KALAMAZOO COUNTY, MI
GENEALOGY & LOCAL HISTORY
INDIANS OF KALAMAZOO EARLY LETTERS
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Gull Lake 1910
COLLECTED AND CONTRIBUTED BY A. D. P. VAN BUREN.
Indian Origins in Kalamazoo and Southwestern Michigan
The first people to live in Southwestern Michigan were Indians who camped by rivers and lakes swollen with the runoff of the melting glaciers 11,000 years ago. They left behind long flint spear points of a distinctive style that they may have used to hunt the mammoth and mastodon, which roamed the area at that time. As the climate changed and the Ice Age animals died off, the Indians became adept at the hunting of smaller game such as deer and the gathering of roots, berries, and nuts in a seasonal cycle. This way of life continued for millennia.
Crops such as corn
and squash, originally domesticated in Mesoamerica, were probably grown in southern
Michigan by AD 700-800. By that time, the Indians were using the bow and arrow and
had been making pottery for about a thousand years. Garden products supplemented
their diet; they did not become staples until some time later. From about AD 1300
on, the Indians of southwestern Michigan adopted a life style similar to that of
their neighbors in Indiana and Ohio. Horticulture became more important. People
spent most of the summer and fall in villages, and at other times moved to small
camps convenient to hunting grounds, fishing stations, maple groves, and so forth.
from Michigan History Magazine, Sept-Oct, 1978
At the point of European contact, the Potawatomi tribe inhabited the southwest corner of what is now Michigan in the areas of Kalamazoo and the St. Joseph River and adjacent parts of Indiana. They moved there deliberately from more northern regions to take advantage of the milder southern climate. Although they shared many traits with the Chippewa and the Ottawa, they lived a more sedentary lifestyle. The addition of horticulture to the Potawatomi cultural pattern allowed them to establish a more stable food supply and eventually a level of political unity unusual for Great Lakes tribes at that time. Not only did they grow the American staples of corn, beans, and squash, the Potawatomi were famed for their medicinal herbal gardens. Besides enjoying the advantages of farming, the retention of the canoe and a fondness for trading helped the Potawatomi become a strong tribe through the early 1800's when many of them were forcibly removed to Kansas and Oklahoma by the U.S. military.
From American Indians: Past and Present, David Staddon, Director American Indian Programs, Central Michigan University
Also see the section about Indian Treaties and Removal on the County History page 3
INDIANS IN KALAMAZOO COUNTY
From the Michigan Pioneer Society Collections, letters that describe the life of the Indians and interaction of settlers and Indians:
The following letter from A. H. Scott, dated St. Joseph,
Mich., Jan. 9, is to Mr. Henry Bishop (of Schoolcraft) , and is in answer to questions
touching the Indians in this county at an early day. It will be found of great interest
to many of our readers to whom the aborigines of this section were unknown:
Your letter, dated Dec. 25, came to hand and I have felt it a duty to give the information desired in regard to the Indians of Kalamazoo county during the years of its first settlement by the whites as far as my memory will serve me. I came to Kalamazoo county early in June, 1833, as a member of the family of James Smith, in company with his brother Addison; Hosea B. Huston and E. Lakin Brown, carried on the merchandising business under the name of Smith, Huston & Co., and had two stores, one at Schoolcraft, and the other at Kalamazoo (or rather at Bronson, as it was then called). I soon picked up enough of the Indian language to enable me to trade with them. They then owned a reservation of land ten miles square, which took in the eastern part of Gourdneck prairie, and had a small village or collection of wigwams in the grove just east of the prairie on the farm now owned by James N. Neasmith, Esq.
The wigwams were all built with a frame of poles, covered with elm bark, with the exception of the wigwam of the chief (Sag-a-maw), which was built for him by his friends, the early white settlers, of logs and covered with oak shakes. You wish me to inform you how they received the first settlers, how they lived and how they mingled with and how they traded with the white man.
1st. I think as a class they received the early settlers very kindly and were inclined to live peaceably with them.
2d. How they lived? Deer were plenty in those early days, and as they were good hunters they had no difficulty the greater part of the year in supplying themselves with meat. They also used the flesh of raccoons, muskrats, etc., for food. Fish were plenty in the rivers and lakes. They understood how to catch them both with spear and hook. They raised some corn on land that some of the early settlers plowed and fenced for them. In their season wild fruits, such as blueberries, blackberries, etc., were obtained by them for food, and also to swap with the white man for flour, salt, sugar, etc.
