By Cheryl Morgan
BLACK RIVER AND SWAN CREEK BANDS OF OJIBWA
After the Treaty of 1807, selling five million acres in Southeast Michigan, the Ojibwe held four reserves in St. Clair County, Michigan, on Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair River. “We kept the right to hunt, fish, and gather on the lands sold. These lands were convenient stopping places when traveling from Canada to Michigan. The border was not recognized between the U.S. and Canada and did not restrict travel back and forth.
The government was to supply a blacksmith on the Saginaw River to mend plows, guns, traps, and kettles. Annuities were to be paid in goods forever. The promised goods were often withheld to reimburse settlers for losses incurred by the Indians. The federal government held the whole tribe responsible for the actions of a few individuals.
The Three Fires Nations heard and endorsed Tecumseh’s message of unity and resistance to alcohol, dependence on trade goods, and abandonment of their own traditions and practices. The people fought alongside Tecumseh in the British and Indian War of 1812 against the Americans.
The Indians, being confined to the reservations, did not have the land base to support their traditional way of life. It was impossible to support themselves. The government made it very uncomfortable to stay on Indian homelands. Some people were actually starving to death. The government encouraged all to move west of the Mississippi to uninhabitable lands and unfriendly or enemy tribes” (Diba Jimooyung, Saginaw Chippewa).
On February 16, 1835, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act and began the relocation of thousands of people from their homelands.
At the Treaty of Washington in 1836, to sell the reserve lands in Southeast Michigan, Maconce – Esh Ton Oquot – was the Swan Creek Chief and Speaker. “Clear Sky” – Ashi Tan Aqui – was the Chief of the Black River band. They were being encroached upon; the Whites were stealing their timber (Tanner, The Chippewa of Lower Michigan/Warner, Robert, Economic and History Report on Royce Area 111).
When the Black River and Swan Creek bands moved in 1830 to 1840, they received no reservation and lost federal recognition.
The Black River bands had many chiefs – Chief Naykeezhig, Mayzin, and Keewaykeezhig – and their people moved mostly to Canada at Aamjiwnaang – Sarnia and Bkejwanong – Walpole Island. Some went to the Saginaw and Flint areas. Chief Nangi and Chief Macounce were Ojibwe chiefs. Chief Massas was an Ojibwe leader near Lake St. Clair. Okemos was the Chief of the Ojibwe-Chippewa in 1858 when he died.
After the 1836 Treaty when the Black River and Swan Creek People sold their lands to the United States, John Riley bought land on Belle River, near Memphis Mi. his Band moved there, and traded with settlers at the St. Clair River and Port Huron.
The Swan Creek and Black River Bands were led by, Eshtonoquot (Eshtonaquet), also known as Chief Francis Maconse, “Little Bear”. In 1839, Maconse, traders, and U.S. officials worked together to convince 51 of the people to move to Kansas. They arrived with nothing and became part of the Munsee Delaware village, and the group became “The Chippewa and Christian Reserve”. Both bands later moved to the Cherokee Nations. In 1838, the Swan Creek and Black River Anishinabe bands numbered 360 people. Chief Francis Maconse, Southbird, and Sprakin explored Kansas, and it did not suit the people.
Many Swan Creek and Black River people refused to move. Those who did not move to Kansas joined a Methodist Mission near the former Black River Reservation. Others moved to a Wesleyan Mission at Sarnia, Ontario. Two families had bought land near their 1807 reservations. By 1839, 58% of the people had left their Southern Michigan Reservations. In 1841, Indian Agent Robert Stuart counted 108 remaining in Michigan, about 30% of their 1838 population of 360.
The Swan Creek and Black River bands moved several times between 1840 and 1855. The Methodist Church operated a station called the Black River Society during the 1840s. The remnant bands soon left their homes on the lakeshore and moved inland to the mouth of the Flint River in a region surrounded with Saginaw Anishinabe villages and missions. A census by U.S. Indian Agents showed 21 families with a total population of 91 people in 1845.
The small bands moved to Lapeer county in 1850, where they built the Neppesing Mission about twenty miles east of the village of Flint. They acquired 520 acres and farmed 100 acres. The Methodist Church bought another 200 acres to benefit the Anishinabek. The community prospered, and in 1855, numbered 138 persons. Twenty-five church members remained at Belle River.
