"Hog Island" in the Detroit River, with ribbon farms on the northern bank, in 1796. Detail from map by George Henry Victor Collot, wikicommons.

Belle Isle Name Legend

Image: “Hog Island” in the Detroit River, with ribbon farms on the northern bank, in 1796. Detail from map by George Henry Victor Collot, wikicommons.

Click here to see all narratives about Belle Isle

Click here to see resources for further reading on Belle Isle

A satirical article in the Detroit Free Press in 1869 offered a very strange legend concerning the naming of Belle Isle. It was said that back when the Island was inhabited by Native Americans, there was a beautiful woman named Bell. Her father, Stick in the Mud, was a leader of the tribe on Belle Isle. One day Bell nearly drowned in the Detroit River but was saved by J. Adolphus, a white man who was fishing on the island. Bell and Adolphus fell in love and asked Stick in the Mud for his blessing in their marriage. Stick in the Mud refused to consent to the marriage, so Bell decided to run away to be with Adolphus. As Bell was escaping from the Island in her canoe, Stick in the Mud followed. As they neared the shore of Detroit, Adolphus saw the chase and took his own boat out to get Bell. As they neared each other, Stick in the Mud drew a gun and began to yell, “Bell, I’ll shoot!” but all he got out was “Bell, I’ll…” before a steam boat came through and crushed all three people, killing them and sending them to the bottom of the river. People on the shore had heard Stick in the Mud yell “Bell I’ll” and named the island “Belle Isle” from then on.

This story is strange and ridiculous, however it does offer some insight into the feelings of people about Belle Isle. The desire for a romantic history behind the most natural and pristine place in the city of Detroit, one that includes Indians and excitement shows both the sentiments of the time and the natural inclination of people to assign special meaning and significance to their natural spaces. People attach themselves to wilderness, they enjoy the idea of a wild space. This legend just proves how much people enjoy the romantic ideas of wilderness, especially in the middle of a large urban environment.

The true story of Belle Isle’s name is not as colorful, but it does provide a sense of the city’s history. The island was first known as Wah-nah-be-zee when it was owned by the Pottawatami Indians. The first French fur traders to pass through the area named it Isle au St. Claire, but as settlement increased and the place was found to be overrun with snakes, local farmers put hogs on the island to deplete the population. After that, it became known as Ile de Cochons, or Hog Island.

In 1769, when Lieutenant George MacDougall arrived in Detroit, he was given permission to buy the island from the Native Americans by King George III. During the Revolutionary War, the island was used to house rebel prisoners. McDougall’s heirs eventually sold the island to William Macomb, who in turn sold it to Barnabas Campeau. The island gained another new use in the early It was during this time that the island also served as a makeshift quarantine station when a ship headed to Chicago was found to have a case of cholera on board. Once this had passed, the island grew to be quite a popular attraction for the citizens of Detroit.

By 1840, however, a ferry service had opened between the island and the shore, and in 1951 it was officially renamed Belle Isle, a more fitting name for the pleasant natural park the city hoped it would become.

  • Belle Isle: The Indian Legend Concerning Its Name,” The Detroit Free Press N/A (August 29th, 1869)
  • William Cronon, “The Trouble With Wilderness,” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place In Nature, ed. William Cronon (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1995), 69-90.

Click here to see all narratives about Belle Isle

Click here to see resources for further reading on Belle Isle

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