GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The city of Grand Rapids’ history starts in earnest in the 1820s, when early settlers including Louis Campau established a trading post along the Grand River. But the history of West Michigan started long before Campau and well before Europeans discovered North America.
For West Michigan, history effectively starts with the Hopewell Indians.
The Hopewell Indians weren’t the first people to call West Michigan home but their culture is the first to give us a detailed glimpse into life in the lower peninsula.
West Michigan’s first human inhabitants are called Paleoindians. These early humans were nomads, focused on following food sources instead of planting and harvesting crops.
Dr. Jan Brashler, the now-retired curator of anthropology at Grand Valley State University, says Paleoindians made their way into West Michigan once the glaciers from the latest ice age started to recede, sometime around 11,000 B.C. Unfortunately, most evidence from the Paleoindians are in places that are extremely hard to access.
“All of the Great Lakes were in flux during the Pleistocene and during the period of time after that. There was no standard lake level throughout the entire past that we can identify,” Brashler told News 8. “So some (Paleoindian) sites are probably underwater because during the Early Archaic Period, Lake Michigan was a little puddle. It was not a big lake. So people who were living on the edge, if they were living on the edge, those sites are underwater. And a lot of early sites are covered over by alluvial flood deposition. So the early archaic sites that have been excavated in Michigan — and virtually none here in West Michigan — are buried under several feet of stream deposits.”
Following the Paleoindian period are three more eras of prehistoric Native American history — the Early, Middle and Late Archaic Periods. During these time periods, which span from roughly 8,000 B.C. to 1,000 B.C., the most significant shifts were in how these early humans adapted. This is the time when Native Americans started creating projectile points to be used as weapons or tools for hunting. Paleoindians also moved from surviving solely off of big game like deer and elk, to include smaller game like birds and fish.
“Every time there’s a mastodon found — and there was a recent one found in northern Kent County — everyone gets excited because we want to think that these (Paleoindians) were bringing down these gigantic elephants,” Brashler said. “So far in Michigan there’s only limited evidence that they were actually hunting these big creatures. They were perhaps taking advantage of them after they died, but no direct evidence (they were hunted). On the other hand, out west there is evidence that Paleoindians were hunting these big animals. … (Mostly the people in Michigan) were living in small groups, hunting and collecting wild plant foods.”
Eventually, Native Americans moved away from a nomadic style and started settling, establishing villages and planting crops, including corn, beans and squash.
ENTER THE ‘MOUND BUILDERS’
The Hopewell Indians emerged in the Middle Woodland Period — the sixth of seven eras commonly used in prehistoric Native American studies. The Middle Woodland Period covers the period between 450 B.C. and 450 A.D., with most evidence pointing to the Hopewells moving into West Michigan around 100 B.C.
The term Hopewell is a catch-all term for the Native Americans that are considered the origin of the Native American tribes we know today. The name stems from the farm in Ross County, Ohio, where the first burial mounds were explored. Evidence of the Hopewell stretches from Michigan and Wisconsin to the Florida panhandle and from the western Carolinas all the way into Nebraska and Oklahoma.
Previously, the Hopewell Indians stood out for their mound building, but archaeologists have since found that many Native American cultures during and after the Hopewell era also built mounds for several reasons besides burial grounds.
Still, the Norton Mound Group southwest of downtown Grand Rapids is one of the best-preserved Hopewell sites in North America. Archaeologists like Brashler have been able to learn a lot about the Hopewells through the mounds, as well as excavations done at the Converse Mound Group, a site in downtown Grand Rapids that was destroyed as the city expanded in the 19th century.
“When the S-curve (on US-131 through Grand Rapids) was being done, a major mitigation project under the bridge there, that resulted in a lot of new information about the people who were there,” Brashler said. “There were no burials recovered, but it was a village area associated with the mounds at that site. … It was more closely linked to what we see going on in Ohio than to Illinois. But the thing that’s important to keep in mind is that all of these people are talking to each other. They’re talking to each other about cosmology, about spiritual matters. But they’re also exchanging goods with each other as gifts, cementing relationships, and then many of these gifts end up as statements of identity.”
The Norton Mound Group — named after one-time property owner Captain A. N. Norton — would have met a similar fate if it wasn’t for the quick action of the Grand Rapids Public Museum and leaders in the archaeology community.
