Skip navigation

Coming of the Chippewa to Isabella County

Indian Mills Historical Marker
Indian Mills Historical Marker.
Photograph by Hudson Keenan

Just off Mission Road north of Mt. Pleasant at the Chippewa River is a historical site and marker. Probably many have never noticed on the west side of the road a few hundred feet north of the bridge a small stone memorial. A bronze tablet tells of the council house being located at this location where the Chippewa Indians and Government people met to do business.

When the monument was dedicated on June 19, 1931, between two and three hundred people were present from all areas of the county. The local chapter of the D.A.R (Daughters of the American Revolution) had made this their project to erect Isabella County's first historical marker. The DAR had enlisted the State Highway Department for grading and landscape, along with the city of Mt. Pleasant for the footings. The glacial boulder itself was transported from a farm in Deerfield Township and the plaque attached. Newspaper reports covered the event in detail. Two six-year old boys, one from the Mt. Pleasant Schools and one from the U.S. Indian School on Harris Street, unveiled the monument draped with the Stars and Stripes. The Indian School Band provided the music for the occasion. The local paper reported that Chief Elijah Elk, mounted on a white pony and leading members of the tribe dressed in native gear, stole the show.



One might well ask the significance of this locale and why the effort to mark it as Isabella's first historical marker. Certainly it is not a site of early man in Michigan but rather a story of an attempt to stop the decimation of native Americans by the onslaught of settlers in the mid-nineteenth century in Michigan. The success of this endeavor was flawed, not so much by the plan but by those wishing profits in lands and forests.


It is worthwhile to look briefly back in time long before settlers and treaties to see conditions in the peninsulas. Archaeologists such as W.B. Hinsdale concluded years ago that the total number of native Americans in Michigan was not great, perhaps only 15,000 in the entire state. The nature of their existence, primarily hunting, fishing, and gathering kept the relatively small groups or bands on the move. This type of existence carried over into the nineteenth century but this pattern of life was not compatible with the wave of settlers coming into Michigan.


An interesting example of Indian movement is in our earliest written account in central Michigan. Jesuit Father Henri Nouvel recorded his experiences in a journal he kept. Fr. Nouvel journeyed with the Chippewas on a hunting and fishing expedition through what is now Isabella County on the Chippewa River in the winter of 1675-76. Apparently, it was the custom for the Indians to move into the Saginaw valley in this season to escape the more severe winters of the upper lakes.


Reverend George Bradley, over a century and a half later, left an account in which he mentions the Chippewas, more particularity the band of Swan Creek and Black River, moving in what is now Oakland County. Rev. Bradley referred to their condition as degraded. All of the things we have heard-disappearance of hunting and fishing lands with settlement, disease, and alcoholism-were taking their toll.


The Methodist Episcopal Church Missionary Society started its efforts with this group in 1841. With increasing settlement in the area, it was deemed best to establish a mission in western Lapeer County in 1842. At this location, they were isolated for a time and the band grew, eventually numbering about 300 individuals. They called this settlement Ne-bi-sing, a name they would later bring with them to Isabella county for a church and school southeast of present day Rosebush. By the year 1853 the tide of settlement was crowding the Lapeer area, and once more, conflicts both social and cultural were being felt by the band.


Bradley recalled it was during this time that


"It was agitated some about getting one large reservation for the Indians in the Saginaw Valley for a home."

Reverend J.P. Durbin
Reverend J.P. Durbin

The various missionaries must have discussed the problem, for a letter was written in 1854 by two of them, Reverends George Smith and P.O. Johnson, to the corresponding secretary of the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Rev. J.P. Durbin. They urged Durbin to petition the government to withdraw Isabella county lands from sale and set them aside for use and eventual purchase by the Indians.


Reverend Durbin then wrote the Hon. George Manypenny, U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs, in December of 1854. In his letter, he stated that they were after an area where all Indians of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan could be brought together. He further stated;


"In regard to the Indians in Michigan, public opinion seems to be in favor of their remaining in the State with a view to their becoming permanent cultivators of the soil."


