Wabaningo: An Ottawa Leader and Legend.
The name "Wabaningo" has echoed across White Lake in Western Michigan since 1897, when a white clapboard building known colloquially as the "Wabaningo Hotel" was erected on the shore. The community of cottagers and vacationers it served spans the dune and forested peninsula between White Lake and Lake Michigan in Muskegon County.
The hotel is gone today, but the name "Wabaningo" still adorns the community's post office, recreation center, and scouting camp. A plaqueless statue purporting to be the man called "Wabaningo" himself overlooks Lake Michigan from its bluffs. One summer, beachgoers found the words "Wabaningo Lives" on the government channel connecting the lakes.
Old as the community is the mystery of the man himself. Residents say, apocryphally, that "Wabaningo" was a local Native-American chief. The area's historical society and museum state that he was Ottawa and place him in the nineteenth century, but further requests invariably devolve into speculation: he camped at White Lake, he was buried there, he had many wives, his name meant "Morning Star," and so on.
Leading the Ottawa on the Grand
The mystery of "Wabaningo" begins with his name. Transcribing Ottawa words is more art than science, and colorful variations abound. The Michigan Pioneer and Historical Collections, for example, transcribed his name as "Wab-i-wid-i-go" in 1906 but inexplicably switched it to "Wab-win-de-go" in 1912. His name appears elsewhere as "Wobwindego," "Wab-i-wid-i-go," "Wabiwindigo," "Wobiwidigo," and "Wab-in-de-go."
A nineteenth-century White Lake newspaper was the first to use "Wabaningo." That variation of his name is the most dubious--which is ironic, considering it put him on the map. But the spelling used by the Ottawa who knew him intimately and which appeared as his signature on a treaty, suggesting it to be based on his own pronunciation, was "Wabiwindego," meaning "White Giant."
Wabiwindego was an ogima, or leader, in the Ottawa tribe that lived along the Grand River and the shore of Lake Michigan for 150 years. He was a fruitful parent, rearing three sons and three daughters and adopting a fourth son. While his band moved regularly through the years, following the richest soil, sugar groves, fishing, and hunting, its two main villages sat on White Lake and at the mouth of the Flat River on the Grand.
Wabiwindego's band, numbering about a hundred people, was one band among a tribe of several thousand Ottawa. He shared leadership of the band with other ogimaag, or leaders--first with Kewaykishkum, or "Long Nose," and later with Cobmoosa, or "Great Walker," Wabiwindego's mixed-race son-in-law who became famous for rigid adherence to Ottawa tradition.
Hierarchy within the Ottawa tribe relied less on a social contract than on individual consent, so leadership required building consensus.
Wabiwindego's status came from personal bonds, but it was also likely helped by his being the favored son of a previous ogima. Wabiwindego's own son, Shagwabeno, was his kigdonine--or spokesperson, steward, and protege--and became an ogima after his father.
Precious little information on Wabiwindego survives before the 1830s, when he was already in his 60s. When he came of age in the late eighteenth century, the Ottawa were joining the British in wars against a new and expanding United States. Though his own role is lost, several of Wabiwindego's peers forged reputations in the War of 1812. The fact that Ottawa veterans canoed to Canada to collect British pensions every year remained a sore spot in their relationship with the United States for decades.
Despite what those wars suggest, Wabiwindego maintained genial relations with many European Americans. In 1828, for example, he took in Daniel Marsac, a wayward teenager who had set out from Detroit hoping to start a trading post. Wabiwindego fed and sheltered the boy and helped him build a post on the Flat River. A new European-American trader meant more ammunition for Ottawa hunters who had been using firearms for centuries, colorful cotton, and tobacco for political and religious ceremonies.
The Problems of Western Settlement
Michigan's sandy soil made European-American-style farming difficult, so settlers remained an abstract concern as late as 1820. That changed suddenly in 1821, when Wabiwindego's fellow ogima Kewaykishkum traveled to Chicago and sold all the band's land south of the Grand River to the U.S. government.
Whether Kewaykishkum believed the deal was unavoidable or just personally profitable, he had negotiated over his tribe's objections and signed without approval. That sin greatly diminished him, and he, "perhaps from a sense of having erred, and certainly for fear of their doing him personal injury, chose not to appear in council on any matter that had grown out of that treaty." Kewaykishkum's fear was justified when, decades after the treaty was signed, he was beaten to death. After his fall, Wabiwindego became head of the band.
