The Story of Sault Ste. Marie and Chippewa County

By Stanley Newton

Published at Sault Ste. Marie, 1923

The Sault News Printing Company


"Aboriginal history on this continent," says Schoolcraft, "is more celebrated for preserving its fables than its facts. A world growing out of a tortoise's back -- the globe reconstructed from the earth clutched in a muskrat's paw, after a deluge, -- such are the fables or allegories from which we are to frame their ancient history."

Such criticism seems unjust. Napoleon Bonaparte, who was certainly a much greater man than Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, was fond of saying that history is a lie agreed upon. Now if we agree on this -- and many do -- we cannot impugn consistently the Ojibways' stories of their origin, their forbears, their achievements and their gods. When an Indian good friend of mine tells me that the demi-god Manibosho found safety in a tree when the world was deluged, and afterward builded another word from the abysmal ooze which a hell-diver brought him, I am an interested listener. Further, when I am told that the Sault Rapids were once at Iroquois POint, where a giant dam stretched from cape to cape, and that Manibosho killed his wife for not guarding the dam in his absence, I am convinced. For I have seen the old lady lying there on the Goulais side of Gros Cap, turned to red stone and half submerged in the waters of Lake Superior.


At least I am as much convinced as my informant would be if I told him the story of Noah and the Ark. Neither version is capable of proof, each must be taken on faith.

Great numbers of Ojibway Indians, commonly called Chippewas have believed the stories I am about to relate. For all I know, many of them still believe. These stories are placed in the opening chapters of this book, with a brief examination of the ancient life of the Bowating Indians, in order that you may the better understand the reaction of Indian to white man in the recorded history which follows.

Every normal white man or woman is just naturally interested in Indians. They were our first families. Their roving lives, wild and free, their deer and bear hunting, their burnings at the stake, the devilishly painted face, the tomahawk, the scalping knife, the necklace of scalps, the medicine man, the unsurpassed Indian orator in council, the pipe of peace -- ah, what a treasure trove of breathless interest are these! He who eyes for the first time an old Indian stone axe, instinctively visualizes the skulls it has split. The child on your knee by the evening fire craves Injun stories. There's a wonderfully satisfying thrill in the yelling, galloping Indian at the Wild West show.


We of the North take a decent pride in the wilderness of our ancient Indians. They were as fierce, as gentle, as high minded, as eloquent, as cruel, as efficient in their way as any other tribes the continent has mothered. This north country was the home of Manito, The Great Spirit. It was the abiding place of Manibosho, Protector of all good Chippewas. And by the way, when you pronounce the name of the Chippewas' demigod, bring it up as it were from the bottom of your lungs, accent on the last syllable almost to the point of coughing, -- Manibo-sho, a most remarkable being worthy of your deepest consideration, whose grandmother was a toad, and whose great-grandmother was the Moon. You may doubt this statement, but I defy you to disprove it. And his true, his authentic home was on the very spot where this book was written and printed.

Once upon a time the banks of St. Mary's River at the rapids were the greatest Indian camping place in the whole Northwest if not in America. Here was the Chippewa capital, the great central meeting-place from time immemorial. Here was the joining of the three greatest lakes -- Gitchi Gumi, or Superior; Meetchigong, or Michigan; and Tionnontateronnon, or Huran and Georgian Bay. Hither the northern Indian gravitated by birch-bark canoe in summer, or by snow-shoe over the smooth frozen surfaces in winter. The deer hunting was good. The rapids afforded a seldom failing supply of delicious whitefish, a food of which one never tires. The fertile clay meadows along the river yielded hardy Indian corn abundantly. Fire-wood was plentiful. The Chippewas were powerful and content, and held their wigwams and the revered resting place of their dead against all comers. It was a northern Indian paradise.


Let us go back in fancy to the year 1600, half a century or so before the first white man ascended the mighty river, and consider the life of a typical Chippewa Indian in the vicinity of what is now Sault Ste. Marie.

Wabish was born at dawn of a June morning on the present site of the Sault Ste. Marie postoffice. He first saw the light of day in a pole and bark wigwam, one of the many constructed here by the women of his band. Their hands had cut and dragged from the woods near by the young trees constituting the framework of the dwelling. These trees had been trimmed and stuck in the ground in a quadrangular parallelogram, the longest sides running from the entrance to the back of the hut. Two trees were planted in front, forming the door, and two at the rear, whre the seat of honor was raised. The side rows of trees had been bent forward at their tops, and the ends twisted around each other and secured with tough bast of the cedar tree. The skeleton thus formed was clothed with apakwas or rolls of birch-bark, the operation of covering having begun at the bottom. The second row hung down over the first, thus shedding the rain, and a third and fourth row completed the sides. Other apakwas were thrown crossways over the hut, and were weighted with stones hanging from cords of sinews. There was a smoke-hole in the center of the roof, and a mat of deer-skins over the space left as a doorway.

