Back

 

THE EARLY HISTORY OF WHITE LAKE

AND

WHITE LAKE INDIANS

 

Compiled by

MISS BERNICE NORMAN

Of

Whitehall, Michigan

 

and Presented to

THE WHITE LAKE CENTRAL SCHOOL

September 1950

 

HOW THE INDIANS LIVED

 

The first material men learned to shape for use was stone. While their first implements were probably rocks that had been smoothed and rounded by the action of water, they early discovered that flint, although exceedingly hard, chipped easily and would take a sharp edge. The oldest known implements made by man are flint fist hatchets found in France and said to date back 15,000 years. They are large chunks of flint roughly chipped that were held in the hand for cutting and were not set in handles. Doubtless, men had not yet thought of making wooden handles.

The Indians made a variety of tools from flint: knives, awls, scrapers, arrows, spears and stunners.

They had two methods of chipping it. One was to heat the stone, then drop some cold water on it. The sudden contraction caused by the drop of cold water cracked the stone and a chip was flaked off leaving a slightly concave surface. Upon examining a flint tool it will be noted that its surface is a series of concave areas with sometimes sharp edges between.

The other method was the buckhorn method. One hand was covered with a leather strap to protect it while the flint was held against it and flakes chipped off with a buckhorn. Lap anvils may also have been used for this purpose, the flint being held against the stone instead of the palm of the hand. Some of the Indians developed such skill that they were able to finish their arrows with fine saw-tooth edges.

There was once a rumor that a large flint boulder lay in a field north of Montague and that the Indians, whenever they needed some, would break off a chunk and take it home to shape into whatever implements were desired. This was only a rumor, however, for flint is found only in small nodules in lime rock where it has been deposited by water.

Flint is a form of quartz, or silica. The most common form of silica is sand. When water carrying dissolved silica through cracks in lime rock evaporates, it leaves a deposit of silica much as lime is left in the bottom of a kettle after the water has boiled away. Sometimes more water comes in depositing other layers of silica around the first nodule. When the comparatively soft limestone is broken apart these formations are removed. Some are hard and smooth; others are rough like sandstone. Sometimes the layers vary in color making stripes in the stone. This is particularly true of translucent deposits which we call agate. Flint ranges in shade from black to white and is occasionally striped with red.

Another form of silica sometimes used for arrows and spears is called quartzite. It consists of sandstone cemented together by silica. It has a glassy surface and is so hard it cannot be scratched with steel.

Still another form is obsidian, or volcanic glass. This material is abundant in the southwest. Some of it is crystal clear, some amber, some ruby red, and that found in Mexico is jet black.

Flint is found wherever there are deposits of porous limestone. The nearest sources of supply for this vicinity are the Grand River Valley and the shores of Grand Traverse Bay.

For heavier implements, such as tomahawks, skinning stones, and grinding stones, very hard sandstone and diorite were used. The former was often found already smoothed and rounded by being rolled in swift streams or washed around by waves on a rocky shore. The latter, which is a fine-grained crystalline rock, could be ground to a sharp edge and highly polished. One of the most common implements made from this material was the skinning stone, or grooveless ax. These implements varied greatly in size and use. The small ones could be used for skinning and dressing animals and the large ones for cutting and trimming trees, peeling bark for wigwams, and pounding and splitting ash splints for baskets. Some stones were shaped to fit individual needs and cannot be given specific names.

An occasional article of hammered copper, such as a knife or a spear, has been found in this vicinity. Such items are well-shaped and show much skill in craftsmanship.

Many years ago when Frank Mangold was hunting in a ravine near Montague, his dog dug a copper necklace out of the hillside. Some of the beads were round and graduated in size with the smallest ones at the ends and the largest in the center. Interspersed among them at regular intervals were several long beads. They were still strung on a deer thong. This necklace, minus a few beads kept for souvenirs, is now in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

The Indians developed a method of tempering copper, which process hardened it and prevented corrosion. Tempered copper retains its natural state and never turns green. Although white men experimented for years, they never succeeded in learning how this was done. Tempering copper is now a lost art.

