Marie Caroline Watson Hamlin, 1883
Excerpted by John E. L. Tenny
Legends of Le Detroit
SANS SOUCI AND OKEMOS.
The Legend of a Centenarian.
ONE of the best known houses in Detroit during the early part of this century stood on the north-east corner of the present Woodward Avenue and Woodbridge Street, fronting on the latter, then "par excellence" the fashionable street. A hospitable old French domicile was this, with its big fire place occupying nearly the entire side of a room in the centre of which was a stout oaken table with carved legs and rush-bottomed chairs around it. About the floor were deer and buffalo skins on which unexpected guests (frequently chiefs of the neighboring Indian tribes) might stretch their weary limbs and with their f eet on the hearth beguile the night away.
This was the home of Gabriel Godefroy, agent of the Pottawatomies and Chippewas. Style then was not a ruling element as at the present time. General Cass relates that when he arrived he found benches instead of chairs in ordinary use, and that an old bottle was frequently the nearest approach to a candlestick; and servants being scarce he who served himself was best served. So his friends of ten saw him returning from market with a great yellow pumpkin under his arm, and on occasions of necessity he did not disdain to place across his broad shoulders the neck-yoke, a certain machine with two buckets pendent from its extremities, which constituted the primitive water works, the river then as now furnishing a never-failing supply of the beverage. Long intercourse with the Indian tribes had simplified the tastes of the habitants and brought with it freedom from care and the calls of the tax-collector.
The proprietor of this house previously mentioned, was one of the few born within the walls of old Fort Pontchartrain under French rule, who survived all the eventful changes and who lived to serve the American government for forty years. His boon companions were Chabert de Joncaire, Desconiptes Labadie, Francois de Laselle, Jacques Campeau, Antoine Beaubien, Pierre Navarre, Antoine De Quindre, Jacques Duperon Baby, Whittmore Knaggs and other hardy pioneers of this outpost of civilization. Some of them were sure to happen in at Godefroy's during the long winter evenings and would meet there such chiefs as Tecumseh, Black Hoof, Walk in the Water, Okemos (a nephew of Pon tiac) and others whose names are familiar. The law required an Indian agent to keep open house for all representative savages who chanced to visit the post. How often have I sat by the crackling fire of blazing logs, listening to the wild tales of Indian fights, wonderful hunts, hairbreadth escapes, etc., etc.! How they laughed as they told the story of old Sans Souci, a super annuated mare the date of whose birth was beyond the ken of the oldest habitant!
This remarkable animal was the property of Godefroy's clerk, Jean Beaugrand, a mysterious old bachelor who was himself looked askance at by all the children of the fort on account of a strange habit he had of mumbling to himself. How old Sans Souci survived for so many years was inexplicable, for she was sure to visit each neighbor's cornfield or watermelon patch once a week, and before escaping therefrom had to run a wild gauntlet of stones and sticks. The more stolen provender she disposed of the leaner she grew, until at last she became a veritable scarecrow. No fence was big enough to keep her out, and there was a tradition that she had once jumped the pickets of the fort, twelve feet in height. In case some over-exasperated habitant shot at her she would merely kick up her heels and switch her tail by way of return salute. A whip or club had no effect on her except to cause a sort of scowl and a malicious laying back of the ears. On bright, sunny days she would saunter forth on the narrow streets or stand with downcast head on the corner for hours, evidently communing with herself on by-gone scenes, only aroused by a dog fight or a knot of idlers discussing politics in which she seemed to take a lively interest. Occasionally she would open wide her mouth in apparent laughter at the recollection of some old joke. At other times she would shake her head wisely and blink with the dignity of a sage judge delivering a profound opinion. What Sans Souci was thinking about no one could tell; that was the mystery. She would only brighten up when her master, Beaugrand, who seemed to have some private understanding with her, appeared around the corner and beckoned her to the barn just behind the house.
For an instant a reminiscence of departed youth would animate her, causing her to prick up her ears and forget her usual snail like pace, in expectation of fodder to come. Jean used to avow that years before his old mare had broken a leg in a race on the ice but that she kept right on and won the race in spite of it. Tradition has it that a line of steeds which sprang from this same mare have a peculiar habit of cutting up the same capers, even to this day.
It was in 1805, the year of the famous fire, that a number of French and Indians were seated around Godefroy' s festal board. Numerous potations had exhausted the jug of cider, and Okemos, who was present, became clamorous for something stronger. "You will have to find Jean, then," said Godefroy, "he has the key to the cellar." The Indian immediately disappeared but soon after returned in evident terror. He announced that seeing a light in Beaugrand's window over the barn, he had looked through the chinks and saw Jean seated with the old mare, Sans Souci, before a table and that both were laughing and chatting together. It was not strange that an Indian should believe this, for they all looked on bears, wolves and beavers as reasoning beings, and only prevented from speaking by an evil spirit.