A greater force pressed the question of European-American settlement. The prohibitive cost of travel from the East Coast to the Great Lakes, a barrier against westward migration, ended in 1825 with the completion of the Erie Canal. In 1820, the Ottawa and European-American populations in Michigan were roughly equal. By 1840, the Ottawa were outnumbered 25 to 1.
Wabiwindego knew and had forged relationships with many European Americans, but the sudden intensity of their migration worried him deeply. In 1834, for example, he and other ogimaag complained to the Michigan territorial governor about a priest, Frederic Baraga. Wabiwindego, unlike many Ottawa, had never converted to Christianity and did not appreciate Baraga's impromptu baptisms. "We have feeling like you [would] if the Priest [told] your children they would go to hell if they are not Sprinkled," he griped.
As European-American populations in Michigan grew, so did Ottawa concerns about their new neighbors. Worse than missionaries were federal agents who, on U.S. President Andrew Jackson's orders, threatened to force the Ottawa out of Michigan violently. Petitions grew so numerous that Wabiwindego authorized Augustin Hamelin, a young Ottawa man recently returned from Rome with the best academic credentials in Michigan, to parlay on his behalf.
By 1834, however, the Grand River Ottawa could rely on petitions no longer. That summer, Wabiwindego and other ogimaag invited the L'Arbre Croche Ottawa to discuss the settler crisis. The L'Arbre Croche Ottawa--a closely related band whose villages dotted the shoreline between Mackinaw and Manistee--had been considering selling a few islands to the U.S. government to finance the construction of farms.
Wabiwindego and the Grand River Ottawa, who lived across the river from the federal territory that had been ceded by Kewaykishkum, vehemently opposed any sale. The Potawatomi, their neighbors to the south, had sold their land in Chicago only to face armed removal by federal troops, and throughout the 1820s, the Grand River Ottawa had witnessed a grim parade of Native refugees fleeing north.
The ogimaag of both bands gathered on the Grand in a shallow moraine cut like "a large amphitheatre." Together, "they kindled several fires, laid tobacco everywhere around the fire and a large kettle with sugar water; and at the entrance to the valley they mounted a large flag." The debate--sell or refuse--carried on late into the night until, at last, the ogimaag forged a consensus and passed around "some glass beads, which were strung on a green ribbon, as a sign of their unity and unified sentiment." After deliberation, the tribe agreed to stand unified against land cession.
Wabiwindego Goes to Washington
That unity quickly splintered. The coming winter brought poor hunting; a smallpox outbreak; and two crop failures, which were most devastating for people living off the land. Facing starvation, the L'Arbre Croche Ottawa reached out to the U.S. government in early 1836 to arrange an immediate land deal in Washington, D.C.
The Grand River Ottawa were incensed and resolved to stop the sale. Noahquageezhig, the tribe's foremost ogima, was too old to suffer a midwinter journey to Washington, despite his "fine physique" and "excellent habits," so Wabiwindego was chosen to go in his place. Likely Wabiwindego's clout--which commanded respect but was not enough to commit to anything dramatic--influenced the decision.
Wabiwindego set off on snowshoes immediately, joined by a retinue of younger men, a trusted minister, and several local fur traders. Before leaving, they sent a warning to President Jackson: "Were we desirous to make a treaty for your land, you would refuse us, you would say T cannot sell the graves of my relation.'"
The February journey to Washington was arduous, and Wabiwindego's delegation arrived several weeks late. First on the agenda was a meet and greet with President Jackson, who "received them handsomely" in the White House. The Ottawa had been frustrated by poor communications with Jackson for years and were anxious to entreat with him personally. That his involvement was limited to a ceremonial introduction must have been disappointing.
Negotiations began the next morning at the Masonic Hall. The U.S. government had also invited the Ojibwe of Michigan. The Ojibwe and Ottawa were easy to tell apart--while Wabiwindego attended in colorful cloth and beads, deerskin shoes, and silver rings, the Ojibwe came in suits and ties.
