Legends—as they say—never die. In Michigan, these nine legends are no different.
MICHIGAN—What could be better than relaxing around a bonfire or campfire and telling a great Michigan monster myth or urban legend?
Folklore is defined as a set of myths and beliefs relating to a particular place or group of people. As its own little microcosm of culture, Michigan has accumulated a lot of tales and stories, many somehow related to the cultures of Michigan’s indigenous Native American tribes and original French settlers. Surprisingly, some of these tales actually have some history or even science behind them.
With the following tales, it’s hard to know what’s eerier—fact or fiction. We’ve compiled a few Michigan tales of all things historical, creepy, and even a little bit romantic. Here are 9 legends you should know in Michigan.
Where in Michigan: Multiple Locations
What kind of creatures are really out there lurking beyond Michigan’s forest lines? If the Michigan Dogman is anything to go on, it’s better not to know.
The Michigan Dogman is a famous cryptid with sightings dating all the way back to its first sighting in Wexford County in 1887. It is described as a bipedal werewolf-like creature standing at terrifying heights of seven or eight feet tall, with a human body and the head of a dog. Its eyes, which are either blue or yellow, have been known to horrifically gaze and strike terror into the hearts of any human that looks upon it. It is also said to have a chilling, humanoid howl and impossible superhuman jumping ability.
Michigan was the epicenter of the white pine lumber industry from around the 1860s to the turn of the century in 1900. Many of the earliest accounts of the Michigan Dogman came from those at the logging camps. In the Upper Peninsula, locals on multiple occasions found horses that allegedly died of fright, with only dog tracks in the dirt providing any evidence as to what scared them.
Since those times, multiple accounts of a similar creature have emerged throughout the years. These encounters have similar elements, including a canine beast appearing from the woods that scratches tents, houses, and even jumps in front of cars. Eventually, another legendary factoid about the creature evolved: that it hunted in 10-year cycles on any year ending in seven.
At WTCM-FM Radio in Traverse City, for April Fool’s Day 1987, disc jockey Steve Cook released a piece of lyrical poetry set to music called “The Legend” about the Michigan Dogman (Listen here). Cook initially had never heard of any “Dogman” and instead, made everything in the song up, basing it off various myths and legends from around North America. Though it was intended to be a joke, to Cook’s surprise, Michiganders began calling in, attesting to the validity of this creature. Multiple callers had seen the Dogman and truly believed it was real. Cook has received at least 500 reports of Dogman encounters since the April Fool’s Day broadcast.
One sighting is attributed to a roadside encounter in Troy in January 2006. A motorist allegedly contacted OnStar after his vehicle flipped over in a ditch. The motorist had swerved to avoid a creature in the roadway that he described as a “great big dog that was standing up.” The OnStar recording went viral on the internet (Listen here).
Some claim the Dogman legend has its roots in Native American lore, as many indigenous tribes have stories about skinwalkers, shapeshifters, and wolf spirits. A more scientifically-grounded explanation is that the Dogman is a wolf or wolf hybrid that has either learned or evolved to be bipedal. The wolf population in the Upper Peninsula is experiencing a resurgence, and sightings of wolves in the Lower Peninsula have happened over the last 15 years.
Maybe Michigan Dogman sightings will increase in 2027?
Where in Michigan: Oscoda
Nowhere in American folklore is the term “tall tales” so perfectly personified as it is with folk hero Paul Bunyan. The oversized lumberjack and his blue ox, Babe, had many geological landmarks across the country attributed to their handiwork. In particular, the Great Lakes were fabled as a creation of Bunyan, who either wanted to quench the thirst of local woodcutters, create a trough for Babe, or fashion a big enough “bathtub” for himself and Babe.
Many American cities and states claim to be the birthplace of the larger-than-life lumberjack, including cities in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Maine. However, Oscoda is the true origin of Paul Bunyan—by virtue of the pen.
Even the State of Michigan officially recognizes Oscoda as Paul Bunyan’s birthplace. James MacGillivray, a lumberjack and Oscoda local, published the first written account of Bunyan’s stories in the Oscoda Press. Four years later, the Detroit News reprinted these stories and connected a much wider audience to the Bunyan canon.