Immediately after his birth young Wabish ke pe nace -- for so his father named him -- was stretched out by the midwives in the waiting cradle or tikinagan. His tender limbs were laid straight on a board of poplar wood on which a thin peeled frame, also of poplar, was fastened, conforming in shape to his body, and standing up like the sides of a violin from its sounding board. A stout mat over this completed a cavity in which he was carefully packed in a mixture composed of dry moss, rotted cedar wood and the wool from the seeds of water-reeds and cat-o'-nine tails. But first his feet were placed exactly perpendicular, parallel, and close together. Thus, even in the cradle, care was taken that they should not turn outward. A Chippewa INdian must be a good walker, adn Wabish, when he grew up, covered a good inch more gorund at each step than the coming white men who turned their feet out. There was the winter to think of, too, and the straight ahead footing on snow-shoes. The women paid great attention to his nose also, and tried to pull it out as long as the cartilage remained soft, for a large nose was an ornament among the Chippewas.


Shortly after the boy's birth, his father [rpceeded to dream for a name for him. You must understand that some Chippewa fathers named their children after a particular phenomenon of nature occuring about the time of its birth. Others commemorated in such names the happening of anything unusual among the people or animals in the vicinity of the birthplace. But commonly a name was selected that was based on one of the fantastic dreams constantly experienced by the Indians, and which exerted so tremendous an influence on their daily lives.

The father, then, dreamed for a name, and having seen a gull in his dream, he called the boy Wabish ke pe nace, The White Bird. When the lad grew old enough to have companions they shortened this name of course to Wabish, which is to say, White. Wabish is the Chippewa name for rabbit, the animal which turns white in winter. Wabish was well named, for the day came when he was as fleet as any rabbit, when he could run down and tire out the fleet-footed deer in the forest, especially after snow had fallen. But in the council-house and on formal occasions he was, when grown to man's estate, Wabish ke pe nace, and he took as his device and painted on his war axe the totem sign of his band, the Crane.


In the years of his childhood even his toys were warlike. He played with arrowheads and flints, and his father made for him a tiny war-club, lightly weighted at the end with pebbles sewn in deerskin. He tickled the ribs of his paymates with real arrows shot from a small bow. He learned to swim in the river's shallow waters where Brady Field now stretches, for at that time the river bank was just north of the lodge where he was born. He learned to make rabbit-snares and dreamed of the day when he might dead-fall a bear. He word crackly hides of the red deer, skins scraped, stretched, tanned and sewed by his mother. The spring of the year found him on Sugar Island with his parents, where they gashed hundreds of trees for the sweet sap which he never tired of licking from his fingers. He helped to make the birch-bark kettles -- in flammable receptacles which did not burn when filled with sap and hung over the fire/ He collected dozy maple wood and moss for his father, who each morning started the fire in no time by holding a flint stone over the tindery mass and striking sparks into it with a piece of granite. It was almost as handy as a pocket full of matches.

When the hunting was poor and the whitefish failed to run in the rapids, Wabish lived for days on maple sugar and waxed fat on it. He knew where the wild onions and cucumbers grew in season and found many a bed of truffles or Indian potatoes in the black loamy soil on the edge of the swamp. He took his meat roasted underdone. Sometimes his mother prepared it on spits from which the bitter bark had been carefully removed. Or for a change she would heat a rock red hot by building a fireupon it, afterwards roasting the meat on the surface where fire had been. This process she varied by firing a small pit which she used for an oven for the meat and fish. Some gritty sand came out with thefood, but the sand was clean. And for many summer weeks he took his fill of strawberries and blueberries which grew in unbelievable profusion all around. By and large he lived well, and if in the long winter the deer went far back into the country and the whitefish forsook the open rapids for a time, he usually found the family with a supply of jerked venison and smoked whitefish hanging from the cross-pieces of the paternal nest, and dined nearly as well as ever.


The mighty river was his foster-mother, as it is ours. For untold centuries it was the Chippewa highway. Winter and summer its heavenly manna of whitefish fed the multitudes. Wabish knew that the whitefish grew from the brain of a wicked adultress who had been cast into the rapids to drown, and whose head had been dashed to pieces on the shining black rocks.

