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Horned Serpents and Petroglyphs:Lake Monsters in Michigan



Daniel J. Wood Fate July 2007

Known as the Great Lakes State, the two peninsulas of Michigan rest amidst the greatest concentration of fresh water in the world. Herman Melville, who sailed the Great Lakes in the summer of 1840, commented on their vastness in his epic Moby Dick. Melville wrote:


For in their overflowing aggregate, those grand fresh-water seas of ours,--Erie, and Ontario, and Huron, and Superior, and Michigan,--possess an ocean-like expansiveness, with many of the ocean’s noblest traits; with many of its rimmed varieties of races and climes.


Like the oceans, the Great Lakes lock away many secrets in their deep-water vaults—secrets about treasure, lost civilizations, shipwrecks, and sea monsters.  Always, there have been sea monsters. The earliest written records of Michigan, Native American rock art, contain numerous references to supernatural creatures lurking beneath the freshwater seas and inland lakes. They continued to swim through the journals, diaries, and folklore of French missionaries, explorers, and fur traders. Whether depicted on stone or described on paper, the images remain the same. Over the past seven hundred years, prehistoric Indians, 17th-Century Frenchmen, and commercial fishermen have consistently reported similar, if not identical, monsters in the Great Lakes. Sightings may be broken down into three distinct creatures, all of which we find in Native American artwork: giant sturgeon, horned serpents, and Loch Ness-style plesiosaurs.   




A refugee from the Paleozoic Era, hundreds of millions of years ago, Acipenser fulvescens, the lake sturgeon, remains Michigan’s largest fish and a true living fossil. Sometimes called ‘Elders of the Deep,’ sturgeon can live upwards of one hundred years, grow as large as twelve feet in length, and weigh as much as three hundred and twenty-five pounds. Prehistoric specimens grew to immense proportions. Sturgeon somehow survived the extinction of the dinosaurs and colonized the Great Lakes ten thousand years ago, after the last Ice Age. Michigan’s Indians revered the sturgeon as an important source of oil, smoked meat, and skin, a relationship memorialized in Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha. Michigan’s Indians also accurately depicted sturgeon in their rock paintings, called pictographs, and their rock carvings, called petroglyphs. They presented the sturgeon as distinct from other powerful underwater entities, Meshepeshew, and Mishi Ginabig. While modern scientists and historians recognize the giant sturgeon as real holdovers from the age of the dinosaurs, they dismiss Meshepeshew and Mishi Ginabig as imaginary figments of the pre-modern mind.


Several centuries worth of eyewitness reports from throughout the Great Lakes region, however, suggest that Native American traditions reflect a careful observation of the natural world rather than superstitious flights of fancy. In June of 1673, while traveling from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi, the intrepid explorer Fr. Marquette came across a terrifying pictograph on a sandstone cliff. In Marquette’s Journal we read:


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