3d. How much they mingled with the white man? In our stores and in the dwellings and cabins of their acquaintances they made themselves very much at home. The squaws and pappooses would come in in crowds and sit down on the floor (never taking a chair) till they were so thick that you could hardly find a place to put your foot. They turned out en masse on all public days and at horse races and shows. They were greatly delighted with circuses. Shooting matches and foot races they took a great interest in.
4th. How they traded with the white man? The trade with the Indian at that early day was mainly an exchange (or, as they called it, swap) of their furs, venison, dressed deer skins, moccasins, blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, etc., for flour, salt, tobacco, powder, lead, sugar and all the articles that the Indians use to clothe themselves. I never knew an Indian to offer to sell to white people any part of the carcass of a deer except the ham. The price for a ham of venison was always two shillings; no more, no less, no matter how small or large it was. Whenever we sold a squaw any goods that had to be made up into any of their garments a needle and thread for each garment must be given; only the goods for one garment would be bought or swapped for at a time. It required a good knowledge of their ways and much patience to be a successful dealer with the Indians. We frequently sold them goods on credit and found them about the same kind of paymasters as the ordinary white man; some paid promptly, some after a long time, and some never paid. They would have been splendid customers if they had been blessed with plenty of money; but they were poor and thriftless, and I may with truth say, a vagabond race and consequently their trade was of no great value. They received an annual payment from government, which was mainly In necessary goods for their use and comfort, and a small amount of silver money. The money was very soon gone and in most cases did them no good, but the goods furnished them by government were just what they needed, and added greatly to their comfort.
In regard to personal characteristics of any noted Indian, etc., I would say that the best specimen of an Indian that I ever saw in those early days was Sag-a-maw, the chief of all the Pottawattomies in and about Kalamazoo county. He was a man of great good sense, of noble bearing, of great integrity, and in every way a dignified gentleman. He was called a great orator among his people. He was a true friend to the whites. I have heard him make speeches to his people, and although I could not understand him, his manner and voice were very interesting, and the effect of his speech on his people was very great. He was the only Indian I ever saw who was polite and attentive to his squaw. When they came to the store at Schoolcraft to do their trading be would help her off her pony, and when they were ready to return he would place his hand on the ground by the side of her pony and she would place one foot in it and he would lift her with apparently great ease into her saddle, and no white man could have shown more respect and politeness. If he wished for any credit at the store he had it and paid promptly.. Any Indian that he told us it was safe to trust was sure to pay us. He always told us never to trust his son Cha-na-ba, who was a very worthless fellow.
In regard to the
number of the Indians that lived in Kalamazoo county and vicinity in that early
day, I can make no estimate that would be of any value. They were continually coming
and going and scattered about in little squads. In regard to the effect it had on
the character of the Indian in his contact with the white race I have no doubt but
it was bad.
He seems (as many writers have said) to take in all the vices of the white man and reject all his virtues. Whisky (the great demoralizer of the white man) was and is the principal factor in the destruction of all that is good in the Indian character when he comes in contact with the white race. The longer the Indians remained here among the whites the more worthless they became. Game became scarce, they were too indolent to work, and they became drunkards and beggars. The great end and aim of the most of them was to get whisky to get drunk with, and as its cost was only about twenty five cents per gallon they generally got all that they wanted. When they purchased whisky they usually announced that they were going to get squibby (drunk). The quality of the whisky sold to the Indians was very bad, having been first watered and drugged for their especia1 use. I recollect in 1833 that some Indians came to Schoolcraft from Kalamazoo and made bitter complaint to Addison Smith about H. B. Huston. They said that he put so much bish (water) in his whisky that it made them sick before they could get squibby (drunk). As to myself I sold no whisky to Indians except during the first two or three years after my arrival in Schoolcraft.
What I have said about the Indians has been mainly about those whose headquarters were near Schoolcraft. If you can glean any item out of this disjointed and lengthy letter that will aid in making up a true history of the early settlement of Kalamazoo county I shall feel well paid for what little trouble I have had in writing it. But I very much doubt if you can, as there are other persons still living in Kalamazoo county who were familiar with all the facts that I have attempted to set forth.
