CADILLAC — Northern Michigan was once a stronghold for a culturally advanced group of Native Americans whose structures can still be seen today, if you know where to look.

Monday is Columbus Day, when Americans remember the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, who is widely regarded as the first European to set foot on American soil. It is also a day of reflection for Native Americans, whose way of life changed forever with the arrival of the white man.

Conflicts between the indigenous Americans and European conquistadors and colonialists are well documented in the history books, including disputes that occurred in southern parts of Michigan.

Local historian Cliff Sjogren said there weren't a whole lot of disputes between Native Americans and white immigrants that moved into this region of Michigan for logging work during the 19th Century, due in part to the signing of the Treaty of Saginaw in 1819, which led to the Ojibway tribes ceding all of their lands to the government.

Sjogren said the Ojibway — now known as the Chippewa — were the predominant group of Native Americans in this part of Michigan at the time of the earliest white settlers, although at that time the tribe didn't have any significant settlements in the region.

However, according to extensive research conducted by a few tenacious individuals around the beginning of the 20th Century, the Ojibway and other associated tribes were the last in a series of Native American groups that existed here since before the start of the Common Era.

As far back as 500 B.C.E., following the end of the last Ice Age, a group known colloquially as the "Mound Builders" lived and flourished in this region.

Cadillac jeweler Charles W. Manktelow, his brother Walter, and Wexford County farmer Milo Petoskey Crosby were the most active in uncovering the history of the Mound Builders in Wexford and Missaukee counties.

An article from the July 30, 1903 edition of the Cadillac News and Express describes the discovery of a number of these mounds, some of which were found in the city park and the land between lakes Cadillac and Mitchell.

"In nearly all cases a skeleton has been found in each mound, although one was opened between the lakes in which there seemed to be no end of human bones, many of which were of children, but at once crumbled to powder when exposed to air," the article stated.

"In a cleared field on the border of the old outlet, which connects the two lakes, is strong evidence of the spot having once been a village site. Broken dishes and flint scrapers and stone implements have been plowed up. The ground has been thoroughly searched, yet each succeeding spring the plows turn up new treasures ... Along the shores of the Clam River have been found many stone implements, such as grooved axes, celts and anchors. In a bayou on the farm of J.H. Plett a canoe was uncovered. All these evidences of an extinct race were as foreign to the Indians as they are to the present inhabitants."

An Aug. 11, 1929 edition of the Detroit News reported a similar find in Missaukee County, about 14 miles from Lake City.

"Here, hundreds of years before Columbus found his way to America, a busy and energetic people took refuge behind two circular earthworks, where with their flint arrow and spears and stone axes they were in strong defensive position against an invading enemy," the article reads.

In the course of their explorations, Manktelow and his brother stopped at an Indian settlement near Lake City to inquire if there were mounds in the vicinity.

According to the Detroit News report, they talked for some time with several dozen Ottawas who lived in the tumbledown shanties along the road ... Manktelow asked the Indians to guide him to the spot, but because of their superstition they steadfastly refused.

The Ottawas and Ojibwas told legends of the mounds, which they believed were built by a group known as Yams-ko-desh — meaning "prairie people" — or Mush-o-desh — meaning "prairie dwellers."

According to Native American lore, when the Ottawa moved into the region, they found the Mound Builders in large numbers and were defeated by them multiple times in bloody territorial skirmishes. It wasn't until after the Ottawa joined forces with the Ojibway and Potowatamis that they were able to defeat the Mound Builders and take over their lands.

There is evidence the Mound Builders were more developed from a cultural standpoint than the Algonquin tribes that succeeded them: they had sophisticated agricultural practices and established centers; based on artifacts discovered at some sites, it's also believed the Mound Builders traded with the Aztecs and the Mayans in the south.

"Their civilization was probably contemporary with the high development in Mexico and Yucatan," Manktelow told the Detroit News. "In a mound near the fort sites I found a shell that had come from the Gulf of Mexico. This definitely proves the trade relations with the inhabitants of the parts of the continent."

Sjogren said many of the mounds left by the Mound Builders have been dug up over the years by people looking for Indian artifacts but some still exist in locations not easily accessible to the public.

Over the years, discoveries of Mound Builder and Algonquin activity have popped up periodically.

One of the most notable discoveries took place during the construction of the M-115/M-55 intersection near William Mitchell State Park during the 1940s. The mounds, which also contained artifacts, were described in a Cadillac News article from that period as a "historical mark for decades." It had been moved "because it is in the pathway of the new location of M-115," the article states.

The Cadillac Country Club on M-55 was founded in 1910 and built on land that was determined by Manktelow to be the burial and meeting grounds of the three Algonquin tribes.

Manketlow saved three mounds from destruction when workers prepared the ground for the club golf course's third and fourth holes, a 1971 Cadillac News article states.

In 1913, a 400-year-old Indian burial mound containing four bodies was uncovered north of the canal connecting lakes Cadillac and Mitchell. An Ottawa Indian named Showanska helped with the excavation and said the four people discovered likely died in battle and were members of the extinct Yemskodash tribe.

In 1916, "about 20 beautiful and perfectly made arrow and spearheads, and a broken home-made Indian pipe, were found by Cadillac city employees while at work constructing a sewer on Wright Street," according to an article printed in the Cadillac News at the time. "The find was made near Second Avenue at a distance underground of about four feet. Some of the arrow and spearheads were 'as fine as have been seen here.' The relics were in possession of E.H. Schram, with the exception of the pipe, which was at Manktelow Bros. store being mended. The pipe was made of red clay. It was the belief of Charles Manktelow that the relics were placed in a box and buried by Indians, who intended to make use of them at a later date but evidently forgot about the treasure."

Much of the Manktelow Bros' relic collection ended up in museums in other parts of the state, as the city did not have a location at the time to display the items.


Heritage path

Local history suggests that while the Ottawa, Potawatomi and Chippewa tribes were considered the dominant tribes of Wexford and the surrounding counties, its members did not establish long-term settlements locally.

Land for crops was limited; large trees blocked the sunlight needed for a forest undergrowth to support small animals, berries and other food sources.

It's believed the Mound Builders and the later tribes traveled a trail to and from central Michigan and the Grand Traverse Bay.

Starting in Cadillac, 19 cement markers have been placed throughout Wexford and Grand Traverse counties near where current roads cross the trail location.

For example, one marker can be found just off the east side of North 29 Road, just north of Meauwataka. Another is located at the corner of West County Line and Allen roads, one-half mile north of Buckley.

In the 1940s, Milo Petoskey Crosby, a retired Wexford County farmer, started marking the trail through the county as a way to honor "his feelings for Indian heritage," according to information from a Grand Traverse Sesquicentennial Advisory Agency.

Crosby was one of the first white children born in what's now Harbor Springs in Emmet County. The midwife at his birth was Chief Petoskey's wife. It was requested that the baby be given the middle name of Petoskey.

Crosby spent years walking through woods and fields searching for the traces of the trails. Later, James Comp and Ed Babcock, a historian and retired Cadillac High School teacher, finished marking the trail to Buckley.

In 1987, the Grand Traverse sesquicentennial group sponsored the project that placed 14 additional markers between Buckley and Traverse City.

Former Cadillac News reporter Kris Verhage contributed to this story.


Cadillac News