Paul Norman once found a knife of tempered copper in the gully beyond Funnell Field and for many years it was in the collection which is now in the Whitehall School.

Making implements of stone and metal doubtless required a great deal of time, but time meant nothing to an Indian. It was the result that was important to him, and he would not leave a piece of work until he was perfectly satisfied with it.

For shelter, the Indians of Michigan built wigwams. Two forked poles were set in the ground some distance apart, a ridge pole laid across and then many poles were set slanting against the ridge and covered with slabs of bark, probably 14" x 20", tied on so they overlapped like shingles. The bark used for this purpose was ash, maple or elm. An opening at one end served as a door and one in the top, as a vent for smoke from the fire in the center of the room which furnished heat for warmth and cooking. A buckskin curtain at the door kept out the cold. Temporary shelters were constructed like small wigwams with one side open, and the fire was built in the front. Some Indians have been known to live in such shelters all winter.

Fires in the open were built either in pits or within a circle of stones. The Indians were always careful in their use of fire and no disasters are known to have been caused by them.

Their clothing was made of buckskin. Sometimes the women wore short dresses fringed at the bottom, and sometimes they dressed like the men in coat and trousers. Their shoes were moccasins occasionally trimmed with beads.

To hold their trousers up, they wore belts consisting of a deer thong on which was strong a flat stone called a banner stone. To fasten the belt, the stone was twisted until the thong was tight, then the end of the stone tucked in to hold it. (This information came from Dr. Hinsdale of the University of Michigan Museum.)

For food the Indians speared fish and shot wild game. They followed their trails or paddled their dugouts up and down lakes and streams gathering wild rice, huckleberries, black berries, wild currants and cranberries. When the first white settlers came, they found cleared garden plots amounting to 300 acres in White River Township where the Indians grew corn. After harvesting the corn, it was stored in clean, sandy pits until it was needed for food. A number of such pits were located east of Funnell Field where the circular indentations can still be seen. Indications are that not more than 100 years have passed since these pits were in use. The corn was ground on a granite boulder with a hard stone pestle. The large pestles had necks with a knob at the top, but the small ones were egg shaped. Some distance north of Montague there was once a large boulder in which several hollows had been worn by the grinding of corn.

With the coming of white men the Indians gradually changed from stone and leather to metal and textiles, but one art they still retain that of basket making and it is still a source of revenue for them. At first, they traded their baskets to white people for pork and bread; now they sell them for money and buy whatever they need.

These baskets are made of ash splints. Sometimes several ash trees must be cut before finding one that will split satisfactorily. When a good log is obtained, it is buried in sand and kept moist so the layers of wood will separate when beaten. These thin layers are then split into strips of varying widths, some are dyed various colors, and they are then woven into baskets of many shapes and sizes. For some, handles are carved out of wood and bent into shape. Originally the Indians made their dyes from roots and berries; now they use commercial dyes.

The Indians also made pottery. They clay was mixed with either fine gravel or ground clam shells, worked into shape and packed in marsh grass to dry before firing. Borders of dots and lines cut in the clay and an occasional scalloped edge comprised the decorations. Clay was procured from the riven bank at the end of Baldwin Street where there was also an oven in the hillside for firing the dishes. This oven remained intact until 1870, or perhaps later.

A safe and easy landing for canoes and a spring of fresh water were the principal factors in choosing a site for a village or a camp. Shelter from winds was also given some consideration.

The nearest signs of Indian life are along the bank of the gully east of Funnell Field. There was a good canoe landing at the mouth of the brook and a large spring at the foot of the hill. One can still see where their shelters stood and where men chipped out arrows. Nearby, a number of circular indentations mark the location of their storage pits. Near Paul Zatzke's house there was once a small mound containing the skeleton of a child, but rain and melting snow have cut into the bank and washed the remains down the slope toward the marsh.

