Beware the Nain Rouge! A chapter of Detroit folklore

Detroit was already an old city by 1883 when Marie Caroline Watson Hamlin published Legends of le Detroit. Perhaps that volume's most enduring tale is that of the Nain Rouge, the red imp who is rumored to have appeared before each of the most catostrophic episodes in the city's long history, such as the Great Fire of 1805 and the invasion of the British during the War of 1812.

313 years after the founding of Detroit, the Nain Rouge still shows its ugly face from time to time. It is rumored he will appear once again this Sunday in the streets of old Cass Corridor.

The following is an abridged version of Watson Hamlin's account of the first sighting of the Nain Rouge in Detroit. Foolhardy readers take heed! Avoid Cadillac's folly and beware the Nain Rouge!

Transcription by Matthew Lewis


Soft strains of music mingled with sounds of revelry and joyous laughter issued from the banquet hall in the grand old castle of St. Louis, Quebec on the evening of the 10th of March, 1701. Around a table resplendent with costly silver and sparkling glass, sat a gay party of French officers.
Amid the brilliant group were those bearing names which stood high in la belle France, but the post of honor was occupied by Monsieur La Mothe Cadillac.
He had just returned from France, bringing with him a commission of Commandant and the grant of a tract of land fifteen acres square, wherever on "le Detroit" he should see fit to locate a colony and build a fort.
Whilst merriment was at its height, a servant whispered something in the host's ear, and he, turning to the guests, said, "Messieurs, an old fortune-teller craves to enter. Shall I bid her do so?"

A full chorus of "Oui, Monsieur" was the response.

The party had barely changed when the door opened and the figure of an old woman entered.
So strange, so bizarre, was her appearance that a murmur of surprise greeted her. A woman of unusual height, a dark, swarthy complexion, restless, glittering eyes—strangely fashioned garments yet in harmony with her face.

Someone said, "What is your name?"

In a deep, sonorous voice, with a slight foreign accent, she answered, "They call me Mere Minique, La Sorciere."

On her left shoulder was perched a black, meagre cat. Half a dozen palms were stretched forth for her inspection; one after another she read. When she hesitated the cat would lick her ear, and the more superstitious thought it the devil giving information.

Many were the lively sallies as she betrayed some marked peculiarity of the guest, and whisperings of amazement, as at times her knowledge seemed almost supernatural.

At last she came to La Mothe Cadillac, who, naturally skeptical, said, "Ma bonne Mere, see what you can tell for me of the future, I care not for the past."

"Sieur," she said, "yours is a strange destiny. A dangerous journey you will soon undertake; you will found a great city which one day will have more inhabitants than New France now possesses; many children will nestle around your fireside."

She paused and Cadillac, thoroughly interested, bade her continue.

"Mon Chevalier, I wish you had not commanded me to go on, for dark clouds are arising and I see dimly your star. The policy you intend pursuing in selling liquor to the savages, contrary to the advice of the Jesuits, will cause you much trouble, and be the cause of your ruin. In years to come your colony will be the scene of strife and bloodshed. The Indians will be treacherous, the hated English will struggle for its possession, but under a new flag it will reach a height of prosperity which you never in your wildest dreams pictured. You will bask in a sunnier climate, but France will claim your last sigh."
"Shall my children inherit my possessions?" asked Cadillac, unconsciously giving utterance to the secret desire of his heart.
"Your future and theirs lie in your own hands, beware of undue ambition; it will mar all your plans. Appease the Nain Rouge! Beware of offending him. Should you be thus unfortunate not a vestige of your inheritance will be given to your heirs. Your name will be scarcely known in the city you founded."
All were deeply impressed by the prophecy of the sibyl, save him to whom it was addressed. Shortly afterwards the party separated and Cadillac amused his wife by giving her a humorous account of the old prophetess, but, to his amazement, she too, seemed to look upon the event as of grave import.
On the following day La Mothe Cadillac bade farewell to Quebec and left with his expedition of fifty soldiers and fifty artisans and voyageurs.
On the 24th of July, 1701, the head of the expedition rounded Belle Isle and soon landed at a little cove at the foot of the present Griswold Street.
A salute was given from the guns brought for the new fort, which Cadillac christened Fort Pontchartrain.