Wabiwindego, standing more than six feet tall, white-bearded with a shock of white hair, shook the hands of federal negotiators and demanded the government not remove the Ottawa but instead "reserve some lands for us and our posterity." Proceedings were open to the public, and while Wabiwindego spoke, the hallways flowed freely with interested speculators, bored reporters, and field trips of curious children.
It is hard to say what exactly influenced Wabiwindego during those weeks in council. Perhaps it was the unimaginable pressure of the previous years of head-spinning change and awful luck. Perhaps he was unprepared for the sawiness of the well-oiled Washington diplomatic machine. Perhaps the L'Arbre Croche Ottawa and Ojibwe convinced him to sell, or perhaps his European-American allies advised him to make a deal with the federal government while he had the chance.
Perhaps Wabiwindego's journey through the populous, industrial heart of the United States convinced him that westward expansion--driven by millions of farmers, speculators, trappers, settlers, loggers, miners, evangelizers, ranchers, sailors, and shopkeepers--was beyond anyone's control. Maybe it was the nightmare possibility of his grandchildren being marched from their homes at gunpoint.
Whatever their reasons, Wabiwindego and the Ottawa sold their lands in Western Michigan to the U.S. government. The Ottawa would keep land around the Manistee River. They would also receive payments, debt forgiveness, investments in farming and education, and access rights across the state. Mixed-race Ottawa would be given money to help assimilate into European-American settler society.
After weeks of tension over annuities and hectares, poring over maps late into the night in gaslit rooms blue with smoke, the Ottawa and federal negotiators were relieved to finally have a deal.
How the other Ottawa felt about Wabiwindego's bargain soon became moot. Following Jackson's hard-line policy, Congress refused to reserve any Michigan land for the Ottawa. The government added a five-year limit to the Manistee reservation, torpedoing the deal, and shipped the change back to Michigan to be signed in Mackinaw. Letters reveal that the federal negotiators expected this all along.
The Grand River ogimaag arrived in Mackinaw too late to debate the new term and signed without discussion. When Ottawa ogimaag gathered to verify the treaty's mixed-race census, the federal Indian Affairs agent had pre-written Wabiwindego's name on the signature block, but he either did not attend or refused to sign.
With their reservation temporary, the Ottawa had no reason to develop Manistee. And, while they had signed the federal treaty to avoid starvation, its terms collapsed under the weight of the federal amendment. The Ottawa decided to ignore the reservation and find other ways around removal.
With smart planning and a great deal of luck, they succeeded. The sudden availability of so much land as a result of the treaty caused a financial bubble just as speculators were preparing to buy and crashed the market. The "Panic of '37"--one of those earth-shaking but long-forgotten economic disruptions of centuries past--sparked a decade-long recession. Property demand in the new state of Michigan dried up. When the fifth year passed, the Ottawa could not leave Manistee, for they had never left the Grand River.
Wabiwindego did not steer his band through the uncertain waters that followed. He died soon after returning from Washington, D.C., felled by a winter smallpox outbreak so violent that, according to a local minister, "almost without exception, every house [was] literally a hospital," both among the Native- and European-American populations.
Wabiwindego's son Shagwabeno assumed leadership of the Ottawa band and exploited American distraction. He and others bought titles to their villages, learned European-style trades, raised farmhouses, mingled with their new neighbors, and taught Sunday school. Others plied the U.S. government with merchants who relied on Ottawa business. Surely Wabiwindego's sons had their father in their hearts when they petitioned, "We love the spot where our Forefathers bones are laid, and we desire that our bones may rest beside theirs also."
In 1855, the Ottawa sat for a new treaty, this time in Detroit. There, Shagwabeno and his brother Aishkibegosh, joined by fellow ogima Cobmoosa, secured permanent reservations in Manistee. The tribe is organized today as the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians in Manistee and Muskegon and the Grand River Band of Ottawa Indians.
The Man Becomes a Legend
How Wabiwindego came to be known as "Wabaningo" and became forever associated with the peninsula between White Lake and Lake Michigan is another story. In the spring of 1837, after having returned from Washington, D.C., Wabiwindego paddled up from the Grand River to plant on the flats between the lakes. It would be the last harvest of his life.
