Throughout the world, from nearly every culture there are tales of little people. Fairies, gnomes, elves, goblins, all manner of tiny strange beings inhabit the lore of these places, and in many cases these creatures are seen as quite real indeed. Occasionally one can find such stories in the last place one might expect, and one such type of gnome or little person has been reported from the area of Detroit, Michigan for centuries. Far from merely a bit of folklore, there have been actual sightings of these beings dating from before European settlement all the way up to the modern day, and the mysterious little people of Detroit are one of the more bizarre stories of such creatures out there.
The tale has its origins with the Ottawa tribe, which inhabited the area in and around what would become Detroit, Michigan, in the United States, and revolves around the curious entities known as the Nain Rouge, or “Red Dwarf.” Contrary to the image one may have of Detroit today, this was once an untamed wilderness, populated by all manner of spirit folk of Native American legend, and these were among them. The creatures which would come to be known as the Nain Rouge were said to be indeed mischievous, as are many supposed little folk in other traditions, but were also protectors of the land, powerful nature spirits that were caretakers of the earth. With the coming of the first French settlers, the newcomers to this land brought their own visions of the mythology of their homelands, based on the fairy-like entity known as the Lutin, which had its origins in Normandy. The Lutin were long considered to be mean-spirited trickster spirits prone to prankish behavior, and seemed a perfect fit for the strange gnomes of the natives, the two traditions becoming intertwined.
The image of these mythical creatures began to change and evolve with European settlement, and they instead began to be seen as not mostly benevolent forest entities, but rather harbingers of doom and destruction, with the sight of one believed to be an almost certain omen of bad things to come. During these days, the Nain Rouge were described as small, child-sized humanoids with red old man faces, glowing eyes, jagged and yellowed rotten teeth, and dressed in worn down clothes, pointed hats, and fur boots, or sometimes without clothing and covered in a matted reddish brown hair.
While this may all seem to be purely the stuff of folklore and legend, alleged real encounters with these mysterious diminutive entities go way back, and they were routinely seen by the Native tribes, who considered them to be very much real. One of the earliest such reports from a European starts in 1701, when the founder of Detroit, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, was having a party on March 10 of that year. During this event, a mysterious fortune teller allegedly appeared with a cat on her shoulder, and when she read his palm she told him that he was destined to start a great city, but that this new colony would be the place of great strife and bloodshed. She also warned him to pay heed to the Nain Rouge and to not upset it, as this would certainly mean his downfall, which the skeptical leader mostly scoffed at.
When Cadillac finally did found his city, he reportedly went out with his wife one night for a quiet walk and overheard two men complaining about the new city, with one of them saying that he had seen le petit nain rouge, which was a sure sign of bad things to come. At the time this amused Cadillac, but soon after he reported that a deformed, “dwarf-like creature” covered in blackish red fur and with beady fierce red eyes shambled into view and that it had crooked, horrendous teeth. Cadillac allegedly bashed the foul creature over the head with a cane and told it to go away, but the fearsome gnome just laughed and scampered off. After that Cadillac was supposedly beset by myriad misfortune, eventually dying alone and penniless.
The creature was spotted multiple times at around the same time, with one frightened farmer claiming to have seen it on the roof of a barn trying to rile up the horses, and another farmer claimed that the thing would appear at night to peer into his windows and steal his chickens. More well known than these scattered sightings was an encounter with one of the little beasts on July 30, 1763. On this day, 250 British troops had amassed in preparation for a surprise attack on a rebel force made up of a confederacy of Native Americans that had defied British postwar policies in an insurgent uprising known as Pontiac’s War, named after one of its fiercest leaders, the Odawa chief Pontiac.
The war itself had devolved into a brutal, ruthless campaign that involved various atrocities such as slaughtering civilians and unceremoniously executing helpless prisoners, and the British were eager to squash the violent rebellion as quickly as possible. On this day, in what would end up being called The Battle of Bloody Run, the British forces crept up along a tributary of the Detroit River called Parent’s Creek, on their way towards Pontiac’s encampment, hoping to launch a decisive surprise attack against the chief, but they were surprised to find a large contingent of 400 angry Native American warriors waiting for them and ready to fight. The ensuing battle would drive the British back and was said to be so bloody and vicious that the creek ran red with blood, changing its name to Bloody Run.
Nearly 60 British soldiers would die in the melee, including the commander of the force, Captain James Dalyell, whose corpse was decapitated so that his head could be paraded about on a stick for all to see. Eyewitnesses, including many of the soldiers themselves, would claim that they had seen one of the Nain Rouge sitting upon the banks of the creek before the battle, as if claiming a front row seat and waiting with glee to witness the carnage. In the aftermath of the fighting, the fearsome little dwarf was then allegedly witnessed to frolic and dance amongst the corpses that littered the ground and to wade about in the blood stained waters of the creek. The creature’s demeanor was described as being joyous and elated, as if celebrating the bloodshed.