Oscoda has more claim to Paul Bunyan than just the stories, though. One of Paul Bunyan’s stories involves Bunyan taming the “Auger River” and splitting it into two. The lumberjacks of the time knew the Auger River was actually the Au Sable River, which empties into Lake Huron just south of Oscoda.
Before MacGillivray’s publications, Paul Bunyan was the collective main character of traveling lumberjacks in the late 1800s. The earliest known oral traditions can be traced back to Wisconsin logging camps. For at least 30 years, lumberjacks often improvised tales about Bunyan around the fire, sometimes to scare new loggers, and sometimes to compete with other improvised stories. Telling the best Bunyan story was often a competition, and storytellers liked to claim they knew or met the legendary lumberjack. MacGillivray was the first to write these stories down.
Though Paul Bunyan is widely accepted as mythical, an actual lumberjack may have been at least a partial inspiration to MacGillivray’s stories. Fabian Fournier, also nicknamed “Saginaw Joe” was a six-foot-tall French-Canadian timberman. Fournier moved to Michigan to “cut his teeth” in the post-Civil War logging industry—which was quite literal with him, as Fournier was said to have two complete sets of teeth that he often used to bite off chunks of wooden rails. Fournier was known for his great strength, as well as his love of drinking and brawling, which ended up causing his murder in an 1875 bar fight in Bay City. The lengthy trial of his accused killer, who was acquitted, definitely fueled gossip and urban legends at the time. Speculation about Saginaw Joe’s rough lumberjack life may have fueled the Bunyan stories.
Today, Oscoda celebrates its place in Paul Bunyan folklore. In addition to a large statue of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox near US-23, Oscoda also celebrates with an annual festival in the character’s honor. Paul Bunyan Days is a weekend filled with live music, carnival rides, chainsaw carving, and competitions for burgers and beards. The festival is held in Furtaw Field, surrounding Oscoda’s trademark Paul Bunyan statue.
Can’t make it out to Oscoda? There are also large statues built in Paul Bunyan’s likeness in the Michigan cities of Alpena, St. Ignace, Ossineke, Manistique, and West Branch.
The Nain Rouge
Where in Michigan: Cass Avenue, Detroit
Who’s responsible for Michigan’s very own spin on a Mardi Gras Parade? You might be surprised to learn it’s a two-foot-tall demon dwarf.
Detroit’s annual Marche du Nain Rouge parade in the Cass Corridor started in 2010 with the intention to serve as Detroit’s very own Mardi Gras. The Nain Rouge, the folklore creature whose namesake inspired the parade, is an imp-like creature of misfortune described to be about two and a half feet tall, with a red face, glistening eyes, toothy maw, and a cold gaze. Nain Rouge literally means “Red Dwarf” in French, and the creature is also referred to as “Demon of the Strait.”
The Nain Rouge is an ill omen whose history goes back to Detroit’s founding. Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac was a French explorer. In 1701, Cadillac founded Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit, which eventually became the city of Detroit. According to folklore, around the time of the fort’s founding, Cadillac offended the Nain Rouge. One story claims a fortune-teller warned Cadillac of the Nain and urged him to appease the creature, which Cadillac disregarded. Another story reports Cadillac physically encountered the Nain and hit him with a cane to get the creature out of the way. Detroit has been said to be under the Nain’s curse ever since.
The Nain Rouge has been either blamed for or spotted at misfortunate events in the city’s history. He was said to appear in 1763, just before the Battle of Bloody Run, and danced on the banks of the Detroit River after the battle, among the corpses. At the Great Fire of 1805, the Nain Rouge was reportedly seen running around burning buildings and laughing maniacally. The surrender of Detroit in the War of 1812 was blamed on the Nain Rouge attacking William Hull. Two utility workers reportedly sighted the creature just before the 1967 Detroit riots. He was also apparently spotted on a utility pole one day before the Great Ice Storm of 1976.
As a folklore figure, the Nain Rouge likely originated from a blend of two other culture’s folklore. One is the lutin, a small being from French folklore known for its mischief and shapeshifting. The other would be a combination of figures from Native American folklore, such as the trickster hero Nanabozho (or Nanabush). Native Americans were commonly described as “red-skinned” in those days, much like the Nain’s trademark coloring, and the Nain Rouge certainly seems to be on the side of the Native tribes instead of Cadillac’s colonizers. The Native traditions are also apparent due to the Nain’s referral as an “impish offspring of the Stone God.”
