French America

The French Roots of Isle Royale National Park

In a testament to North America’s French heritage, many regions, towns, mountains, and rivers in the United States have French names. Every month, French-American author Anthony Lacoudre untangles their fascinating history. This issue takes us to a natural reserve in the heart of the Great Lakes.
© Mathieu Persan

Isle Royale National Park is proudly one of the least frequented parks in the United States, with just 26,400 visitors in 2019! Located in the middle of Lake Superior, halfway between Michigan, Minnesota, and Ontario in Canada, Isle Royale and the 400 neighboring islands have been a UNESCO-protected biosphere reserve since 1980. And despite the relatively few visitors, the site is wildly popular with shipwreck divers, hikers, campers, and naturalists in search of local wolves, moose, and arctic butterflies.

The park can be accessed by ferry or seaplane, while cars and pets are forbidden in an effort to preserve the ecosystem. Isle Royale “is large, and is fully twenty-five leagues long,” wrote French missionary Claude Dablon in a report on the year 1669-1670 sent to his superiors in Paris. “It is distant seven leagues from the mainland, and more than sixty from the end of the lake.” This priest from Dieppe who moved to New France in 1655 was also an explorer, an ethnographer, an astronomer, a botanist, and a leader of Jesuit missions in the West, where he mapped out the island known to the Ojibwe people as Minong – “a good, high place.” He later campaigned to rename it in tribute to the French king Louis XIV.

In 1622, French trapper Etienne Brûlé became the first European to record the existence of Lake Superior and set foot on the island, whose copper deposits made it a key site for native tribes. This discovery led to the intensive exploitation of the island, which was almost completely deforested by the late 19th century. Isle Royale and the surrounding region – spanning 894 square miles, of which just 209 are above water – received its national park status on April 3, 1940. Today, it is the only one of its kind in Michigan.


Article published in the June 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.