E. Lakin Brown came to Schoolcraft two years before I came, and is very well posted in all the ways of the Indians of those early days, Mrs. Thaddeus Smith came to Schoolcraft in 1830 I believe, and could speak the Indian language better than any white person that I knew when I came there. She was a great favorite with the Indians, and any day that they were in town you would usually find her sitting room filled with squaws and pappooses. Thanking you for your kind Christmas greeting, I must close by subscribing myself your old friend. A.H. Scott, in Kalamazoo Telegraph.
DAILY LIFE, MANNERS, AND CUSTOMS OF THE INDIANS IN KALAMAZOO COUNTY.
Below we give another interesting and valuable paper from the pen of Mrs. St. John regarding the Indians of this portion of Michigan, the tribes who owned and for hundreds of years inhabited and dominated over these happy hunting grounds:
1. Pokagon was the principal Pottawattomie chief in 1827. I remember one Pottawattomie chief who was called Blackskin, and my brother (George) says he remembers of a chief or under chief called Whiteface, being probably of a mixture of French blood. I am unable to say just what form of government the Pottawattomies had among themselves, but I suppose it was much like that of the Ottawas. When any important matter concerned the tribe or any differences too heavy to settle between persons, the chief called a council of head men who sat round in a circle, smoked tobacco and talked one at a time, while others occasionally gave short exclamations of assent or surprise or dissent or grunts of attention till the matter was discussed, and generally ended by agreeing with the chief.
It is has been said by many that Indians are slow and stolid; that they were quick tempered, and when partially intoxicated would often stab each other (men and women). They all carried knives in sheaths hung to the belt. The knife blade was about seven inches long and turned back a little at the point and sharp. The United States government took notice of crimes committed among the Indians whenever such were perpetrated within the jurisdiction of the mission. Louis Geneau, an Indian, when drunk, pushed his wife into the fire; he was tried and sent to Jackson prison for life. While there he was asked how long he would have to stay. He replied, All time, spose. He was afterwards pardoned out. There were a number of chiefs at the same time. Father writes of three coming together once to the mission house to confer on some subject.
2. 1 think the Ottawas were superior to the Pottawattomies; first, in their dialect. It was a relief to hear the musical completeness of the Ottawas speech after the labored pantomime of the Pottawattomie. Their darker skins and wilder Indian ways, I know, prove nothing; but we count that man the wisest who makes choice of the best things. The Pottawattomie tribe was probably superior in numbers and bodily vigor
3. The Ottawas and other Indians lived in small communities or villages of wigwams of ten or a dozen or more, of poles sharpened and driven in the ground and fastened at the top by withes or strips of bark. They fastened strips of bark from pole to pole around the sides which made a sort of frame to hold the covering of bark, skins or matting, with an oblong mat hung over a doorway, and an Indian would dart through head first as quick and noiselessly as a fox might. A fire built in the middle would fill the wigwam with smoke until the blaze would drive it out at the open top. I often wondered why the concern did not take fire at the top, but the inmates would fearlessly build a brisk fire of sticks without seeming to care for the smoke and when the wood bad burned down to bright, clean coals and the women had made some dough of meal or flour and put it in the hot ashes, and the kettle of sturgeon, or partridge, or coon simmered, then was the time to begin a big talk of the adventures of the day. And if it was winter or wet weather the deer skin moccasins wore taken off and stretched out and dried and the wide woolen bandages gathered around the foot for stockings, were hung round to dry for the next day, when the shoe must be again kneaded or rubbed to make it soft. The other parts of their dress have been truly pictured in Indian books. They soon found that our kind of dress was the best and adopted it; not caring to go back to their old costume, even though they would not civilize.
The routine of life
among the women was by necessity very simple. In early times the garments were made
with few stitches, but fitted and fastened to the body by strings of deer skin.
