Encyclopedia Of Detroit

French Heritage: Legends of le Detroit

Legends of le Detroit, published in Detroit in 1883, is a collection of folklore, genealogy, and family narratives related to the founding and early history of the city. Compiled by Marie Caroline Watson Hamlin, a little-known local folklorist, it consists of over 30 folk stories rooted in Detroit's early history, as well as Native American and French folklore.

The volume contains versions of many tales such as the well-known "Nain Rouge" which is very much local to the area. "La Chasse Galerie," flying canoe, is a folktale related to both the European tradition of the wild hunt and to Native American legends of an enchanted canoe. Perhaps most familiar is 'Le Loup Garou,' a werewolf tale in the tradition of old European wolf stories, but also influenced by the encounter of French and Native peoples. In addition, the volume contains several family narratives and genealogies of prominent early French Canadian families in Detroit. The genealogies are not always considered reliable, but are nonetheless valuable resources for family researchers.

Marie Caroline Watson Hamlin's background made her uniquely suited to the task of preserving the rapidly fading memory of early French Detroit culture. Through her mother, she was descended from many of Detroit's earliest settlers, including the Godfroy, Navarre, and Marentette families. Research on her family background shows that as an infant in 1850 her family lived in the village of Springwells next door to a household of both Marentette and Godfroy family members. In 1860, she was living in the household of a Mrs. Godfroy, likely her grandmother.

In an address entitled "Old French Tradtions" which she delivered before the Wayne County Pioneer Society in 1878 (subsequently published in the Report of the Pioneer Society of the State of Michigan, volume 4), she made clear that the traditions and stories she had collected for both the address and Legends had been passed down through the generations of her family. They were based on recollections as well as research, with input from individuals whose memories were able to stretch back to the previous (18th) century.

The value of Legends of le Detroit lays in part in its folklore and family narratives. It is also important for what it tells us about the state of French culture in Detroit in Hamlin's lifetime, which was well after the era of French exploration, the fur trade, and decades after the British, then American, forces transformed it from a French town into an English one. Nearing the end of the 19th century, Hamlin's work suggests a vibrant cultural heritage current among the French Canadian populace of the time. It also attests to the viability and continuation of an oral tradition that is a hallmark of French Canadian culture and an important legacy of the fur trade. The work is a vital reference for artists, writers, and community members seeking out the earliest sources of Detroit's rich cultural fabric.

While the book itself is out of print, you can download it in full at the Internet Archive: http://archive.org/details/cu31924028870686

Written by James LaForest