Hog Island and Detroit’s ‘park question...

Hog Island and Detroit’s ‘park question’: A brief history of Belle Isle

belle isle police station in black and white

When the gun smoke ceased just before 1845, the island became a popular spot for romantic picnics. So the city announced it would change the name. 

In 1870, Detroit had a problem. The City Council had the desire and funds to build a leisure park in downtown Detroit, but could not settle on a location. Quarrels over the matter permeated Detroit newspapers for years in what reporters dubbed “The Park Question”. 

The hostility came to a climax when the City Council and the Park Commission sought to purchase a spot for the park in Hamtramck. As a result, infuriated citizens held anti-park meetings and protests. When the city council and the park commission threatened to move forward with the transaction anyhow, residents handed the issue over to the Michigan Supreme Court, arguing it was unlawful for city money to be spent in a way which was against the will of the people.  

With today’s pressing issues, Detroit’s 1870 “park question” might sound trivial. But at the time, Detroit was just beginning to realize its potential as a major metropolis. With an influx of immigrants and settlers, the park question and city planning were essential discussions. A park on the scale the city envisioned had the power to make or break the future of Detroit. An estimated $700,000 total was appropriated (roughly $23 million in today’s dollars) for the project.

Other cities had already begun similar parks. Central Park in New York was nearly completed by the time Detroit began to discuss the mere idea of doing the same. Washington Square Park in Chicago was designed at this time by Frederick Law Olmsted, a man who had worked on Central Park, and in 1881 would eventually design a plan for Detroit’s park when a location was chosen. 

The discussion of a park in Detroit took on new intensity with the restoration of Campus Martius, a square in the middle of the city that once served as storage for hay and wood, as well as a market for peddlers to sell everything from patent medicines to jewelry. 

In The History of Detroit and Michigan, Or the Metropolis Illustrated, Silas Farmer inserts a brief history of this square:

“Here patent medicine men, peddlers of knife-sharpeners, cements, toy balloons, oranges and bananas, have filled the air with their cries; and lifting, striking, electrical and lung testing machines have all been operated on this famous square. Huge bonfires have often illuminated the surrounding buildings, and hundreds of political speeches have been made here to the throngs that so many times gathered at the grand old meeting-place.” 

Early settlers recount Campus Martius as a muddy, uneven ground before the parks committee was organized and committed to its reconstruction. 

To build a leisure park, however, was a different kind of project. It was meant to instill pride in the citizens and give potential tourists something memorable to do. At the heart of it, if done well, it would generate city income both directly and indirectly. 

Images courtesy of Library of Congress in Bela Hubbard’s Memorials of a Half-Century. 

The idea to place the park in Belle Isle was first conceived by L. L. Barbour, a lawyer and regent of the University of Michigan better known for his generous donation to erect a women’s gymnasium on the university’s campus. 

Prior to it becoming the park we all know today, the island near the top end of the Detroit river had many names and purposes, and its history grew increasingly dicey the more the settlers disturbed the native tribes. According to Farmer’s history, the Indigenous tribes called the island Mahnahbezee, or “the swan.” It was lush with trees and lagoons. 

Wild rice grew along many of the banks in the Detroit River, one could assume Belle Isle was no different. Indigenous people gathered it by knocking it into their canoes and wigwams with small corn fields, and gardens were seen in the clearings of many islands in the Detroit River. 

To the French, its formal name was Isle St. Claire, but they also called it Ilse au Cochan or Hog Island because of its immense hog population. It was said pigs were kept there for two reasons, to keep them from being eaten by wolves, and to keep the rattlesnake population at bay. 

The island remained under French control even though it was said to be granted to Monsieur Douville Dequindre in 1752. When the French ceded the Fort to the British, it was the site of a tragic murder of a  family living on the island during Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1763 and where captives of the Rebellion were massacred. 

In 1768 under George III, the island passed hands to Lieutenant George McDougall with the condition that the British could use it for military purposes. According to Silas Farmer’s history, the very next year, McDougall legally purchased the island from the Ottawa and Chippewa tribes for eight barrels of rum, three rolls of tobacco, three pounds of vermilion (a red pigment found in California and Nevada), a belt of wampum (beads made from shells), and three pounds of paint.

Images courtesy of Library of Congress in Bela Hubbard’s Memorials of a Half-Century. 

The island also played a part in the Patriot War when it served as a refuge for patriots in 1837. As Farmer states, “Colonel Payne, of the United States Army, fired on the Patriots as they were escaping to Hog Island. So great was the excitement in Detroit on the day of the battle that a night-watch of forty men was appointed…,” 

When the gun smoke ceased just before 1845, the island became a popular spot for romantic picnics. So the city announced it would change the name. 

“On July 4th, 1845,” Farmer writes, “it was announced in the daily papers that a picnic party would give it a more euphonious name. Accordingly, about five o’clock p.m., a large number assembled on the island, and it was resolved that the island be known hereafter as Belle Isle. Possibly in honor of the ladies who frequently patronized it on picnic occasions.” 

Today the Belle Isle Conservancy is run by a board of directors, but the city owns the park and leases it to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources which operates it as a state park.  Planet Detroit readers are well aware of issues with trash and flooding that have plagued the island in recent times.

For a more recent history of Belle Isle, check out An A to Z guide to Belle Isle, the ‘Jewel of Detroit’ in Detour Detroit.


Farmer, Silas. The History of Detroit and Michigan. (Detroit: Silas Farmer & Co, 1889), 74.

Hubbard, Bela. Memorials of a Half-Century. (New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1887), 168.

McCracken, S.B. Men of Progress: Embracing Biographical Sketches of Representative Michigan Men. (Detroit: The Evening News Association, 1900), 15.