Native Americans in the Great Lakes Region

Native Americans in the Great Lakes Region

Many of you recognize the Native American tribal names of Miami, Potawatomi and Ottawa. All three tribes were celebrated at Storer grouping the three youngest camper groups on the South Side. Going beyond the names, I wanted to provide a more detailed and slightly more scholarly account of the Native Peoples we learned about while at Camp Storer.

I reached out to Randall Schaetzl, Professor, Department of Geography, Environment, and Spatial Sciencesat Michigan State University and he graciously gave me permission to re-publish this article detailing the Native Americans in the Great Lakes Region. I hope you enjoy!


 Native Americans in the Great Lakes Region

The first inhabitants of the Great Lakes basin arrived about 10,000 years ago. They had crossed the land bridge from Asia or perhaps had reached South America across the Pacific Ocean. Six thousand years ago, descendants of the first settlers were using copper from the southern shore of Lake Superior and had established hunting and fishing communities throughout the Great Lakes basin.

One of the ways that the Indians would manipulate copper was with “hammer stones.”  These hammer stone were found near prehistoric copper diggings in the Keweenaw Pennisula.  They are prehistoric tools used 3000-5000 years ago.  The Indian “miners” would build a fire over the copper vein which would heat the rock around the copper. After heating they would pour cold water on it to crack the rock. Then they would pound out the copper with rock hammers and stone chisels. These hammers usually had a handle attached to them.  Some hammers were held with the hands and were not grooved.  When they broke they tossed them aside. Grooves were put in the hammers with smaller stones.  The hammers are found today, underground, anywhere from 6″ to 3′.  It is hard work digging for them. The copper was shaped into spear points, arrow heads, knives, harpoons, and jewelry.

The native people occupied widely scattered villages and grew corn, squash, beans and tobacco, and harvesting wild rice. The state’s indigenous people’s–its first true farmers–supported themselves through a combination of hunting and gathering and simple agricultural techniques. Their modest plots produced corn, beans, peas, squash, and pumpkins. However, the Indians used only a portion of their holdings for crops and so caused few lasting changes in the countryside. They moved once or twice in a generation, when the resources in an area became exhausted (GLERL 1995).  Those not in villages were scattered throughout the beautiful but inhospitable pine forests of the north. Villages were relatively impermanent and, except in two or three very populous areas, widely separated from one another. The crude and primitive means of subsistence that the Indians had at their disposal seriously limited the number that a given area could support. The greatest concentration of population coincided almost perfectly with the area of deciduous forest. Maple and birch were the two most valuable trees: the first for its sugar, the latter for housing material and canoes. Other sources of food supply, such as game, wild apples, plants, and berries, as well as land suitable for agriculture, were more likely to be found in the deciduous than in the coniferous forest lands.

A majority of Indian settlements were along waterways, as in the St. Joseph and Saginaw River valleys–then the two most populous areas. Water provided an easy means of transportation and, in fish, a plentiful supply of food. Some settlements along the Lake Michigan and Lake Superior shores were regularly occupied in summer and abandoned for more sheltered positions in winter.

When Etienne Brule’, the first white man to set foot on Michigan soil, landed at the site of Sault Ste. Marie in 1620 (see image below), the population of Michigan was about 15,000. The southern half of the Lower Peninsula accounted for about 12,000.  Others have estimated that the population of Native Americans in the Great Lakes was between 60,000 and 117,000 in the 16th century, when Europeans began their search for a passage to the Orient through the Great Lakes. Some estimate that 10% of all the Indians north of the Mexico border lived in Michigan, at the time of first contact with Europeans.   Etienne Brule is the first European to see Lake Huron

Native American Indians were the first to use the many resources of the Great Lakes basin. Abundant game, fertile soils and plentiful water enabled the early development of hunting, subsistence agriculture and fishing. The lakes and tributaries provided convenient transportation by canoe, and trade among groups flourished.  By about A.D. 100, Native American inhabitants of the Upper Peninsula (Ojibwes) were using improved fishing techniques and had adopted the use of ceramics. They gradually developed a way of life based on seasonal fishing which the Chippewas/Ojibwes still followed when they met the first European visitors to the area. Scattered fragments of stone tools and pottery mark the location of some of these prehistoric lakeshore encampments.

                                                Source: Unknown

The above picture shows Native American Indians at a camp on Mackinac Island in 1870.   The picture is a bit misleading, however, since most Native Americans in the Great Lakes region lived in hogans or wigwams like the one shown below, not in teepees.

                                                                     Source: Unknown

Today, evidence of these ancient cultures is meager.  Some of the paleo-Indians left burial and other ceremonial mounds behind, like these in SW Lower Michigan.   (Note the gravel pit in the foreground.)

                                               Source:  Pictorial History of Michigan:  The Early Years, George S. May, 1967.

Archeologists often find their projectile points and arrowheads, indicating sites where they hunted or camped for extensive periods of time.  But for the most part, evidence of Native American cultures in Michigan is not great.

                                                        Source:  Pictorial History of Michigan:  The Early Years, George S. May, 1967.

