The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By Ernest H. Rankin
As Indian Agent for the United States Government at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (1793-1864), who received this appointment in 1822, was required, as one of his official duties, to keep a record of the Indian families living in the Ile de Michilimackinac region, which included generally the Upper peninsula of Michigan and extended into the Green Bay area, In connection with this work, Schoolcraft made several trips along the south shore of Lake Superior, searching out the Indians, and, with a physician along as a member of his party, vaccinated them against the scourge of smallpox, which was then prevalent.
An account of one of his trips, which was made in the mid-1830s, is included in an issue of the Knickerbocker Weekly (New York), for September, 1840. At this time, except for a few adventurers and fur traders (the courrier de bois, living as did the Indians in small bark huts or log cabins), there were no established white settlements, and it was only during the summer, or open season, that there were any Indians living along the south shore. They would come in the spring to make maple sugar and remain during the summer to fish, hunt and pick berries, especially the blue-, or huckleberries and the wild raspberries, With the coming of the ever hostile Lake Superior winter, they would remove to slightly warmer climes near Lake Michigan where they maintained more or less permanent villages.
Schoolcraft, in this particular narrative, relates, “The coast of the lake, west of Grand Island, exhibits a noble series of bays, curves, and islands, which it would require a topographer to delineate. . . .“ It is assumed that he crossed the bay where now, at its foot, is the small town of Munising, an Indian name meaning “near the island,” — and quite appropriate. A short distance beyond, as he was rowed westward by his crew, he passed a place which became known as “Onota.” While the sources of many of the place names along the south shore of Lake Superior are known, being either Indian, French or English, that of Onota has remained a mystery. One is inclined to surmise that Schoolcraft, who was well versed in Indian culture, could have been the one who bestowed this name upon a possible Indian fishing village at this site — now known as Bay Furnace. He could well have read in his studies, of ‘an established tribe of Indians [the Onotes] who inhabited the eastern shore of Lake Maracaibo [in Venezuela]. They were fishermen, and built their houses on piles in the water.” The waters of Lake Superior in bygone years in the vicinity of Onota, with the protection of Grand Island from northeasters, were excellent fishing grounds, and it is not beyond one’s imagination to visualize a fishing village with Indian huts mounted on stilts, for the shores are low and swampy. And the corruption of Onotes into Onota is not amazing — let a French fur trader pronounce it for an American’s ears and the American would write it, “Onota.” However, this remains a matter of pure conjecture.
The next place of interest, as Schoolcraft journeyed westward, was Au Train Bay with the coffee-colored stream of the Au Train River darkening its clear waters. This was the northern terminus of the route between Lake Superior and Little Bay de Noc on Lake Michigan at the south. During the open season the Indians paddled their bark canoes against the current to the headwaters of the Au Train, and after a short portage entered the White Fish River, floating at ease as they were borne swiftly to the southern side of the peninsula. With the coming of the snows and the freezing of the streams, the French drove their dog trains over this route, naming the northern stream, “Rivière la Traine,” which became the Au Train of today.
The next place of departure for Schoolcraft and his hardy crew was Laughing White Fish Point. The Indian name for this prominent point is unknown. However, it is said, that from a certain point of vantage, not too far out on the Lake — for the Indians seldom ventured far from the shores in their frail bark canoes — they could discern in the outlines of the hills beyond, a white fish, its mouth opened wide in laughter!
Emptying into the Lake near the Point is a small, rapidly flowing stream, the Laughing White Fish River, known by the French in early times, as the “Rivière du Poisson Qui Rit.” It was a long row of some seventeen or eighteen miles for the heavy barge from the Point, westward to the Bon Rocks which lie a mile or more off to the east of Big Presque Isle, rising to some fifty feet above the level of the Lake. Undoubtedly this small outcropping of two or three bare granite rocks had been of fitting value to a Frenchman at some unknown time, thus gaining its name. As many other rocks of the same nature, these have lost their name in the course of time and became “Gull Rocks,” as they provided a nesting place for the thousands of sea gulls which excel in the catching of fish, much to the consternation of those who would do so with net, or line and hook!
As it is a long fifty miles to Schoolcraft’s next place of camping, as mentioned in his narrative, it is reasonable to assume that he made the trip in a long day of some fourteen to sixteen hours of rowing. He writes, “. . . as night came on, the men rowed us into one of the most romantic inlets in the world, studded with islands of moss-covered granite fringed with pines.” (This particular place is now known by the unromantic name of Wetmore’s Landing, the repository of untold thousands of beer cans, bottles and other rubbish, left by careless fishermen and picnickers.)
“We encamped in a quiet little sub-bay of this inlet, near Granite Point, so completely shut out from the great ocean of storms near us, that its very solitude inspired a hallowed feeling. And when darkness approached, the generous camp-fire of blazing pines . . . cast such a strong glare of scarlet light on the contiguous objects, as would require all the powers of one of the old masters of the pencil to imitate. We passed the night at this fairy spot, with the conic pinnacle of the Totosh Mountain in the background”
The Granite Point, of which Schoolcraft writes, has been known for many years as Little Presque Isle (now an island), its shape and other characteristics being somewhat similar to Big Presque Isle. This is believed by some to be the place where Lewis Cass raised the American flag for its first time on Lake Superior. Totosh Mountain was known for a short time as Schoolcraft Mountain,” however, with the passing of time it took on its present name ‘(Sugar Loaf,” as being more or less characteristic of its formation.
