Grosse Ile Township, Wayne County, Michigan
Founding and early times
Grosse Ile historians consider the beginning of ownership and governance of the community by residents of European heritage to have begun on July 6, 1776, when the Potawatomi Indians deeded the island to prominent Detroit merchants, brothers William and Alexander Macomb. Although the Potawatomi Indians, like most Native Americans, did not believe in the European legal concept of land ownership, they did consider the island to be part of their ancestral lands. The Potawatomi Indians called the island Kitcheminishen.
Historians assume that the Macomb brothers believed that by purchasing this deed through the transfer of items of value, they had in fact obtained full ownership rights. In any case, the Macomb brothers are considered to be the founders, and first legal owners, of Grosse Ile, because the Potawatomis, and later the United States government, respected the Macombs' perceived rights to take possession of the island.
Today, recognition of the Macomb brothers' historical importance is found in numerous places in the community. The central business district of Grosse Ile is located along Macomb Street which was named in their honor. A monument commemorating the day that the tribal chiefs and elders signed the deed to the Macomb brothers is located near the shoreline of the Detroit River at the foot of Gray's Drive. The original deed, which was written on parchment, is currently stored in the Burton Historical Collection within the Detroit Public Library.
There are at least two homes still standing on the island that were built during the 19th century by a descendant or relative of the Macomb brothers. The Rucker-Stanton House on West River Road was built in 1848 by the great-grandson of William Macomb. The Wendell House on East River Road was built in the late 1860s by the John Wendell whom married the granddaughter of William Macomb.
Westcroft Gardens, a Michigan Centennial Farm located on West River Road, is operated to this day by descendants of the Macombs. Westcroft, which is open to the public, features a nursery well known for growing and selling hybrid azaleas and rhododendrons. During the Halloween season they have haunted hay rides in the back of the farm called "Phantom Forest." In the winter and around the Christmas season they have Christmas hayrides which take you through the woods full of lights. Westcroft is one of the oldest farms in Michigan still owned by the same family. Most of the original buildings at Westcroft Gardens are still standing to this day and well preserved.
The flags of three nations—France, England, and the United States—have flown over Grosse Ile since the first Europeans, French explorers, visited the island during the late 17th century. The early French explorers named the island as la grosse ile—the "big island" in French. The British, whose control of Michigan was established in 1763 after their victory in the French and Indian War, anglicized the spelling to "Grosse Isle". This form was commonly used until early during the 20th century when local residents succeeded in an effort to re-establish the French version as the official name of the community. To the dismay of historic preservationists and long-time residents, it is still common for the uninformed to mispronounce the name of the community.
Catholic priest and missionary Father Louis Hennepin accompanied fellow French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle on the ship Le Griffon in exploring the Great Lakes in 1679. The Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church on Grosse Ile maintains that Father Hennepin came ashore and said mass at a location on the east shore of the island near the present site of St. Anne's Chapel. While there apparently is not written proof of this specific event, Father Hennepin did write in his journals about the fruit orchards and wild animals on Grosse Ile, so historians assume that, at the very least, he explored the island first-hand. The north end of Grosse Ile is named Hennepin Point in his honor.
Grosse Ile played a minor role in the founding of the city of Detroit by the French explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac. Cadillac and his convoy of 25 canoes sailed down the Detroit River and camped on the shore of Grosse Ile during the evening of July 23, 1701. On the morning of July 24, Cadillac returned upriver and reached a spot on the shore near the present intersection of West Jefferson and Shelby streets in Detroit, where he claimed French possession of the territory under the authority of King Louis XIV.
Although Grosse Ile maintained its own name and identity as a community beginning in the 18th century, it did not obtain status as an independent unit of government until October 27, 1914, when the Wayne County Board of Supervisors agreed to separate the island from Monguagon Township. The first supervisor of Grosse Ile Township was Leonard H. Wilton.