Native Americans lived and traveled primarily along water routes and water bodies.   Thus, as of about 1670, much of the dry inland areas of Michigan were essentially unoccupied (see map below).  Inland Michigan was used almost exclusively for travel, not to live.  It was a place to cross, not to live.

The Woodland Indian Tribes of the Great Lakes area and throughout the eastern and southern part of the United States were farmers. In the fall and winter they hunted and trapped, moving in small family groups to winter hunting camps. Beaver, muskrat, raccoon, deer, elk, bison and black bear were taken for the meat and hides. In the spring, the Indians made maple sugar in large quantities. It was a staple in their diet. They also harvested nuts, berries, wild plums, wild cherries, and pawpaws. Wild rice was gathered around the Great Lakes. Corn, beans, squash, and pumpkin were widely grown in North America, north of Mexico. Besides multi-colored Indian corn the Indians developed varieties of eight and ten-row corn. Beans grown by the Indians included the kidney bean, navy or pea bean, pinto, great northern marrow, and yellow eye bean. The Indians planted corn and beans in the small mounds of soil and often pumpkins, squash, or melons in the space between.   Many other vegetables were grown by the Indians: turnips, cabbage, parsnips, sweet potatoes, yams and “Irish” potatoes, onions and leeks. Watermelon and muskmelon were introduced into North America in the 17th century and were being grown in the interior within a few years.  The nature and extent of Indian agriculture are revealed in the observations of George Will, a soldier in General Anthony Wayne’s campaign against the Indians along the Auglaize and Maumee Rivers (Ohio) in the summer of 1794. “Here are vegetables of every kind in abundance,” Will wrote, “And we have marched four or five miles in cornfields down the Oglaize [sic], and there is not less than one thousand acres of corn around the town.”

When the first French explorers pushed into Michigan, early in the 17th century, the country was inhabited by Indians of Algonquin stock. This family embraced a large number of tribes in the northeastern section of the continent, whose language apparently sprang from the same mother tongue. It was Algonquins who greeted Jacques Cartier, as his ships ascended the St. Lawrence. The first British colonists found Algonquin Indians hunting and fishing along the coasts and inlets of Virginia. It was Algonquins who, under the great tree at Kensington, made the covenant of peace with William Penn, and when French Jesuits and fur traders explored the Wabash and the Ohio, they found their valleys tenanted by the same far-extended race. In the 1700’s travelers might have found Algonquins pitching their bark lodges along the beach at Mackinac, spearing fish among the rapids of St. Mary’s River, or skimming the waves of Lake Superior in their canoes.
The Algonquin had resided in Michigan for at least a century before the coming of the whites. Who preceded them, no one knows, although certain archeological finds suggest the bearers of the Hopewell culture, which is now extinct.

                                                                         Source:  Pictorial History of Michigan:  The Early Years, George S. May,   1967.

The chief tribes in the Michigan region in the late 1700’s were the Chippewa, or Ojibwa, occupying the eastern part of the Lower Peninsula and most of the UP; the Ottawa, in the western part of the Lower Peninsula; and the Potawatomi, occupying a strip across the southern part. None of these tribes, apparently, had exclusive possession of the section it occupied. The Saginaw Valley, in the very midst of the Chippewa terrain, was the stronghold of the Sauk. The Mascoutin had a precarious hold on the Grand River Valley, until the Ottawa, having driven them from the Straits of Mackinac, subsequently drove them beyond the borders of the present State. The Miami, in the relatively populous St. Joseph River Valley, shared a similar fate at the hands of the Potawatomi. Other subtribes that once dwelt in the southwestern part of the State were the Eel River, the Piankashaw, and the Wea, while the Menominee, established in the wild-rice country of Wisconsin, included a part of the Upper Peninsula in their domain.

The Algonquin peoples and their descendants were an agricultural people and depended more upon producing vegetables than upon hunting. In Michigan, corn was the staple foodstuff, although wild rice, which was common throughout the State in mud-bottom lakes and sluggish streams, tended to take precedence in the northwestern, especially around Green Bay. Corn was often planted in the midst of the forest–the trees having been killed by girdling, to admit the sunlight–together with squash, tobacco, and kidney beans.
Corn was stored for the winter in cribs–similar to those of the present-day American farmer–and in pits (caches) in the ground. Corn, like the land itself, was the property of the family or clan. So deeply ingrained was this notion of communal ownership of land that, when later the Indians agreed to “sell” it to the whites–oftentimes several thousand acres for a barrel or two of whiskey–they assumed they were simply granting permission for joint use and occupation of the land. It was beyond their comprehension that land could be fenced-off as private property.

To the Europeans, the Indians owed, in addition to spirituous liquors and tuberculosis, the extension of the practice of scalping. Taking the scalp lock of vanquished foes had long been a rite among virtually all North American tribes; but, because it was a difficult operation with crude stone knives, it was, perforce, held within limits. Europeans brought steel knives and offered bounties for scalps especially during the War of 1812, when Chippewa sided with the British. Thus, in much the same way that the Michigan Indians were transformed from an agricultural to a nomadic hunting people by the European demand for furs, they were transformed from a peaceful to a warlike race by the French and English demand for scalps.