Godefroy, to the great horror of Okemos, exclaimed, '' We will see about this," and followed by several of his French guests ascended the ladder leading to Jean's room, determined to put an end to this spiritual seance. A Frenchman who cautiously peeked through a crack avowed that he could see Jean playing "seven-up " with the old mare, and that they were pouring into a pewter cup and drinking what looked by lamplight like melted brass. Godefroy, indignant at such nonsense, dashed his foot against the door which yielded. Both the Frenchmen with him declared they saw the old mare leap out of the window when the door flew open, but Jean, on being accused of diabolical work insisted that he was only concocting a little "cidre au charbon" by the light of his lantern, and that the mare would be found in the stable below. Okemos, however, who had followed, woulcl not believe this story but considered Godefroy a "big medicine" to dare to disturb the evil spirit at his meals. Ever after this Godefroy's influence with the Indians was all-powerful. As to the old mare, her days were numbered.
A few weeks later the cry of fire resounded though the post, and in a few hours not a single habitation was left to indicate where old Detroit, had stood. The old barn, of course, was burned, and the superstitious ones who thought that Sans Souci was carried off by the devil in a cloud of smoke, were shown her charred remains the next day. There were many, however, who asserted that they saw the dreaded Nain Rouge, the traditional fiend of the fort, on the roof of the barn just before it fell in, and that he grinned and chuckled as he did on the day the old French flag was hauled down. When war broke out with England, the United States Government by a mistaken policy at first allowed the British to secure control of the Indian tribes. But after Winchester's defeat and the cold-blooded massacre of Kentucky troops, Okemos and his Chippewas, with many others, were secured to the American cause by Godefroy' s influence.*
It was one of his friendly Indians that brought Godefroy the first news of Perry's victory, and the enthusiastic Frenchman hastened to promulgate it from house to house, lightening the hearts of a people driven to despair by Proctor's tyrannies and the insatiable exactions of his savage allies.
While the site of the old house is still in possession of Godefroy's descendants, the ground on which the old barn stood is occupied by a police station, and from the shrieks and groans that often emanate from some of its frenzied occupants while under the influence of potations of strychnine (modern whiskey), we may well infer that the ghosts of both Sans Souci and the Nain Rouge still haunt the spot.
*Narrative of Elizabeth Ann Godefroy, daughter of Judge James May: "About two weeks after the battle of the River Raisin, during the absence of my husband from home, I purchased a prisoner from a Pottawatomie Indian named Ta-tas sa. This was in the month of February, 1813. The Indians were about to burn him at the stake in the yard before our house. I called on my husband's clerk and interpreter, Raumaine La Chambre, and said to him that he must devise some way to save the American. Being ill and near the period of confinement, the interpreter said that if I were to ask of the Indians, the prisoner as an adopted son they might give him up. So I followed his advice, and on hearing the request they shrugged their shoulders, saying, " Oh! oh! it is bad medicine to refuse a woman in your condition anything, but this is a Yankee dog and we must burn him." I then asked them what they would take for his ransom. They replied, one hundred dollars. Having but ten dollars at hand, I offered them a black horse well saddled and bridled, almost belonging to my husband, with two bundles of dry goods and a, lot of silver work (for Indian use) together with the ten dollars in money, in all worth some two hundred dollars. But the Indians replied, '"This is not money to us and we will not sell him." I then told them through the interpreter that we had in the cellar a five-gallon keg of whiskey. At this they held a council among themselves, and finally sold me the prisoner and went their way. His name was John Henry, from Louisville, Kentucky. He said his wife's name was Nancy Burnet, and that he had a child six months old named Valentine. Immediately after the purchase I gave him something to eat, and had the interpreter shave off his beard and dress him in the garb of an old French voyageur, so as to disguise him as much as possible, fearing that when the whiskey was all gone the Indians would return and demand, the prisoner, or more whiskey, which was not to be had at any price. After a short rest I sent the prisoner under charge of a Frenchman to my father, Judge May, of Detroit, whom I desired to attend to his exchange, which he did by sending my brother, James May, Jr., with him to Major Muir, British Commandant. As I had anticipated, the Indians returned by daylight and brought back all that I had given them except the whiskey and demanded the prisoner, or more whiskey. I told them through the interpreter I had given them all I had and they then began a search about the house for the prisoner. La Chambre said to them: "Now you see the poor woman after paying you well for the prisoner has lost all she gave and her adopted son also, for your British father sent his soldiers here last night and took him away from her." So half believing the story they left for the border of the woods thinking he might possibly be concealed there. The prisoner on leaving promised to write to me but if he did, his letters never reached us."