I have learned that the Great Lakes are rife with tales of sea monsters. Stories about these lonely creatures swimming alongside schooners and steamships were somewhat familiar in the 1800s. Amazingly, there are even more recent sitings, some by respected ship captains and even law enforcement. Three of the descriptions share a common theme – the dark creature looks like a snake or a serpent, while the fourth is a spector. While there are many stories and names of creatures, the following four Great Lakes monsters seem to appear the most and are widely retold.
#1 Lake Erie’s Bessie
The most renowned of these Great Lakes sea monsters supposedly resides in Lake Erie. Sightings of the lake monster Bessie were first made in the late 1700s but appeared again with some regularity in the 1980s. Bessie is described as being about 20 feet long, serpent-like but with appendages that resemble arms. Fishermen who have encountered Bessie describe their boats being bumped with enough force to cause them to lose balance. The legend has so much traction around the Lake Erie shore near Cleveland that the Great Lakes Brewing Company named one of their brews the “Lake Erie Monster.”
#2 Michibeichu – The Lake Lynx or Serpent
Across Lake Huron near Anishnaabeg island resides Mishebeshu. This story comes from an Ojibwa oral tradition that describes a creature as a water cat or lynx. The beast can live under the ice and go after children and fishermen. This particular creature is attributed to sightings near the appropriately named Serpent River in Ontario, Canada, and flowing into Lake Huron.
In Lake Superior, near the Presque Isle River, the creature is called Pressie. Over the past 400 years, there have been numerous sightings of Pressie. In one famous published story, a copper prospector came across the creature in an underwater cave in Lake Superior. Protected by a heavy canvas dive suit and copper helmet, the driver fought off the glowing monster and escaped. He never went back into the water again.
#3 First Nation Views of Pressie
There are pictographs at the Lake Superior Provincial Park and the northern area of Algoma at Agawa Rock. The paintings are thought to be over 500 years old. They depict a canoe with five passengers, a Michipeshu (water lynx), and two giant serpents (chignebikoogs). One theory is that the paintings are a result of a Vision Quest experience.
One First Nation story about Michibeichu goes like this.
“An Ojibwa family lost their baby near Agawa Rock. They saw the tracks of Misshepezhieu, the Great Lynx leading to the water. The father called upon the birds of Thunder, their protectors, to avenge the loss of their child. The Thunderbirds caused lightning to fall on the rock and destroy the cave where Misshepezhieu was hiding, destroying the eval manitou. The rock chasms that remained are a reminder of their protectors – the thunderbirds.
#4 Saginaw Bay Saggy
Of all the Great Lakes sea monster stories, the Saginaw Bay creature is probably the least well known, and encounters are the tamest among the tall tales. Those who have encountered Saggy often describe a long dark sea serpent who merely comes up from the murky depths and nudges the boat enough to knock things around a bit. Some think it may be an extremely old Lake Sturgeon or Muskie who likes to use boats to rub its back like a cat. Regardless, Saggy is the tamest among the mysterious sea creatures that seem to reside just out of sight in the Great Lakes.
#5 The Nain Rouge Specter
Tales from the Odawa tribe tell of a demon dwarf who comes up from the Straits of Detroit. Unlike the other Great Lakes monsters, this little Red Devil is described as being about two and a half feet tall, wearing furry boots with red eyes and knurly teeth. This creature loves to be flattered, and those that cross or belittle this imp seem to get a string of bad luck in which they never recover.
The founder of Detroit, Antoine Cadillac, was said to have seen Nain Rouge and dismissed it despite being warned about it. Soon Cadillac was arrested in Canada by the French governor for overstepping his authority and banished to the backwater colony in Louisiana, where he was soon kicked out of his governor position. Cadillac returned to France, where he became bankrupt and spent several months in the famous Bastille prison.
The infamous American General Willaim Hull fared no better to Nain Rouge’s tricks. Hull sighted the Specter on a foggy morning during the war of 1812 just as Chef Tecumseh was about to lay siege on the Detroit Fort. Despite a sizable force inside the fort, Hull was convinced that he and his men were outnumbered and surrendered to the Chief without a shot being fired. Hull was relieved of his command, and later court marshaled in 1814 for treason, cowardice, neglect of duty, and misconduct. Sentenced to death, he was spared hanging by President Madison. General William Hull remains the only U.S. general to be sentenced to death by an American court-martial.
Nain Rouge has been blamed for all sorts of misfortune in and around Detroit. These include the great fire of 1805 with just about wiped out the city, the 1968 Detroit Riots, and even an ice storm in the 1970s. You don’t fool with the little Red Devil.