Taken For Granted: A tempest in a grave site

We’re in northwestern Michigan’s lake country, where Hemingway hunted and Al Capone hid out from the Chicago heat, both feds and Fahrenheit.

Summer and year-round residents alike strive to preserve the serenity of their surroundings while debating the consequences of growth and the economic well being of the area.

Pride of place and its past history linger hundreds of years after a given historical event. A classic example is the Father Marquette death site debate. The renowned French explorer and Jesuit missionary died in 1675 and the controversy has raged ever since: Was it Frankfort, Ludington or elsewhere?

Each town has traded claim, counterclaim and less than gentlemanly accusations back and forth. And while the issue has recently been dormant, historical markers proclaiming to be the site still reside 60 miles apart.

Born to a wealthy French family, Marquette abandoned a comfortable aristocratic life to join the Jesuit order and spread the Gospel among the Indian tribes of New France. Arriving in Quebec in 1668, in two years he had learned six distinct Native American dialects.

In May of 1675 he was taken ill. Realizing he was near death, he selected a picturesque site on a bluff overlooking the eastern shore of Lake Michigan as the place to spend his final hours.

Instructing his companions to bury him at the site and erect a cross, he died within hours. Two years later, Christian Indians retrieved his remains and transported them to the church at St. Ignace. His remains now reside at Marquette University.

Ludington’s claim as the original death site and the town’s lavish celebrations of the anniversary of Marquette’s death seemed to put Frankfort’s claim to rest. Then in 1960, an amateur historian and resident of Frankfort, Catherine Stebbins, produced a thoroughly researched study that presented a strong case for Frankfort’s claim as the true death site.

The Michigan Historical Commission then acknowledged Frankfort as the probable death site and sanctioned a historical marker at Frankfort.

The debate resurfaced. The Coast Guard, Marquette University, geologists, anthropologists and linguists were consulted.

After a barrage of exchanges in historical journals and newspapers, calm gradually returned, due in part to the discretion of the historical commission. They tactfully required Frankfort to mention the controversy on its new historical marker, but did not demand that Ludington take down or revise the wording on its marker.

In 1998, the issue surfaced again when a third contender entered the ring — a 20-year study by a Manistee resident claimed Manistee as the site. The historical commission apparently decided to ignore the claim and no marker resides in Manistee.

Overlaying the controversy were events suitable for a ghoulish Halloween story. When the Indians dug up the good father’s remains, consistent with their customs they left the skull. In 1900, the Ann Arbor Railroad built a hotel near the supposed Frankfort death site. During excavation, a skull was found and claims ran rampant that it belonged to Father Marquette. Ludington protested that it could not be. The skull disappeared —no one seems to know how, or where it went.

The great north woods are rife with legend and fable. They go hand in hand with pride of place. As the masthead motto of the folklore newspaper Great Lakes Pilot proudly states, “We Never Let the Truth Interfere with a Good Story.”

PAT GRANT has lived in Glendale for more than 30 years and was formerly a marketing manager for an insurance company. He may be reached at tfgranted@gmail.com.

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