Chief John Wabasis was the Flat River tribes wealthiest Indian and he did it without signing any treaties. Most of the money he received was legally obtained through inheritances and being an educated half-breed who knew how to handle money and people. His biggest mentors were his father, a French Canadian Fur Trader and his Potawatomie Indian Mother, his adopted Chief Wobwindego, his real sons; Shogwogeno, Acongo and Anish all Ottawas. Another was Wabasis foster father Cobmoosa (P) and Chief Kewaygooshcum (O), and Mexinini all which helped Wabasis gain the respect of the other Grand River valley tribes at the 'rapids.'
Wabasis was a shrewd businessman and his education helped guarantee he would probably become one of Michigan's most colorful characters especially when it came to "lost treasures." To understand what was happening and how Chief Wabasis became a thorn in the hides of other tribes you need to know what was really happening between 1836-1863. Only then can you see how easily Wabasis fell out of favor with other tribal leaders and why they banished him to his 40-acre garden plot on western Wabasis Lake. Trouble is they banished him post haste, because they were bullheaded, stubborn and ignorant of treaty stipulations.
Wabasis was scorned by the Indians, especially the Blackskins for almost 25 years, but he was well respected by white settlers. Although a wealthy half-breed his lifestyle was described as poor and yet to some extent he was perhaps the smartest and richest of the Flat River tribes for he knew the value of white man's money. He kept little money on his person when he traveled to pick up his annuities in Grand Rapids for ten years which ended in 1848 for half-breed compensation. Other tribal stipends were for twenty years or forever depending on what treaty was signed.
Wabasis lived with his death sentence from 1838-1863. Area tribal Indians passed judgement upon Wabasis prematurely. In 1838 they thought Wabasis was hoarding their annuity payments for himself for two years when treaty monies were not dispensed from the Federal government until 1838. 1839 saw the first lands being sold north of the Grand River. Preparations were already being made to remove the Indians from the Grand River and Flat River country to Pentwater, Mt. Pleasant and Traverse City reservations. Wabasis was banished to live on ancestral land that was set aside, but the land was deeded to Wabasis and in fact he held the deeds to most of the islands in the Flat River. He even inherited purchased land at Lowell from Wobwindego and Shogwogeno.
The only Indians who were receiving money in 1836 were those left-over Potawatomie and Ottawa Indians who were supposed to have left for the reservations west of the Mississippi River after the Treaty of 1821 was signed, but they refused to go. Chief Cobmoosa and Kewaygooshcum dissolved into the Flat River tribes to protect their hunting and burial grounds south of the Grand River and their tribe intermingled with Wobwindego known as the 'White Giant' of the Flat River and Lowell tribes. Saginaw tribes knew him as 'Wobskindip." The later chiefs couldn't sign the Treaty of 1836.
Wobwindego made his eldest son, Shogwogeno, his sub-chief in 1827. Advanced years were making life difficult and he realized it was important for him to assume a more leadership role within the tribe. Chief Kewaycooshcum did travel with Rix Robinson and Wobwindego to Washington , because Kewaycooshcum was a great admirer of Gen. Lewis Cass and wished to meet him again. Kewaycooshcum found favor with President James Monroe.
Chief Mexinini (English interpretation) was easier than trying to prononunce his real name as Meccissininni. Mexinini was a powerful Ottawa chief who succeeded Kewaycooshcum. Mexinini was very dark skinned and was thought to have been a Negro slave kidnapped from his childhood home in Virginia during Indian Wars about 1812. President Andrew Jackson was impressed with Mexinini and before the chief returned from Washington he thought he would dress like the President in white mens clothing. Jackson gave him a black frock coat, black satin vest, black pantaloons, sil stockings and pumps. When Mexinini met Gen. Jackson, the President was wearing a hite bell-crowned hat with a weed on it. President Jackson's wife had passed away and this was his mourning hat. Mexinini didn't know the 'weed was a badge or mourning' and unknowing of white men cultures had a weed on his hat, which the President and his cabinet were not amused, and yet, they treated him with respect. Mexinini was widely accepted in small towns when he was returning to his village. He had sold their lands north of the Grand River and they must move west of the Mississippi within the next several years. This infuriated other tribal members, but through his oratorys telling them advantages of this treaty this cunning Indian had won over a reluctant acceptance of the treaty. Mexinini became a civilized red man. While most of the tribe left he stayed behind and appreciated civilization to a higher degree. He died in 1843 at age 50 and many Grand Rapidians and his tribe returned for his funeral. He had made preparations for his people to stay at reservations in Michigan instead of going to Missouri.
Wobwindego, Kewaycooshcum, Mexinini, Mucktasha, and Wasogenaw, Wapoos returned home and told the tribes that they had sold their lands to the U.S. Federal government. All were scorned for giving away their tribal lands and were dissatisfied with the preparations being undetaken to remove them from their ancestral lands to reservations. It would be only a matter of a few short years before the pilgramage began. Nobody knew, Indians or settlers could never have imagined what was about to befall them.
