In a departure from our usual format of contributions from named authors, this week we offer a folktale known in some families and communities along the shore of Lake St. Clair. This story reflects a dilemma that many people face in researching and telling their family history. But at heart, it’s just a local tale and like all such tales, might tell us something about ourselves and our collective history. —ed.

It was during a harsh storm on Lake St. Clair when a small ship carrying French Canadian families from St. Ignace made a treacherous landing on the rocky shore of what is now Pointe-aux-Roches, Ontario. The captain of the ship, a Virginia man, was worried they wouldn’t make it through to Detroit in the churning waves and with nighttime falling, he decided it was best to stop.

By the next morning the storm had passed and the lake was calm. The captain and passengers were relieved and decided to go ashore to steady their legs on firm ground, to prepare a meal, and let the cattle they had on board get water and graze.

They waded to a shoreline met by a rough swampy forest of virgin trees and lush greenery. There had not been a soul pass this way for a very long time, and it was as pristine as any place on earth could be.

The women hauled a cast iron pot ashore and made a fire to cook. They had brought bags of dried corn and peas from the Straits and they would make a hearty fish stew if the men caught any fish.

The children played, running back and forth along the shore. The families being French and Catholic, there were many children – too many to count! When it came time to get back on the ship, the captain called for help with the cattle, the women gathered the supplies, and corralled their children get back to the ship.

But it soon became apparent that one of the little ones, two-year old Jean, was missing. He would have easily been seen if he were within eyesight as this boy’s entire family had bright red hair, a trait passed down to today. The boy’s mother scrambled along the shallow water, hoping he did not drown, and the others joined in the search along the water.

One of the older children said they had seen him crawling around in the woods, so the grown-ups and older kids spread out and called for him. They searched as long as they could, ever more worried and frantic. But after hours of searching, the weary captain told them the ship had to leave. His contract was to deliver them by a certain date and he had no choice but to move on. The family was distraught at the idea of leaving their baby boy in the wilderness alone. He’d not last a night, they thought.

But, with great remorse, that is what they did. As his mother wailed, the child was left for lost and the family went on, bereft of their precious little boy. Meanwhile, back ashore, little Jean was indeed just out of sight. Unaware of his new predicament, he was perched on a sun-dappled knoll. It was late summer and Jean had crawled for a long while before he came to rest next to a gloriously full blueberry bush, which his tiny fingers quickly took hold of.

The sad ship of families arrived at Detroit late in the summer evening. In the coming days, they set up their households and took plots of land for raising crops. The years passed slowly, and the mother of that little boy never forgot her baby.

Many years later, as autumn brought an early chill into their homes, the father and remaining sons prepared to make their yearly hunting journey into the woods beyond the village of Detroit. By this time, 20 years after they arrived, some families had started to move further out, taking land grants to the east. The man and sons walked on foot through the wilderness past these new settlements, and went further away than they had gone in previous years.

They walked through the forests along a well-travelled path (now known as “Old Tecumseh Road”) until they reached what is the land around Tilbury today. It was then that the father noticed a group of Indians in the woods. And one of the Indians in particular caught his attention. The father walked closer to get a better look, and spotted a red-haired Indian man with his Indian wife and small children! The father was struck with wonder and rushed over to the group.

When he laid eyes on the young man, he knew immediately it was his little boy Jean that had been left behind so long ago. The features on the boy’s face hadn’t changed much, and the smile was the same, as were the freckles and red hair! It had to be his son.

Jean looked in amazement too. Although they did not speak the same language, he found there was an unexpected familiarity about these people. They all sat down and began to communicate in halting French and Huron, and the story of the lost red-haired boy, came to light.

Among Jean’s descendants today, some say he eventually reunited with his family in Detroit. They all realized this was their lost boy, especially his dear mère. And they learned how he was rescued on the day they left him for lost. He had been discovered sleeping on that same sun-dappled knoll by a native family and was taken in as one of their own. He was raised by them and now had a family with a wife from their tribe.

Jean’s children and grandchildren took the family name went and on to become part of the wider community of the Detroit River area. Today part of this family is said to descend from the ‘lost-boy branch.’ Some branches of the family still have that same bright red hair. Some say the legend is not true at all and many people in the family don’t believe they are related to Jean or that he was rescued in the wilderness. The legend of the lost red-haired boy remains a mystery, a tale of French and Indian roots among Detroit’s old settler families.

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