Every now and then the medicine-man or jossakeed of the Saulteur Chippewas propitiated the fishing-nets of the tribe and persuaded them to make great catches of fish, by marrying the nets to young girls of the band with formal and solemn ceremonies. As it was indispensable that the brides should be virgins mere children were chosen. Now this may appear absurd to you, but did not the spirit of the nets appear to the forefathers of the Chippewas, saying that he had lost his wife and must have another equally as virtuous? Wabish realized that if the ceremony was neglected, or girls provided who were not immaculate, he would catch no more fish, and he was grateful to the jossakeed accordingly.


The fish no less than the nets required propitiation. On an evening they were eloquently addressed from the banks at the foot of the rapids, flattered, complimented, and exhorted to come and be caught, with the assurance that the utmost respect would be shown to their bones. This oration was according to the form laid down from olden times, and while it lasted those present except the jossakeed were required to lie flat on their backs and refrain from speaking a word.

In those days St. Mary's River and its environs swarmed with Manitos, little gods, very potent for good or evil, mostly evil. All Nature was spititualized by Wabish and his friends. Every tree, rock, wind, stream and star had a spirit. The thunder was an angry spirit, the milky way was the path of spirits on their way to celestial hunting-grounds beyond the Northern Lights. The four cardinal points were spirits, the west being the oldest and the father of the others. Their mother was a beautiful girl who one day had permitted the west wind to blow upon her.

Then there were endless legends of windigos, great giants and cannibals, and tiny spirits and fays who haunted the woods, and the cataracts of Bowating and Tahquamenon. The Nibanaba mermaids, half fish, half woman, frolicked in the waters of Lake Superior. Many animals had a miraculous origin. The raccoon, for instance, was once a shell lying on the lake shore, until vivified by the sunbeam. The Chippewa name for raccoon, Ais e bun, means "he was a shell."


Wabish never wantonly stepped on any of the big boulders in St. May's Rapids. He held them sacred, for he knew that a living spirit of flesh and blood breathed within their thin, hard shells.

Once his father took Wabish to the funeral of a chief on Michilimackinac, and the boy's knees fluttered as he stood before Sugar Loaf, the abode of The One Great Spirit, the Maker of all. There he knelt in awed silence behind his father, who left votive offerings. Not his tribe alone worshipped here; hither came also the Hurons, Ottawas, Potawatomies, ans Sioux in superstitious reverence. Even the blood-thirsty Iroquois, having drifted north on some wild foray, laid aside their arms for a moment and meditated here. For, eons before, the divine Gitchi Manito had taken residence in this mighty thumb of rock, when he flew from the North through Arch Rock to the Loaf. Wabish sensed the impenetrable dignity and majesty of the place and its occupent, and felt the ground was sacred. Indeed, so sacred had the ancient Chippewas held it, that Michilimackinac was inhabited by Indians only in comparative recent times. Formerly it was left to Gitchi Manito and the dead. It was the sanctuary of the benign Keeper of Souls, who welcomed in silence the suplications and sacrifices of his living red children and spread his protecting mantle over the shades of the departed.


Wabish, then, enjoyed his visit to the national shrine, and was mightily interested, but he did not neglect his local religious duties. There was a Manito tree at Bowating, on the present site of Bingham avenue Bridge. This tree was a big mountian-ash, and sometimes even on calm and cloudless days Wabish and his friends heard the sounds of distant war-drums rolling among its leaves. They knew from this that the tree was the abode of spirits, and they deemed it sacred. So they made frequent offerings there, and their descendants continued to add to the pile at its foot even after a storm had wrecked the tree, until at last the whites cleared the ruins away and violated the site with a wagon road.

Almost upon the site of the Chippewa County court-house there was formerly a limestone boulder of huge dimensions, where no doubt Wabish came often for devotions. One side of this stone was covered with Indian inscriptions and piture writing. Clearly the stone wa regraded as a Manito's dwelling by the ancient Chippewas, and tradition tells us that many worshipped there. When the contract was made for the construction of the court-house, Judge Steere, recognizing the value of the stone as an historical ethnological landmark, arranged with the contractor to guard carefully this boulder from desecration. But in the absence of the contractor some of his men built a fire against the stone and cracked off the face bearing the inscriptions. Afterward the rock was broken into pieces and used for building.

