By Joel Thurtell
How often would I get a chance to write about a female historian who made a case based on evidence that slaves lived and worked in her Michigan community?
Score one for women’s history.
Score another for black history.
I have reservations about assigning months for recognizing the accomplishments of women and minorities. There are so many good stories, why wait a year to publish them? So, even though the appropriate months have passed, I’m posting this article I wrote seven years ago for the Detroit Free Press .
Swan’s book prompted me to look more deeply into the use of slaves on Grosse Ile by the island’s first white owners, Alexander and William Macomb.
That Grosse Ile’s latter-day historians chose to deny Swan’s account of slavery in their community in the 18th and 19th centuries does not erase the fact that it happened.
Rather, it demonstrates the power of history, and the fear many have that a true rendition of their past will embarrass and detract from their community’s luster.
In other words, by omitting, by censoring, historians lie.
Isabella Swan was about telling her town’s story, warts and all.
Here is my story about Isabella Swan. published with permission of the Detroit Free Press:
Headline: HER ROOTS GROW DEEP
Sub-Head: CALLED A FORCE OF NATURE’ BY HER DESCENDANT, ISABELLA SWAN
GAVE GROSSE ILE ITS WRITTEN STORY AND HER FAMILY’S CONTINUING LEGACY
Byline: JOEL THURTELL
Text: Isabella Swan loved books. She always wanted to write one. In
retirement, she got her chance.
Warming up, she wrote a little book about a woman who was born a slave
and won her freedom. She paid to have the book printed and then, even
though she was an atheist, she took on the unlikely task of writing
the history of the Grosse Ile church that was built thanks partly to
the largesse of that same ex-slave.
Finally, she wrote her big work – a long history of the first century
of her beloved Grosse Ile. She paid $10,000 to have it printed and
called it “The Deep Roots.”
Even though she was a Democrat on an overwhelmingly Republican island,
Grosse Ile’s government conferred the title of official historian on
her. In fact, those deep roots – referring to the early white settlers
on the island – about which she wrote belonged as much to her and her
family as to anyone else on this big island.
With National Women’s History Month being celebrated this month, I
thought it was a good time to tell the story of Isabella Swan, the
librarian, historian and writer, and her Grosse Ile roots.
To family and old friends, Isabella was known as “Icky.” The nickname
was accidentally bestowed on her by a niece who, as a child, found
pronouncing “Isabella” impossible.
That niece, Pat Lafayette, 76, gave me a tour of the island places
that were important to Isabella, who died in 1993 at the age of 93.
I was shown the huge dining room, one of 16 rooms in the family’s 1875
farmhouse at West River and Groh. In another family house, part of
which dates to the 1830s, I looked out the window at the choppy
Trenton Channel – the same view Isabella enjoyed as she wrote her
But mostly, Pat and her son, Marc, told me about the colorful past of
this woman who was a tough cookie to those who knew her and those who
“My mother and Isabella were very much alike,” Marc said. He’s
Isabella’s great-nephew. “Very, very stubborn. Isabella was a force
of nature. Until the day she died, she would correct my grammar. She
would tell me how to lead my life.”
Pat is a tough cookie herself.
“My mother fills the same role as Isabella,” Marc told me. Pat is,
according to her son, the only woman he knows with a master’s degree
who can trap a muskrat, gut it and stretch its hide.
“Pretty much all the women in my mother’s family are almost forces of
nature,” he said. “My mother always said if you want Isabella to turn
left, you should tell her to turn right.”
Isabella’s grandfather was Louis (originally Ludwig) Groh, a German
who came to the United States to get away from Prussian conscription
and to be in a country where he could be an atheist. He married a
neighbor, Emeline Peck, who also was an atheist.
“Her mother gave her, as well as my mother, George Bernard Shaw’s ëA
Woman’s Guide to Socialism.’ They learned early about self-sufficiency
from any man and any deity,” Marc said.
Living large – for a while
Louis Groh was supervisor of Grosse Ile Township in the late 1800s and
he amassed 650 acres of land at the southern end of the island.
The family was upper crust. Isabella’s father was wealthy attorney
James Swan, founder of the Scarab Club. She went to Detroit public
schools, where she learned to speak French at Central High School. She
went to the University of Michigan, where she majored in physics and
mathematics and graduated in 1922.
