the knowledge of the tree’s incredible disease resistance and enormous size, speaks volumes to its natural adaptation over many years, which makes it possible to argue that its heritage lies in that of Detroit and not France. However, this is speculation since so little is known. As Hubbard concluded, “It is not a little remarkable that so little should be known of the history of a tree of such extraordinary character.”
Efforts are currently being made to revive and possibly hybridize this species to make it smaller and easier to grow. Thanks to the work of nonprofits like Orchard People, a fruit tree care and education organization based in Canada, and Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste who dedicate their efforts to revive endangered food and livestock varieties, Detroit may see a modest revival of the Jesuit pear.
Although Hubbard was correct about its difficulty to cultivate, some of the ancient Detroit pear trees still exist today. The Slow Food Huron Valley, a local chapter of the national nonprofit, is currently working to locate both the Jesuit pear trees as well as paw paw trees in Michigan and Canada. The Jesuit pear tree was recently nominated to be on the Ark of Taste roster for preservation. So far, Slow Food Huron Valley has mapped just nine Jesuit pear trees in Michigan, and they ask everyone to be on the lookout. If you happen to know the location of one, please visit their website.
Today, Jesuit pear trees are considered a treasure of Michigan’s natural history and the last possible natural evidence of a French presence in Detroit, although their true heritage is somewhat unknown. Regardless, they all may be children of the mysterious pear tree of Detroit’s early days.
Hubbard, Bela. “Memorials of a Half Century.” (New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1887)