THE VALLEY THAT WOULD NOT STAY DOWN IS
FULL OF HISTORY
June 25, 1931
Editor’s Note....The following article is of special interest to Mt. Pleasant and Isabella county. It was written by J. George O’Brien, of Saginaw, a graduate of Central State Teachers college, and concerns many points of interest to residents of this county. This article, and the one to follow it at a later date, are reprinted by permission of the Michigan Motor News, in the June number of which this story was printed and will be followed in July by the sequel.
By J. George O’Brien
The Chippewa chief in bold relief
Stands out as a memory of old;
The lumberjack with his time-worn pack
Moves on, and his trail grows cold;
Timber and salt reach a sudden halt,
And without any reason or rhyme.
A strange new face takes the old man’s place
In this marvelous march of time.
Saug-an-te-nah-ke-wat (the place where the Sauks were), which we have come to know as Saginaw, or, to be more explicit, “the valley of the Saginaw,” can truthfully be called “the valley that wouldn’t stay down,” for in its history we find a struggle for existence that would rival Horatio Alger’s best thriller and a record of “ups and downs” that would do credit to an hotel elevator during an Elks’ convention.
Saginaw valley, which must not be confused with the city of that same name, comprises all the territory in East Michigan that is drained by the Saginaw river and its tributaries. If you will take the trouble to look this over on the map you will observe that it covers quite some area, but if you’d rather have us help you we can give you a pretty fair idea by telling you that in it at the present time are located the cities of Flint, Bay City, Saginaw, Owosso, Midland, Caro, Alma, and Mt. Pleasant, to say nothing of the many smaller municipalities along and around the tributaries of the Saginaw river, which include the Cass, Flint, Tittabawassee, Shiawassee, and others.
De Tocqueville, a famous old French explorer, once said: “In 1831, Saginaw was the farthest point west in America inhabited by white men.”
About the time that “Tokie” was contributing this interesting bit of early American history to the wide-eyed, opened-mouthed folks “back home” in New England, Chief Oge-maw-ke-ke-to sat in front of his wigwam on the banks of the river and smoked his pipe in perfect Chippewa contentment at peace with the world.
Why shouldn’t he be? Weren’t his people in complete control of the valley? Hadn’t they long since driven their arch-enemy, the Sauks, out of this veritable Indian paradise? True, his people had signed the Cass treaty which had ceded this wonderful valley to the whites, but that was some years ago and no harm had come from that. Ogemawkeketo had opposed that treaty, had spoken openly against signing it at the powwow in 1819, but, in spite of his opposition, the treaty had been signed, and, in spite of his fears, no harm had come from it.
The valley was teeming with game and food was easy to find. The land that had been cleared was fertile and bumper crops simplified the problem of Indian livelihood. Furs were plentiful and prices were high. Why shouldn’t he be at peace with the world?
The white man, in spite of the Cass treaty, had not invaded this great valley and there seemed to be nothing to worry about from that source. Oh, to be sure Louis Campau had located on the banks of the Saginaw and opened up his trading post, and Jacob Smith came in each summer to buy furs, but Smith had been coming for years, even before Campau arrived, and he never stayed except to buy furs and take them back to Detroit. Wah-be-sins (the young swan), as the Chippewas called Smith, was their friend and they both paid high prices and traded good whiskey for furs.
As Ogemawkeketo smoked his pipe, he dreamed of bygone days. Days filled with conquest, war-paint, massacres. Days when life was really worth living. And in his mind he hashed and rehashed each separate victory that drove the Sauks farther and farther out of this wonderful valley. Once again he thrilled at the memory of the final victory, the battle of Skull Island (at Cheboyganing Creek on US-23 between Saginaw and Bay City), and the surprise attack that ended with the complete massacre of the Sauks that had occupied the lower river and left their bones to wither and crumble in the summer sun with no further purpose to serve than to give Skull Island its name.
Past and gone were those wondrous days. One by one the straggling Sauks had been killed off until, with the exception of the twelve squaws, who had been spared, the Sauks were but a memory and the cherished valley had become the undisputed hunting grounds of Ogemawkeketo and his followers. Naught remained now but to enjoy it and enjoy it he did as he sat there and dreamed, of a joy unending, lulled to a state of Indian ecstasy by the wind as it whispered through the tops of the pines.