Her family owned homes in Tucson, Ariz., and Biloxi, Miss. The family
traveled and lived the high life.
The family owned Snake Island alongside Grosse Ile and renamed it Swan
Island in hopes of selling home lots. They bought part of the original
Belle Isle bridge, and used it to connect Grosse Ile to Swan Island.
They developed the island and received a construction bill for
$650,000, the equivalent in 2006 of $7.4 million.
About that time, 1929, the stock market crashed. All but three of the
lot buyers defaulted. They could not pay the construction bill. The
family lost all but 3.5 acres. The easy life came to an end.
Head of the household
Isabella’s older brother, Donald Swan, who played football at the
University of Michigan under legendary coach Fielding Yost, began
bottling water from the family’s artesian well. He called it the
Isabella got a job as a librarian for Wayne County. She had the only
paying job in the family. “She became head of the household,” said Pat
Lafayette. “She ran everything. She was the only one with a real job.”
They cooked wild mushrooms. Pat ran her trapline, earning money by
selling muskrat hides.
When Isabella retired, she was second-in-command at the Wayne County
Library. While she worked there, she did research and wrote articles
about the history of names on Grosse Ile and how to make elderflower
fritters, and she delved into Great Lakes maritime history.
In a speech on Grosse Ile at St. James Episcopal Church in 1965, she
explained her interest in history: “It was, I think, a native
childhood curiosity to begin with.” But a teacher was thrilled with a
report she gave on Buffalo Bill Cody. She got a cum laude grade in
She retired in the early 1960s, traveled for six months, then began
work on “Lisette,” the first of her books about Grosse Ile history.
She spent each day in research at the Burton Historical Collection of
the Detroit Public Library. That’s where many records of early Grosse
Ile are kept.
In 1965, she published “Lisette,” a biography of Elizabeth Denison
Forth, the onetime slave who invested in steamboats and real estate
and left an endowment for founding St. James Episcopal, which is now
the church’s chapel.
“The Deep Roots” was a study of the first 100 years of Grosse Ile
history. Few copies remain from its printing in 1976 in time for the
bicentennial – not only of the United States, but of Grosse Ile, if
you count from July 6, 1776, when the brothers William and Alexander
Macomb bought the island from American Indians.
Marc Lafayette doubts the book will be reprinted.
“There are factual errors – Isabella always talked about how there was
never any evidence of native habitation on Grosse Ile, but we know
that is not true. Early maps from France mention native habitation on
Grosse Ile and there were actual longhouses on the north end of the
island.” Longhouses were communal Indian dwellings.
“That would drive Isabella crazy,” said Marc. “She wanted it to be the
definitive history of Grosse Ile, and the idea of making a mistake in
her book drove her crazy.”
Personally, I think they’re making too much of the errors.
Yes, mistakes drive writers nuts. But Swan didn’t make many, and they
could be corrected in a second edition.
I’ve had a copy of “The Deep Roots” for about 20 years, and I use it
as a basic reference for Grosse Ile history. When I was first told
there’d been slaves on Grosse Ile, I turned to the book’s index and
found the references. Isabella did not shy away from that sensitive
I can’t think of any other town in suburban Detroit that has been the
subject of serious research by a serious historian. Grosse Ile has had
two strokes of good fortune. First, it had Elizabeth Denison Forth.
Then it had Isabella Swan.
Caption: Grosse Ile historian Isabella Swan, in a photo on display at
St. James Episcopal Church. Swan died in 1993 at age 93.
MADALYN RUGGIERO / Special to the Free Press
Historian Isabella Swan’s niece, Pat Lafayette, 76, of Grosse Ile once
lived in this house at 10529 Groh in Grosse Ile. The house was built
in 1875 by Swan’s great-grandfather.
Photos by MADALYN RUGGIERO / Special to the Free Press
Asher Peck, the father of Emeline Peck, Isabella Swan’s grandmother,
lived for many years in this house at 25909 West River Road.
Full front view of the house at 10529 Groh, Grosse Ile that was built
in 1875 by Asher Peck, Isabella Swan’s great-grandfather.
Edition: METRO FINAL
Section: CFP; COMMUNITY FREE PRESS
Disclaimer: THIS ELECTRONIC VERSION MAY DIFFER SLIGHTLY FROM THE