Isabella Swan — ‘The Deep Roots’

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

Pub-Date: 3/11/2007

Memo:  DOWNRIVER

Correction:

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

books.

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

did not.

“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

Wonder Well.

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

history.

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.

No reprint?

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

topic.

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.

 

Illustration:  PHOTO

 

Edition: METRO FINAL

 

Section:  CFP; COMMUNITY FREE PRESS

 

Page: 7CV

 

Keywords: history

 

Disclaimer:  THIS ELECTRONIC VERSION MAY DIFFER SLIGHTLY FROM THE

PRINTED ARTICLE

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Tomatoes & Eggs III — Slavery on Grosse Ile: Colonel Brodhead’s ‘contraband’

By Joel Thurtell

A weird thing happened in 2007 while I was covering Downriver for the Detroit Free Press. It was a time when the newspaper was courting suburban readers, and my job was to put my little journalist’s microscope on small towns to see what the local media might be missing.

Because I was trained as a historian, I liked nothing better than to dig up fascinating facts about local history. One such little-discussed fact was that there were slaves on Grosse Ile during colonial and early national times, as there were in Detroit and the territory and later state of Michigan.

The astonishing thing that happened in 2007? Historians at the Grosse Ile Historical Society first agreed with me that the existence of slavery on the Big Island was a story they should include in the picture history book of Grosse Ile they were producing. But when it came time time to publish the book, they reneged.

They became slavery deniers.

Nothing to it. No slaves on Grosse Ile. After I panned their book for its neglect of the “peculiar institution” in their history, some members of the historical society promised that next time I visited their museum they would greet me “with tomatoes and rotten eggs.”

Shortly after this threat, I retired from the Free Press. I haven’t returned to Grosse Ile to test whether the guardians of historical knowledge in their insular township keep a supply of over-ripe tomatoes and eggs handy in case I darken their door.

Now I’m going to issue my own threat: Watch your door, oh historians of the Fat Isle. I could show up any time. And when I do, I will ask want to know how well your little society has done at suppressing the facts — plural — of slavery in your community.

First, there was the 1796 inventory of property owned by the late William Macomb, whose house on Grosse Ile was managed by a slave woman named Charlotte, valued at — New York pounds. Charlotte’s husband was Scipio, valued at — New York Pounds. Their children were –, — pounds, and –, == pounds. See Isabella Swan’s “The Deep Roots: Grosse Ile 1796-1896,” p. 26.

Before I get ahead of the story, I’ll post my February 18, 2007 article about the slave who returned to Grosse Ile with the body of a onetime Detroit Free Press editor and Union general.

With permission of the Detroit Free Press, here is another part of the history of Grosse Ile that has been censored by the history police on Grosse Ile:

Headline: ON THE TRAIL IN GROSSE ILE . . .

Sub-Head: BUT NO TRACE OF SLAVES WHO DISAPPEARED IN MISTS OF HISTORY

Byline:  BY JOEL THURTELL

Pub-Date: 2/18/2007

Memo:  DOWNRIVER

Correction:

Text: Last month, at the end of my article about the history of

slavery on Grosse Ile, I asked readers: “Can somebody tell me the

story of those fugitive slaves, Ben and Dan?”

The index of a book on island history hinted of a dramatic story

about two slaves.

“Ben and Dan escape,” the note said at the back of Isabella Swan’s

book, “The Deep Roots.” Turn to pages 37 and 38. But I went to those

pages and couldn’t find any mention of slaves. Nothing on Ben or Dan.

Zilch on any escape.

Marc Lafayette read my kicker and reached for his great aunt Isabella

Swan’s personal, annotated copy of “The Deep Roots.” It had her list

of errors to be corrected if the 1976 book were to be republished.

Lafayette dialed my number. The next day, I received his voice-mail

message: Go to pages 137 and 138 for the story about Ben and Dan.

I talked to his mother, Pat Lafayette, Isabella Swan’s niece. Swan

died in 1993 at age 93. She and the Lafayettes have really deep roots

into Grosse Ile history. Their common ancestor was Louis Groh, an

early settler who owned 650 acres on Grosse Ile.

Speaking of “The Deep Roots,” Pat Lafayette said that Swan indexed the

book herself.  “I call it the most wonderful index. She was not one to

make errors. I was astounded to see that there actually was an error,”

Pat said.

My Jan. 21 story focused on a list of 26 slaves whose names appeared

in a 1796 “Estimation of the Slaves of the Late William Macomb.”

William Macomb and his brother, Alexander Macomb, bought Grosse Ile

from American Indians on July 6, 1776. William Macomb probably owned

more slaves than anyone else in Michigan.

It was in my research that I came across Ben and Dan.

