DescriptionLouis Campau was born in Detroit on August 11, 1791 to settler Louis Campau and his wife Therese Moran. His family came from a long line of French explorers and settlers of Canada and Michigan.
During the War of 1812, Louis Campau joined the French American military company under Captain Rene de Marsac and fought in a failed attempt to defend Detroit. After the war, he left Detroit for the Saginaw Valley to work as an Indian trader with his uncle, Joseph Campau, who had invested in his meager childhood education. In the six years he worked under Joseph, Louis established himself in eastern Michigan among prominent leaders. As a result, he was influential in founding Saginaw in 1819.
In 1819, Louis had married Ann Knaggs in Detroit, but due to his work travel they rarely saw each other, and Ann died in 1824. In 1825, Louis remarried, this time to his former Captain’s daughter, Sophie de Marsac. Having sold his business in Saginaw in 1823, he sought greater adventure near the Grand River, where rumors told of heavily populated Native American villages ready for trading. It is speculated he settled in western Michigan as an agent of Mr. Brewster in Detroit, to establish a competitor for the American Fur Company.
In 1827 he arrived in what is now Grand Rapids as the first European to settle the area. Sophie, his wife, followed him to Grand Rapids after several months. Others followed, including Louis’ brother and trading partner Toussaint Campau and Sophie’s sister, Emily de Marsac, who eventually married in Grand Rapids in 1834. In 1831, Louis Campau bought a tract of land bounded by Michigan Street, Fulton Street, Division Avenue, and the Grand River for $90. This comprises the heart of modern Grand Rapids. Eventually, as he sold plots of this land to other settlers – such as Lucius Lyon –and family members, this tract of land was platted into blocks, lots and streets. In 1833, the register of deeds of Kalamazoo County recorded this area as the “Village of Grand Rapids.”
Louis continued to buy outlying plots of land and expand the village along the east side of the Grand River throughout the 1830s. Through the sale of these plots to pioneers, Campau amassed a small fortune, which he invested in a comfortable life and enterprises in his community. These include the Eagle Tavern, the first hostelry in Grand Rapids, and the Grand River Times, the village’s first newspaper. He also built the first Catholic church for the village, on Division and Monroe avenues. He was highly generous and welcomed early colonists shelter in his log house, as well as white and Native visitors to his lavish garden. Due to his influence and generosity, in 1838 Campau was elected trustee of the village of Grand Rapids and also the president of the People’s Bank.
In 1839, however, Campau found himself nearly bankrupt after all his investments. He was forced to divide his properties among his brothers and colleagues, deeding the Catholic church on Division to his mother, Madame Therese Campau, who sold it to the Congregationalists in 1841. The iron cross that stood on its spire is now near the graves of Louis and his wife, Sophie. Despite his financial troubles, he remained in his mansion at 424 Fulton Street East from 1838 until 1862. At that time, he and his wife moved to a smaller home on the corner of Ellsworth Avenue and Almy Street.
In his last years, Campau was known for his fondness for the city’s children, since he had no offspring of his own. He also was known for his intense loyalty to the Union Army during the Civil War, due to his service in the War of 1812.
Louis Campau died of a lingering illness on April 13, 1871, and is buried in Saint Andrew’s Cemetery.