White Lake had been a farming village for centuries, benefitting from the White River, a trading post located there, and the "peculiar white clay for washing" that gave the lake its name. Nevertheless, it was a sleepy place to summer, far from the heart of Ottawa society on the Grand. Perhaps Wabiwindego had ventured there in search of richer humus, as bands did in years after poor harvests. It is also possible, however, that he planted between the lakes every summer, preferring its longer growing season, lack of mosquitoes, and radiant sunsets.
One evening in May, Wabiwindego spotted a canoe plodding north up Lake Michigan. In its berth hunched a young, sour-faced lumberman named Charles Mears, who had set out that winter from the south in search of a forest to log; his teenage brother, Albert; and two hired hands, Charles Herrick and Benjamin True. Their voyage had been fraught with danger, and they had capsized in the whitecaps several times in the preceding weeks and ruined their supplies.
When the craft slid ashore, Wabiwindego met its haggard crew and offered them a spot near his band's wigwams to pitch tents. The men spent the night there and then disappeared up the White River in the morning. Unknown to them, their host had recently shaken hands with the nation's president and sold much of Western Michigan to the U.S. government, making possible both the lumber mill they would build there and the twin towns it birthed--Whitehall and Montague.
Later in life, decades after Wabiwindego had died and loggers had driven the Ottawa from White Lake, Albert Mears returned to the lake he had first seen as a teenager to work at a bank that had grown from his brother's lumber camp. Now in his 60s and living in a day when advanced age meant having once witnessed a great era of exploration and adventure, Albert regaled the town with tales of his first trip to White Lake, including his overnight stay with, as best as he could remember, "Wabaningo."
Isaac Weston, the son of Albert's boss, wrote Albert's story up in the Montague Lumberman. By chance, Weston also owned the peninsula where Albert and Wabiwindego had met, and he soon sold it to some locals who picnicked on its bluffs. They built cottages on what Weston had begun calling "Wabaningo Flats," and in 1897, a hotel was erected. While its sign read "Sylvan Beach Hotel," most called it the "Wabaningo," for the resort billed itself as land "where once the Indian dwelt, and where the aboriginal trails still present an interesting feature in their picturesqueness."
The name "Wabaningo" came from Weston's article, his spelling entirely idiosyncratic and based on Albert's mispronunciation. It meant nothing in Ottawa. The women's social club in the community borrowed it for their recreation center, the Wabaningo Club, in 1906, and the name passed to the Wabaningo Post Office a few years later. With each generation, Wabiwindego grew as myths do--less human and more elemental, not a man but a spirit of water and woods.
So did Wabiwindego, a father and steward of Western Michigan, become Wabaningo, a faceless Native American on the water. The rest of his story was lost, since history was unable to penetrate the familiar barriers of language, culture, race, and the will to forget Native-American displacement. The wars of Wabiwindego's youth and the heroes he raised were all but gone, as were the tale of his journey to Washington and the treaty he signed.
Wabiwindego could have been better remembered, had the cottagers been at all inclined. Yet, without them and without the deep human instinct for fantasy and commemoration, he might have been lost forever.
By Bennett Hartz
Bennett Hartz practices law in Minneapolis and has a bachelor's degree in history from the University of Minnesota. He is a fourth-generation White Lake cottager.
Caption: (Photo courtesy of Pixabay.)
Caption: An engraving of an Ottawa man of the late 1700s, when Wabiwindego was a young man. (Photo courtesy of the Houghton Library, Harvard University.)
Caption: An 1831 map of Michigan, drawn during the height of European-American settlement, shows the White River flowing into Lake Michigan directly south of land belonging to the "Ottawas and Miamies." (Photo courtesy of the Michigan State University Map Library.)
Caption: President Andrew Jackson, who orchestrated a great deal of Native-American removal during his time in office, greeted Wabiwindego and his party upon their arrival in Washington, D.C. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-5099.)
Caption: A map displays several major Native-American land concessions to the U.S. government during Michigan's early history. The areas in yellow were ceded as a result of the 1836 Treaty of Washington. (Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.)
Caption: Charles Mears, a Chicago-based lumberman, was helped by Wabiwindego during his exploration of the Lake Michigan shoreline. He went on to assist in the European-American development of Western Michigan. (Photo courtesy of Wiktmedia Commons.)
Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.