They were slaves who were brought to Grosse Ile in 1828 by a deputy

Wayne County sheriff, J.M. Wilson, whose assignment was to guard the

slaves for a Kentucky man, E. K. Hudnell, who planned to take Ben and

Dan to Sandusky, Ohio, over Lake Erie. Apparently they were being

taken back to slave country. They were brought to Grosse Ile to elude

“free and armed Negroes on the Canadian side (who) planned to board

the vessel and rescue them,” according to Swan.

Deputy Wilson left the slaves with Hudnell.

According to Territorial Papers quoted by Swan, Hudnell unwittingly

gave Ben and Dan a golden chance to escape.

They disappeared “while Hudnell & others were preparing for gaming.”

Pat Lafayette aimed me at another section of her great-aunt’s book

that deals with slavery. It’s about Col. Thornton Fleming Brodhead, a

former editor of the Detroit Free Press from Grosse Ile who fought and

died in the Union army.

According to Swan’s book, “Joseph Lockman, a young colored boy who had

attended upon Colonel Brodhead, accompanied the body home and stayed

on with the Brodheads for many years. He was probably ‘contraband,’ a

term designating slaves who escaped to and were retained by the Union

forces.”

The book has a photo of Lockman, who for years gave people rides to

Catholic worship services at the Brodhead house.

Contact JOEL THURTELL at 248-351-3296 or  joelthurtell(at)gmail.com.

Caption:

Illustration:

Edition: METRO FINAL

Section:  CFP; COMMUNITY FREE PRESS

Page: 3CV

Keywords:

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PRINTED ARTICLE

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Tomatoes & Eggs: A hole in my story

By Joel Thurtell

Back in 2005, while writing suburban features for the Detroit Free Press, I combined my historical training with my journalism profession and filed a story that merged colonial history with the story of Michigan’s oldest continuously working, family-owned farm.

It’s called Westcroft Gardens and specializes in azaleas and rododendrons. The owners are direct descendants of brothers William and Alexander Macomb, who purchased Grosse Ile from Potawatomi Indians on July 6, 1776.

A couple years after I wrote the story, I received an email from a colleague, Bill McGraw. Did I know, Bill wrote, that William Macomb owned 26 slaves at the time of his death in 1796? The evidence is contained in the inventory of William Macomb’s property, which can be seen at the Detroit Public Library’s Burton Historical Collection.

I’ve written about how I hurried to the Burton, took notes and made digital images of the inventory and wrote a series of articles that attempted to recognize the presence of slaves on Grosse Ile.

None of this would merit much discussion had not the historians on Grosse Ile denied their community’s slave-owning past.

Their denial is stunningly egregious, because it also attempts to negate the incontrovertible facts that a slave — Elisabeth Denison — endowed a chapel on Grosse Ile; that a slave accompanied the corpse of a slain Union general and former Detroit Free Press editor when it was returned to the island; and that two captured fugitive slaves being held on Grosse Ile managed to escape from the island.

Here, with permission of the Detroit Free Press, is the story of Westcroft Gardens that caught Bill McGraw’s attention and led me to do further research into a subject local historians pretend did not exist — slavery on Grosse Ile:

May 12, 2005

Headline: HISTORY GROWS IN A GROSSE ILE GARDEN

Sub-Head: FAMILY STILL OWNS AND OPERATES FARM PURCHASED IN 1776

By Joel Thurtell

Two brothers, Alex and Bill, had a big problem.

Their cronies back east, where the boys came from, couldn’t agree on who should run the country.

Should it be the immigrant German who called himself George III and thought he owned a big swatch of the New World?

Or should it be those upstarts with names like Adams, Franklin, Jefferson and Washington, who wanted to dump the king?

Over in Detroit, the brothers Macomb pondered how to run a business when the king’s agents wanted to regulate shipping and collect taxes while a bunch of insurgents made war on them.

Making things worse, their dad, John Macomb, was rabble-rousing on behalf of George III, raising troops to fight the rebels and getting himself branded as a general nuisance.

Nothing for it but to bring dad west to Detroit and then, because business was business after all, plunk down some trinkets or whatever – it’s not clear what the price was – to buy a big island in that body of water the French called “le detroit,” meaning it’s a strait.

So it was on July 6, 1776 – two days after the rebels signed their Declaration of Independence from George III – that the Macomb brothers, William and Alexander, bought Grosse Ile. And, probably without intending to do so, established what is today Michigan’s oldest working farm owned continuously by members of the same family.

What does all this have to do with Denise de Beausset hefting a 25-pound bag of azalea food into a car trunk on Monday, bemoaning the previously cold spring that had kept her nursery’s prize azaleas and rhododendrons from blooming in time for Mother’s Day?

De Beausset is the owner-manager of the farm that was bought on July 6, 1776, by her great-great-great-great-great-grandfathers, Alexander and William Macomb (“we say Macooooom, you say Macomb,” she quips)  from Potawatomi Indians.

The farm is 229 years old. And it’s now called Westcroft Gardens.