The next group of wigwams, and one of the latest to be occupied, was at the celery bed. Until 1910, or later, one could still see rings of blackened stones enclosing bits of charcoal and broken pottery where the Indians had built their fires. On the edge of the hill large patches of white sand and bits of broken implements marked the location of their wigwams, and on the highest point there was a large mound containing six skeletons arranged in a circle with heads toward the center. Obviously, all had been buried at the same time.

Andrew MacFarlan of Montague ventured the opinion that they had been killed at the battle of tippecanoe and that the survivors of the affair had prepared the bodies according to custom and brought them home for burial. Professor Evans says it is more likely that they died of starvation, which was not an uncommon occurrence.

The structure of this mound is classified by archeologists as the vault type. The bodies were arranged on the ground and earth heaped over them until the mound was the desired size. Then it was covered with a layer of clay, a ring of stones placed on top and a fire built within it. Whether this was a religious ritual, or whether the purpose of the fire was merely to bake the clay or keep the wolves from digging there, is not known. It is a fact that wolves will not dig where there has been a fire.

A mound of a different type was built at the Trading Post. Here, one person was buried at a time, each body being placed against the mound and more earth heaped over it. Today it is all but impossible to locate this mound.

A number of years ago, She-Ka-Gaw, sitting in a window at the home of her son, Thomas Armstrong, and watching men building the Old Channel Trail, remarked that they had dug up the remains of some of her people. When her son asked if he should go down and tell them not to destroy the mounds, she answered, "No, let them build the road over them." The spot has not been marked and few, if any, of the people who follow the Trail know they are driving over an Indian burying ground.

Other mounds in this vicinity are located beside the Old Channel Trail above the site of the Heald mill, and at Indian Point, where they are enclosed by rustic railings erected by Max Lau when he first purchased the property. Here is the largest burying ground in this area.

Indians also lived along the White River near Lanford Creek. One afternoon Mr. Norman found thirteen arrows and a tomahawk in a field near the creek. Such a find indicates more than usual activity. Another place that yielded a number of artifacts was the row of fields along the south side of Alice Street, or the Watkins Road as it was more familiarly known. Here a fine example of hammered copper was found.

Although this area was occupied by the Ottawa tribe, other tribes traveled through here and sometimes waged war against each other. Both war and hunting arrows have been found in large numbers. The hunting arrows are notched where they are bound on the shaft, but the war arrows are not. The reason is that they did not expect to retrieve the war arrows so did not take the trouble to notch them. Both Ottawa and Pottawatomi arrows have been found in this vicinity. The former are slender and the latter are broad.

Rain, wind and plows have brought many artifacts to the surface. With the cutting of the timber, ponds and streams dried up and their beds proved to be good places to find arrows that were lost when shot into the water. It was believed that many articles were interred with the dead, but such was not the case in this part of Michigan. The Indians may have been too poor to follow such a custom. In late years few artifacts have been found even in the remote sections, and it is doubtful if anymore come to light.

 

 

HOW BURYING GROUND POINT

GOT ITS NAME

 

The largest Indian mound in this vicinity was built on a high hill above Silver Creek. Because of its size, Mr. Norman, who was much interested in Indians, figured someone of importance must have been buried there.

An Indian named John Stone frequently came to his shop to visit with him as he worked. Both had served in the Civil War, and once he did John a favor, which is something an Indian never forgets. One day he asked John who was buried in the great mound and John answered that his people had told him it was Chief Owasippe.

The village over which the Chief presided, he said, was on the flat at the foot of the hill. The Creek, Bishe-gain-dang (Beautiful), furnished them with fresh water and a safe landing for canoes. Both fishing and hunting were good, and the wooded hills that surrounded them kept out the cold winter winds. They were also comparatively safe here from attacks by hostile bands.