Small pox epidemics broke out in the Grand River valley and many Indians were dying of white man diseases. The Indians broke camp scattering in loose groups and others simply packing up and to and away from reservations. Fear was gripping the river valleys, but wherever the tribes went the sickness was claiming more lives. Hundreds and thousands of Indians succumbed to the small pox epidemic. For all intense purposes it was getting hard to know what Indian families registered on the census were still alive or dead, but this wasn't the worst for one of Michigan's most meteorological disaster was dogging the Indians.
In 1836 the west Michigan territory saw the ravages of over 200 Spring and Summer tornadoes that ripped across the state. The territory was laid to ruin. Wherever the Indians went they found destruction left behind by these violent menacing storms. Indians and settlers alike had never seen, heard or been exposed to such violent weather. To the Indian it was if the Great Spirit or God was wreaking vengance on the Chiefs and tribes for selling their ancestral lands to the Federal government. They felt the Great Spirit was dealing out punishment and once they encountered the destruction of forests they moved out fearing the return of the Great Spirits wrath. Being racked with sickness, disease and devestation caused much fear. Renegade half-breeds said the wisest chiefs were fools to trust Kewaycooschcum and Wabasis. They in the eyes of renegade half-breeds were responsible for whatever was wrong and what was happening to their tribal homes. 'They sold us out!'
Indians south of the Grand River were forever mad at Kewaycooshcum and Chief Wasogenaw would murder Kewaycooshcum in 1839. There were two kinds of justice in the Grand River valley after 1836. The white man's justice or Indian justice and the two never intermingled. Murders happened and whitemen law never interferred in Indian matters. It is important that you understand how Indian justice was dealt out by those Indians who felt robbed and to understand the reason behind Wabasis murder.
Chief Kewaycooshcum (Long Nose), Wasogenaw, Ka-she-wa and Wapoos, with a boy and girl were encamped at the mouth of Coldbrook Creek above Kent (Grand Rapids). The boy and girl stayed in the canoe off the mouth of the creek while the chiefs sat around the campfire drinking whisky and assorted spirits. The whisky dwindled and Ka-she-was and Wapoos went to get replentishment of their drinks. The children stayed behind in the anchored canoe, the girl sleeping.
While they were gone old Wasogenaw got beligerent and started quarreling with Kewaycooshcum. The firewater had unleashed pent up years of hatred and the Indian boy heard and saw them quarreling in the firelight and watched in horror as the old chief meted out Indian justice against Kewaycooshcum. The boy whittling a stick with his knife heard Wasogenaw shout, "You old fool! Did you not know any better than to sell this whole territory and impoverish your Nation! I am going to take your life!"
Kewaycooshcum fearing for his life pulled out and flourished his knife and said, "You can't do that! Do you see this?" Wasogenaw bent down and replied to the boy, 'Do you see that man?' He is what impoverished you. Let me take that knife you've got; I am going to kill him. Then you can help me put him in his canoe and we will take him to the middle of the river (Wastenong) and throw him in'. The boy was so scared he dropped his knife into the river, and said, 'I have no knife'. Old Wasogenaw said, 'I thought I saw you peeling a turnip with a knife'?
Showing him a sliver of wood, I said, 'No, I only had this.' The old man became furious; and ranted about angrily, went to the bank of the river, and pulled out a Maple club about two feet long, with a knot at one end. He brandished it swinging it wildly and shouting at me, 'This is the way you kill something,' and then he rushed up on Kewaycooshcum in wild abandon and viciously struck his head with the club. Kewaycooshcum threw up his hands and feet, dropped his knife and begged for his life. Wasogenaw continued his assault until Kewaycooshcum's pleading ceased.
The boy jumped out of the canoe and ran towards the village light. Wasogenaw told me to stop, but I ran faster, he in hot pursuit. I jumped across the stream and fell in the mud. Old Wasogenaw stood over me with the club, but I sprang up and evaded him, ran and met the other chiefs returning with whisky. I told them, 'The old men are killing each other.' A son of Wasogenaw said to me, 'I will go and pacify him' (his father). He walked up to his father and patted his cheek, and said 'You fool! Can't you be satisfied with committing one murder, without taking the life of the boy?' The old man fell on the ground and cried. The others returned to camp and found Kewaycooshcum dead. They put him in a canoe and carried him to Plainfield."
This story was a first hand account as told by the boy to Seth Robinson in 1839. Seth found him in a Flat River village.
Kewaycooshcum was buried at the top of Prairie village with his head above ground so that his spirit could look out over the land he sold in the Treaty of 1821. Blythefield Country Clubhouse and the Country Club of 2010 was once where that Indian Village was up until the early 1840's when the newest settlers arrived. Many Indians expressed the desire that when they died they be buried in a sitting position so their spirit can continually watch over the land of their ancestors. They preferred burial in the Norton Mounds, but no skeletons have been unearthed.
President Gerald R. Fords coffin buried at the Ford Museum is slightly raised so that his spirit can catch the first morning sunlight as it comes over Prospect Hill. This rite is what is what Gerry Ford loved as an Eagle Scout. It's to see his Savior's returns to earth. Old legends about Indian way of life live forever!
Next time more exciting tales and legends about Wabasis and his people.