INDIANS AND PIONEER LIFE
From Vol. # 38
MICHIGAN PIONEER & HISTORICAL COLLECTIONS
By Miss Minnie B. Waite
Tracing the occupancy of Grand Traverse region, we find, in an account of the traditions of the Indians told by Chief Mac-a-de-pe-nassy, who has visited our house on many occasions, that murder in cold blood among the Indians was rare before they knew the plague of firewater; the only instance extant in this state being at the Straits of Mackinac. A foolish young Ottawa, while in dispute over his nets, stabbed a Chippewa. The latter tribe was so incensed over the outrage that a bloody war was threatened. After many councils, the Chippewas demanding bloodshed, and the Ottawa desiring compromise, the matter was finally settled by the Ottawas ceding a desirable part of their country to the Chippewas for a vast hunting ground. This seemed to appease the wrath of the Chippewas, and the district now known as our Grand Traverse Region was the tract given by this treaty. All rivers and streams in the Lower Peninsula, in which to trap beaver, mink, otter, and muskrat, were also ceded.
A noted Chippewa Chief, We-we-gen-deby, was the first settler in this tract; this was about 250 years ago. One day as he was roaming the forests of the newly acquired hunting grounds he discovered a shining copper kettle nearly imbedded in the roots of a tree. It had a bright spot on the bottom as though it had never been used, and was so large that a whole deer or bear could be cooked in it. The Chief gasped in awe upon it as direct from some mighty Maniton, and gathered his people to the place where it was discovered, in this way founding the first settlement. This maniton-au-kick, or god-kettle, as it was called, was kept as a sacred relic by the tribe and was securely hidden in a little-frequented part of the forest where it remained, being brought forth only for sacred feasts, as it was supposed to have been made by some deity who presided over this particular region. The kettle was of peculiar build, having neither rim or bail, showing that it was not of Indian manufacture and dated back to some pre-historic race. When the Indians of this region became civilized they began using this manitou-au-kick more commonly, the awe surrounding it having some what lessened, it was used for boiling maple sugar. A rim and bail were added in 1840 at the Government blacksmith shop at Old Mission, now a pretty summer resort about eighteen miles form here [Traverse City] on the peninsula. My father remembers seeing this magic kettle in his boyhood days at Old Mission.
In the County of Emmet was a small tribe known as the Prairie or Mus-co-desh Indians. They were of Algonquin stock, were peaceable and never were known to go on the war-path. The Ottawas were friends of this tribe, in fact they called themselves brothers, but through the love of war the Ottawas came to be condemned by this little tribe. The noted Ottawa Chief, Saw-ge-maw, when on one of his western war trips met with great disaster; many of his warriors were killed, and on returning home they approached a Mush-co-desh village in a canoe. Saw-ge-maw said to his few remaining warriors, “Let us take our sad news to our relatives, the Mush-co-desh.” So, as they approached the shore they began an unearthly wailing or dirge of the warriors. When the Mush-co-desh heard it, instead of joining in sympathy, they thought it a good time to show the Ottawas how they regarded their marauding expeditions, so they rolled up ashes in leaves and threw at the grieficken Ottawas. The most terrible battle ever fought in this region was the outcome. Tradition says that this was the greatest slaughter or massacre that the Ottawas ever committed. The place where the doomed village stood is now known by an opening in the dense forest near Cross Village. The result of this battle was almost the extinction of the Mush-co-desh, thirty or fifty thousand in number, and a firmer hold by the Ottawas on the region. There soon came to be permanent settlements at Cross Village, Middle Village and Harbor Springs, all within sixty-five miles of Traverse City; besides wigwams singly and in groups, scattered at intervals all along the shore. Old orchards and gardens are still in existence on the peninsula in our bay, also at the little resort, Omena, twenty-five miles from here, at Norwood and Leland, about the same distance. Fruit trees of this early planting are now found in the young forests, relics of a race that is disappearing.
The Indian built his gardens on the high lands back of his village and raised corn, pumpkins, beans and potatoes. Some wild fruits were cultivated and the apple seed he obtained from the Jesuits. Some of these trees I have seen are sturdy old landmarks, though their fruit-bearing days are over.
