Michigan Legends: Folktales and Lore from the Great Lakes State

Michigan Legends: Folktales and Lore from the Great Lakes State

by Sheryl James


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Over the course of its history, the state of Michigan has produced its share of folktales and lore. Many are familiar with the Ojibwa legend of Sleeping Bear Dunes, and most have heard a yarn or two told of Michigan’s herculean lumberjack, Paul Bunyan.

But what about Detroit’s Nain Rouge, the red-eyed imp they say bedeviled the city’s earliest residents? Or Le Griffon, the Great Lakes’ original ghost ship that some believe haunts the waters to this day? Or the Bloodstoppers, Upper Peninsula folk who’ve been known to halt a wound’s bleeding with a simple touch thanks to their magic healing powers?

In Michigan Legends, Sheryl James collects these and more stories of the legendary people, events, and places from Michigan’s real and imaginary past. Set in a range of historical time periods and locales as well as featuring a collage of ethnic traditions—including Native American, French, English, African American, and Finnish—these tales are a vivid sample of the state’s rich cultural heritage. This book will appeal to all Michiganders and anyone else interested in good folktales, myths, legends, or lore.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472051748
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 04/30/2013
Pages: 160
Sales rank: 1,154,464
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Sheryl James is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who has written for the Detroit Free Press and the St. Petersburg Times. She is the author of The Life and Wisdom of Gwen Frostic.

Read an Excerpt

Michigan Legends

Folktales and Lore from the Great Lakes State

By Sheryl James

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2013 Sheryl James
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-472-07174-6


The Nain Rouge, Demon of Detroit

LET US STEP THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS to a regal, royal moment long, long ago. It is 1701. We are in a castle named for St. Louis XIV of France in a place called Quebec. It is a beautiful land in New France, which is a vast, new dominion in North America encompassing present-day Canada, Michigan, and territory all the way to New Orleans. It is a proud extension of its mother country.

People bustle about the banquet hall in this castle on this March 10, just a few months prior to the founding of Detroit. These are distinguished guests bearing the names of France's best families. One of them — indeed, the guest of honor — is a gentleman who will land a few months hence at the place we know today as Detroit. His full name, Monsieur Antoine Laumet de la Mothe, Sieur de Cadillac, Sieur de Douaguet and Mont Desert, rings with melodic French names that will eventually populate the history of this territory, part of which will later be called Michigan.

Despite the fact that Cadillac is a notorious scoundrel with many enemies, he fought for his native France as a lieutenant at age twenty-one. This earned him a post in New France as commander of Michilimackinac — a fort and village in that wild country where the two Great Lakes, Huron and Michigan, share waters. It is a land where Indians are as plentiful as the forests and the great white fish in Lake Huron.

Cadillac's interactions with these Indians have been so fruitful that he has been rewarded even further with a grant for a tract of land along the strait (now known as two connections, the Detroit River and the St. Clair River) that connects Lake Erie and Lake Huron. Cadillac has seen this area and proposed it as a perfect site for a fort. From such a fort, he could repel the Iroquois, a confederation of nettlesome tribes, and help fend off the English, who are just as determined to make the New World their own as is France. A fort on this strait could give France better access to the riches further West, as New France colonizes ever more land.

All is going beautifully in Cadillac's life, and he is enjoying the banquet very much. As he and his guests revel in wine and food, a servant asks the host of the banquet to allow an old fortune-teller to entertain the guests. The guests welcome such amusement. So the old woman enters the banquet hall, but she hardly looks entertaining. Rather, she looks foreboding. She was later described as "a woman of unusual height, a dark, swarthy complexion, restless, glittering eyes — strangely fashioned garments." She bears a black cat on her shoulder.

When asked her name, she responds, "Mere Minique, La Sorciere." She begins to read palms, the cat seeming to whisper in her ear at key times, and her comments about various guests are so accurate that they draw gasps. There is something "supernatural" about this woman.

Now, Cadillac is a proud man steeped in his great accomplishments. When the fortune-teller approaches him, he says, "See what you can tell for me of the future; I care not for the past."