Owasippe had two teen-age sons in whom he took great pride. They liked to hunt and fish and sometimes went far down the River in search of game. When, after a reasonable length of time, they failed to return from one of these expeditions, the Chief became anxious. Every day he climbed the high hill and sat for hours beneath a great pine tree scanning the long marsh and watching for their reappearance on one of the many streams that wound through the tall grass to the head of White Lake which looked like a silver thread against the blue of the distant hill. But no sign of them did he see; no news of their whereabouts could he learn. They might have drowned in the treacherous river, or met enemies who had tortured and killed them, a common occurrence before 1812. Whatever happened, the two boys were never seen again. Eventually, their father succombed to uncertainty and disappointment. His people found him dead beneath the great pine and built his mound where he had kept vigil so long.

Soon after telling this story, John Stone was struck by a train and killed, and no further information about the chief was available.

In the early 1890's, three boys Glenn Stewart, Erastus Monroe, and Patrick Riley were following the trail along the foot of the rollway at the mouth of Silver Creek when they noticed something that resembled the end of a canoe protruding from the bank. Hurrying back to town, they notified the Village Marshall, Charles McKenzie, who returned with the boys, bringing men and shovels. They unearthed two dugouts, each containing the skeleton of a teen-age Indian. There were also the metal parts of a flint-lock gun, bits of decayed blankets, a copper kettle and a silver ornament.

They boys thought they had found an Indian burying ground hence the name, Burying Ground Point but from the information given by John Stone, it was evident that these youths were the missing sons of Owasippe. The two boys had apparently pulled their canoes up to the bank for the night and the river, constantly cutting into the earth, had caused it to cave in, burying them while they slept.

From Patrick Riley, Mr. Norman acquired the silver ornament for his collection of Indian artifacts.

This ornament and the flint-lock gun are evidence that the French fur traders had already invaded this territory.

The smaller mound beside the Chief's contained the skeleton of a woman, doubtless that of the Chief's wife.

When John Stone told this story, the great pine was still standing; in 1914 only a rotted log remained. Now, even that has disappeared. The mounds have settled beyond recognition and would doubtless be lost but for the marker placed there by the Chicago Scouts.

Some effort has been made to learn the correct name of the Chief, and its meaning. The Indian language being strictly oral, makes the matter difficult. The late K. G. Smith of Lansing and Birch Brook consulted the late Father Gagnieur of Sault Ste. Marie who thought the name was Awassisibi, meaning "Beyond the River", hence Owasippe.

* * *

William F. Gagnieur, S.J., the last of the Michigan Jesuits, passed on in the early 1930's. During his many years among the Indians he spent much time studying their language and compiling an Indian dictionary.

* * *

Near the turn of the century, Andrew MacFarlan of Montague sat in a hotel lobby, along with a number of other men, watching the rain come down in torrents and filling the gutters to the proportion of brooks. Business had virtually come to a standstill because of the downpour. To pass the time, the group fell into a conversation that eventually led to the subject of "finds". After a few experiences had been related, Mr. MacFarlan remarked that he, too, had a "find" and he drew from his pocket a small brass pistol.

"My boy was hunting at the Burying Ground Point," he said, "when he discovered a skeleton at the edge of the river. Around the feet were beads indicating that the man had worn moccasins and at the waist was this pistol. Because of the moccasins, he thought the man was an Indian and he brought home the skull as well as the pistol. When I saw the skull I knew it was that of a white man."

"Let me see that pistol," said one of the men.

After looking it over carefully he asked, "Where did you say this was found?"

"About three miles up White River," Mr. MacFarlan answered, "at the mouth of Silver Creek."

"That," said the man "solves a mystery that has puzzled me for twenty years. I was running logs on White River at the time. They piled up at the point and I sent a man named John Brocker to break the jam. He never returned and I wondered what became of him. Now I know. He was killed when the logs broke loose. This is the brass pistol he always wore in his belt."