Other bands lived in their historic homelands but did not own their homes. During the next five years, a few families became members of Methodist churches and bought land near their former reservations and began to farm.
“The Methodist faith helped pull our people from the edge of destruction. People who became converts rebuilt their shattered lives. The church gave them farming tools and animals and helped them build farms” (Kahkewaquonaby – Peter Jones, “Sacredfeathers”).
The Black River Mission had 246 members (Al and Dave Eicher, the Indian History of the Michigan Thumb Region).
“Our Methodist spiritual leader demanded that Methodist Anishinabek give up alcohol. Anishinabek responded to the promise of spiritual salvation and also found physical salvation, in their own lifetimes.
Peter Jones visited Michigan on a missionary journey in the 1830s. He also sent missionaries John Sunday, John Taunchy, and Nahgonwawedung – John Kahbeege to teach about the Methodist faith. Madivagivunayaush – Peter Marksman quickly converted and became a missionary preacher to the Anishinabek at Saginaw Valley.
The Methodist Anishinabek built houses, their own church, and schools, including the Nepessing station in Lapeer County on the Flint River at Kopenekahning near Flint and at Pewanegoing, also called Kazier, or Taymouth, in Saginaw County. Reverend Daniel Wheaton, Anishinabe Methodist preacher, served as minister at Taymouth – Kazier, fourteen miles south of Saginaw.
They harvested food to feed themselves, disease came less frequently, and the worst of the whiskey traders left them. The Anishinabe ancestors began to take charge of their political life once again.
During the time of crisis, the U.S. had done little to give our people the promised help in the 1836, 1837, and 1838 Treaties. By 1837, our people had so little game, money, or property that they were literally starving. Those trying to protect the Anishinabe were ostracized.
Today we attribute our survival to our spiritual strength and faith. Many of our ancestors continued to hold onto and practice Midewiwin and fought diseases. The Methodist Church missionaries and Anishinabek churchmen stood up on our behalf. The Church helped the people in many ways. In their darkest days of pain and rejection, the people found the church a good place.
Camp meetings were held that drew hundreds to camp together for a week or more. They hunted, fished, and gathered wild foods. They met relatives and discussed important political issues. Many found sweethearts who later became spouses.
At one early camp meeting held in 1850, 800 to 1,000 Anishinabek met on the Cass River, at present Bridgeport. Many who came were not Christians; it was not unusual to gather and do things together. Deep respect for one another overcame barriers. The camp meetings provided many opportunities to socialize.
Box Socials were often held at these gatherings. Women made special lunches and decorated boxes. Men would bid for the lunches, eating his meal with the woman who had packed it. The money raised helped pay for travel expenses of those who could not otherwise afford to come. Ministers often became political leaders of the tribe.”
The above paragraphs are adapted from, “Diba Jimoouung”, Telling our Story, Zibiiwing, Saginaw Chippewa. The book, Diba Jimooyung, is excellent reading for more on Ojibwe history in Michigan.
“All that remained of our proud nationhood was our tribal identity, language, clan system, and spiritual connection to the land. Some families held on to our histories, stories, and clans, but these traditions gradually faded away. Few speak the Ojibwe language. But there is now renewed interest in our culture, the young are learning” (Diba Jimooyung).
In 1840, many were hunted down and removed, many fled to Canada and other far-away places.
The Indians who had left Michigan were returning to find their families, and many went to Canada. A deep emotional and economic depression permeated the villages. A lack of understanding of the White ways was the basis for refusing the White ways, to develop the desire to acquire.
An Indian exodus from Detroit never occurred.
The Indian Civilization Act was to remake Indians into a God-fearing New England farm family. Government policy was to convince Indians to forsake their own beliefs and lifeways, to the White man’s ways, to take up farming and private property.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs, enlisted Church clergy to act as reservation directors. They were to convert the natives to Christianity, teach only English, emphasize American Government classes, teach farming, and provide blacksmith services, farm implements, and seed.
