By Mike Connell
Originally published June 15, 2017
Not long ago, a friend asked for my thoughts on the most influential Native American to live in what is now Port Huron.
Talk about a tough question. It’s subjective, for starters, and there are huge gaps in our knowledge. As one example, amateur anthropologists in the 19th century mapped at least 25 burial mounds within the current city limits, but to this day, no one can say with certainty who built those mounds or when.
People lived and died here for thousands of years before our region’s “discovery” by European explorers, but we know next to nothing of them as individuals.
CAVEATS ASIDE, as I considered the question, the first name that came to mind was John Riley.
In 1807, leaders of four tribes – Chippewa, Ottawa, Wyandot and Potawatomi — signed the Treaty of Detroit, ceding their territorial claims to much of southeastern Michigan.
As part of the deal, two Chippewa fishing villages in St. Clair County were set aside as reservations. One of these was in Ira Township where Swan Creek enters Anchor Bay. The other was in Port Huron and included the south bank of the Black River in the area now flanked by the drawbridges at Military and 10th streets.
Riley led the Black River band for many years. He also gave his name to Riley Township, where he wintered. Virgin forests near the Belle River provided shelter from winds howling off Lake Huron.
RILEY’S PARENTS were a Chippewa woman named Me-naw-cam-e-goqua and an American trader, James Van Slyck Riley. Their children, who seem to have inherited their mother’s good looks and their father’s extensive properties, played prominent roles in the early history of both Bay City and Port Huron.
Laura Wheaton Farrand, founder of the Port Huron Ladies Library Association, described John Riley as “a man of commanding appearance, quite courtly in manner, with very good features … considerably educated, and spoke English very well.”
The elder Riley left the frontier and returned home to Schenectady, N.Y., where he took a second wife, fathered a second family, and served at various times as postmaster, sheriff and judge.
In 1830, the signing of the Indian Removal Act gave President Andrew Jackson authority to offer unsettled land west of the Mississippi to eastern tribes. It famously led to the Cherokee “Trail of Tears,” but it also affected tribes in St. Clair County.
Within a few years, the Black River and Swan Creek reservations had been sold off to land speculators. Scores of local Chippewa were put on boats and transported to a new reservation in Kansas, but many others resisted deportation and joined their kinfolk in Sarnia, Saginaw Bay and elsewhere.
In 1836, John Riley sold a store he had opened in Riley Township and moved across the river to Ontario, where he died near Chatham in 1842.
LET’S ALSO remember the fabled Mother Rodd, who would have been a familiar figure to anyone living in Port Huron and Port Sarnia, as it was once known, in the mid-19th century.
Na-we-gesh-e-goqua is believed to have been a granddaughter of Falling Snow (Maskeash), one of the Chippewa chiefs who signed the 1807 treaty. She became Mother Rodd after marrying Alexander Rodd, a French-Chippewa frontiersman, and raising four sons — Thunder, Black Kerchief, Serpent and Running Brook.
An oil painting of Mother Rodd was displayed for years in the state Capitol at Lansing. It was a gift of D.B. Harrington, who lived with the Chippewa as a young man and who spoke their language fluently. He not only named Port Huron in 1837, he also became a towering figure in the generation of pioneers who transformed a frontier mud-wallow into a flourishing city.
Mother Rodd sold brooms, baskets and other handicrafts. She also won acclaim for her knowledge of medicinal plants and natural cures.
When walking from place to place, she carried a tall staff. Young children in early Port Huron were assured (with a wink) that she used her walking stick to pole vault across the St. Clair River.
She died in 1870 at the ripe old age of – depending on the source – 104, 113 or 118.
FOR MY MONEY, the most influential Native American to live in what is now Port Huron was an acclaimed war chief known as Young Gull (Kioscance).
In 1686, he accompanied Duluth to the narrows of the St. Clair River, where 200 Frenchmen and 500 Algonquin-speaking Indians, most of them Chippewa from the Upper Peninsula, built Fort St. Joseph.
Remember, this was 15 years before the founding of Detroit on the other end of the strait connecting Lake Huron and Lake Erie, and Michigan was still a wilderness.
I have yet to see a definitive answer to this question: What tribe dominated the Port Huron region before the construction of Fort St. Joseph?
