Madeline Island has a rich history, and is the largest of the twenty-two islands making up the Apostle Islands archipelago. The Island is named after Madeleine Cadotte, daughter of Chief White Crane and wife of fur trader Michael Cadotte. It has been inhabited by Native Americans, fur traders, and missionaries for over 400 years and has flown the flags of three nations.The Ojibwe (Chippewa) and other native peoples made their home here for hundreds of years before European contact. Etienne Brule, a French explorer, visited Madeline Island about the same time as the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. About 1660, two explorer/fur traders, Groseilliers and Radisson, made their way to Chequamegon Bay. Five years later, Jesuit Father Claude Allouez and Father Jacques Marquette arrived. A mission was soon established at LaPointe, on Madeline Island. For the next 150 years, it was an important outpost for French, British and American fur traders.
The Apostle Islands and adjacent Chequamegon Bay became home to a host of settlers after the 1855 construction of the locks at Sault St. Marie, Michigan, opened up the Lake Superior country. Like Native American inhabitants before them, the new settlers found water transportation routes to be most convenient. Passenger and freight ferries began crisscrossing the Bay between communities. The eventual development of rail and road systems led to the disappearance of all ferry boats except those providing the connecting link between Bayfield and LaPointe, on Madeline Island. Ferries have run for nearly a century and a half between these two communities. Early sailing ferries gave way to steamers, then to gas and diesel boats – finally making the marked changes in structural design necessary for transporting vehicles in the 20th century.
You can explore and experience this history for yourself in many ways. The most comprehensive exploration of Island history can be found at the Madeline Island Historical Museum. The Heritage Center of the Madeline Island Historical Preservation Association on the edge of downtown has several significant preserved buildings from the Island’s history. There are several sites on the Island and on the mainland that should be visited for a fuller appreciation of island history – the historic Old Fort marker near the end of Old Fort Road, the historic Indian Burial Grounds near the Marina, and the historic Madeline Island marker on Highway 13, just south of Bayfield.