The Nain Rouge of Detroit, a French Canadian folktale retold


March 1, 2013 by LeVoyageur

The Nain Rouge is a folktale originating in the earliest days of Detroit and French settlement in the area. An earlier version can be read at Legends of Le Detroit, number 4. Today this tale is once again being brought to life in Detroit with the Marche du Nain Rouge in early Spring.

Nain sculpture, Wroclaw, Poland. Photo by Adalertus.

Nain sculpture, Wroclaw, Poland. Photo by Adalbertus.

A quarrel erupted inside the tavern on the mount and Mère Minique, a hovel of an old woman scorned by the locals as the Sorcière de l’Ile d’Orleans, leaned over from her stony perch and pressed her ear against the door. She had been sitting there for some time, begging for coins, when she saw a tall dapper Frenchman enter, casting neither eye nor sou in her direction.

It was not just out of mere curiosity that she began to listen, ever more intently, as the smokey, dimly lit hall burst into chaos when the man entered. He was immediately accosted and congratulated by turns. Word had preceded him: the King had given Cadillac his permission, finally, to build a new fort: Fort Ponchartrain, on the river linking the lac des Hurons and the lac Erie.

Partisans around the room declared that it would destroy Quebec and lead to the ruin of Montreal as well. On the other side, Sieur de Cadillac was lauded as a brilliant tactician. How, they wanted to know, had he managed it? How after all these years did he finally convince Paris over to his ways?

He gave few details, as was his wont. He said, simply, “It didn’t come out of nowhere. Everything has a reason, friends. Now the project is on and there will be opportunities for all who want them.”  This itself caused a murmur to spread among the men. Who would go? What would it be like to live so far in the interior?

It was not as though most of them had not spent a summer on the canoes. They knew full well what hardships were involved. But Cadillac now had funds! It would be a fort. He had even arranged to have hundreds of Indians relocated to the area. It would be a center for commerce; they would be a defense against the British.

The din increased as ale flowed and evening wore on. But Cadillac grew edgy. He couldn’t help but overhear the same old stories being told behind his back: ‘so-called noble’ and questions: ‘how long before they move him on from there just like everywhere else he’s been?’  He had enough. He paid his tab and the tavern stilled to a hush as he walked slowly toward the door.

Once outside, the laughter began and a brawl had to be restrained. He took a deep breath and uttered, “Stinking idiots.” This made Mère Minique chuckle. Cadillac was startled by the noise from the shadow and he raised his cane out of reflex as he saw her, not far from his feet.

She said, “I didn’t mean to alarm Monsieur. I’m just an old woman. If you have a small coin, please, I’m poor.”

He narrowed his eyes and said, “You’re that witch aren’t you? I’ve heard about you. What are you doing here in Quebec?”

She replied, “Monsieur, I don’t mean to offend, but I get the same news as everyone else. I came to beg. But I see now there was another reason. Monsieur, I heard of your troubles through the doorway and I wonder if you have a moment to spare to hear of my dream.”

“You mean nonsense and tales! Foolish. I don’t need a soothsayer to tell me anything.”

As he walked away, she said, “Have it your way Monsieur. I ask for nothing. But the truth must be told. Your task will be difficult and your way will be blocked at many turns. You will leave in disgrace, monsieur. Your city will be forever haunted by deceit and violence. Stop selling brandy. That may help. The choice is yours Monsieur. But that land will be a curse on your name. My dreams don’t lie.”

He stopped and turned. Glaring, he charged back with his cane raised like a club. She cowered down ready for a blow when the door opened and the tavern keeper stood agape at what he saw. Cadillac stopped in his tracks, scoffed at them both, and turned on his heel, walking into the night.

It was several weeks before Cadillac and his company left in a great brigade to found the new fort. They were well-supplied and well-manned. Reports had come in from the west that bands of Indians, some remnants of the Huron, had moved to the shores of the Detroit River and Lake St. Clair to await their arrival. Cadillac’s plan was being realized, and he gave no further thought to Mère Minique.

On the day of their departure Cadillac was in high spirits. He kissed his wife and children farewell, and arranged for them to follow the next year. They set their course and were off. Just as they were passing out of view of town Cadillac looked along the shore for a last glimpse when he saw an old woman sitting at the water’s edge among some Indians gathered there. It was Mère Minique. She crossed herself as the canoes floated by, then covered her head with her shawl as Cadillac cursed under his breath.

The canoes were heavily laden and it would take many weeks to reach their destination. With nearly a hundred men, the going would be slow but Cadillac was well supplied with brandy and would truck no slouches. There would be no more rest along the way than was required.

Toward the end of eight weeks, after thirty portages along the Mattawa, they arrived on the shores of the Rivière du Detroit where the land was untilled and fertile. But it was not unpopulated. The Huron and Potawatomi had arrived. And some white men, coureurs des bois named Peltier and Roy, had been among them for some time already. They had taken wives and their children were seen among these people now dependent on Cadillac.

In short order, the fort was built and houses quickly began to be raised. If a hundred men made slow going on the voyage, they made life easier upon arrival. It was just days into October and the land was cleared, crops were sown for the next summer, and Cadillac was a man very much pleased with the progress he saw about him.

He was so pleased in fact, that one Saturday morning he strode out of the fort alone, to walk along the shore and survey all that had been done. He was admiring the river and looking across to islands he thought would be well-suited to a country estate, perhaps. The land was his, or so it seemed. He was certainly at the center of it. He looked forward to next year when his family would join him.

Lutin, by Godo, 2011.

Lutin, by Godo, 2011.

