Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Manitou of Belle Isle

In 1669 Francois Dollier de Casson and Abbe Brehant de Galinee, French missionaries, left Montreal with an expedition headed for the Ohio River, headed by La Salle. Their intent was to convert the natives living along it’s banks, many of whom had never been visited by missionaries. Along the way the expedition met Louis Joliet at Lake Frontenac, Ontario. Here La Salle was taken ill and forced to give up his expedition, for a time. Joliet, in the meantime had convinced Dollier and Galinee to give up on their original goal and go in search of natives to convert in the region of the Great Lakes. The two shortly bade farewell to both La Salle and Joliet and set out, with seven men, toward what is now Detroit. The group had to stop and camp for the winter at Long Point which is on the northern shoreline of Lake Erie.
Their expedition resumed following the winter and in the spring of 1670 the expedition landed on the shores of an island in the Detroit River. All of the European men were awestruck by the majesty of the region with it’s clear waters and virgin forests. Game was aplenty, with herds of bison watering at the river’s edge, hardly scared of the men and deer gazing back at the men. They wandered the island grateful for the beauty that they had found.
Shortly the missionaries came upon a clearing in the wood. In the center of the clearing stood a naturally occurring standing stone. It was apparent to the men that the natives idolized the stone, as it had offerings of buckskin, tobacco and food scattered about it. They were certain that they had found a point that a Manitou, or spirit was thought to inhabit. They knew from what their native guides had told them that this was a great Manitou, venerated by all of the local natives.
The missionaries wasted no time in destroying what they beheld as a false idol. They smashed the stone to pieces and in it’s place erected a cross. At the foot of the cross they placed a plaque bearing the coat of arms of France and an inscription reading:

In the year of grace 1670, Clement IX being seated in the chair of St. Peter, Louis XIV reigning in France Monsieur de Corcelles being Governor of New France and Monsieur Talon being the intendant of the King, two missionaries of the Seminary of Montreal, accompanied by seven Frenchmen, arrived at this place and are the first of all the European people who wintered on the land bordering on Lake Erie, which the took possession of in the name of their King, as a country unoccupied, and having fixed the coat of arms of France at the foot of this cross.
(Signed) Francois Dollier
Priest of the Diocese of Nantes, Brittany
De Galinee
Deacon of the Diocese of Rennes, Brittany

The men then tied two canoes together and used them to drag the largest fragment of stone to the deepest part of the river, that it might be worshiped no longer. It is said, however, that when they had left, the native peoples returned to the site and, guided by the Manitou, took the remaining fragments to the deepest part of the river and dropped them in to unite the stone once again. Here the tale has two different endings. In one version, all of the stone fragments unite and form a great sea serpent god, who is later credited with being the “stone god” and father to all witches, wizards, demons and goblins in the great lakes region. It is said that this deity rose up from the waters when La Salle’s own expedition finally reached the Detroit River and pushed his ship into the north that he should never bother the local tribes. In the second version all of the smaller stones become rattlesnakes and are placed upon the holy island to guard against any future sacrilege committed by the white settlers. This second version has ties to another legend surrounding Belle Isle.

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