The Nain Rouge has become a folklore figure in Detroit, even appearing as the inspiration for beverages like the Detroit Beer Company’s “Detroit Dwarf” lager and Woodberry Wine’s “Nain Rouge Red.” In the Marche du Nain Rouge parade, participants are encouraged to disguise themselves in costume, to trick the Nain so he cannot curse them when he returns next year. At the end of the parade, an effigy of the Nain is destroyed in effort to banish the creature for another year. Some, like the Friends of the Nain Rouge, believe the Nain is not responsible for the city’s problems, and claim he is misunderstood, appearing in stories as a warning rather than a harbinger of chaos.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Marche du Nain Rouge parade was canceled for 2020 and 2021. Could an unbanished Nain Rouge be responsible for any of Detroit’s most recent misfortunes? That’s certainly up to interpretation.
The Michigan Triangle
Where in Michigan: Lake Michigan, between Benton Harbor, MI, Ludington, MI, and Manitowoc, WI
Have you heard of the infamously eerie Bermuda Triangle in the Atlantic Ocean? You might be surprised to learn Michigan has a similar triangle, known as the Michigan Triangle, which is connected to similarly strange circumstances.
Lake Michigan is estimated to hold about 1,500 shipwrecks within its lakebed. The Michigan Triangle spans the two Michigan cities of Ludington to the north and Benton Harbor to the south, connecting with Manitowoc in Wisconsin for its third point, and including a large swath of Lake Michigan.
The Michigan Triangle is thought to be responsible for multiple disappearances of both boats and aircraft, as well as other weird happenings. Here are just a few examples.
In 1883, the crew of Mary McLane, a wooden tug boat, traveled the triangle and claimed to see multiple blocks of ice that fell from the sky. The crew claimed the ice blocks did not stop falling for 30 minutes.
In 1891, the Thomas Hume schooner and its 7 crew members disappeared without a trace. The mystery shipwreck was finally discovered in 2006, in the southern portion of Lake Michigan. Despite this, the cause of the ship’s sinking has not yet been determined.
In 1921, 11 people in the Rosa Belle ship disappeared. Their ship was found overturned with evidence of damage from a collision. However, no accidents were reported from other ships.
In 1937, while sailing in the triangle, Captain George R. Donner of the freighter O.M. McFarland disappeared from his cabin without a trace. He was never located and his disappearance was never solved.
In 1950, Northwestern Airlines flight 2501 was flying from New York to Minneapolis. The plane changed course over the triangle due to weather patterns. The plane vanished, along with its 58 passengers and 3 crew members. A blanket with the airline’s logo was the only thing ever recovered. At the time, it was the deadliest commercial airliner accident in American history.
The last communication of flight 2501 was the pilot requesting to descend due to an electrical storm and high-velocity winds. About two hours after this last communication, two police officers spotted a strange red light over Lake Michigan, which disappeared after ten minutes.
In 1978, a college student disappeared within the Michigan Triangle—then reappeared with no memory. Hope College student Steven Kubacki, 23 years old at the time, was doing some cross-country skiing near Saugatuck when he went missing. In addition to finding his abandoned skis and backpack, authorities discovered a 200-yard set of footprints from the edge of the lake, which led the investigators to assume Kubacki had fallen into the lake and drowned under the ice. At one point, police had sent his dental records to Chicago to check if he had been a victim of serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
Miraculously, Steven Kubacki was not dead, resurfacing 700 miles away in Pittsfield, Massachusetts 15 months after his disappearance. Kubacki had no memory of the previous year and three months. He had “woken up” in a grassy field wearing strange clothes. Kubacki has denied he had any mental health issues such as a dissociative disorder that may have caused the loss of memory.
In addition to the previous well-documented historical cases, many personal accounts of strange occurrences in the triangle have emerged. Visitors often report strange weather phenomena, general feelings of unease, and even UFO sightings. Some have even claimed that the triangle is a time portal that speeds up and slows down time.
Whatever the case, one thing is certain—the currents and weather of Lake Michigan are not anything to trifle with.
Singing Sands of Bete Grise
Where in Michigan: Keweenaw Peninsula, Upper Peninsula
With over 3,000 miles of freshwater coastline, Michigan has a lot of beaches. But did you know one of these beaches actually sings?