Probably not stated but obvious to all, it would help the Methodist Mission to focus their resources and efforts. In addition, Commissioner George Manypenny held the belief that the best chance for blending the onslaught of white settlers looking for land and various Indian tribes was through the efforts of missionary groups.


The upshot of this was the treaty of August 2, 1855, signed in Detroit between the Chippewa Indian band of Swan Creek and Black River and the United States Government. The treaty itself had seven articles and many details governing everything from stipends to land ownership. (View full text of the treaty).

Map of reservation
Map of the reservation, circa 1861. Click on the map to enlarge, then click the back button on your browser to return.

In simplest terms, Federal lands in an area of six townships of Isabella County were withdrawn from sale in the land office and set aside for a period of time. Individual Indians could select acreage and stake a claim, eventually receiving a patent following guidelines of the treaty.


Even at this early date, a number of parcels of land had already passed into private hands. One example being acreage held by David Ward, a prominent pioneer lumberman, who originally owned much of the land in present day Mt. Pleasant. Another example was the designated Swamp Land Forties granted to the State of Michigan and not affected by the treaty. The vast majority of lands were still in Federal ownership and on these lands sale was halted and held for Indians to avail themselves under the treaty. The area included the north half of what are now Union, Chippewa, all of Deerfield, Denver, Wise, Isabella and Nottawa Townships in Isabella County.


Lists were made of eligible native Americans. The eligible had five years to make their land selection. After selecting, a certificate was issued and in ten years they were to receive a patent for the property. In the 1864 treaty this was changed with the "competent" and "those not so competent" judgment on each individual before the patent would be issued. Those judged competent could receive a regular patent and those not so competent would have the Government Indian Agent oversee any sale.


A gentleman named Richard Smith was to oversee this program as the new Indian Agent. I.A. Fancher in his book, Isabella County, said Mr. Smith was strongly in favor of limiting the number of individuals designated as competent. The idea was to encourage Indians to stay on the land and also to help assure that the property would not be sold to speculators at a fraction of its true value. On his way to Michigan to take his position as Indian Agent, his vessel sank in Lake Huron during a storm and he was drowned. Mr. Smith's passing and other legal complications resulted in a backlog of certificates and few patents being issued.

Land patent, 1872
Government land patent, 1872.
Click image to see enlarged version, then click the back button on your browser to return.

Eventually in 1872, hundreds of Government Patents were issued to native Americans in accordance with the treaties. About the same time, the local Indian Agent's office was disbanded and many of the functions taken over by the county government, essentially the reservation and services were finished at this time. Many Indians sold their land soon after receiving a patent. Speculators in lands and forests arrived in great numbers and in a few years, any resemblance of an Indian Reservation had vanished.


We will have more to say about this but in retrospect, the 1855 to 1865 period represents the original Indian Reservation in Isabella County. It would be over seventy years later that the reservation program would develop east of Mt. Pleasant in Chippewa Township. Features of the 1855 treaty, the support of most education, the mill, the blacksmith as well as stipends all ended in 1865.


The Reservation, created in Isabella County in 1855, would be unique. It essentially removed from general sale the remaining available lands in an area equal to six townships in Isabella County. These remaining lands were held for the exclusive use of the Indians to take patents for a period of time. No provisions for tribal organization were included and no tribal lands were set aside in the treaty.


The Indians were urged to come and settle in this area and take title to individual parcels. The Methodist Episcopal Church spearheaded the effort in getting the treaty and establishing the settlement. The government provided aid for approximately ten years with a blacksmith, mill, education and stipends. It provided for an Indian Agent to oversee the operation.


After 1872 when the last Indian patents were issued, the six township area was once again open and any remaining lands could be patented as any other lands in Michigan. As for the Indians, they were able to sell parcels of lands in the same way as any other landowner could after receiving a title.


With this brief background, we next follow the developments after the treaty of 1855. We will cite some happenings and do a geographical tour of places in the sparsely settled wilderness lands of Isabella County as provisions of the agreement were put in place.