SAGINAW ONE HUNDRED YEARS AGO
AND THE ORIGIN OF A BAND OF INDIANS,
AND OF THE NAME OF A LOCALITY IN GENESEE COUNTY
From Michigan Pioneer & History Collection
in Annual Meeting of 1890
By Albert Miller
But few materials can be gathered from which a history of the Saginaw country prior to 1819 can be compiled.
The well known Indian tradition regarding the conquest of the country by the Chippewas of the north from the Sauks and their last sanguinary battle at Skull island, near Bay City, has been written by William R. McCormick, Esq., and published in volume No. 7 of pioneer collections. In the “Pontiac manuscript,” which is published in the eighth volume of pioneer collections, it is stated that on the last day of May, 1763, the great chief of the Saulteux of Saginaw, Wasson, with two hundred Indians of his band, had arrived to reinforce the besiegers. The subsequent conduct of the chief and his followers as related in the manuscript confirms the generally received opinion regarding the savage nature and vindictive character of the Indians of the Saginaw country. It is stated that a nephew of the great chief of the Saulteux of Saginaw, Wasson, was killed outside of the fort in a skirmish with the English, and that Wasson, furious that his nephew had been killed, went to Pontiac’s camp, abused him, and demanded that Mr. Campbell should be given up to him. Pontiac conceded, and Wasson took Mr. Campbell to his camp, where he was stripped and massacred by the young men of Wasson’s band, and his body thrown into the river, when it floated near to the residence of a Frenchman who buried it. [Mr. Campbell was an English officer who had placed himself as a hostage in Pontiac’s power at the beginning of the siege.] when the country was first known to the whites in the early part of the present century there were found clumps of bearing apple trees at different points along the Saginaw and Tibbabawassee rivers, many of which indicated an age of fifty or sixty years. The generally received opinion as to their origin was that they sprung from the seeds of apples brought from Canada by the Indians on their return from their annual trips to receive their annuities from the British government. But a simple calculation will show that those trees commenced their growth long before the Indians had occasion to visit Canada for the purpose above mentioned.
Four or five years ago a stone was found on the banks of the Chippeway river, sixteen miles above Midland City, upon which had been roughly sketched three faces, two Indians and one white man with a French inscription and the date 1771 plainly marked, which is proof that the country was known to the French prior to that date, and may account for the origin of those apple trees. But who were the adventurers, and what became of them?
The writer has heretofore advanced the theory that an attempt had been made by the Jesuits to establish a mission in that region, but that the savage character of the Indians had driven them from the field. Upon sending a letter of inquiry upon the subject to the late Judge James V. Campbell, a short time previous to his death, the answer came that in all his researches he had never found anything written that would show that an attempt had been made by the Jesuits to establish a mission on the west side of Lake Huron.
But it can hardly be supposed that in the numerous voyages made around the great lakes by the early French explorers and Jesuits that they should have failed to discover the Saginaw bay and river, and the surrounding country, and its discovery would surely attract the attention of such travelers. It was the paradise of the hunter and trader, the animals from which the choicest of fur is obtained, such as the beaver, otter, fisher, marten, mink and muskrat were found there in great abundance, also deer and bears, and elk, and moose were found at the headwaters of the streams that empty into the Saginaw. Large flocks of wild geese and ducks resorted to the streams to feed on the wild rice that grew in great abundance on their borders, and the waters were all stored with an abundant supply of the choicest varieties of fish. Aside from all the attractions enumerated above, the fertility of the soil was such that with the slight cultivation bestowed by the Indians it produced abundant crops of Indian corn, that indispensable article of food for the red man. As an indication of the extent of the cultivation of corn at Saginaw one hundred years ago we find a letter from Major De Peyster, commandant at the post of Mackinaw, dated May 13, 1779, written to General Haldimand, commander-in-chief of the British forces, stating that he, De Peyster, had sent to Saginaw to endeavor to procure six hundred bushels of corn to supply the post at Mackinaw. That the idea should prevail that a surplus of six hundred bushels of corn could be found among the Indians at Saginaw, shows that large tracts of land must have been cultivated there, which corresponds with the indications that were found by the first permanent white settlers.
It appears from the report of a committee appointed by Lord Dorchester in December, 1788, for the purpose of bringing to the knowledge of government the condition of inland commerce, that, of the four merchant vessels navigating the great lakes in 1789, two of them were built at the Saginaw bay, to wit: The sloop, Saginaw, in 1787, registering thirty-six and one half tons, and the sloop, Esperance, in 1788, registering twenty and four-tenths tons. The probability is that the vessels were built on the banks of the Saginaw river, for that whole region was then known as the Saginaw bay country.
After Major De Peyster had been transferred from the command of the post at Mackinaw, and had taken that of the post at Detroit and Captain Sinclair put in command at Mackinaw, there seemed to have been a prejudice on the part of Sinclair against De Peyster. In a letter from Sinclair to Brehm, dated July 17, 1780, among other fault findings with De Peyster he writes “canoes are allowed to come contrary to orders. They bring tattling letters. The last canoe brings a Mr. Finchley, known to be ill-disposed to the service. A Mr. Fisher of Albany is allowed to winter in the Saginaw bay [country] where there are rebel belts.”
The last item throws light upon the name of a locality in Genesee county and on the origin of a band of white Indians, who have long resided there. The idea prevailed among the early settlers of the locality that the name Grand Blanc [Big White] originated from its having been the place of residence of a big white savage. But the writer has been informed by Peter C. Andre, Esq., of Saginaw, but a native of Detroit, where his ancestors had resided for generations, that the “Big White,” from whom the name of the locality was derived, was an Indian trader named Fisher, who was well known to his [Andre’s] father in the early years of the present century. Fisher married an Indian woman or half-breed and raised a family, and some of his descendants are living in that vicinity at the present time. An obituary notice of one of them may be found in the memorial report of Genesee county, published in the seventh volume of pioneer collections.
There is but little doubt that the foregoing is a correct statement, and that the Mr. Fisher from Albany, who was allowed to winter in the Saginaw bay country, one hundred and ten years ago, was the progenitor of the Fisher band of Indians who resided at Copenic Conie lake, and were well known to the writer sixty years ago. They had light complexions, light hair and blue eyes, but their habits were wholly Indian. Mr. Andre says Fisher was a large man from which circumstance the name Grand Blanc [Big White] was given to the locality. The correspondence between the British officers, during the time of the revolutionary war, that is published in the pioneer collections has but little to say about the Saginaw country, but the statements in reference to transactions in other parts of the northwest, makes it very interesting reading.
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