Madame LaFramboise, 1779-1846
Madame Magdalene (Magdalaine, Madelene) LaFramboise was Michigan’s first recorded businesswoman. Her husband, Joseph, was granted the entire region of West Michigan as his fur trading territory as early as 1790. He established 20 posts from the Kalamazoo River to Grand Traverse Bay as his “fur chain.” The headquarters of his “fur chain” was the log trading post he built near Lowell because the Flat River was the richest furring river in Michigan at that time. Each Spring, they returned to Mackinac Island with the furs they had acquired over the winter months when fur was prime. After Joseph was killed in 1806, Madame obtained a trader’s license and took over as the fur trader. She visited her posts and supported her clerks and engages. It was said “there was at that time no better fur trader than she.”
Magdalene was born in 1779 to Jean Baptiste Marcotte, a French fur trader, and Marie Neskesh, daughter of Odawa Chief Returning Cloud. She was raised in the Odawa village at the mouth of the Grand River because her father died when she was just three months old.
Joseph LaFramboise married Magdalene in 1794 but the marriage was not recorded on Mackinac Island until 1804 when a Roman Catholic priest was present. By that time, they had a daughter, Josette (1795), and soon would have a son, Joseph (1806).
In 1806, while the family and the voyageurs were returning by bateaux from Mackinac Island, Joseph was killed. The party had stopped along the shore of Lake Michigan near the mouth of the Muskegon River for the night. They traded with Potawatomies who were at that location. However, Joseph refused to give the drunken Potawatomie, Nequat, any firewater. Later, while Joseph knelt in prayer, Nequat stabbed him. Madame took his body to the village in which she grew up (Grand Haven) and buried him until the following spring when she carried his remains to Mackinac Island.
Madame continued to carry on her husband’s fur trade business, trading goods for furs. After the War of 1812, she began doing business with John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company. According to the American Fur Company records, she earned between $5,000 and $10,000 per year. A good trader of the time was happy to earn $1,000 per year.
Madame’s trading rights were transfered to Rix Robinson when she retired to Mackinac Island in 1821. Her personal life led her to retire. Her daughter, Josette, had died (Nov. 1820) in childbirth along with her baby son. There was a granddaughter to raise. Josette, had married Benjamin Pierce, commandant of Fort Mackinac, and brother of Franklin Pierce, future President of the United States.
Madame was deeply religious and energetic. She learned to read and write in French and English and could also speak Odawa and Ojibwa. She corresponded from her home on Mackinac with friends throughout North America. She taught catechism to local children, ran a boarding house for Odawa children so they could go to school, helped the poor, paid the salaries of the Mackinac priests, and finally gave a tract of land for St. Anne’s Church. Her only request was that she and her daughter be buried under the high altar of that church.
Madame LaFramboise died in 1846, at the age of sixty-six. In July, 2013, her remains were returned to her original resting place under St. Anne’s Church, the basement is now a Museum. Just think, Madame lived in the Lowell area before the arrival of other traders and settlers. Her life gives us a peek into what life was like here 200 years ago. The image above is an artist’s interpretation of what she may have looked like.
Researched by Luanne Kaeb, 1992, updated 2013 Program and Education Director, Lowell Area Historical Museum