On the shores of Lake Superior, along the south side of the Keweenaw Peninsula, is the Bete Grise (pronounced bay-de-gree) white sand beach. By patting, brushing, or swirling the surface of the sand, the sand “sings” by emitting a sound that resembles a singing voice (Listen here).
A folklore legend attributes the singing sand to a Native American woman. The woman’s lover drowned in Lake Superior. The woman spent the rest of her days on the beach calling for him. To this day, the sands carry her voice, still calling for her lover. When visitors disturb the sand to make it sing, they are reawakening the woman’s voice and helping her find her lover from beyond the grave.
According to the legend, if the sand is removed from Bete Grise, it no longer sings. The mystic power comes from the beach itself, and no other beaches nearby have singing sands.
However, Bete Grise is hardly the only sand known to “sing.” Visitors to the sand dunes of Warren Dunes, Ludington State Park, and Au Train Beach have reported the phenomena as well. Though not fully understood, sands generally sing when the grains are spherical, uniform in shape, and similar in size. They must also not be too wet or too dense. Creating friction between sand grains causes vibration between the grains, which causes vibrations in the air, which translates into a sound.
Even if the “singing” is mostly scientifically explained, it’s still imaginative and wistful to identify the sound as the Native American woman’s voice.
The Legend of the Sleeping Bear
Where in Michigan: Leelanau and Benzie counties, Northwestern Lower Peninsula
The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in the northern Lower Peninsula is considered one of the most beautiful national parks in the country. It’s also one of Michigan’s most popular attractions, with over one million visitors annually. But do you know how the famous lakeshore got its name?
The name of the “Sleeping Bear” comes from an old Native American legend for the area, attributed to both the Chippewa and Ojibwe tribes. In the story, a mother bear (Mishe Mokwa) and her two cubs live in the forests of modern day Wisconsin. When a great fire breaks out, the mother and her two cubs must swim across Lake Michigan to stay alive. The bears swim through the day and night, but within the darkness of the night, the mother loses her cubs.
The next day, the mother bear sees Michigan’s tall sand dunes. She climbed out of the water and onto the dunes, hoping to see her cubs in the water. Tragically, she watched her two cubs slip under the water and drown, just before reaching the shore. Overcome with incredible grief and sadness, the mother bear laid on the dunes for days, never removing her gaze from the spot where her cubs passed on.
Gitche Manitou, an indigenous deity whose name translates to “Great Spirit,” was moved by the mother bear’s sorrow. The spirit created the two islands adjacent to the lakeshore, North Manitou and South Manitou, in honor of the cubs’ bravery. For the mother bear, Gitche Manitou drew the sand over her like a blanket, to celebrate her loyalty and allow her to eternally watch her cubs.
Although the knoll at the top of the bluff has eroded from wind in recent years, one can still faintly make out the silhouette of the sleeping mama bear.
True Love’s Kiss
Where in Michigan: Beaumont Tower at Michigan State University, Engineering Arch at University of Michigan, and Warriner Hall Seal at Central Michigan University
Looking for a more romantic tradition? At least three universities in Michigan have special urban legends for hopeless romantics. According to legend, a specially-timed kiss at a special spot on these campuses can seal the deal with your sweetie.
The Beaumont Tower was the first building constructed at Michigan State University. A Spartan is fated to marry their sweetheart if they kiss them here either in the tower’s shadow during the day or at the stroke of midnight in Beaumont Courtyard. This is also supposedly how a student may become a “True Spartan.” The Beaumont Tower area is also said to be haunted, with sightings of spectral couples holding hands in the courtyard.
At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, the Engineering Arch is adjacent to the Diag and underneath West Hall. If a couple kisses under the arch at the stroke of midnight, they are destined to marry. This legend reportedly dates back to earlier in the university’s history when women lived in segregated residence halls and had to make curfew by 10 p.m. Many alumni choose this spot to get married on campus or as a photo op for engagement or wedding photos.
Central Michigan University’s version of the legend even has a tender story behind it. A large stone version of the university’s trademark seal is on campus in front of Warriner Hall. According to legend, a couple who kisses in front of the seal at the stroke of midnight during a full moon is fated to marry and be together forever.
