The Folklore of Pictured Rocks

Indian Head Rock, a formation in the Pictured Rocks.Indian Head Rock, a formation in the Pictured Rocks.

While millions of people have explored the Munising, Grand Island, and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore areas over the last century, Native American tribes have cherished the land for thousands of years.

Before French fur traders and Europeans voyaged to what would become Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the rural region was vastly home to the Ojibwe tribe. Unsurprisingly, this history, along with its incredible cliffs and rock formations, make Pictured Rocks rich with folklore and stories.

What are the Pictured Rocks?

What are the Pictured Rocks?

Nestled between the cities of Munising and Grand Marais, massive sandstone cliffs, caves and unique formations along Lake Superior shoreline, sand dunes, miles of incredible hiking trails, beaches, waterfalls, inland lakes, and wild forests make up the Pictured Rocks. Minerals from Lake Superior stain the rock face with colorful hues of white, red, blue and greens as water seeps into the cracks and crevices in the sandstone.

Read “Why You Should Plan a Long Weekend at Pictured Rocks”

Mid-1600s: Pictured Rocks

Miners Castle, a landmark in the Pictured Rocks, many years agoMiners Castle, a landmark in the Pictured Rocks, many years ago. PC: National Park Service.

In the mid-1600s, French fur traders Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Medard Chouart des Groseilliers sailed the wicked waters of Lake Superior along the Pictured Rocks shoreline in birch bark canoes carrying animal pelts and are known to be the first to write about the area.

Radisson called the 42-mile shoreline of cliffs and dunes “most delightful and wonderful.” However, he also claimed it to be “dangerous when there is any storm.” Radisson was fascinated by how the waves seemed to carve out the cliffs, stating when they’d crash in caverns it made “a most horrible noise, most like the shooting of great guns”.

Read “The History of Pictured Rocks in Photos”

Native American Lore

In his account, Radisson stated that Native Americans worshipped the rocks and considered them to be “alive with unseen spirits”, often providing the towering sandstone cliffs and formations with tobacco offerings.

Today, there are many landmarks in the Pictured Rocks that people from all walks of life travel across the globe to see that are rich with Native American folklore:

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The Legends of Lover’s Leap

Lover’s Leap, a famous archway in the Pictured Rocks.Lover’s Leap, a famous archway in the Pictured Rocks.

Legend has it that Lover’s Leap gets its name from an incident when a Native American woman jumped to her death from a steep cliff overhanging the water because her lover failed to return from a trip.

Caves of All Colors

Caves of all ColorsCaves of all Colors. PC: Tim Trombley

One of the many wonders of the Pictured Rocks are the Caves of all Colors, which were regarded with fear by Native Americans, as they thought the caves were places of execution. “The vermillion coloring was thought to be the blood of victims within the caves. The Indians named the place ‘Caves of the Bloody Chiefs,’” a Munising News article from 1957 reads.

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Chapel Rock

Chapel Rock, one of the landmarks in the Pictured Rocks, many years agoChapel Rock, one of the landmarks in the Pictured Rocks, many years ago. PC: National Park Service.

“I found, on examining this rock, which I did all its parts, that the (Native Americans) had used it as a place of resort, for the ashes of their fires were yet several places within it,” Thomas L. McKenna of the Indian Department wrote of Chapel Rock in 1834. Chapel Rock’s solitary white pine is thought to be around 250 years old.

Grand Portal Point

An old newspaper clipping showing Grand Portal Point before its collapseAn old newspaper clipping showing Grand Portal Point before its collapse. PC: The Munising News.

Grand Portal is one of the most impressive features of the Pictured Rocks. Once a wide archway opened into a cave so large that boats could pass through it. Unfortunately, the roof of the cavern collapsed in 1906.

An article published on Feb. 15, 1946 by The Munising News reads: “Floating under the Portal on a summer day, voices echo back and forth, a single word is repeated and naturally the mind reverts to the (Native American) belief in the grotesque imps who haunted the cavern and played their pranks upon rash intruders.”

10 Breathtaking Photos of Pictured Rocks

The Song of Hiawatha

The Departure of Hiawatha,“The Departure of Hiawatha,” by Albert Bierstadt, presented to Longfellow by the artist in 1868. NPS Photo, LONG Collections.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow brought attention to Pictured Rocks in 1855 with the publication of his poem, “The Song of Hiawatha”, which features Native American characters from the area.

Over 100 years later, Gordon Lightfoot wrote the famous song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” where he refers to Lake Superior as “Gitche Gumee”, which was initially coined by Longfellow in his poem. The term derived from “gichi-gami”, which loosely means “the big sea” or “huge water” in Anishinaabe.

Pictured Rocks Today

Passengers aboard a Pictured Rocks Cruises boat take photographs of Spray Falls, one of the many landmarks in the park.Passengers aboard a Pictured Rocks Cruises boat take photographs of Spray Falls, one of the many landmarks in the park.

Managed by the National Park Service, the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore was established on October 15, 1966 as the first designated national lakeshore in the United States.

While many people journey to the national lakeshore to bask in the serenity of the colorful cliffs, sea caves, and sandstone formations, the folklore and magic of the national lakeshore still awes and inspires to this day. Presently, the Pictured Rocks are most commonly enjoyed aboard boat and kayak tours that are offered in Munising.

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Read “Touring the Pictured Rocks: Then to Now”