Mission schools were failures in most cases. A few were successful. Some did not follow the government’s standards and were on their own to help the Natives. They upgraded villages following their conscience, with support of their home churches. Catholic Father Baraga was a notable example, coming to the Indians aid (Kah Wam Da Meh, Jean Frazier 1988).
Merriam’s scathing report (The Merriam Report) on the reservations of the Northwest in 1928 led to the Wheeler Howard Reorganization Act, returning some power to tribes in Minnesota.
There were many other government programs used to help or control the Indians. The rampant government fraud of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Congress changed little. The policies were designed to oppress and destroy the Indian, stealing all the resources of the reservations.
The Ojibwe were educated in schools operated by the federal government, our leaders became educated. They became adept at not being taken advantage of by duplicitous government policies.
Government-operated schools helped to bind the scattered Anishinabe community together. In an environment of virulent racism and discrimination, government schools gave Anishinabe children a haven where they could learn, safe from the taunting of White classmates.
In the 1840s, Methodist missionaries built small log buildings where children and adults alike learned to read and write. By 1855, six schools operated at the Anishinabe settlements around Saginaw and Flint. These were day schools. About 220 scholars studied reading, writing, and arithmetic, the books written in the English language.
After the 1855 Treaty, the U.S. built seven new schools, one on the Saganing Reservation and six at Isabella. The children had to leave school to hunt, fish, and gather crops with their parents. They continued to speak the Anishinabe language at home.
The government built Mt. Pleasant Boarding School to separate children from Anishinabe culture and more fully assimilate them to White culture. Children were taken from their homes at a very young age to attend government-run boarding schools.
The Isabella Saginaw Chippewa Reservation was created after reserves created in the Saginaw Treaty of 1817 and 1819 were ceded to the U.S. government.
Most students found the systematic eradication of the Ojibwa language a major factor in alienating them not only from their culture, but from their friends on the reserve as well. Students in schools were prohibited from speaking their native language.
Basil Johnston states, “as long as language exists, it enables men to understand and appreciate their ideas and philosophies and to share in their humor, so long do they adhere to their way of life. Once language disappears men forget their former purpose of life and ideas, they could only understand the thoughts of the adopted culture.”
The children were comfortable neither in the White man’s world nor in the Indian’s world, and their self-esteem and self-respect were shattered.
Letters home had to be in English, all appliances supplied except stamps (which many could not afford), and the family could not read.
Sexual abuse of the children by ministers, priests, nuns, and teachers was widespread. Since the abused are inclined to become abusers, reserve life was influenced adversely by these experiences (Schmaltz).
Caleb Atwater wrote,
I am thoroughly convinced that great abuses exist in the Indian Dept. The causes which produced the abuses will continue them, I fear under the pretext of benevolence to the Indians! By the very persons whose duty it is to act very differently from what some of them do. Using all their influence to keep the Indian where they are in ignorance, poverty, and dependence.
Our red brethren will be driven west, until they finally perish on the shore of the Pacific Ocean. The wasteful and villainous expenditures of millions of dollars under the hypocritical pretentions of benevolence and piety, and even charity, toward the Indians, when we all know that not one cent of this money benefits the Indians. It is of no avail against the united efforts of a corrupt set of men, who contrive to plunder the treasury every winter under the solemn sanctions of law.
The power over our fellowman is now pursued by means most selfish and corrupt, and when obtained, abused by the possessor. (Gen. Henry Dodge/Atwater)
“Kings and priests have been in their exercise of power the very worst foes of mankind. One enslaved the body, the other the soul. The perfect union between church and state, the people were always losers. According to the very spirit of our Constitution, our rulers are our servants, not our masters. The people are the only sovereign in this country.”
“The greatest gift of God to mankind is great original thinkers – they are the light of the world” (Atwater).
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This book came about after a visit to the library where I could not find local Indian History. I grew up in the St. Clair and Black River area of Michigan, fishing on all the area waters with my father and brothers. I loved books, libraries, horses and puzzles; I was not a tech person. I love to cook, garden, travel, and camp. I was determined to find and share the truth. This has been a difficult journey in every way. I give you, the reader, the truth and blessings I also reaped. Cheryl Morgan
Cheryl Morgan lives near Port Huron, Michigan with her husband Tom and dog Fred.
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