Isle Parisienne plays key role in past, historian writes

Idyllic island well known in age of sail; importance overshadowed Sault in 1700s

Isle Parisienne has more history than you might imagine.

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“You can almost feel the vastness,” says sailor Carole Anne Zuke Naslovar. “It’s very quiet.”
She’s describing the experience of spending a night anchored off the shore of Ile Parisienne. You may know it. It’s the low-lying, uninhabited island that peeks above the water at the western edge of Goulais Bay. Along with Whitefish Point, immediately to its south, it guards the passage west to Superior.
Naslovar and some fellow members of the Algoma Sailing Club faced choppy waters and had to put in for the night before returning to Sault Ste. Marie. “Superior, she’s fickle,” she warns.
It’s a bit of wisdom the island has taught many travelers. Vacant, quiet, unassuming—this thin strip of land has in fact played a key role in the history of Great Lakes’ navigation and has been host to influential settlers, naturalists and politicians.
In 1845, for example, William H. Seward found himself between jobs as New York’s governor and as U.S. Secretary of State in Lincoln’s famed “team of rivals.” (Like Lincoln, he was a target of assassination on the night of April 14, 1865; unlike Lincoln, he survived.) Seeking some adventure at the time, he took an impromptu trip to what was then the Northwest frontier of the United States, and, of course, to Ile Parisienne. With his guide he spent an afternoon on the island’s quiet eastern shores.
“We read, conversed, laughed, wrote letters, and amused ourselves with contemplating the stillness and solitude of the scene around us,” he writes of his experience. “I fell asleep, leaving the scene so calm that an infant would have smiled upon it.”
Superior would soon remind him of its force.
“I was awaked an hour or two afterward by the heaving of the waves. The lion with which we had played so long was roused, and soon gave us a touch of his nature.”
Seward was not the only island visitor to be snared by Superior. In 1816 the Earl of Selkirk sent several prisoners back for trial from the colony that was to become the province of Manitoba. When the party set out from the island against the advice of its two guides one canoe capsized and nine persons drowned. A subsequent inquiry absolved Selkirk of negligence but, according to one witness, “It cannot be doubted, that a heavy moral responsibility attaches to his Lordship in this transaction!”
Nor was Seward the only American politician to be infatuated with the island’s beauty. Robert Roosevelt, a congressman, sportsman and inspiration to his nephew the future President Theodore Roosevelt wrote poetically in 1865 about an island that “seemed floating on the water” of a bay “bathed in the glorious reflection of a cloudless sky.”
While some thought of the island as an Eden, other nineteenth-century writers thought of it in more gothic terms. “A generation ago scores of whitening skulls grinned a ghastly welcome to him who reached its shore,” wrote one aspiring author at the University of Michigan in 1867. He would go on to describe the definitive 1662 battle of the Iroquois Wars, in which Anishinaabe warriors stemmed the westward expansion of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.
Today the site of this battle is traditionally understood to be on the north shore of Michigan’s upper peninsula. Yet the earliest written record, by Nicolas Perrot in 1688, simply reports that the battle took place “at the mouth of Superior, six leagues from the Sault.” Unclear evidence, but perhaps a good reminder that this quiet island sits in a bay brimming with history.
Yet it’s a history not always well remembered. Take the island’s elegant name. “Isle Parisienne” is in fact an early nineteenth-century corruption of its original and more rustic moniker. “The guy from Paris’s Island” (“I. au Parisien”) is what is appears on maps of New France and Upper Canada, from Franquelin’s of 1688 through Bonne and Raynal’s of 1780. A U.S. map by John Cary from 1805 calls it the “Isle aux Prussian.” Not the first time, perhaps, an American was mistaken about Canadian geography.
Who might the island’s Parisian (not Prussian) namesake have been? There were more than a few Great Lakes’ fur traders in the late 1600s who went by this name, including the famous Le Parisien who deserted his French commander in 1681, leaving behind a scrap of wood scrawled with the iconic words, “Nous sommes tous sauvages”—“We are all wild now.”
We may not remember the Parisian today, but during the age of sail his island was as well known as any place in the Great Lakes. In the Geographical and Critical Dictionary prepared for King Philip of Spain in 1732 the “Isle du Parisien” has its very own entry. The Sault is barely mentioned.
Technology changed all that in 1912 when a lighthouse was erected on the island’s southwestern tip. No longer an important stop for those who travelled by the power of their oars and arms, the island instead became an obstacle for steamships on the newly industrialized Great Lakes.
Fickle Superior would have its revenge 10 years later. The first lighthouse keeper and his assistant drowned when their ship foundered in Whitefish Bay.
Ironically it would be technology that would return Ile Parisienne to nature. The lighthouse has now been automated, abandoning the island to the beavers, hawks, and—modern legend has it—the snakes that live there today. Abandoning it also perhaps to our imagination. Deserted islands have a kind of mystical power.
“It’s like an echo,” is how Naslovar describes the experience of anchoring offshore. Whispers, perhaps, from 400 years of Great Lakes history.

Keith Johnson is an historian whose work has appeared in Oxford University Press. He is a Sault Ste. Marie native who now works in Los Angeles.

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