The Snake Goddess of Belle Isle

The Snake Goddess of Belle Isle
An Ottawa Legend

There is something forlorn and desolate about Belle Isle.

It is a space lost in the time. Historical relics are everywhere so desperate to fit into the current time but the ghosts of the past linger. They just won't let Belle Isle move on and become one with the present. 

A doorway through time, the historical buildings are there, not quite in their original glory, their beauty is faded, some are really shabby around the edges even though efforts have been made to restore them there's something just not quite right. It’s like peering through a lens and seeing directly into the past, but the lens is covered with dirt and grime.

The island is tragic and beautiful. A sense of unease hangs in the air. 

I can't quite put my finger on what is wrong but there is something definitely “off”. Amidst all the beauty and nature malevolence slithers just out of sight.

There are many deaths connected to the island. So many people have died on the island, on the bridges, and in the water surrounding the island. 

Have those deaths occurred because something sinister lingers on the island sucking people into its despair?

Today I'm going to share some of the stories I've found about Belle Isle.

The first is an old Ottawa legend tied to Belle Isle about a Chief and his daughter.

Chief Sleeping Bear had a daughter so beautiful he had to keep her safe from the gaze of men who would try to steal her away. He hid her secreted away in a covered boat tied in the Detroit River.

One day when her was visiting his daughter to bring her food and supplies the winds caught a glimpse of her beauty. They were entranced. Huffing and puffing they blew away the cover of the boat so they could fully gaze upon her beauty. But they blew so hard that the ties snapped and the boat floated away.

The keeper of the water gates caught sight of her and pulled her boat to shore. He took her to his wigwam so he could claim her as his own, but the winds were unhappy and they beat at him until he died.

The winds returned the maiden to her father but begged that he not keep her from their sight. So he put her on a remote island in the Detroit River where she could run free. He called upon the Great Spirit to guard her by surrounding the island with snakes so no one could enter. The snakes were charmed by her and began to worship her as a Goddess. The Great Spirit seen this and made her immortal so she could rule over the island for eternity.

When the white men came to the area they first named the island, Isle Ste. Clair, then they discovered the snakes and called it Rattlesnake Island. Much later, after being called Hog Island, it was renamed Belle Isle which translates to beautiful island.

Some lucky visitors to the island still catch glimpses of the beautiful native girl dancing with the wind. Some say that if you park on the island by the woods, you should wait in your car for the Snake Goddess to call too you. She will beckon for you to follow her into the woods.

The unlucky man who had tried to claim the Chief’s daughter and was thus killed by the wind, he was buried on Isle au Peche (Peach Island) where it is said his spirit remained for generations. He became an oracle, his voice sounding like the wind in the trees and only those who prepared to receive his counsel could understand his advice.  Chief Pontiac spent seven days on the island fasting and meditating so he could receive counsel before planning his campaign against the British.

The White Lady of Belle Isle

Detroit folklore has a Lady in White story connected to Belle Isle.

One legend says that a young bride was murdered by her new husband on their wedding night. Now her ghost wanders the island full of despair. She is drawn to young couples.

Another legend claims that the Lady in White is an old woman who appears by bridges. Urban legend claims she is the mother of a girl who was murdered on that stretch of road (perhaps the mother of the bride?). If you stop on or by the Tanglewood Bridge and wait, she might appear. If you are in car, honk three times, this seems to get her riled up and she’ll come out, perhaps to shake her fist at you for disrupting her peace and quiet. Or maybe, she’ll try to lure you into the woods.

Some versions of the legend claim the Lady in White is the beautiful maiden who became the Snake Goddess. 

One version even claims that she transforms into a white doe that is often seen roaming Belle Isle.

One of the more detailed versions of this urban legend ghost story was collected by Dave Sprybrook in 1969 and detailed on Wayne State University’s Walter P Reuther Library website:

“The story of the ghost of Tanglewood Bridge on Belle Isle concerns a young lady who was in an accident on or around the bridge and was thrown through the window of the car and onto the rocks below the bridge in the woods. The ghost involved, however, is not the young lady killed in the accident, but rather her mother who comes to the bridge each night to search for her daughter. The lady always seems to come back around midnight each night dressed completely in white. ...the mother was coming back to look for her daughter who had been killed. The ghost is always seen on the bridge or in the woods surrounding the bridge. The ghost sometimes comes right up to the car to look into the car to see if her daughter is in the car ….and may tap on the window of the car to try and get in.”

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