Detroit was founded, and its prospects for a successful colony bright.
The fortune-teller's prediction, or at least part of it, was verified.

Six years had passed since the founding of Detroit. The frontier settlement began to assume a civilized aspect. The undaunted energy of Cadillac was rewarded by a yearly increase of settlers.
There was great commotion in the little colony on a bright May morning in 1707. In front of the Seigneur de Cadillac's manor a great crowd had assembled.

A hole had been dug in the center of the lawn, and a tall, stately maypole lay ready for raising. The branches had been trimmed off, except a little clump at the top called "the bouquet." And to this had been nailed a parti-colored pole, from which the royal flag with the fair Fleur de Lis of France floated.
It was a gay, light-hearted community, with few taxes to pay, simple tastes to gratify, friendly with the neighboring Indians. Peace, contentment and quiet happiness seemed to reign over this little Arcadia.
So thought Cadillac as at twilight, after the people had dispersed, he strolled with his wife in the King's Garden. His colony was prosperous and his children would inherit a princely portion. His name would become historic and illustrious.

Thus were they talking when two weary revelers homeward bound passed so near them that fragments of their conversation fell on their ears.

"Yes," said Jean Baptiste, "our Seigneur and the Dos Blanc carry themselves very high, with their silver plate and fine clothing, whilst we poor habitants must pay double for everything, even our petit coup 'd eau de vie."
"Things cannot run very long thus," answered his companion. "My wife saw a few days ago 'le petit homme Rouge' and—"

The rest was lost as the speakers disappeared.

Cadillac's wife grasped her husband's hand convulsively and said: "Did you not hear?" ‘Le petit homme Rouge' is the dreaded 'Nain Rouge.' "
"What of that?" said Cadillac.
" 'Beware of the Nain Rouge' was what that prophetess told you; when he should come misfortune was nigh."
"Bah!" laughed Cadillac, "have you not forgotten that nonsense of a silly old fortune-teller? Let us return home."
Annoyed himself at the remembrance, and doubly so at his wife for unconsciously giving utterance to his vague uneasiness, they proceeded in silence.
Suddenly across their path, trotting along the beach, advanced the uncouth figure of a dwarf, very red in the face, with a bright, glistening eye. Instead of burning it froze. Instead of possessing depth it emitted a cold gleam like the reflection from a polished surface, bewildering and dazzling all who came within its focus. A grinning mouth displaying sharp, pointed teeth, completed this strange face.
"It is the Nain Rouge," whispered Cadillac's wife.
Before she had time to say more, Cadillac's ill nature had vented itself in striking the object with a cane he held in his hand, saying, "Get out of my way, you red imp!"
A fiendish, mocking laugh pierced the still night air as the monster vanished.
"You have offended him," said Madame. "Your impetuosity will bring you and yours to ruin. You were told to coax him—to beware of annoying this demon—and in your ungovernable temper you do just otherwise. Misfortune will soon be our portion."
Cadillac shortly afterward visited Montreal, was arrested through the intrigues of his enemies, and was compelled to sell his seigniory in Detroit to pay for his trial. He was removed to Louisiana as Governor, but died at Castle Sarasin, in France. His children never inherited an acre of his vast estates.

His colony for the next hundred years was the scene of strife, war and massacre. Its flag changed five times; under that of the Republic it reached that glorious prosperity which the fortune-teller had predicted.
The Nain Rouge in the mystic past was considered the banshee or "Demon of the City of the Straits," and whenever he appeared it was a sure sign of impending evil. The night before Dalzell's ill-fated attack at Bloody Run, he was seen running along the shore. And in 1805, when the city was destroyed by fire, many an old habitant thought that they caught a glimpse of his malicious face as he darted through the burning buildings. On a foggy morning before Hull' s cowardly surrender of Detroit, he was seen; but since then he has never reappeared, having, it is to be hoped, accomplished his mission.

But the tradition still lingers among the old habitants that should misfortune ever threaten the bonnie City of the Straits, the Nain Rouge will again appear to give the signal of warning.


Beware the Nain Rouge, but don't let your fear keep you off the street. Join us for music and merriment at Great Lakes Coffee this Saturday at 7 p.m. on the eve of the Marche du Nain Rouge. For details go here.
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