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La Framboise's is a rags-to-riches story, but with the added obstacles of sex and race. In 1780 she was born to a French-Canadian fur trader and his Odawan wife. When she was a baby, her father was killed and her mother moved the little girl and her two sisters back to a village on the Grand River. At 14, Magdelaine married Joseph La Framboise, a French-Canadian fur trader in mid-Michigan.
The young wife proved a business asset. The couple spent winters gathering furs in the Grand River area, bartering them on Mackinac come summer, and La Framboise negotiated trades with the Indians. In time, Magdelaine had two children: a daughter, Josette, and a son, Joseph.
But then, on a winter's evening in 1806, La Framboise's life changed forever. Her husband, kneeling in prayer at the family's campsite, was killed by an Indian he had refused liquor earlier in the day. With the help of her voyageurs, La Framboise buried her husband's body at her native village and spent the rest of the winter gathering pelts. In the spring, she settled her husband's business affairs and traded the winter's supply of furs.
From 1806 until 1820, La Framboise worked the competitive, male-dominated fur trade, but the political turmoil of the period heightened the obstacles she faced. During her 15 years in the business, the Great Lakes region changed from American to British control and back to American. When the two powers vied for control of the fur trade in the War of 1812, both manipulated the Indians to promote their own interests. For independent fur traders like La Framboise, the troubles continued when John Jacob Astor's powerful American Fur Company pushed to monopolize the trade. Still, La Framboise gracefully negotiated with all sides. She was fluent in Odawa, French and English and naturally adept at bartering. In fact, she lacked only one basic skill: the ability to read and write.
In 1820, La Framboise sold her business to another independent fur trader and retired to Mackinac Island, where she was known as Madame La Framboise. By this time, Joseph had gone to school in Montreal and Josette was courted by the commandant at Fort Mackinac, Benjamin Pierce, brother of Franklin, who years later would become president of the United States. The couple married on the island in 1816. Not long after, La Framboise began building her retirement home on Huron Street.
Like its owner, La Framboise's home bridged two worlds. The core of the first floor was a solid, frontier-style log cabin; the second story was built out of frame, a more modern means of construction. The home, one of the most elegant on the island, soon became a salon for all walks of Mackinac society. La Framboise entertained military personnel from the fort, representatives of John Jacob Astor's Fur Company and visiting dignitaries like French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville. Equally welcome were La Framboise's many Indian friends and relatives. Indeed, La Framboise never forgot her native heritage and wore Indian dress to public functions.
For La Framboise's last 25 years, philanthropy was a way of life. When St. Anne's church needed a new, larger site, La Framboise donated land next to her home. She also devoted time and energy to educating the island children, first renting part of her home for teaching and later helping start Mackinac's first Catholic school. Along the way, Madame herself learned to read and write.
But her last years were marked with tragedy. In 1821, Josette and her infant son died, most likely during childbirth. The two were buried beneath the altar of St. Anne's church. Madame helped raise her granddaughter and the two remained close until La Framboise herself died in 1846. She was buried beneath the altar of St. Anne's, beside Josette and her child. Years later, when a basement was added to the church, their remains were exhumed and moved to sepulchers in the church yard.