Cadillac was taking out his pipe, content to warm himself in the autumn sun, when he heard a rustling in the reeds nearby. He watched, wondering what sort of animal it would be, when, to his surprise, a very small, very red man came walking out of the brush, carrying a basket out of which he could see only the tail of a fish.

Cadillac froze, not knowing what kind of creature he was seeing. He held his pipe in his hand and his jaw hung open. The Nain Rouge walked along the pebbles of the shore until he was just in front of Cadillac where, looking up, he spat on the ground and walked away.

Jolted, Cadillac came to his senses and shouted at the Nain to stop immediately and explain himself.

But the Nain Rouge kept walking.

Cadillac sputtered. He marched after him. “Now see here, you little fool. Who are you and what business do you have in this city? You answer to me here.”

And the Nain stopped. He turned fully around, looked Cadillac up and down, and spat again at Cadillac’s feet before hopping onto a small raft and rowing out into the river.

Cadillac was incensed. It took little to provoke him, but insolence was enough to make his blood boil. As the Nain drifted into the river, beyond reach, Cadillac stormed back to the fort. He was livid, slamming open the gate, demanding to know who the dwarf was.

People gathered around, but Cadillac was making no sense. “What dwarf?” they wanted to know.

“The RED one,” he shouted and they looked at each other in confusion. “The red dwarf…by the shore. Surely I’m not the first to see it. He was fishing, rustling around in the reeds, doing God knows what. Impudent bastard. The next time I see him he’ll get the drubbing of his life.”

And Cadillac knew a thing or two about drubbing. Along with his titles, he had given himself a cane. Over the years he grew well-practiced in the art of drubbing his inferiors, be they wandering old women or idiot habitants.

“Nobody spits at my feet and walks away unscathed.”

Drawing by Alexander Zick, 1845-1907.

Drawing by Alexander Zick, 1845-1907.

Cadillac wouldn’t have long to wait. In just two days time, he was outside the fort again, walking on the lane in the direction of the Potawatomi village. With him was Monsieur de Tonty, his companion in arms. They were chatting about the progress of the fort and what discipline might need to be meted out over the Winter to keep the men in line. They had already lost half a dozen men, gone to the bush for a life of trapping.

Immersed in their discussion, they reached the top of a small hill and began to descend. They halted when, there at the bottom, Cadillac spied his new nemesis: the Nain Rouge.  The fire in his eyes flamed at once and he burst forward, “You little monster. I don’t know what beast you were born of, but so help me God, you’ll wish this day had never come.”

The Nain, carrying a small stick, stood firm and used his weak defenses to shield himself. But Cadillac’s blows were too strong and too numerous. He fell, and repeatedly stood up before being beaten down again. Cadillac cursed and beat the Nain until de Tonty restrained his arm for fear of murder.

The Nain Rouge got up again at last. He bled little, but was sore and bruised. He moaned. He emitted a deep murmur, and closed his eyes. Time all but stood still as Cadillac waited for a response, an act of contrition, at least a meek bow and a humble sorry.

But he would have none it, the Nain Rouge. To their surprise, the Nain opened his eyes and said in pidgin French, “Monsieur, you might have been welcome. But it was all shouting and canes. So with all my heart, I leave you with something today: you are cursed Monsieur Cadillac, and this village, it is also cursed. From this day, where-ever your spade draws dirt from the earth, pain will follow. I will haunt this city, Monsieur. I will remain forever. You have sown wheat, but ruin you will reap.”

At last, he looked Cadillac up and down, spat at his feet, and disappeared into the tall reeds nearby. Cadillac and de Tonty were stunned and motionless on the lane.

So it was done. Mère Minique’s dream was a prophecy and Cadillac’s dream became a curse. For centuries, the Nain Rouge, whose only concern had been to take a fish now and then, became Cadillac’s demon ­– the ill-wind that courses through Detroit. And now it is every new generation that must rise up against this long-nurtured grudge, to turn back the tide of history: to break the curse of the Nain Rouge upon Detroit.

as told by James LaForest

6 thoughts on “The Nain Rouge of Detroit, a French Canadian folktale retold

  1. This year’s Marche de le Nain Rouge is on Sun 24 March, at 1pm. Think it’s going to be starting on Cass Avenue, near the WSU campus.

  2. Eric M. says:

    You need to translate this into french! It’s nowhere to be found in the french language and probably practically unkown out of Detroit!

    I love this story! You know your version of it might as well become the new norm for this legend! 😉

    Merci et bonne chance!

  3. Rev. Eric Perry says:

    James, I really enjoy the work you have done to keep these great stories current and alive!
    I am sharing my song Nain Rouge with you.

    Nain Rouge — Red Dwarf
    By Rev. Eric Perry

    There was a black cat that sat on the gypsy’s shoulder
    Whispering—dis and dat into the old woman’s ear
    Warning Cadillac to be careful of his selfish ambitions
    Detroit would fail, beware, of the Nain Rouge

    Hah—Cadillac he laughed at the thought of that
    The Fleur-de-lis would fly proudly over Fort Pontchartrain
    He would not heed the crazy gypsy’s superstition
    No black cat, no red dwarf— called the Nain Rouge

    Jaco and Crazy Red were fishing—on the Detroit River
    Drinking too much something, something moved along the shore
    Crazy Red, he said, he saw—a little man running
    To this day, Crazy Red, he swears, he saw the Nain Rouge

    Chorus: Nain Rouge, Nain Rouge, Cadillac laughed at you
    Nain Rouge, Nain Rouge, Vive la Detroit
    With no thanks to the Nain Rouge

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