The brothers Macomb weren’t aware of what had happened in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776. CNN and Comedy Central weren’t invented then. Besides, they were busy acquiring and selling land in what would be Michigan and Ontario, according to a book by Isabella Swan, “The Deep Roots, A History of Grosse Ile, Michigan to 1876.”

On a chilly day in early May of this year, Alexander and William Macomb’s great-great-great-great-great granddaughter was busy, too, but her thoughts weren’t about buying islands or dealing with the vagaries of political rebellion.

She answered her cell phone with a hearty laugh: “How are you? We had ice this morning.”

The cold spring has slowed the blooming of the azaleas and rhododendrons for which Westcroft Gardens is famous, making it tough to move the plants outside where customers could view and, hopefully, buy them.

But around the nursery, magnolias and dogwoods were in flower.

As she talked about the events that led to her settling on the family farm, de Beausset, 50, led a walking tour of what remains of her ancestral farm. It’s down to 27 acres.

Pines; spruces; big, wild-looking azalea bushes, a raspberry plantation that struggles, and a virtual forest of trees now dominate an expanse that was flat and treeless until the 1920s, when the farm’s monoculture – hay – had to be replaced because of the advent of cars and the disappearance of trolleys and horses.

For de Beausset, it comes as something of a surprise that she’s managing the family farm, given that she majored in sociology in college and worked as an elementary school teacher in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

“I didn’t think I was going to be doing this,” de Beausset said.

Twenty years ago, she came back to the family farm and began to work casually in the nursery.

“I was a general laborer and then I became more and more interested, and started asking more and more questions,” she said. “The manager before me graciously backed out and said if somebody from the family wants to run it, it would be better to have it stay in the family. So, I took over and learned it by hook or crook. I took classes and became a master gardener and a certified nursery person.”

Just as de Beausset was transformed from a schoolteacher to a gardener, so the farm itself was converted after World War I.

The loss of hay as a cash crop created a crisis. And World War I evolved a solution.

His name was Ernest Stanton.

Stanton, who died in 1974, was de Beausset’s grandfather.

He was studying chemical engineering at Cornell, but left his classes to join the French ambulance service in World War I.

His lungs were damaged when he breathed German gas. Doctors advised him to find an outdoor career.

He studied horticulture and in the first years after World War I, he planted flowers and converted the hay farm into a nursery.

“In his travels, he fell in love with azaleas and rhododendrons, but it was thought they couldn’t grow this far north,” de Beausset said.

Stanton discovered that azaleas and rhododendrons could grow on Grosse Ile “by amending the soil,” she said.

“The soil in Michigan is very alkaline, very clay. If you amend the soil with Canadian peat moss and sandy loam,” it will contain the acid qualities that allow azaleas and rhododendrons to thrive, de Beausset said.

Stanton covered the ground with acidic soil and began growing azaleas and rhododendrons.

De Beausset still raises nine of the hybrid plants Stanton originated. “We grow our own azaleas from cuttings, and rhododendrons I buy in the rooted cuttings,” de Beausset said. “We do 10,000 azalea cuttings a year.”

This week, it was hot at Westcroft Gardens, but the azaleas still hadn’t fully bloomed.

De Beausset helped a reporter buy an azalea plant.

For a long ride home and several hours’ stay in a hot trunk, she advised selecting a plant that had not blossomed.

Cadmium red was the choice.

He bought the 25-pound bag of azalea food.

Two pounds after planting, two pounds after blossoming and two pounds in fall – with enough left over for several succeeding seasons, advised de Beausset.

“Cadmium red is bright red,” said de Beausset. “One of my grandfather’s hybrids.”

Just as Ernest Stanton solved the hay collapse problem, so his ancestors Bill and Alex figured out how to deal with the simultaneous demands of the British Empire and an American Revolution.

According to Swan, Alexander Macomb went to New York and cultivated merchants and politicians connected to the new Republic.

Meanwhile, brother William schmoozed with English pals in Ontario.

Says Denise de Beausset’s mother, Connie de Beausset, “They hedged their bets.”

Westcroft Gardens is at 21803 W. River Road on Grosse Ile. Call 734-676-2444 anytime. Hours vary by the season so call ahead.

Contact JOEL THURTELL at joelthurtell(at)gmail.com

Caption: RIGHT: A bee checks out a Pieris japonica, an evergreen that loves the same acidic soil as the azaleas and rhododendrons that are specialties at Westcroft Gardens.  BELOW: A rhododendron blooms at the 229-year-old farm.

KATHLEEN GALLIGAN/Detroit Free Press

Denise de Beausset, 50, runs the farm that was bought  by her great-great-great-great-great grandfathers just two days after the Declaration of Independence was signed.

Edition: WAYNE COUNTY

Keywords:

Publication: Community_Tabloid

 

 

 

 

Category:

 

 

 

Sub-Cat:

 

 

 

Date: 5/12/2005

 

 

 

 

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