Who Was Here Before Us?

By Maggie Snyder for Vicksburg Historical Society

The restless feet of generations of the Miami, Potawatomi, Ottawa, and Chippewa Indians trod along the valleys of the Kalamazoo and St. Joseph Rivers long before the first white settlers arrived. However, all the land they occupied in southwestern Michigan became legally owned by the Federal government when the Treaty of Chicago was signed in 1821. The Native American were moved to five reservations, one of which, the Nottawaseppi, included the land where Vicksburg is now located.

The Nottawaseppi reservation embraced one hundred and fifteen sections of government survey, and included most of St. Joseph county, all of Brady township, and a two-mile strip of both the eastern part of Schoolcraft Township and the western part of Wakeshma Township.  Containing about 2,600 acres, it was some of the most fertile land in the area. The Potawatomi lived peacefully in scattered villages, where they farmed, hunted, and fished.

The Potawatomi were rice eaters. Wild rice grew in abundance in streams and small lakes, sown by waterfowl in flight.  They also grew large gardens full of vegetables unknown to us today, while the bounty of the lakes and forests rounded out their diet.

But there were white squatters on the reservation, and some were jealous of the Native American’s ownership of the prime land they wanted for themselves.  A few settlers began giving whisky to the Indians, which rapidly changed their disposition from peaceful to argumentative thus ramping up white fear of the “red menace”.

After the Black Hawk War in 1832 further fanned that fear, action was taken. In 1833 the Nottawaseppi treaty was signed handing over their land to the Federal government in exchange for $10,000 in cheap trade goods. When the terms of the treaty finally became clear to the Potawatomi, they were surprised to find they had agreed to leave their reservation by 1835 for lands beyond the Mississippi River.  After stalling as long as they could, time finally ran out in 1840. They were herded together and driven on foot to Kalamazoo to join other tribes. The group was then led by General Hugh Brady on a long march to the West. The reservation land was soon made available for sale to white settlers from the East.

However, a few clever families managed to escape the initial round-up, and some eventually made their way back home from the West. In 1848 a group of sympathetic citizens near Athens donated between 120 and 160 acres of land for a Potawatomi settlement – which is still in existence today, recognized by the government as a legal reservation.

The Pottawatomie maintained a presence in the Vicksburg area for many years, camping during the summer along the shores of Indian Lake and selling their baskets and bead work to summer tourists. The Vicksburg Commercial even carried a column from Indian Town containing bits of news from the Athens reservation.

In the end, the Potawatomi melded into the general population as just another accepted ingredient in the great melting pot that is America.

Check out articles every month by Maggie Snyder in South County News!