A pappoose cradle was a board with a sort of binding of soft, fine bark around the
edge, with open work sufficient to pass a wide swaddling band round the knees and
over the whole for the chest, and then a hoop or bow over the face, so that a blanket
might hang loose to protect the little face from rain and wind. The mother carried
it from place to place by a strong band across the forehead backward. Sometimes,
when they came to the chapel, they would stand them up along the wall, like so many
There was no lack of affectionate care for the little ones. When they worried or cried the mother quickly went and loosened their harness, or took them and stood the board up beside them. The women were accounted to be very valuable servants to their husbands, and on this account, it for nothing more, were esteemed and loved very much, the same as among the lighter skinned lords of creation. As to the courtships of the young people, it seems to me there was not much. In the absence of the elaborate customs of civil life, those suspicions and doubts which haunt the minds of young civilians were set aside, and the young Indian told his desires to the party of the second part, and if she was agreeable they both agreed. The children were taught those things which their parents thought were indispensable to success as an Indian. First of all, perhaps, to ride a pony and shoot with a bow, and it was a great practice among the boys to run and jump at a mark. The children were under law to venerate parents and superiors, to obey and wait upon them. They were punished in no systematized manner. Parents would shake, or push, or cuff the ears, but it was a right jealously held by the parents, and if the father thought his child had in any wise been insulted or punished at school he was quickly on hand to see about it. I think that wives were fully up to the standard of these times in domestic truth. When there were evidences of improprieties they were paler faces, and such were always held under a kind of scorn.
I never heard of any polygamy among the tribes, but my personal knowledge of practices were mostly confined to our own mission. The tendencies were all the other way. Each husband had a pride in providing for squaw and pappoose, ponies and trappings, and he readily saw that the easiest way was the best. Some of the Christian Indians told father that years before there were some of the tribe who were so heathenish as to take more than one wife.
4. They loved deeds
of kindness done toward themselves, and would remember them and return the favor
if they ever had an opportunity, and so it was counted no shame to beg, and when
they came into any house hungry, they would say: Howe-shum-bo-shin, quas-quis chebuckatah,
give me bread, very hungry! One Sabbath morning, chief Noonday brought his adopted
son to the mission school, saying: This is the morning that the Savior rose from
the dead, and I wish to do something in memory of him. They seemed to be chary of
speaking much of their traditions and superstitions in the presence of the white
teachers whom they acknowledged to be superior in knowledge, and were shy of criticism.
Their minds seemed sharpened only to those things, which were good in their daily
life. They could take fish with a wooden spear split at the end, and would boil
fish in a tray. They imagined when they died the (great) Gitchie-Manitou would give
them what they most desired while in life, but they must love him while here to
be blest hereafter. Once, in the hard, cold winter of 1827, when the snow lay deep
on all the land, the hunters could find but little game, and the hungry tribe came
begging round the mission. Some of them killed a bear; upon the good news the people
assembled and roasted him for a feast; but, before eating, one of the chiefs made
an address, which some one said was to the Manitou, thanking him for sending them
that food just at that time. I think the Indians, in their native state, had no
profanity. That was reserved for the white man to teach them.
Their moral code partook of the crude simplicity of their minds; to love and do good to their friends and kill their enemies. Sometimes, when drunk, they would come to kill father. One was sick and sent for father to come and cure him, but gave him to understand that if the medicine did not cure him he would kill him. Their idea seemed to be to get even with every one, good for good, evil for evil; nothing was harder for them than to forgive their own injuries. I cannot say what festivals they had in early days, other than war-dances and medicine-dances. These last consisted in making as much and as horrible a noise as they could with dry gourd shells with a few pebbles in them, and a kind of drum made of deer skin shrunk over a hoop or bow. When these two were struck together and the medicine musicians grunted and chanted and yelled in chorus, imagine the noise if you can. A year they called a sun, a month was a moon. They knew no weeks, and when the missionaries began to make Sabbath regulations they took a stick and cut a notch in it for each day and a deeper one for the seventh.
5. Their wigwams were made as has been described, of such materials as could be found on or near the groundpoles and bark and mats. The light luggage was bundled on to the ponies, with the women and children. Their household goods were few and easily moved. A blanket or two was coat by day and bed at night; an iron pot was all the cook stove; and their washbowl was a marsh, a brook or a lake, and soap, alas, was not in fashion. But in their long hair was one of the ten plagues in force, and I saw them often take the same between thumb nails in as orthodox fashion as any new England mother ever did, and there were no fine-tooth combs to aid in the catch, and yet their glossy black heads were more comely than many a banged frizzle-top of civilization. S.E. St. J., in Kalamazoo Telegraph.
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