Reverting to the narrative:
“We were pleased, in the morning to find the lake calm, with a breeze off shore, for it had been our plan, in the evening, to visit a dimly-seen island, lying off this part of the coast, should the weather prove fair. Our Indian guides told us that this island had never been visited by white men, except in two instances, both of which consisted of Courriers de Bois, or fur traders, who had been driven out of their track, by contrary winds and floating ice, and thus escaped destruction. . . .
“As soon as we had fairly wound ourselves out of . . . the inlet, the object presented itself as a distant speck on the horizon, but was not at all times equally visible. . . . We were not aware of any mist in the atmosphere, until the fact was rendered apparent by the looming of the island. All at once, as if by magic, the rocks and trees squared themselves up, and assumed, at one time the appearance of a ship under sail, (hence sometimes called Nobikwon, by the Indians) and at another, of a castle with banners.”
This small island, almost square in shape and about two acres in extent, is located about nine miles N. by E. of Big Presque Isle; a little over six miles NNE of Granite Point, or Little Presque Isle, and somewhat over seven miles N. of E. of the mouth of the Big Garlic River. And again the mystery of place names confronts one. Were both the Big and Little Garlic Rivers, which enter the Lake within three miles of each other, named for the slender wild leeks, or chives, which have grown along their banks for untold years, or for a Mr. Garlick of Cleveland, Ohio, who, according to early records, came to the Lake Superior country to fish for the brook and speckled trout?
With the wind behind them, Schoolcraft’s boat was soon at this island, and he wrote,
“I got out on a point of rock to explore, directing the men to keep round on the north side, in the hope of finding some aperture into which the boat might be pushed. In this they succeeded, having entered the area of the trap dike, from which the tempest had washed out the fractured basaltic rock. This dyke was wide and deep enough to admit the boat freely, and what added to the convenience of landing, was the step-like recessions of the rock, as it extended inland, which permitted the whole party to get ashore. On examination, it was found to be the only opening around the Island, where a boat could enter.”
Schoolcraft and his party spent the entire day exploring this little island, eating their lunch there. He wrote in great detail of their explorations on this mass of dark rock, “rising abruptly out of the depths of the lake, and terminating in two blunt cliffs, separated by a wooded depression or small valley . . . we found some traces of strawberries still, in shaded recesses, on the 14th of August, and a kind of raspberries, called Osh-keezh-ig-o-min, or Eye-berries, by the Indians, together with the pubescent, or wild currant. . . . The hawk and gull, by their cries, appeared to look on us as intruders on their ancient dominion, and several of them paid dearly for their turbulence.”
From a point of vantage, Schoolcraft described the Lake and skies to the north, northwest and northeast, and “south, and south-east, the picturesque shores of the lake formed rich and varied views of the headlands, capes, and mountains. Prominent in the group, were the Totosh and Cradle-Top Mountains, whose base we had left in the morning, and the rugged peaks of Granite Point and Presque Isle.”
Cradle-Top Mountain, as known to the Indians and which lies about a mile to the west of Totosh, has been for many years called “Hogsback,” a most prosaic departure from the romance of Indian folklore, for they had named this two-peaked formation “Cradle-Top” on account of its profile in the sky — suggesting an Indian Cradle.
This narrative also tells of one of Schoolcraft’s earlier visits to this vicinity.
“I ascended the Totosh Mountain in 1831, and found the view from its summit one of the most sublime which it has ever fallen to my lot to behold. . . .Directly in front is an Archipelago of islands and peninsulas, beyond which is a liquid plain, of which no ocean can display a broader surface to the eye. Eastward may be seen the distant white cliffs of Grand Island and Pictured Rocks. Westward, the coast can be discerned as far as the Huron Islands, and even the Mamelles of Kewgwenon [Keweenaw Peninsula] embracing a succession of peninsulas, surmounted with cliffs, each fainter and fainter in their outlines, until they are blended with the sky at the distance of ninety miles”
With the passing of a century and a quarter, one is now able to approach the Totosh Mountain of the Indians over an excellent paved road and park his car within sight of Cradle-Top. A pair of strong legs will, within half an hour, convey one up over a well-maintained trail to the apex of Totosh, which is about four hundred and fifty feet above lake level — with Cradle-Top to the west reaching up another one hundred and fifty-eight feet towards the sky. From Totosh, on a clear day, one can enjoy, as did Schoolcraft, an entire panorama of the Lake with its “Archipelago of islands and peninsulas,” and the forests bordering the Lake. Nabikwon, with its lighthouse erected in 1869, and its outbuildings, stays true to its name, at times assuming the appearance of a great ship, to the confusion of many. To the south the wilderness has been broken by the high stacks of a power plant and a huge ore loading dock, and frequently one can see the long ships as they ply their trade upon the broad waters of Lake Superior. And still farther south, an indistinct glimpse of Marquette, known in the gay nineties as the Queen City of the Lakes.
About the Author: Mr. Ernest H. Rankin, a Charter Member of the Great Lakes Historical Society and former Clevelander, is now a resident of Marquette, Michigan, and Secretary-Treasurer of the Marquette County Historical Society. He writes frequently for INLAND SEAS and for Michigan papers and journals. The study of regional place names is one of his fields of special interest.