The quaint villages were made up of dwellings of various sizes and shapes; the most substantial consisting of a frame of cedar poles covered with cedar bark. Some of these were fifty or sixty feet long, and places for three fires. Then there were the lighter dwellings consisting of frames of poles covered with mats, some cone-shaped and some convex at the top. The mats were made ten to twelve feet long, of long slender leaves of the cat-tail flag. They were often used as traveling tents, being light and convenient to carry in expeditions. In the woods, even in Winter the Indians sometimes lived in temporary wigwams of evergreen boughs. The houses were windowless, the fire being built on the ground in the center, furnishing light and warmth. If the lodge was long, these fires were built in rows, holes in the roof serving as a chimney. A raised platform covered with elaborately colored woven mats along the sides of the room, was used as a seat during the day and a sleeping place at night. Some of these mats were beautifully ornamented in colors and were made of rushes from shallow lakes, woven together with twine made from the bark of the slippery-elm or basswood and were about six to eight feet long by four feet wide.
Thought the Red Man hunted at all times, winter was the season best adapted to the pursuit; then a greater part of the population left the villages and scattered through the dense forests along our chains of lakes, embarking in canoes. Several families had their winter camping grounds on Boardman Lake, within the present limits of Traverse City.
The women remained here while the hunters went into the forest solitudes bringing back the spoils of the chase several times during the winter. The hunting camps were always on the banks of the river or lake.
While her brave was in the depths of the forest and the cold wind shrieked through the fir trees, the busy squaw wove the rush and corn husk mats for her home. She tanned the deerskins and shaped them into clothing for her family; she cured the soft rich furs for rugs and wraps, plaited splint baskets and rolled the wild hemp on her thigh and twisted it into twine for fish nets. She dressed the game and smoked the venison her Indian Brave brought back to the lodge, and she carried her papoose on her back wherever she went. It was considered a disgrace for the Indian to perform menial labor. The wife was expected to do all that was necessary for his comfort and pleasure, leaving him free to hunt and fish and battle with his enemies.
There were many trails throughout the dense forest in this section, in fact, those were the only roads in the early days. I have heard pioneers tell of the time when, to follow one of these trails, they threw themselves from one side of the horse to the other to escape the rough bark of the trees, so winding were they. It is said that they were marked by bending down the branches of the young trees and tying them with hemp cord until the trees grew in this contorted fashion. The southern tribes are said to trace their trails by the heavy vines which they weave into the forms of serpents. On this street [A picture of one of these trail trees, sent by the Traverse City Woman’s Club, hangs in the museum of the society] almost across from the Methodist Church is one of these contorted trees, and further up the street is another that marked a trail to Grand Rapids. There was also a prominent trail along the river bank, just back of this church which followed the river and then struck off into the dense forest.
When the white man first visited the Indians in their winter homes, they were surprised at their social customs. They were fond of visiting, and it was the aim of each family to excel the others in spreading the finest feasts. If one brave was more successful than his neighbor in bringing home game, or fish, he prepared a feast to which everyone in the village was invited, the meal was prolonged with cheerful conversation and stories of personal adventure; the women listened but took no part. After the feast they went to their lodges leaving the men to finish with a quiet smoke.
Often as the kettle boiled over the cheerful fire, wild stories were told of necromancy and witchcraft, men transformed to beasts and beasts to men, of malignant sorceresses dwelling among the lonely isles of spell-bound lakes, and evil manitou lurking in the woods. To the Indian all nature was instinct with deity; the sun was a god and the moon was a goddess. Conflicting powers of good and evil ruled the universe. Our Bible story of the ark is among their traditions, the ark being a huge canoe.
Sometimes in the evenings about the fire, weird dances would be indulged in; medicine dances, fire dances, corn dances accompanied by frightful noises and beating on bark and skin drums. One of their spring feasts and merrymakings was called the Sweetwater dance, held in the maple grove in the Spring before the trees were tapped for sap. It was a religious as well as social festival. Prayer was offered for an abundant flow of sap and success in gathering and boiling it. The Indians were very fond of maple sugar, and made quite an industry of preparing it.
I shall have little time to dwell upon the language of the Ottawa and Chippewas. It is simple, having few forms; instead of many words, prefixes and suffixes are used, making the words appear long and the language complicated. Some words are used as adjectives as well as adverbs, such as “mino,” good, right or well.
As a child I remember our Indians always with blanketed head and moccasin feet, with their bags of basswood bark fibre strapped across the forehead, selling baskets and speaking not a word of English. Now they come dressed as the white men bringing their baskets to the merchants and speaking good English. One misses the picturesqueness of the old ways, but the advance is not only in dress, it is in the mind as well and means enlightenment.
© 2004 - 2005 of transcription by Barbara Lesser,
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