Incidents Connected with the First Settlement of Nottawa-Sippi Prairie

The following are excerpts taken from "Pioneer Collections, a report of the Pioneer Society of the State of Michigan".  The Pioneer Society met yearly to present reports of historical interest from County, Town and District Pioneer Societies. These notes were complied yearly and yield interesting stories of Michigan’s early years.

     The Annual Meeting of 1878 was offered a reading from St. Joseph County, titled “Incidents Connected with the First Settlement of Nottawa-Sippi Prairie” by Salathiel.C. COFFINBERRY, originally published for the the Western Cronicle.

     Coffinberry begins by relating,  “It was about the year 1825 that the first emigration was directed to the county of St. Joseph.”  Among the largest and most desirable land was the Nottawa-Sippi prairie located in the northern part of county; which at that time was the home of the Pottawattamie Indians reservation.  The twelve mile square area had been home to generations of families, where they had raised their children, buried their dead and provided a self sufficient lifestyle. 

     “The settler found himself surrounded with thousands of acres of the most fertile lands” which could be bought for a minimal price but still wanted more- the ancestral reservation lands.

        Proposals to the chiefs of the Pottawantamie to sell to the government were turned down repeatedly.

     A few early traders such as Patrick MARANTETTE, who operated a trading post on the south bank of the St. Joseph River, knew of the devastating effect alcohol  the peoples and maintained that fair trade must be conducted with the Pottawatamies. 

       At the time of first migration by white settlers to the area now called St. Joseph County,  Pierrie MORREAU was already well known.  A white man who “was once an educated and accomplished French gentleman,” he had a failed mercantile trade in Detroit.  He then came westward with the last of his stock and established trade with the local natives until the stock ran out.

        Taking a native woman as wife and adopting Pottawatamie trappings, he then fathered seven children  who attained adult age: SAU-AU-QUETT [‘the wicked’], the oldest of four sons; MO-NISS, ISADORE and WAU-BE-GAH, and three daughters: BETSY, MIN-NO-WIS and MIN-NAHMORREAU managed to become the defacto leader among the tribe, displacing the true chief’s “knowledge, wisdom and  guidance which did the natives no great service.” 

       He was 90 by the time settlements were occurring on the Nottawa prairie; and was described as “super-annuated, decrepid, infirm and disfigured. “

     The oldest son, SAU-AU-QUETT, wrested leadership from MORREAU which in turn displaced the son of the rightful tribal heir, CUSH-EE-WES.

         Coffinberry then relates how the tribe was continually provided with alcohol which fueled internal dissension and caused abject poverty. “They had ceased to hunt the forest for game and furs; they traded their ponies, their guns, and even their blanket for whisky and left their children to starve.”

        Now comes time of the Black Hawk war lead by the Sac leader of that name. By the time news of the war had reached settlements near the reservation, terror caused flight of many families-leaving livestock, crops and homes; valuable and goods were concealed.          A story of how one family from New England attempted to hide their most precious possessions  of plate, mirrors and  china by placing them in a a large box to be lowered into a well ended in catastrophe when the rope broke.  The loud screams and wailing's of the owners of the treasures caused alarms to be sounded by neighbors fearing their lives were endangered by Sac warriors.

         The hysteria though wide-spread appeared not to affect men “such as the venerable Judge STURGES on the southern border or Martin SCHELLHOUS and his brothers on Nottawa Prairie.”

         As more rumors of Black Hawks’ supposed influence on the neighboring Nottawa tribe spread,  patrols traversed the prairie and sentinels were posted.  “That the local tribe could muster only about 50 warriors, and those being ill and infirm without weapons” did not stop the whispering campaign of hysteria from growing daily.

          Many stories of near misses and “almost” incidents abounded when MIN-NO-WIS, daughter of the French trader MORREAU and his Indian wife came to the home of a white woman to ask for some food for her children.    Her intent to trade some beaded moccasins for food was repulsed with suspicion, even though MIN-NO-WIS tried to explain that she thought the white woman, being also a mother,  might understand a mother’s need to feed her children.

          This and other “threats” caused establishment of Fort Hogan on the land of Daniel HOGAN located near the east end of Nottawa prairie.*  The “women fancied themselves burning at the stake, while their husbands, the brave militia, fancied their names enrolled in the pages of history, surrounded by a halo of living glory among the heroes of the battle-field. “

            To protect  the settlers from danger,  Captain POWERS organized a “defending militia composed of citizen soldiers, armed with rusty cavalry swords, shot-guns, rifles, and muskets, all of which, from their appearance, had seen service in former wars.  There was to be seen also, soiled and tattered uniforms, crushed and tarnished epaulettes and dimmed bullion lace.. .” 

       All were not in accord with the militia decision; at a meeting, Col. Benjamin SHERMAN rose to say “...I don’t believe in the least danger of disturbing any of us; I believe the poor cusses are more scared than you are.”  But to the request of Capt POWERS to ride to Niles to plead for military assistance, Col. Sherman agreed to journey as he feared no evil would befall him on the journey, from “hostile natives.” 

           Meanwhile, Cyrus SCHELLHOUS went to the Indian village where he “found the Indians almost destitute and laboring under false apprehension”  of  imminent attack by white men taking advantage of the Black Hawk excitement with the purpose to drive them off their reservation and appropriate it for their own use.

         A meeting was arranged between the settlers and Indians with a delegation led by  CUS-EE-WES  (with SAU-AU-QUETT in agreement) under escort and protection of SCHELLHOUS.

          At the meeting, CUS-EE-WES asked through an interpreter, “What does the white man want?”

        To which Col. POWERS replied, “We want to know what we have done to induce you to set about cutting our throats and scalping our women and children?”        The lengthy response of CUS-EE-WES, “The pale-face does not speak the words of wisdom or he would not ask the red man what the pale face has done.”  He went on to say the Indians helped show the white men where to hunt for deer and fowl, trap for beaver...and the white men decimated the deer, otter and other wildlife so the Indians had nothing to eat. Then the Indians asked for bread and was given alcohol which destroyed the people.  The white man [it was feared] now wanted the reservation now that the Indian had no strength to fight.

           When POWERS asked if the Pottawatamies were not preparing to fight with BLACK HAWK, CUS-EE-WES replied their tribes were mutual enemies and indeed the only Indians off the reservation were some of the young men who gone with a local French trader, Cap’t HATCH  to fight the Sac under General ATKINSON of Chicago.

          Col. SHERMAN returned from Niles with the news of BLACK HAWK’s capture. Tension eased and tragedy was averted.

         Mr. Coffinberry ends his story with the query,: “What did the red man receive from the white man and his civilization in exchange for the home land of his fathers?”

Pioneer Collections, Report of the Pioneer Society of the State of Michigan, Vol 2;
pg.489-500, Wm. Graham’s Presses, Detroit; 1880. Further information is also available in:
St. Joseph In Homespun,  Sue I. Silliman; Three Rivers Publishing Company, Three Rivers, MI, 1931, Pg. 37-41.

*According to Silliman, the location of Fort Hogan was “on the lands of J. Foreman, in the [NE] corner of Colon.”

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