A map drawn in 1650 by the French cartographer Nicolas Sanson shows the Algonquin-speaking Potawatomi on the west bank of the St. Clair River and the Iroquoian-speaking Neutral Nation on the east bank.
Other maps from the 1650s showed different spheres of influence, and it may well have been a fluid situation as tribes battled for dominance.
PORT HURON’S finest historian, William Lee Jenks, said Jesuit missionaries reported a brutal battle fought in 1642 when the Neutrals, or Attawandaron, crossed the St. Clair River and crushed the Potawatomis and their allies, the Foxes and the Sauks.
If so, the Neutrals would have controlled much of the region from Buffalo to Grand Rapids, but it would prove a short-lived empire.
Later in the 1640s, the Neutrals tried to stay out of a genocidal war between the British-allied Iroquois Confederacy and the French-allied Hurons. Indeed, this is why the French began to call them the Neutrals.
In 1648-49, the Hurons were annihilated by the well-armed Iroquois, who had firearms bought from the Dutch. Two years later, the Neutrals were conquered, too, and absorbed by the victorious Iroquois.
BETWEEN the brutality of war and the ravages of European diseases, the St. Clair River region saw its once-thriving population collapse in the second half of the 1600s.
There would not have been many people left in 1688 when the French abandoned Fort St. Joseph and Young Gull returned home with his warriors to the southern shore of Lake Superior.
In the next few years, Young Gull’s forces won several skirmishes with opposing tribes, and he emerged as principal chief of the Saulteaux Chippewa.
David D. Plain, author of “The Plains of Aamjiwnaang,” said the Chippewa of the 1690s wished to trade with the French but did not wish to live too close to them.
“This attitude dovetailed with Young Gull’s wish to move to St. Clair country,” Plain wrote. “He had fallen in love with the place when he stayed at Fort St. Joseph in 1686. So, he led a large group of Saulteux Ojibwa (Chippewa) south from the St. Mary’s River district and established villages on the Black River and Swan Creek in present-day Michigan.”
ZEPHANIAH BUNCE, another of our region’s prominent pioneers, spoke in the 1820s with one of Young Gull’s sons, Little Thunder, who was more than 100 years old at the time.
Little Thunder told Bunce that his father came down the western shore of Lake Huron with an armada of 400 war canoes, each canoe capable of carrying eight warriors, and landed at what is now Vantage Point. They fought a great battle with the Iroquois near the mouth of the Black River – or River Duluth as it was also known.
“Scarce had a landing been affected then a battle commenced; a battle, as described by him, unequaled by any strife where Indians alone were the combatants,” Bunce wrote. “From side to side of the stream now known as the Black River, the contest surged, till after days of terrible carnage, the Iroquois yielding, were driven across the great river and far into Canada.”
Little Thunder said the victorious Chippewa buried their dead in a mound that would be destroyed in the 1870s to make way for construction of the Customs House (Federal Building) on Water Street.
The Saulteux Chippewa established settlements in their newly won territory, including fishing villages at Port Huron and Swan Creek.
A triumphant Young Gull made his home near the site where Fort Gratiot would be built in 1814. He lived to the age of 107, or so his son told Judge Bunce, and he was laid to rest with great ceremony in the burial mound on Water Street.
LITTLE THUNDER’S account has come into question by modern historians.
Plain, a direct descendent of Young Gull and Little Thunder, has written several books about local Chippewa history, including “1300 Moons,” a biography of Young Gull.
He reports that Young Gull’s invasion force continued south to Round Lake, as the Chippewa called Lake St. Clair, and then up the Thames River to a Seneca village near present-day Chatham, Ontario.
Young Gull’s forces defeated the Seneca and proceeded to drive the Iroquois Confederacy east to the Niagara Escarpment.
Plain agrees that Young Gull lived to a great age and was then laid to rest with his fallen comrades, but he says the burial took place in a mound beside the Thames River not the Black River.
Putting aside doubt and dispute, what seems beyond question is that the great chief Young Gull expanded Chippewa hegemony to the St. Clair River region, a land they would call Aamjiwnaang, or Place of the Spawning Stream.
Mike Connell is a native of West Virginia and has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from West Virginia University. He worked for 46 years at newspapers in West Virginia, Florida, Georgia, and Michigan. He joined the Times Herald in Port Huron in 1988 and held a variety of positions, including eight years as executive editor, before retiring from full-time work in 2008 and as a columnist in 2015.