The basic political unit of the Indians was the tribe, consisting of people speaking the same dialect, occupying contiguous territory, and having a feeling of relationship with one another. The chief was elected to hold office until he died or the electorate became dissatisfied with his leadership and chose another. Often a son was chosen to succeed his father. Besides the chief, there were other dignitaries, notably the priests, and advisory council of minor chiefs, and sometimes a special war chief.
Within the Indian community it was customary for the women to do the gardening, cooking, and housekeeping; and the men engaged in hunting, fishing, tool making, and, when necessary fighting. Medicine was the exclusive province of the priesthood, who also officiated at burials. These consisted either of interment near the village, without a marker or with houses of bark and wood over the graves, or of interment in mounds, large and small.

The Indians of Michigan were housed in dome-shaped bark- or mat-covered lodges in winter, and in rectangular bark houses in summer. Among the Chippewa, the summer residence was the conical skin or bark-covered tepee, popularly associated with Indians in general. Homes were furnished with wood and bark vessels, some splint basketry, woven bags for storage, reed and cedar-bark mats, and copper tools and utensils; a hole in the roof permitted egress of smoke from the cooking fire. Native pottery was of a primitive order, as was work in wood, stone, and bone.

The men wore leggings, breechcloths, and sleeved shirts–all made of animal skins; while the women wore skirts and jackets of the same material. Moccasins were soft-soled, with drooping flaps. Robes of skin served for additional protection during cold weather and as blankets at night.

Besides mining copper, the natives quarried stone to a certain extent, although a great deal of the stone for arrowheads and spearheads came from other areas, chiefly Ohio. Some was imported from beyond the Rocky Mountains. Michigan cherts and flints are generally drab in color, course-grained , and often marred by fossils, blemishes, and flaws. The richest source of supply was around Saginaw Bay. Heavy stones for axes were plentiful along the banks of streams and lakes. A gray stone, from which pipes were made, is reported to have been quarried in the vicinity of Keweenaw Bay.

The attitudes toward the Indians have changed greatly since the 1800’s.   The text below is taken from an 1880 history text, in which the Indians in south-central Michigan were being characterized:

Of the character of the Indians of this region: “They were hospitable, honest, and friendly, although always reserved until well acquainted; never obtrusive unless under the influence of their most deadly enemy, intoxicating drink. None of these spoke a word of English, and they evinced no desire to learn it….I believe they were as virtuous and guileless a people as I have ever lived among, previous to their great destruction in 1834 by the cholera, and again their almost extermination during the summer of 1837 by the (to them) most dreaded disease, smallpox, which was brought to Chesaning from Saginaw, – they fully believing that one of the Saginaw Indians had been purposely inoculated by a doctor there, the belief arising from the fact that an Indian had been vaccinated by the doctor, probably after his exposure to the disease, and the man died of smallpox. The Indians always dreaded vaccination from fear and suspicion of the operation.

“The Asiatic cholera in 1834 seemed to be all over and was certainly atmospheric, as it attacked Indians along the Shiawassee and other rivers, producing convulsions, cramps, and death after a few hours. This began to break up the Indians at their various villages. The white settlements becoming general, and many persons selling them whisky (then easily purchased at the distilleries for twenty-five cents per gallon), soon told fearfully on them. When smallpox broke out in 1837 they fled to the woods by families, but not until some one of the family broke out with the disease and died. Thus whole villages and bands were decimated, and during the summer and fall many were left without a burial at the camps in the woods, and were devoured by wolves. I visited the village of Che-as-sin-ning – now Chesaning – and saw in the summer-camps several bodies partially covered up, and not a living soul could I find, except one old squaw, who was convalescent. Most of the adults attacked died, but it is a remarkable fact that no white person ever took the disease from them, although in many instances the poor, emaciated creatures visited white families while covered with pustules. Thus passed away those once proud owners of the land, leaving a sickly, depressed, and eventually a begging, debased remnant of a race that a few years before scorned a mean act, and among whom a theft was scarcely ever known. I do not think I possess any morbid sentimentality for Indians. I simply wish to represent them as we found them. What they are now is easily seen by the few wretched specimens around us.”

Parts of the text above have been paraphrased from C.M. Davis’ Readings in the Geography of Michigan (1964) and from:  https://www.ohiohistory.org/learn/american-indian-relations/american-indian-edu-resources and from HISTORY OF SHIAWASSEE AND CLINTON COUNTIES, MICHIGAN (1880) by D.W. Ensign & Co.
Reprinted with permission by: Randall Schaetzl (2007), Professor
Department of Geography, Environment, and Spatial Sciences
Michigan State University
(soils@msu.edu)
http://geo.msu.edu/extra/schaetzl/

Related Story: Native American Influence at Storer

 

 

Interesting Links:

http://libguides.lib.msu.edu/c.php?g=95603&p=624366

Native American Treaties: Their Ongoing Importance to Michigan Resident:https://www.cmich.edu/library/clarke/ResearchResources/Native_American_Material/Treaty_Rights/Pages/default.aspx

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