“Some of the major work done on the mounds, excavating the mounds, was done in the 1960s,” Brashler said. “At the time, when I-196 was being planned, the highway was actually scheduled to go through the mounds. James B. Griffin, an archaeologist from the University of Michigan, was made aware of that by Weldon Frankforter, who was the director of the Public Museum. They launched a two-pronged effort to get the road shifted so the mounds would not be destroyed and then Griffin and his graduate student, Richard Flanders, my predecessor at Grand Valley, excavated at the mounds.”
Griffin and Flanders weren’t the first archaeologists to investigate the mounds. The first dig on record was conducted by Wright L. Coffinberry in 1874 and 1875. He was an engineer and a member of the Kent Scientific Institute, a group that went on to become part of the Grand Rapids Public Museum.
According to a report prepared for the GRPM in 2002, Coffinberry and his team mapped the mounds and excavated two of them, finding “many articles of great interest to the antiquarian which may add some light to archaeology.”
Mapping conducted in 1936 by Edmond P. Gibson, the city engineer for East Grand Rapids, gave a more detailed layout of the mounds. Gibson’s map groups the three largest mounds together in a row along with the smallest mound. The other 13 are somewhat evenly spaced but do not hold a tight line.
Excavations on the mound are no longer allowed because of a federal act passed in 1990 — the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act — which made it illegal to dig, desecrate or take any Native American remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony from federal and tribal lands.
Brashler, however, was able to conduct a survey on the land in 2008.
“I was interested in two things. There had always been talk of a village associated with the mounds that has never been found. So, we did an archaeological survey all around the mounds … but we didn’t find (evidence of) the village,” Brashler said. “The other thing I was interested in (was the space around the mounds). The focus on these mortuary sites is the mounds. You know, ’cause that’s where the burials are and the artifacts that enticed both professional archaeologists and advocational people like Coffinberry. But nobody ever looked at what was going on between the mounds. … And what we discovered was people kept visiting them into the contact period (when Native Americans first interacted with European colonizers). We found little fragments of artifacts that could be identified as Later Woodland Period. And we know that these are sacred places that people continued to visit. They were recognized for millennia.”
According to Brashler, the survey turned up items from several different eras, including items brought from other regions of the continent. She believes most of them are “mortuary offerings.”
“Things like mica, which is a mineral that originates in the southern Appalachians, copper, axes, very specific kinds of projectile points that are crafted and never used, spear points made out of local and nonlocal kinds of chert (rock). Some chert comes from southern Indiana, for example. Some comes from Illinois,” Brashler said.
One Hopewellian find that is unique to the Norton Mounds are engraved turtle shells.
“These are large mud turtles,” Brashler said. “They’re not snappers but they have a large carapice and they were engraved with various kinds of designs. Some geometric. One of them I think has a moose engraved on it. These do not occur in other Hopewell sites. So this is a local stamp, it’s a local statement that we’re different from those people, but we participate in this shared belief of what to do with our dead.”
To this day, the turtle is a popular symbol for West Michigan’s indigenous communities. The turtle is part of the Grand River Band of Ottawa Indians logo and Native American lore cites a turtle named Makinauk who helped create Mackinac Island as an area for its fellow animals to rest.
In the decades following Coffinberry’s excavations, the Grand Rapids Public Museum took formal control of the Norton Mound land in 1964 and still leads the preservation efforts. The Norton Mound Group was added to Michigan’s State Registry of Historic Sites in 1957 and was named a national historic landmark in 1965.
THE THREE FIRES
In the transition into the Late Woodland Period, interaction between tribes became even more frequent, moving away from what we know as Hopewell traditions to the personalized tribal ones that we know today.
Though tribes were becoming less nomadic, there was still a lot of migration in and out of Michigan. By 1200 A.D., a new group of people had made their way south: the Anishinaabe. The Anishinaabe covered land from Northern Ontario and Saskatchewan down into North Dakota, northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.
At least eight tribes comprise the group — though some Canadian tribes also trace their roots back to the Anishinaabe. Three tribes resided in modern-day Michigan: The Ojibwe (Chippewa), Odawa and Potawatomi. The Chippewa controlled most of the Upper Peninsula and the eastern tip of northern lower peninsula. The three tribes are the members of the long-standing alliance known as The Three Fires and each had their own roles to play.