Upon his return home, Mr. MacFarlan notified the Brocker family and asked what disposition they wished to make of the bones. They answered that they thought the most appropriate place for them was where he was killed and where they had lain so many years. The MacFarlans, therefore, returned the skull to Burying Ground Point and interred it with the other bones in the sand at the edge of the river.

 

WHITE LAKE IN HISTORY

 

Although the early explorers do not mention White Lake or White River, we know they were familiar with them, for on the earliest known map of this region, dated 1684, it is plainly marked La Riviere Blanche, which is French for White River. The next map drawn by Franquelin in 1688 shows it as Ouabisipe ou Riviere Blanche, which means White River in Ottawa and in French. The Indian languages being entirely oral, the spelling of words varies with the nationality of the listener and the pronunciation of the speaker. Ouaba, as the French spelled it, and Waba, as we spell it, means white, and sipi or sibee, means river.

On a map of the Mississippi Valley drawn between 1672 and 1675, the river is named Mitchi-sipi ou Grande Riviere, meaning great river in both Indian and French. On the same map, Lake Michigan is marked Lac de Mitchi-gami ou Illinois. On the map of 1688 it is designated as Mitchi-gamay (great sea) ou Lac des Illinois (Lake of the Illinois), the latter being a tribe of Indians. At the southern end of the Lake is Port Chicago. Mississippi, on this map, is spelled as we spell it today.

We learn from the records kept by the explorers that Father Marquette passed the mouth of White River on his way north in 1675. He was so ill at the time that he was compelled to end his journey at the present site of Ludington, where, after a short sojourn, he succumbed on May 18 to a malady from which he had suffered for several months.

Father Marquette made his last entry in his diary on April 6, 1675. Thereafter, his record was kept by Father Claude Dablon, who wrote that some Indians who had been hunting in lower Michigan during the winter of 1677 stopped at Marquette's grave on their return journey and decided to remove the remains to their church at St. Ignace. The grave was easy to locate as it was marked by a large wooden cross. "Accordingly", Father Dablon wrote, "they opened the grave and uncovered the body; and, although the flesh and internal organs were all dried up, they found it entire, so that not even the skin was in any way injured. This did not prevent them from proceeding to dissect it, as is their custom. They cleansed the bones and exposed them to the sun to dry; then, carefully laying them in a box of birch-bark, they set out to bring them to our mission of St. Ignace."

A later record states that "the site of this mission chapel and the remains of Marquette were discovered two hundred years after his burial by the priest of the village, Rev. Edward Jacker. The remnants of a birch-bark box, a number of bones, and part of a skull were unearthed. Most of these relics are now in the possession of the Marquette University at Milwaukee."

In 1697, LaSalle's friend and Lieutenant, Henri de Tonti, passed by on his way to join LaSalle at the mouth of the St. Joseph.

Except for maps, there seems to be no further record until 1760. In the fall of that year, Father Peter Francis Xavier Charlevoix coasted along our shore and wrote some interesting descriptions of it, but he did not mention White River by name.

The next visitor of prominence was Henry Schoolcraft, for many years Commissioner of Indian Affairs. He came up the lake in 1821 and described the coast near Muskegon quite minutely, calling it "lonely and dreary." He added that "some white settlers had pushed as far north as White River." But they could not have been numerous or permanent, for in recording that G. W. Rodebaugh came here in 1831 to take a census of the Indians, no mention is made of white settlers. Probably the only white men here at that time were employees of the fur companies, some of whom married Indian women and became permanent residents.

When Charles Mears came to White Lake in 1837, he found two white men who were holding down a claim for a Chicago resident, but they disappeared soon afterward. Going up White River, the Mears brothers passed the Trading Post where a cabin of split logs had been so long abandoned that no one remembered which fur company had built it. It was certain evidence, however, of the previous presence of white men.

