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Arts of Citizenship at the University of Michigan

Native Americans: Early Contact

French priests were probably the first Europeans to write about coming into contact with Native Americans in the 1630s. Throughout much of the 1700s, French settlers and explorers traded quite frequently with native tribes. The founding of Fort Wayne in the late 1600s and Detroit in 1701, increased contact between whites and Native Americans-so much so that in 1775, Detroit felt it necessary to regulate the sale of liquor to Native Americans.

Many settlers feared Native Americans because they were different. Their ways seemed savage to whites, and they were suspicious of a culture they did not understand. However, most settlers had a variety of experiences with native people. These pages from Indian Reminiscences, by Helen Nicholas Caldwell gave an account of one family's early relations with Native Americans. In this account, the settlers were alternately impressed with Native American fairness and gentleness and frightened by a display of native weapons.

During the early nineteenth century, several Christian missionaries moved into Michigan to begin missionary work among the tribes. Their impressions are some of the best we have of early relations between Native Americans and whites. Missionaries were perhaps the whites most sympathetic to Native Americans. In this 1833 letter, Frederick Schmid the first German Lutheran pastor in Ann Arbor, described his first encounter with an Ottawa tribe near Detroit.

Native Americans formed perceptions of white settlers, too, but their historical records are harder to locate. Many Natives called the white man the "great White Father," denoting respect for white settlers. High conversion rates also suggest that Christianity had something to offer Native Americans, and high intermarriage rates indicate that some Native Americans formed intimate ties with whites. One essay, however, written by one Native American, Andrew J. Blackbird in 1897, found that white settlers introduced some immoralities into the tribes. He wrote in his book, History of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of Michigan,

"The Ottawas and Chippewas were quite virtuous in their primitive state, as there were no illegitimate children reported in our old traditions. But very lately this evil came to exist among the Ottawas-so lately that the second case among the Ottawas of Arbor Croche is yet living in 1897. And from that time this evil came to be quite frequent, for immorality has been introduced among these people by evil white persons who bring their vices into the tribes."

Unfortunately, while some contact between Native Americans and whites was quite friendly, much of it was also very cruel. This document, for example, describes the burning of a Native American village in 1900. In order to drive Native Americans out, whites pillaged and burned this village near Harbor Springs and confiscated the land´┐Żall while the Sheriff looked on.

Taken together, this group of documents tells a complex story about early contact between Native Americans and whites. It was often charged with tension and emotion, but also had moments of friendship, cooperation, and even intimacy. Regardless, though, contact had distinct consequences for people on both sides, and profound affects on both native and white cultures that still affect Michigan history.

Next: Claiming Native American Land


From Indian Reminiscences

The Indian village was only a half mile off, so the Indians were frequent visitors. Grandfather was a very large, powerful man, and while very kind to them he was decided, and never yielded a point of right. They called him "Big Che-mo-ko-man." They soon began to regard him with a sort of superstitious awe, and to invest him with a power from the "Great Spirit," a feeling he took care to impress upon them every opportunity. He settled all their difficulties; they brought him all their armor, tomahawks, etc., when they went on their pow-wow, and he helped them in all possible ways. He never dared under any circumstances break his word to them. He told me this: "I noticed when my cattle came home at night their sides would be bleeding and there were marks of arrows on them; those pesky little Indians were trying their skill at shooting. I became so annoyed that I finally decided to stop it. I went over to the village, called out Si-mas, one of the head Indians; told him their pappooses were hurting my cattle, and if I found any more signs of their being shot at, I would kill a pony belonging to some of them. I thought afterwards perhaps I had undertaken a good deal, for I would have been obliged to have kept my exact word with them or lost at once and forever all power over them. Fortunately I had no further trouble. (4-5)

* * *

Pete-Na-Wan, a chief, had a girl six years old who had consumption. She came every day for a long time to see grandmother, who would prepare little delicacies for her. Even after she could not sit up, the Indian would bring her in his arms and let her stay thee as long as she liked. I have often heard her speak of their great affection for this child, and how tender and gentle they were with her. Failing to come for several days, she decided one Sunday afternoon to go over to the village. Grandmother said, I told "father" I was afraid Pete-Na-Wan's girl was worse, and we had better go over and see. When we reached the place we found them way off by themselves with the girl in a sort of hammock. He came to us, saying: "Pappoose plenty sick, going to Great Spirit." The squaw sat there crying bitterly. The next morning just at daybreak, I heard some one come in and sit down by the fire. I said: "Hughes, I guess Pete-Na-Wan's girl is dead. I think he is out there." Sure enough, there he sat; would not speak, but marked on the floor, with a stick he had, the shape of a coffin; finally said: "Fix 'em pappoose like Che-mo-ko-man's pappoose." So father went out and nailed together a rough box, and the Indian took it under his arm and disappeared." (5-6)


From The Burning of Indian Village on the Banks of Burt Lake in the Fall of 1900 by Matt O'Reilly

The leaves had turned their beautiful fall colors, an odd Indian could be seen here and there, digging potatoes, while the real aged man sat outside his hut or tent smoking away in peace and comfort. When in looking up two men drove in to one of the yards. One was the county sheriff and the other was the man who bought or bid in the "tax titles" for which the land was sold.

At once they tied their rig to a small tree and proceeded to the house, one of the "resort Cottage type." After reading the necessary papers for removal of the contents, they proceeded with their work in removing stove, bedding, chairs, and everything movable, and as soon as empty, one went in with oil can sprinkled oil in each room, set a match to it, and instantly it produced volumes of black smoke. As this went on sobs and curses rent the air, and in all directions Indians could be seen running, not knowing yet but what it was from stove-pipe or some other cause.

But "when they all got there and found out the real news, just one word" had those to men going home dead with their boots on. On they went to the next house and repeated their actions, and the whites over the south shore of Burt Lake were wondering at so many buildings a blaze, all inside of two hours time. "When they came to the church" their heart failed them, and it alone, stood there surrounded with the burning of the poor Indians homes, while tears and curses flowed freely from the afflicted one. After those men done there work, they drove home satisfied of the job and proved to the world that the White Man turned savage, Michigan's last tilt" with Indians.


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