The reputation of the Nain Rouge as being a portent of death and disaster continued in the days before the great Detroit fire of 1805, which would burn most of the city to the ground. In the days leading up to the fire, the dreaded Nain Rouge was reportedly seen numerous times by the citizens, with some even claiming that they saw the evil little red man dancing in the flames when the disaster struck. Then, the creature was seen again in the aftermath of the War of 1812, when the defeated General William Hull reported seeing it peering from the fog on the sidelines and grinning with its disgusting teeth during his surrender of Detroit in 1813. Hull would later be historically executed for military incompetence.
Sightings and scary encounters with the Nain Rouge would continue into later years as well. In October of 1872, one woman named Jane Dacy claimed that she had just come back to her house on Elizabeth Street from running errands when she encountered what she described as a creature with “blood-red eyes, long teeth and rattling hoofs” lurking in a darkened room. The encounter was reportedly so shocking to Dacy that she passed out and ended up bedridden for some time. In 1884 another women claimed to have been savagely attacked and beaten as she walked along a street at night by a beast that looked like “a baboon with a horned head, brilliant restless eyes and a devilish leer on its face.”
With the coming of the 20th century the malevolent little beast or beasts were still up to their tricks. The creature was sighted a few times before the 1967 Detroit uprising, which was one of an epidemic of race riots that was sweeping the nation at the time and was one of the most destructive and violent riots the country has ever seen. One witness at the time described the creature as “doing back flips and cartwheels” down 12th Street during the police raid of a bar that ignited the whole fiasco. Then in 1976 two utility workers reported seeing the Nain Rouge climbing up a utility pole just before one of the worst snowstorms in the city’s history rolled through in March of that year. They apparently thought it was a child climbing the pole until it leapt down to the ground and they could see that it was actually the legendary Nain Rouge.
There are more recent alleged sightings of the Nain Rouge as well. In 1996, the Michigan Believer ran a story about a pair of witnesses who claimed that they had just exited a nightclub when they saw a tiny, hunched over man wearing what looked like a filthy tattered old fur coat flee an attempted car burglary while making a “cawing sound, similar to a crow.” As recently as 2017 there have been reports of the Nain Rouge. One commenter on Reddit called “theinfamous99” gave two curious accounts of what appears to be the creature, saying:
These 2 stories came from 2 people who knew nothing of the other. My great Aunt says when she was little she seen a gnome on several occasions. It would stare at her and even followed her. The last time she seen it was at a funeral home and it wanted her to go into a cellar and she felt it was evil by then. When she told me and my sister this story as an old woman she looked disturbed and says she has carried a cross ever since. My sister and I were very young so we didn’t really get many details. One regret I have is not finding out more. My family believed her or at least believed she had thought she seen it. No one is alive that would have any more information about her sighting/encounter.
The next person to tell me a related account was my close friends older sister. She said she was chased by an “evil little creature” at her bus stop. She described it as a gnome and my friends would clown on her about it and now that I’m older and more mature and very much interested in the super natural I regret not listening to her. She had a hard time even talking about it or when we would joke about it. She said it was very small, smaller than she was as a 8 year old girl. It had white fur and a pointy red hat.
Is there anything to these sorts of tales or is this all myth and urban legend? After all, cultures around the world have their own versions of mysterious elves, gnomes, and other trickster spirits in their lore, so is this perhaps just the Detroit region’s own unique little people myth? Or do these stories have something to them, and if if the Nain Rouge is real at all, then what could it be? It is interesting to note that the appearance of the notorious red dwarf of Detroit has historically been very often sighted before or during tragedies or disasters, which is very much in keeping with reports of other ominous entities that serve as portents of doom, such as the well-known Mothman of Point Pleasant, Virginia. Could the Nain Rouge be a similar such mysterious apparition, or even the same one in a different form?
Related to this line of questioning is just why the Nain Rouge should go from the beneficial nature spirit protector it was traditionally seen as in Native American lore to the seemingly evil creature depicted upon the arrival of the Europeans, but if the being (or beings) is at all real then this could be because it or they simply did not take kindly to these outsiders coming into their land. It could also be that we have misunderstood them, and that they are not causing the disasters in any way, but rather trying to warn us in their own way, and in this sense they could still be considered protectors or guardians of a sort. It is interesting to think about, and to ponder just what lies at the bottom of these bizarre stories and reports.
Regardless of whether the Nain rouge is actually real or not, the city of Detroit has adopted it as sort of a mascot. There has historically been a yearly parade called the Marche du Nain Rouge, in which costumed revelers ceremoniously chase the red dwarf out of the city and conclude with burning an effigy of the creature, which will banish the imp from the city for another year. There is also a brewery in the city that produces “Detroit Dwarf lager,” and a wine importer in the city has its own “Nain Rouge Red.” The character also pops up in popular culture in Detroit from time to time. Even if the Nain Rouge was never real, it still seems to maintain a presence in the city to some degree nonetheless.