Charlevoix is a rather unique town name and it’s somewhat difficult to pronounce. It’s also one of the most commonly asked questions by visitors: how did Charlevoix get its name? The Charlevoix Historical Society explores the origin of this quirky French word, how two towns share the same name (one town located in Michigan and another in Quebec), and the legacy of Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix.
Let’s start at the very beginning! Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix was born in 1682 in Saint-Quentin in the French province of Picardy. At age 16, Charlevoix became a Jesuit novitiate in Paris. The novitiate, or novice period, is a time of learning, training, and preparation an individual undergoes prior to taking religious vows. After completing his novitiate period, he attended secondary school studying philosophy. Between 1705 and 1709, Charlevoix would cross the Atlantic to continue his Jesuit training in Quebec. Returning to France in 1709, Charlevoix finished his studies and became a member of the Society of Jesus in 1713. He would then accept a position as a professor of humanities at his alma mater, Lycée Louis-le-Grand.
At the age of 37, Father Charlevoix would become an explorer, adventurer, and secret government operative. In 1719, the French government gave Charlevoix a royal commission to ascertain the historic boundaries of Acadia (modern-day Quebec, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Maine), a colony of New France in North America, which they had lost to the British in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht. This was a major loss for the French because Acadia was strategically located on the Atlantic Ocean and the territory boasted of rich natural resources.
A year later, Charlevoix was sent on another mission, this one even more important than his last, to find the long-sought-after waterway to the Pacific Ocean. If the waterway existed, France wanted to be the first to find it in order to expand its holdings in North America. Charlevoix had to keep his mission a secret while trying to appear simply as a missionary. Rumor has it, Charlevoix was also supposed to report the location of British troops, other explorers, and British fort defenses.
From Quebec, he set out on his journey with eight companions and supplies loaded into two canoes. The group made their way down the St. Lawrence River and into the Great Lakes. By June 18, 1714, they had reached Fort Ponchartrain (present-day Detroit), and 10 days later they arrived at Fort Michilimackinac (present-day Mackinaw City). Charlevoix spent the next three weeks traveling along Lake Michigan’s northern shore to obtain information from Natives about the alleged waterway to the Pacific. He returned to Michilimackinac where he stayed nearly a week before continuing his journey. After a brief excursion to present-day Green Bay, Wisconsin, the group headed back out into Lake Michigan, traveling along the lake’s eastern shoreline. They entered Little Traverse Bay and found there was no outlet and went back into the open water where they continued to travel south. The winds grew quite strong and the group decided to pull ashore upon a small island. Charlevoix wrote of the experience in his journal on July 31, “I departed from Michillimakinac the Day before Yesterday at Noon, and I am now detained here in a little island that has no Name…Yesterday I went three leagues further” (from Little Traverse Bay) “and a high wind obliged me to stop at this island.”
The island where Charlevoix spent the night is Fisherman’s Island, located about five miles south of the city of Charlevoix. After spending the night on the island, the group continued their search for the elusive passage to the Pacific. As we know today, they never found such a waterway. The group of travelers ultimately ventured down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico. Charlevoix departed for France in September of 1722. He kept diligent records of the entire voyage which were published in 1744 and his drawings and personal records would allow cartographers to create more accurate maps of the region. Charlevoix would live to the age of 79 when he died in France on February 1, 1761.
Fast forward to 1843 when the Michigan Senate and House of Representatives decided to change the names of 16 counties, all of which were named after indigenous words or Native American chiefs who were connected to the early history of the state. At this time, there was no permanent European settlement where the city of Charlevoix is today. Charlevoix County was known as Keshkauko (or Keskkauko) named after an Ojibwe chief. Many of the new county names enacted by the 1843 legislature had little or no local significance. For instance, Antrim, Wexford, and Roscommon are named after counties in Ireland, and Osceola is named after a Seminole leader. Though it can’t be proven, one or more of the legislatures must have known of the story of Charlevoix’s voyage down the east coast of Lake Michigan and his overnight stay on Fisherman’s Island, and thus gave the county his namesake. The city of Charlevoix was originally settled as Pine River, after the channel that connects Lake Michigan to Round Lake. In July 1866, John Dixon completed the first official plat of the village of Charlevoix. Though some locals would still use the name Pine River, the name Charlevoix superseded the former by 1869, when the village became the county seat.
Learn more about Pierre Francois Xavier de Charlevoix's legacy and the unique history of the Charlevoix area at the Charlevoix Historical Society Museum.