Thursday, August 23, 2012

Lake Saint Clair

A river runs through it. It is a fact—and visible from its satellite image if you look closely. The Saint Clair river itself originates in, and drains, Lake Huron. After passing through the lake, it becomes the Detroit river and in due time it feeds Lake Erie to the south. In the lake itself, the river almost, but not quite, marks the border between the United States and Canada. The border parallels it but slightly to the East. Where the river is more bounded by land to the north and south, it is the border.

An excursion yesterday to the very tip of the Grosse Pointe Farms Pier Park had us watching huge freighters slowly, very slowly, come toward us, getting both much larger and travelling much faster. The ships use the river itself; its channel is at least 21 feet in depth; the rest of the lake, at its deepest, is around 17 feet: from the water it represents an invisible highway, but the ships’ masters follow navigational maps showing plenty of detail. The width is about 800 feet, so that the freighters can pass each other—even in the fog; but for safety then they sound their mournful horns at intervals. The lake, at its widest, is about 27 miles across.

The Iroquois called the Lake Otseketa, which (according to Susan Stevens on Facebook) meant sugar or candy; my informant also offers an alternate name, Ganatchio, meaning kettle, based on its shape. From a very high satellite view, the lake more resembles a right fist with the index finger pointing north.

The European discoverer of the lake was René Robert Cavelier.  The date was August 12, 1679. Present with the party was Father Louis Hennepin, O.F.M—who noted that that day happened to be the feast day of Saint Clare of Assisi, another and most famous Franciscan. Presumably he did the naming—and also recorded (he was the expedition’s official historian) what the Iroquois called it. Our family has a kind of linkage with Father Hennepin—a man who got about. He was one of the discoverers of Niagara Falls, Lake Saint Clair, and Saint Anthony Falls now in Minneapolis. I worked for a while in Niagara Falls, we lived in Hennepin County in Minnesota, and yesterday we watched the freighters plow the sky-blue waters on Lac Sainte-Claire.

Concerning the spelling here. Saint Clare was born Chiara Offreduccio. Clare is sometimes spelled Clair or Claire. The tailing E of the original name bestowed by Hennepin got chopped, perhaps by accident, in an official mapping of the region that took place in 1755. But both Grosse and Pointe, in our town, Grosse Pointe Farms, managed to hold on to theirs. You lose some, you gain some.
Image from Google Maps but rendered non-interactively as a picture. Click to enlarge, Esc to return.

1 comment:

  1. The Mississaugas called Lake St. Clair--Waawiyaataan-ong--or land at the whirlpool. The Mississaugas established a village near the lake in the latter part of the 17th century. Early French mapmakers identified the lake by a number of French and Iroquois names including Lac des Eaux de Mer [Lake of the Water of the Sea]: The Onondaga called it Otsiketo or rather "Otschiketa" meaning salt. "Otsciketagi" a derivative means whiteman's salt or sugar. Lake St. Claire was likewise called Lac Ganatchio. The Onondaga word "ganatschio" mean kettle great. The ending "io" means great. The French called Lake St. Claire Lac de la Chaudière meaning Lake of the Kettle. Other names that are seen more often on German maps included Otsiketo meaning salt lake along with the names Kandequio or Kandekio. The later two also have the ending "io" meaning great. The Upper Thumb of Michigan early on was called Pays Ekandekiodontius, which I interpret as meaning "Where (Ek) the Level Land that is Great (Kandech-io) Juts Out as a Point(dontius)". So, my thought is that Lake Kandekio was the lake where there is level or flat land that was great. The French called the Thumb Le Pays Plat; the German's called it Die Flache Landt; and the English called it the Flat Country. Lake Huron was called Mer Douce while Lake St. Claire was finally also called Lacus Marinara, likely meaning salty as there are salt springs that run into the lake.


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