Ah, there’s the rub, those whispering pines......”Saginaw’s tall whispering pines.” Little did Ogemawkeketo realize that a part they were to play in the nightmare that was to follow.
The problem of transportation was no problem at all with the Chippewas. The river and its tributaries were their only highways, but what need had they for highways when they could cover every part of their domain by canoe? The only road in or out of the valley was the trail to Detroit (now US-10 and US-23) and they had little or no occasion to travel that, for it only led to the white man’s settlement, and they had no particular desire to mingle with the paleface except to sell him furs or to drink his whiskey, and he’d bring that to them if they’d only wait.
But the white man at the other end of the Saginaw trail had different ideas. Detroit was becoming too thickly populated, and the adventurous paleface was moving on in search of new worlds to conquer. The Cass treaty in 1819 had given this land to the north to the United States and these inquisitive pioneers proposed to find out what was in it. Gradually they worked their way northward until their searching eyes fell upon “tall whispering pines” of Saginaw valley.
Before the Indians realized what was happening they had been pushed on out of their land of plenty and Saginaw valley had taken on an entirely new aspect.
Lumber mills sprung up along the river and the staccato bark of the woodsman’s axe replaced the war whoop of the Indian and the howl of the timber wolf. Lumberjacks replaced red-skins, towns grew up where tepees formerly nestled. Bay City, Saginaw, Red Keg (Midland)......mills, machinery, and tug-boats. Camps......the valley swarmed with a new humanity and buzzed with the babble of lumbermen’s profanity as axes swung and saws gnawed great gaps into the pine that once sheltered the Indians’ Eden.
Wild were the lumber days that followed and many and strange are the tales that are handed down from them. Tales of a two-fisted age when the fittest survived. Tales of life and its hardships in the lumber camps along the rivers. Tales of the spring drives, with every crew fighting to get its logs to the mill first. Tales of log-jams and those heroic river-men who fought and best them almost bare-fisted. Lives crushed out beneath falling trees or swallowed up in the icy waters of the spring freshets.
Tales of the lumberjacks, when the drive was over, fighting, drinking, gambling, gambling, drinking, fighting. Of “Silver Jack” Dristol, the fightin’est man in Saginaw, who could lick his weight in wild-cats and of whom it was said that in a fight he’d turn a handspring and spike his opponent in the face with his cleats. Of Joe Fournier, the iron-man of Saginaw, who ran a saloon in Bay City, with a trap door that led to the river, and through this door many a “jack” unconscious from a rap on the head, his money gone, is said to have slipped silently out of the picture.
Joe Fournier, the iron-man, who was never bested in a fight until, returning from an excursion on Saginaw bay one night, an enemy who had discovered Joe’s “soft spot” dropped an anchor off the dock on his head and sent him for the long count.
Of Battise Doe, that famous old French pirate, who, by his own admission, “Lumber’ forty yeer on twenty acre” and who when the sheriff finally caught up with him in his lumber-stealing operations yelled to his hired man that traditional classic: “You grab de grin’ stone, I grab de hanvil, we run lak hell.”
Lumber, lumber, lumber. Towns prospered and grew. Boats plied up and down the river. Mills sprung up along its banks. Captain Jim Davidson opened his shipyard at Bay City, others followed suit, and barges built in the valley began to tote lumber cut and dressed in the valley to all points on the Great Lakes.
Gardner and Ephraham Williams, the first mill operators, the Eddys, the Wrights, the Rusts, the Hoyts, and others until Saginaw valley, the former paradise of the Chippewas, had become the lumbering center of the continent; and there was no end to its possibilities, trees were unlimited, lumbering would never give out.
But somehow or other it did give out and the valley that was once a “forest primeval” was shorn completely of its whispering pine and, barren and desolate, this redman’s paradise of yesterday faced the fate of a deserted wasteland, a land that not only God forgot but a land that the white man might just as well forget also.
Rivers that once sparkled and danced their way to the bay became slow and sluggish. Towns that were buy yesterday agog with activity and excitement shuddered and grew silent. Men moved on. The valley was done.
(To be completed in an early issue of The Times-News)
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