The Chippewa are considered the oldest tribe and were regarded as renowned hunters and fishermen, establishing a large fishing village near the rapids of the St. Mary’s River in what is now Sault Saint Marie. The Odawa made their mark in trade and were known for their bark canoes. The Potawatomi are considered some of Michigan’s earliest farmers, settling in southwestern Michigan to grow squash, corn, melons, beans and tobacco.
By the 17th century, the three tribes had fairly established portions of the state. The Odawa were forced further south by the Chippewa, taking up residence in the western half of the lower peninsula. The Chippewa controlled the eastern portion of the state and stretched into Ontario, while the Potawatomi controlled land in what is now southern Michigan, northern Indiana, northern Illinois and western Wisconsin.
The Anishinaabe covered giant swathes of land, but they were sparsely populated. According to a population estimate done in 1768, there were only 60,000 Native Americans across the entire Great Lakes region, with an estimated 7,000 Chippewa, 4,000 Odawa and 3,000 Potawatomi in their respective territories.
HERE COME THE COLONIZERS
The next era of prehistoric Native American studies is called the Historic Period. It is divided into three groups: the early, middle and late periods.
The Early Historic Period spans 1610 to 1670 where contact with European settlers was rare but there is archaeological evidence that there was a European presence at this time. Common European goods, including brass kettles, iron and bronze weapons, woolen blankets and Jesuit iconography have been traced to Early Historic sites.
Michigan’s first settlers were French, inspired by Samuel de Champlain. While it is believed the founder of Quebec never stepped foot in Michigan, he did send explorers west to look for the infamous “northwest passage to the Orient.”
Two of Champlain’s proteges explored Michigan. Historians believe Etienne Brule visited Sault Saint Marie in 1618 and made another trip to Michigan in 1621, this time traveling as far as the Keweenaw Peninsula, bringing back copper.
Another Champlain protégé, Jean Nicolet, sailed through the Straits of Mackinac in 1634. Michigan’s official history guide says Nicolet made landfall in Green Bay, Wisconsin, thinking he had circled the world and had arrived in China.
While Champlain was known for making alliances with Native American tribes, he also made enemies. In 1609, Champlain fought alongside the Hurons in a spat with a group of Mohawk Indians. From then on, Champlain was considered an enemy of the Iroquois nation, forcing his men to travel north into Michigan along the Ottawa River and Lake Nipissing instead of Lake Ontario, Lake Erie or the Detroit River.
The Middle Historic Period covers 1670 to 1760. This is the period in time with heavy European influence, alliances and battles. It also aligns with the battle between the French and English for control of land across the Great Lakes.
While Michigan’s indigenous communities got along well with the French, their relationships with the British were contentious. This friction helped fuel Pontiac’s War and the French and Indian War in the mid-18th century.
The tension shifts in the Late Historic Period. It stretches from 1760 to 1820 and signals the beginning of mass colonizing. Between 1795 and 1842, indigenous tribes in the Great Lakes region signed 11 treaties with the United States, almost always ceding land to the new, growing nation.
Representatives of the Odawa, Chippewa and Potawatomi were on hand to sign the Treaty of Chicago in 1821 alongside Michigan territorial leaders Solomon Sibley and Lewis Cass. The treaty set aside specific parcels of lands for indigenous families and six reserved tracts for different tribes, including a Potawatomi village led by Chief Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish at the head of the Kalamazoo River. That land, which was sold off in the 1827 Treaty of St. Joseph, is now the city of Kalamazoo.
The Treaty of Chicago cleared the way for the settlement of the city of Grand Rapids. The Grand River Band of Ottawa Indians held a ceremony in August 2021 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the treaty, performing a blessing ceremony on the Grand River and unveiling a new plaque to detail the indigenous sacrifice.
By 1825, Grand Rapids’ first settler, a Baptist minister named Isaac McCoy, had moved to the area. The following year, Campau made the move west. By 1831, he had purchased what is now considered the entire downtown business district in Grand Rapids. The settlement incorporated into a village in 1838 and officially became a city in 1850.
Grand Rapids’ first census was conducted in 1845. The city measured approximately four square miles and had 1,510 people. By 1857, the city had expanded to 10.5 square miles and a population of 2,686.
— This is Part 2 of a Sunday Series dedicated to Native American Heritage Month. You can read Part 1 of the series here.