ON the premises of a Ridge street home in Sault Ste. Marie there is a peculiar stone about six feet square, which probably was venerated by the Chippewas as the home of Manito. The stone bears no glyphs, but the Indidans say it was once much larger than at present, and was believed by their ancestors to be the abode of a Spirit to whom they prayed.

Wabish had a regard amounting almost to veneration for his family sign or totem, the Crane. When as a brave he went to war, he painted the sign of the Crane in vermilion upon his forehead. Most of his Saulteur friends belonged to the Crane or the Owl band. The Chippewas in the vicinity of the Michilimackinac were the sons of the Turtle. Others wore the Snake insignia, or the Wold, the Bear, or the Weasel.


The word "totem" appears to have been derived from the Indian word for "town." It is likely that the inhabitants of a town or village once were considered to be of the same family or clan, consequently they all assumbed the same badge or totem. The symbol became the evidence of consanguinity, hence the importance of totems, which denoted the family branch. The meanest Indian had his totem. He took pride in his ancestry, followed its honorable traditions and strove to measure up to the greatest of his clan. But when married his wife retained her family mark.

Wabish became a great traveler, and often used his totem mark when traversing the forests, to convey desired intelligence to his friends. He would take a piece of birch-bark and scrawl his totem theron with a coal, and the totems of any other travelers or hunters accompanying him, drawing each in size of the order of his importance. If at the time of writing he had been absent say three days from Bowating, he drew three suns on the bark. If any of the party had died or suffered serious accident, he was represented without a head or lying on his side. This sign-writing Wabish would place in the cleft of a pole, angling the pole in the direction he was going. In summer he left beneath it a handful of green leaves, and the degree of thier withering conveyed a good idea of the time he had passed that way. In winter his snow-shoe tracks told their own story.


When Wabish's ancestors invented the snow-shoe they conceived something wonderfully adapted to its purpose. Wabish learned to make his own snow-shoes and found them indispensable for winter travelling in the Bowating country. The only wood he used in their construction was their encircling bows and the cross-pieces, the rest being made of inter-laced thongs of buckskin, deer sinews or rawhide. Though light, his shoes were strong enough to support his weight easily even in very soft snow. His heelless moccasins adjusted themselves perfectly to the shoes, and he kept his feet and legs warm on the trail by strips of "nip" or fur, wound around them. The snow-shoes were attached only at the toes, so that when his feet rose in walking, the tails of the shoes dragged and needed to be lifted partially only. Wabish once walked on snow-shoes from Bowating to Michilimackinac in a day, a distance of sixty miles. Stretches of seventy-five miles by Chippewas in a day were not uncommon. More than once Wabish ran down a deer on his snow-shoes, for the narrow hoofs of the deer did not support them in the snow.

Another striking characteristic of old Bowating, used by Wabish and his fellow-Chippewas, was the dog train. In ancient times nearly every Indian of any importance had his dog-train. Thousands of people now living in the north do not know what a dog-train is.

The train was a thin board of elm or other tough wood, about fifteen inches wide and four to six feet long. The front of the board was turned up and lashed back, with cross-pieces or stiffeners along the top of the board, and cords or thongs running along the side. The modern toboggan is white civilization's adaption of the Chippewa dog-train. The train was made flat and broad of course that it might draw easily on lightly crusted snow, and the load was strapped to the train.


The dogs used by Wabish and his pals were good-sized ones of no particular species, though commonly dark in color. The Chippewa dogs probably descended from Artic wolves caught young and brought down to Bowating land centuries ago, when the tribe made its migration from Asia -- if indeed the tribul flux came that way. They were harnesses some what as horses are harnessed, having breast-straps to which the traces were attached. The dogs were driven either tandem or tow abreast, and two dogs could draw about 600 pounds on a good road. When the road was heavy or hilly Wabish would walk ahead of the dogs on snow-shoes, and another Indian behind held a line fastened to the rear of the train, with which he checked it when going down hill.

Ona long journey the food for the dogs was corn meal cooked with a little tallow. This kept the dogs in good wokring condition without fattening them. Each winter found the Bowating dogs fit and eager for work or play, and many a dog-train race had Wabish with the teams of his cronies on the level winter ice below the rapids.

The Saulteur Chippewas employed canoes almost as constantly as other nomadic races do horses or camels. In the long days of summer Wabish fairly lived in his birch-bark. Bowating was the home of the birch tree, and here Manibosho had taught his children how to make their fairy-like and feathery canoes from the bark of the birch.

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