Near the mouth of White Lake the Mears brothers passed a cornfield with about a dozen wigwams around it. Here lived Chief Wabaningo with his little band. Later the Government Channel was cut through this field. At the mouth of Silver Creek they came upon a group of Indians eating dinner. The Indians invited the white men to join them, but as the menu consisted of "roasted black snake and duck eggs of dubious age" they did not accept.

Until the end of the War of 1812, the tribes of red men moved back and forth across the country making inroads against each other and fighting terrible battles. They were ruthless in their torturing and slaughtering. With the close of the war, however, the Indians of Michigan settled down to a peaceful existence. Until almost the end of the century many of them continued to live in bark wigwams. Then they moved into log or frame houses.

From the fur traders they had acquired wool blankets and clothing, iron kettles, and other comforts and conveniences. With the white settlers they traded their splint baskets for salt pork and flour, or homemade bread when they could get it. They learned to peel hemlock bark for the lumberman, and some of them worked around the mills, earning money with which to purchase their winter corn and potatoes. They still hunted, trapped and picked berries and in the spring made incredible quantities of maple sugar.

In "Oceana County Pioneers", published in 1890, we read that "Mr. D. K. Foster gathered statistics showing the enterprise of the Indians of Mason and Oceana Counties in adopting civilized methods, from the first day of July, 1866, to the first day of July, 1867, and filed it with the Government." From this report are taken the following figures:

Bushels of wheat raised . . . . . . . 825

" " buckwheat " . . . . . . . 150

" " corn " . . . . . . . 7,738

" " potatoes " . . . . . . . 11,931

" " turnips " . . . . . . . 37

" " oats " . . . . . . . 1,482

No. of ponies . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 131

" " cattle . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 54

" " swine . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 160

" " lbs. of maple sugar made . . . . . 26,000 (13 tons)

" " log houses built . . . . . . . . . . 126

" " frame houses . . . . . . . . . . . 2

" " bark wigwams . . . . . . . . . . 10

Value of land sold . . . . . . . . . . . . $3,220

 

They were rapidly taking on the ways of the white man.

 

 

THE NAME OF WHITE LAKE

 

In none of the early records is there any mention of White Lake only mention of White River. That the stream widened into a lake near its mouth seemed only incidental to the explorers. The first mention of the widening of rivers into lakes back of the dunes was made by Father Charlevoix in 1760.

Mr. A. W. Slayton, who came here as School Superintendent in 1876, was much interested in the Indians and frequently conversed with them about their way of living. One day he asked an Indian what his people called White Lake. The Indian answered, "Wabagun-a-gee-skee-boo-goo Nebish", explaining that it meant clay-washed and making the motions of washing his hands as he repeated the name.

After much research, the late K. G. Smith and the late Father Gagnieur decided the name must be Wababigun-nee-gish-ki-bago Neebish meaning White-clay-back-of-the-lodge Lake, which name would seem appropriate as there was marl in the bank back of the ledges at Indian Bay.

Dwight Goss, writing for the Michigan Historical and Pioneer Collections, stated that the name of the lake was Wababigun-gweesh-cup-ago, or River-with-white-clay-in-its-mouth. This name, too, would seem fitting for the Old Channel cut through a deposit of marl.

Recently, however, an Ottawa Indian, upon beeing consulted stated that the first version was correct. As nearly, then, as one can transcribe a spoken language into a written one, the Indian name for White Lake was Wababigun-nee-gish-gi-boo-goo Nebish, or, as the Indian explained, White-clay-that-is-being-washed-away Lake.

The Government Channel was cut through part of the marl deposit, but the marl quickly washed away. There is no longer any trace of it in the bed of the Old Channel, but an excavation in the side of the hill reveals that a part of this formation, which now lies high above the water level, reaches back from the Lake. It was the washing away of this "white clay" by the natural outlet that originated the name of White Lake.

 

Submitted by Bill Moore

 

Top of page