1879 : Detroit Buys Belle Island

September 23, 2018 all-day

Detroit's Belle Isle book cover

On September 23, 1879, the city of Detroit purchased Belle Island with the hope of creating a grand park that might eventually rival New York City’s Central Park.

The rest of the story:

The Pottawotami Indians who lived along the Detroit River were the first to claim ownership to the island in the Detroit River. They called it Wah-nah-be-zee (White Swan). As the story is told, the Indians erected a statue in honor of the Great Spirit Manitou along the banks of the Detroit River. When the idol was discovered by priests accompanying LaSalle’s exploration party in 1699, the destroyed it. The Indians returned to find their holy spot desecrated, and after gathering the pieces of the statue, set off for the island. There they scattered pieces of the relic, and as the fragments landed, they turned into rattlesnakes. Manitou felt this would protect him from the white man.

When Antoine de Cadillac arrived in 1701, he was followed by many French settlers, who saw the island as a valuable piece of real estate. Legend has it that the French turned herds of pigs loose to eat the rattlesnakes. The reality may well be that the French used the island to confine hogs and other animals from theft by the Indians. Regardless, the island became knows as Ile de Cochons (or Hog Island). For a time, the island was used for grazing livestock.

Ownership of the island changed hands a number of times between 1762 and 1879. First the French, then the British, claimed ownership (in keeping with the possession of Detroit). McDougall is believed to be the first individual who owned the island, purchasing it in 1769. William Macomb purchased Belle Isle from George McDougall in 1793. In 1817, Macomb sold the island to Barnabas Campeau, whose descendants sold it to the City of Detroit in 1879 for the sum of $200,000. Many Detroiters opposed the purchase, objecting to the price.

In more recent times, the state of Michigan has taken over Belle Island as a state park and has begun updating facilities.

Source: Michigan Every Day.

For more information, see

Detroit’s Belle Isle : island park gem / Michael Rodriguez and Thomas Featherstone. Chicago, IL : Arcadia Pub., c2003.

Island in the city : Belle Isle, Detroit’s beautiful island : how Belle Isle changed Detroit forever / compiled and written by Janet Anderson ; [cover and book design, Janet Adnerson with assistance from Robert Anderson, Jr. ; graphics, Ann Bentson]. [Detroit : Heitman-Garand Co.?], c2001.

History of the Park by Belle Isle Conservancy.

Note: Mich-Again’s Day cites September 25, 1879 as the day  the City of Detroit paid $200,000 to several private owners and purchased Belle Isle to, as the Free Press reported, “insure a magnificent park to Detroit for all time to come.”


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