Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Woman doing it for herself: The story of Madeline La Framboise

Madeline La Framboise faced a dire situation in 1806. Her husband, Joseph, with whom she ran a fur trading business, had just been killed by a Native American customer at the La Framboises' trading post, near the present-day city of Lowell, in West Michigan. Now Madeline was a widow with two young children to support. She was also half French and half Native American---a pedigree that, combined with her sex, stacked the deck against her when it came to business success in nineteenth-century America. However, Madeline had ambition, and wasn't about to back down from a challenge. By the time she retired from the fur trading business in 1818 at the age of 38, she was making up to $10,000 a year (ten times more than her competitors). She had also cemented her status as one of Michigan's first and most successful businesswomen.

Artist's rendering of Madeline La Framboise;
no known photographs of her exist.

Madeline was born on Mackinac Island in February 1780 to a French-Canadian father and an Odawa mother. Her father died when she was just three years old, so Madeline grew up in her mother's Native American village near present-day Grand Haven. When she was about 14 years old, Madeline married a Frenchman named Joseph La Framboise, with whom she had two children, a daughter named Josette and a son named Joseph. The elder Joseph was a fur trader, and joined forces with his wife to establish the first trading post in the Grand Rapids area, as well as several other posts throughout West Michigan. Joseph and Madeline built a lucrative business, trading manufactured goods for furs that Native Americans brought to the La Framboises' posts, then selling the furs to Mackinac Island merchants. The couple did well and enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle---until that fateful day in 1806 when Madeline suddenly found the company resting solely in her hands.

Madeline could have looked for another husband to take care of her and her family; instead, she took the business and ran with it. Madeline successfully managed the trading posts she and Joseph had opened, and even expanded her reach into other parts of West Michigan and Northern Michigan. She gained a reputation as an intelligent, fair trader, and communicated easily with her clients, as she spoke four languages. Her business was so strong that she eventually became a threat to the American Fur Company, which monopolized the fur trade in the United States. Reports differ as to whether she eventually sold her business to the American Fur Company, or instead merged with it, but in the end, she walked away from the transaction in 1818 with a significant amount of money. A few years later, she returned to Mackinac Island to begin her retirement.

Madeline La Framboise's house on Mackinac Island

Madeline no longer managed a network of trading posts, but her work wasn't over. She was proud of her Odawa heritage, and helped establish Mackinac Island's first school for Native American children. She was also an active member of St. Anne Catholic parish, to which she donated land for a new church with the understanding that, upon her death, she would be buried under the church's altar. Her wishes were granted; when Madeline died at age 66 on April 4, 1846, the pastor made sure she was interred under the altar she had helped build---a fitting tribute to a woman who gave so much to the island and who blazed a path for female entrepreneurs and philanthropists to come.

For more information:

Some sources cite Madeline's first name as "Magdelaine," while her gravestone uses the spelling "Magdalene." I've used "Madeline" in this post because it appears in more sources than do the other two spellings.

The historical marker for Joseph and Madeline La Framboise's trading post is located in Stoney Lakeside Park in Lowell, though no one knows where, exactly, the trading post sat. According to a 2011 article in the Grand Rapids Press, staff from the Lowell Area Historical Museum decided that the post's most likely location was on the Grand River's north bank, between Stoney Lakeside Park and Cumberland Avenue.

Madeline La Framboise's body no longer rests under the altar at St. Anne. The church and its grounds underwent renovation in the 1990s, and Madeline's remains were moved to a garden in the churchyard.

Madeline's house on Mackinac Island still stands, and is now the Harbour View Inn (photo below), located just down the road from St. Anne Church on Main Street.
And now, a completely random fact: "Framboise" means "raspberry" in French.


  1. Just a note...July 26, 2013, St. Anne's reinterred Madame's remains in a special crypt created for her in the museum beneath the church. I was there, and have pictures and video if you are interested. It was also covered by the "Town Crier" and the St. Ignace newspaper.

  2. Thanks for the information! I didn't realize she had been moved again (and I actually subscribe to the Town Crier, so I'm not sure how I missed that). I'll do some more research and write a follow-up post. Thanks for reading :)