As the old sorceress grasps his palm, she pronounces, "Yours is a strange destiny. A dangerous journey you will soon undertake; you will found a great city that one day will have more inhabitants than New France now possesses; many children will nestle around your fireside." But then the woman reveals a darker message. Because Cadillac insists on selling liquor to Indians (contrary to the advice of the Catholic priests serving these natives), Cadillac will encounter pain and ruin. Indians will storm his colony, the English will threaten domination, and the flag of a new nation, which will possess "prosperity that you never in your wildest dreams pictured," will fly over this new colony he is to establish along the Detroit River.

Is there nothing that can waylay this dreadful future, Cadillac asks — half believing and half scoffing at this woman's prophecy. She warns him against his "undue ambition," but most important, she advises, he must appease the Nain Rouge.

The guests inhale at the mention of this creature. They all know of the Nain Rouge, whose name is French for "red dwarf" and who is well known now as the "Demon of the Strait." This being can be very foul and bring bad luck if offended, but less so if appeased. They know the Nain Rouge migrated here from Normandy, France, and is the particular haunt of Detroit. They know that you mock the Nain Rouge at your peril.

The fortune-teller tells Cadillac that if he does not appease the Nain Rouge should the creature come across his path, his children will receive not one shred of inheritance, and the city he founds will scarcely be connected to his name. These are the fortune-teller's final words.

The party is soon over, not surprisingly. Many guests leave impressed, if not shaken, by the woman's words. But Cadillac is not. In fact, he makes fun of her later that evening at home. But his wife, Madame Cadillac, is alarmed. She expresses fear to her husband, but he ignores her advice to heed the fortune-teller's warnings.

The next day, Cadillac leaves Quebec with fifty soldiers, fifty artisans and voyageurs, and several Jesuit priests to head toward the strait, where he will establish his fort. He arrives on July 24, 1701. Ottawas and Hurons come to meet this entourage, along with a few Frenchmen who live in the area already. Two days later, on St. Anne's Day, Cadillac christens Fort Pontchartrain, founding the settlement that will become the city of Detroit. The very name Detroit comes from the French words meaning "of the strait."

So far, so good. The more positive predictions of the fortune-teller are coming true, although Cadillac still gives the teller no credit. After all, he already had planned to do all of this, so what is the sense of believing an old woman's foolish words?

But the woman did not say all of these things would happen at once. She did not say when the Nain Rouge might make its appearance. Even she could not predict that.

We move forward six years to 1707. The little community has grown. The annual birthrate is fourteen. There is great pomp and circumstance near Fort Pontchartrain, at Cadillac's home on the road that will later be known as Jefferson Avenue. It is time to put up the maypole, and the day is full of festivities. Everywhere, there are prosperous, colorfully dressed people, contented Indians who share in the dancing, and an overall sense of great peace.

But this soon will feel more like mirage than merriment.

Later that night, the festivities over, Cadillac is walking along the river shore with his wife, full of enthusiasm about how well things are going, how much his children will inherit, and how his name will indeed be famous.

Just about then, a couple of men pass by. It is easy to see they are poor by the rags they wear and by their weary expressions. They are talking about their miseries, discussing how lavishly the upper echelons live while the region's poor suffer. One of them tells the other that the good life will not last long, because his wife saw the Nain Rouge years before. It is a sure harbinger of doom.

Cadillac and his wife overhear this comment, and Madame Cadillac shows panic. "So what?" is Cadillac's response when his wife reminds him of the fortune-teller's prediction. Cadillac waves her panic aside, and the two turn back home.

Suddenly, across their path flashes a fiendish, small red creature. It grins ghoulishly, showing sharp yet rotten teeth, but its keenest attribute is the gleam in its eyes. It is a gleam that seems to burn and freeze at the same time.

"It is the Nain Rouge!" gasps Madame Cadillac.

Irritated, Cadillac strikes at the creature's hand with his cane, saying, "Get out of my way, you red imp!"

The creature disappears, his foul chortle rising in the air like rancid smoke.

Madame Cadillac rebukes her husband. He did not appease, as he was told, she says. Now, his life will crumble into ruin.

Here, we leave the fateful couple and look at what happened after this day.

Cadillac visited Montreal not long after this encounter with the Nain Rouge and was arrested on charges put forth by his enemies. He had to sell everything to defend himself, giving up his Detroit investment and just about everything else. He ended up being reassigned to Louisiana and eventually died in France, and his children did not inherit anything of the colony he had established in 1701.

