Aug 16, 2006

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Saugatuck fur trader

May Francis Heath

Typical Indian Village of 1800's


May Francis Heath provides a vivid description of local Indian culture in her book Early Memories of Saugatuck, Michigan 1830-1930:

“When the first white man came to this section he was greeted by the hearty “Booshoo” (“Boo shoo” is without doubt a corruption of the French “Bonjour,” meaning “Good day” or “Good morning.” This word of greeting was generally used by all the Indian tribes. Of the two tribes of Indians holding title by right of possession of Allegan County, the Ottawas in the northern part and the Pottawatomies in the southern part, and they hunted or roamed at will all over the country.

The Ottawas were fugitives from Canada and the Pottawatomies were emigrants from the western shore of Lake Michigan around the vicinity of “Chi-cog” (skunkwater), now Chicago, which territory they claimed and later sold to the Government. These two tribes had used this county for nearly a century and a half, in winter hunting over its hills and dales and trapping and in the spring fishing in its waters.

But in the summer they mostly went—the Ottawas to northern Michigan and the Pottawatomies to the St. Joseph valley where, during the summer, the squaws raised the corn and pumpkins which were the Indians’ change of steady diet of fish and meat.

The mode for transportation of the Indian was mostly by canoe, and very proud he was of his handsome birch bark canoe which many times was the labor of a year, and he would perhaps have taken long journeys to obtain the bark and dyes.

When the whites first came Indian camps were seen along the river at Saugatuck’s present location, and Macsaube, their chief, was a great favorite with the early settlers, and he often befriended the pioneers with giving them maple sugar, fish and venison. In those early days, could you have visited this woodland along the Kalamazoo, you would have discovered a large Indian population and have seen hundreds of beautiful birch bark canoes and dug-outs drawn up on either shore.

One reason the Indian followed the waters as much as possible was that the streams were a faithful supply-train that furnished his daily food, as fish were abundant in every stream; but he was never wasteful. He would scoop out a load, keep only what he needed and put the rest back.

At home the Indian enjoyed the quiet of domestic peace; by nature they were neighborly and honorable and courteous. The savage might scalp his enemy but his child-like faith in the Great Spirit to supply his physical wants left little room in his heart for stealing, and among their leaders fidelity to their promises was a marked characteristic.

Grandfather Morrison thought very highly of the Indian, and he told of an Indian who was greatly indebted to him for food bought at the Morrison store. This Indian being an excellent trapper, grandfather asked him for his note, which he could pay when next he sold his furs.

The note was written, the Indian affixed his X (mark) then put the note in his pocket, insisting that it was his and he should keep it. Grandfather said he laughed at him, but the witnesses to the scene laughed at grandfather; however the Indian returned after the fur season and paid the note.

The Indians living here were peacefully inclined and proved real friends, as, if a white man lost his horse in the woods, an Indian, who had a keener vision, was sure to bring in the missing animal. There were plenty of deer, so no one went hungry, and the Indian not only provided meat for his family but was most generous to his “white brother.”

My grandfather was very much against “firewater,” thereby losing a lot of the Indian trade, for there were always plenty who would sel1 it to the Indian. But it was the bane of the Indian life, making strong and dignified warriors quarrelsome, weak and childish, depriving them of their native vigor and vitality, rendering them easy prey to disease. Chief Pokagon’s life was spent in trying to overcome this great menace to his race.”

The author cited above, May Francis Heath, was the granddaughter of Stephen and Mary Morrison, pioneer settlers of Saugatuck. Stephen Morrison arrived here in 1835. Morrison purchased a tannery business which he owned and operated along with a general store where he traded with Indians.

Next week: Indians and the fur trade.               by Rob Carey

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