The seal, which was approved and presumably built around 1954, was supposed to be the meeting place of two star-crossed lovers. The couple was to meet there at midnight to run away and marry in secret. In this tragic story, the boy’s car broke down en route to the meeting spot, and the girl waited for him until the end, freezing to death as the night grew colder. Upon discovering his lover’s corpse, the boy kissed her one last time before dying of a broken heart. The spirits of the two lovers were said to reunite in the afterlife and thus return to the seal at midnight to bless other couples.
Old Presque Isle Lighthouse
Where in Michigan: Presque Isle, Northeastern Lower Peninsula
English rock band The Smiths sang “There is a light and it never goes out” in one of their most famous songs, which just so happened to be about love alleviating the fear of death. At one of Michigan’s many lighthouses, life truly imitates art.
The Old Presque Isle Lighthouse is one of the oldest surviving lighthouses in Michigan, having been built in 1840. The lighthouse’s actual history is unremarkable, operating functionally for about 30 years before Congress demanded another lighthouse due to the old one’s deterioration. What makes it remarkable is the friendly ghostly caretaker that still services the lighthouse from beyond the grave.
George and Lorraine Parris were a married couple who served as the Old Presque Isle Lighthouse caretakers and tour guides from 1972 until 1992, when it was a historical place, but not yet a museum. In 1992, George Paris died of a heart attack. At the time of George’s death, the power to the lighthouse had been cut for decades—yet somehow, the light started shining at dusk. After confirming with the Coast Guard that there was no way the light could come on, Lorraine Parris knew it was her late husband, still watching over her. People on boats and out fishing have seen the spectral light from the old lighthouse as well.
Lorraine also told a story when she needed to leave the caretaker’s cottage to run an errand during a lightning storm. When she was about to leave, she found an unusual force blocking the exit. When lightning struck just outside the cottage, Lorraine knew George’s spirit was protecting her.
Those at the lighthouse often tell the story of a little girl who once climbed the light tower by herself. When she climbed back down, she told her mother that she talked to the lighthouse keeper, even though there was no one else in the lighthouse at that time. The girl saw a photo of the deceased George Parris, and claimed he was the one she spoke to.
The Old Presque Isle Lighthouse is operated as a museum from May through October, seven days a week, 9 a.m. through 6 p.m.
Snake Goddess of Belle Isle
Where in Michigan: Belle Isle
Indigenous people from the Ottawa tribe have a curious history in the Detroit area. The Ottawa indigenous tribe settled in the Detroit area around 1701 to establish trading posts at the budding Fort Detroit. Chief Pontiac, of the bloody Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1763, was a member of the Ottawa tribe. In his rebellion, Pontiac attempted and failed to capture the fort from the British. The Ottawa lived in the area until the Treaty of Detroit, signed in 1807, and the Indian Removal Act, signed in 1830, which both forced the removal of Native American tribes from Michigan’s lands.
However, there is one member of the Ottawa tribe who perhaps never left—legends say her spirit still resides in the 982-acre island park of Belle Isle.
According to legend, there was an Ottawa chief known as Sleeping Bear, who had a daughter. Supposedly, Sleeping Bear’s daughter was so pretty that Sleeping Bear had to hide her daily in the Detroit River, by placing her in a blanket-covered canoe. The legend claims, however, that even the wind could not avert its gaze from her beauty.
In efforts to blow away the blanket to gaze upon the daughter’s beauty, the wind unwittingly pushed the canoe down the river, where the daughter was kidnapped. When the wind brought the daughter back to Chief Sleeping Bear, the chief decided to place his daughter on Belle Isle to keep her safe.
Through ritual, Chief Sleeping Bear asked the Great Spirits to protect his daughter forever. The Great Spirits responded by populating Belle Isle with snakes and giving the daughter immortality. The daughter was then known as the Snake Goddess of Belle Isle.
The Snake Goddess often appears as a “lady in white,” though she also supposedly has the ability to transform into a white doe. Visitors have seen the doe, who is said to watch humans, then escape into the woods when approached.
According to urban legend, there are multiple ways a visitor to Belle Isle may encounter the Snake Goddess, who will usually appear near bridges or swampy areas and beckon the visitors to follow her into the woods. Hikers may supposedly encounter her after stopping at a bridge. Bikers simply need to stop their bicycle. Motorists may encounter her by parking near a bridge and turning the motor off.
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