This is sad enough, to see the end of the man who, despite his pride, established our fair city of Detroit.

But sadder still was the Nain Rouge's reappearance as the Demon of the Strait. Let us visit these times.

It is July 1763. Detroit is now ruled by the British, what with the bad luck wrought upon the French colony by the earlier cursed appearance of the Nain Rouge. These are not happy times in Detroit. The British and inhabitants of Detroit are fighting Indians, who besiege the city unexpectedly, bringing bloodshed and fear. Chief Pontiac's braves, who are staging what will thereafter be known throughout the territory as Pontiac's Uprising, have placed Detroit under a kind of siege, with attempts on and off to storm the fort, often by feigning peace.

The British learn the location of Pontiac's encampment and plan a surprise attack. The camp is at Parent's Creek, two miles east of the fort. As the British prepare for this attack, word comes that the Nain Rouge has made an appearance. Something horrible is about to happen. The British either don't know or don't believe the warning connected to this mythical creature, and they move on the next morning, July 31, 1763.

But someone — perhaps one of the French farmers nearby, who chafe under British rule — reveals the British plan to Pontiac, and he is ready at dawn when the British launch their not-so-surprise attack. Some sixty British soldiers are brutally killed, and many more are wounded. Their blood pours into Parent's Creek, turning it red.

Ever since, this creek has been known as Bloody Run, and the massacre of the British soldiers is called the Battle of Bloody Run. The massacre also has been known ever since as one more tragedy connected to the Nain Rouge. Today, the creek runs through Detroit's historic Elmwood Cemetery, a fitting location.

The next Nain Rouge appearance presaged the worst tragedy in Detroit history. Several people reported seeing the creature before this tragedy occurred. Let us return to this day.

It is June 11, 1805. Detroit, still largely located within the "pickets" surrounding the fort, is a small but vital river town. A man who is smoking a pipe is sent by a baker to harness horses in a small stable on Ste. Anne Street, now known as Jefferson Avenue. A spark from the man's pipe falls on a pile of hay. Flames suddenly shoot up, take hold, and spread.

At first, people do not think that the fire is serious. But an increasing wind and the presence of highly flammable material, such as thatched roofs, soon transform the smaller fire into a holocaust. Within three hours, only one building inside the fort stands amid ashes everywhere.

A priest, the Reverend John Dilhert, who supplied one of the only eyewitness accounts to survive, later wrote, "In the course of three hours ... nothing was to be seen of the city except a mass of burning coals and chimney-tops stretching like pyramids into the air." The smoke made the city look like "a funeral pile," he reported, adding, "It was the most majestic, and at the same time the most frightful spectacle I ever witnessed. The city contained at least one hundred and fifty houses, mostly frame, which caused the fire to spread with the utmost rapidity."

There were no fatalities — perhaps due to the homage paid by those who saw the Nain Rouge.

You would think that all of this destruction would have constituted enough revenge, even for an especially vengeful, cursed creature. But yet another highly honored man, William Hull, the first governor appointed to the newly formed Michigan Territory, would be stung by the Nain Rouge.

This would occur not long after the territory claimed by New France was lost to the British with the fall of Quebec in 1759 and that of Montreal in 1760. These conquests ended years of battles between the British and French as they tried to gain total control of as much of the New World as possible. Part of this fight was known as the French and Indian War, or the Seven Years' War.

After the British took over Detroit came the Revolutionary War, which was won by the Americans, of course. But the British did not immediately leave Detroit. Americans finally arrived in the city in 1796, and then came the formal declaration of the Michigan Territory in 1805.

Still, the Revolutionary War did not end neatly with the 1783 Treaty of Paris, historians say. This is not hard to understand, given the mosaic of French, Indian, and British back-and-forth settlement, occupation, and fighting. Some historians contend that the Revolutionary War really ended with the peace treaty that ended the War of 1812.

It was Governor Hull who was in charge of Detroit when that war began, and here begins our next Nain Rouge story.

It is June 12, 1805. Ironically, the newly appointed Governor Hull arrives to his new post the very day after the 1805 fire has reduced Detroit to ashes, which alone should have warned him that this would not be a positive time. Still, Hull begins the process of rebuilding of the city. Years go by until it is 1812 — the year of yet more war.

