2005-08-27 / Columnists

Mackinac, Playing Cards, and a Lake Michigan Ghost Story

A Look at History Ghost Story
By Frank Straus

A Look at History

Ghost Story

By Frank Straus

One of the favorite leisure-time activities of Mackinac Islanders during the fur-trading era was playing cards. By the early 1800s, the deck of playing cards had been standardized to look similar to the cards of today, although the pasteboard they were made from was not as durable. The printing firm of L.I. Cohen stamped decks of cards for the American Fur Company, which sold them at stores like the one on old Market Street at Mackinac Island. Fur-trader re-enactors can buy duplicate decks today from sources such as Nebraska’s Museum of the Fur Trade.

Francois Malhiot was one of the North West Company’s traders in the rich fur-trading ground south of Lake Superior before the War of 1812. In his memoir of the winter of 1804-05, he reported taking up his duties at his outpost at Lac du Flambeau, in present-day Wisconsin, only to find that someone had left a deck of cards behind. Later that winter, Malhiot inventoried his belongings and reported that the trading post now had three decks of cards. There was no explanation given for how the two additional decks had gotten to Lac du Flambeau, although given the North West Company’s trade routes it is likely that all three decks had passed through Mackinac Island. A telling detail as to the importance of card-playing to French-Canadians of the time was that all three packs had been carried over the forty-five mile portage from the Montreal River. “The Portage road,” Malhiot commented, “is truly that to heaven because it is narrow, full of overturned trees, obstacles, thorns, and muskegs. Men who go over it loaded and who are obliged to carry baggage over it, certainly deserve to be called ‘men’.”

Henry Schoolcraft’s predecessor as Mackinac Island’s Indian Agent, George Boyd (served 1818-32) reported that even the Native Americans who came to Mackinac Island played cards to some extent, although they preferred the games they themselves had invented. Boyd would have seen Indians playing cards in their campsites located where Mackinac Island’s yacht dock is today. The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. has a rare deck of Chippewa handmade playing cards made from slips of birchbark. The cards are tiny, only two and a half inches long.

Perhaps one of Mackinac Island’s most determined card players was Jacques Dufrain, an early 1800s Islander and trader with the American Fur Company (AFC). Just before the winter of 1819-20, Robert Stuart called Dufrain and the teenaged apprentice Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard to his headquarters at the Stuart House, and asked them to join forces to man one of the Company’s key winter posts, a cabin set on the Muskegon River in lower Michigan Territory. Soon the pair had set off in a canoe flotilla, loaded with trade goods and a deck or two of playing cards, from Mackinac Island through the Straits of Mackinac to their new posting.

Dufrain “was very fond of card-playing,” Hubbard remembered. The twosome may have spent some of their time together with a round of cards, punctuated by Dufrain’s shouted declarations of trump suits in old French – words like “corno” (diamonds), “cune” (hearts), and so on. Even if they had no candles, they could have played cards on clear nights, when the moon was high.

Leisure time for the two was rare, however, even in winter. The tireless Dufrain, as a trader-on-snowshoes, first took on a winter circuit of Indian camps in the Muskegon area, and then led Hubbard on a similar traverse. This was standard AFC practice; the traders of the Upper Great Lakes country were constantly making winter house calls upon their best hunters, seeing how they were doing, lending necessary supplies, and buying such surplus furs as the Indians would make available. Winter pelts were especially desired by the Company because of the thickness of their fur. During one hellish hike, however, Hubbard and Dufrain got lost in the icy Muskegon River wetlands. Dufrain was badly frozen and never recovered his health.

As the pair attempted to return to Mackinac Island in the spring of 1820, the older trader died in his canoe. Hubbard buried his friend at the mouth of the White River “in the bluff.” There is a large sand dune at Duck Lake State Park, near Whitehall, at this location today.

Hubbard recounted the rest of the story in his memoirs, written many decades later. He reported that friendly Indians had heard, coming from the lonely Lake Michigan sand dune where the Mackinac Islander had been buried, a ghostly voice. When Hubbard asked the Indians to what they had listened, they told him they had heard a man, speaking in Dufrain’s old French, and calling out trump suits – “corno” and “cune” – in the dialect Hubbard himself had memorized and remembered. A belief that the river-mouth was haunted persisted, Hubbard says, on the Lake Michigan shore for years after this tragedy.

In fact, one can go to Duck Lake State Park today, near the mouth of the old White River north of Muskegon on the Lake Michigan shore, although paying a nighttime call on Monsieur Dufrain is not encouraged; it’s not one of the State Parks where camping is allowed. Choose a time on the calendar when the moon will be high, then wait until nightfall. Put a deck of cards in your pocket, climb the big dune until you can see the lake glittering in the moonlight, and offer Dufrain a game.

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