The British in Canada plan to attack Detroit, hoping to advance British efforts to claim more territory in the New World. Governor Hull, who later will say he did not know that war had actually been declared (though it was expected), leads troops across the Detroit River and occupies Sandwich, a small town right on the banks of the strait. He does not know that the British have sunk a ship with documents about possible battle plans, which Hull had sent out earlier. Everything is going wrong for Hull.

The Canadian army in the area is far smaller than Hull's force, so Hull could press his advantage, possibly even claiming much of Canada, which was then a British dominion, for his new country.

Instead, he sits. We do not know why. Did he see the Nain Rouge then, or did he come across the demon well before crossing the river? We will never know, but he was said to have later described some kind of dwarf attack in the fog at about this time. The events following prove the power of the Nain Rouge.

Hull's continued inaction allows the Canadian forces to swell so much that Hull fears to attack at all and, in fact, retreats with his army back across the river to Detroit. The British colonel Henry Proctor quickly seizes this opportunity. He marches his troops to Sandwich and posts huge cannons along the river, pointing at Detroit. The cannons and the size of the Canadian force completely unnerve Hull.

He surrenders Detroit and the entire Michigan Territory without firing one shot.

Eventually, of course, the Michigan Territory was reclaimed by the Americans and marched forward to statehood decades later. But Governor Hull's fate was not so kind. He was tried for treason and cowardice and was convicted of the latter. He ended his days in disgrace, despite his attempt to explain why he acted as he did.

So, you might ask, was this the last of the Nain Rouge?

It would be nice to think that. But that would be ignoring the reports made every so often in Detroit of Nain Rouge sightings, including one just prior to the 1967 Detroit riot.

So, you would be wise to heed the fortune-teller's warnings and the advice Madame Cadillac offered to her husband so long ago. Keep your eye out for a strange, red, fiendish creature with glowing eyes, and if you see it, do not strike at it or make fun of it. Doing so could cause your ruin or yet another tragedy in the history of Detroit.


Two Men and the 1832 Cholera Epidemic

IN DETROIT'S OLD BURYING PLACES are the graves of two men who died of cholera in Detroit in 1832, a year remembered with dread for decades by Detroiters. These men may never have met — although their meeting is not unlikely, given their positions during this terrible time — but the stories of their lives share some strange parallels and contrasts. And they both, if the legends are true, greatly affected the fate of Detroit in that unforgettable year.

One of these men was said to have brought the cholera to Detroit before he died of that disease; the other was said to have ended cholera when he, too, died of the malady.

The first man was an unknown visitor and, some say, a soldier for a short time, and he is remembered today mainly for his tombstone's story. The other man was one of Detroit's most famous people.

The graves of both men eventually were moved from their original locations. With one man, the relocation was accompanied by official state historic markers celebrating his life; with the other, it came with a curse and a mystery.


Excerpted from Michigan Legends by Sheryl James. Copyright © 2013 Sheryl James. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Legends of Early Detroit

The Nain Rouge, Demon of Detroit 3

Two Men and the 1832 Cholera Epidemic 11

An Early Detroit Spirit Sighting 19

The Talking Mare 23

The Werewolf of Early Detroit 28

A Certain Energy at Historic Fort Wayne 33

Tales from Michigan's Thumb

Paul Bunyan: Original Michigan Hero 45

The Spiritual Knowledge at Sanilac 57

Great Lakes Ship Legends

Le Griffon-Michigan's Original Ghost Ship 69

The Western Reserve Ghost 79

Legends of Old Michilimackinac and the Upper Peninsula

The Real Meaning of the Name Michilimackinac 87

The Boy Who Became a Wolf 91

The Magic Healing Powers of the Bloodstoppers 95

How Corn Came to the Indians 99

Legends from Western Michigan

The Safe House at Schoolcraft 105

Dead Shot and Lynx Eye: Brave Scouts of Early Michigan 113

The Great Flood, an Ojibway Legend 124

Why Michigan's Weather Is So Changeable 129

Why the Robin Has a Red Breast 132

Are We Still Creating Legends Today? 137

Image Credits 141

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