Once you get interested in local history, the number of fascinating stories you come across never seems to end. Lately, I’ve been reading materials from the Montague Museum on our area’s Native Americans. The “modern” historical Native Americans who lived in this area were Ottawa (Odawa) Indians and Potawatomi tribes. One of my favorite stories is how Burying Ground Point got its name. It’s been around for a while, over a hundred years at least, but it’s a story worth retelling. It weaves together the White River, Lake Michigan, and a familiar local Native American figure - Chief Owasippe. There is not much known about Owasippe, except for this story and a few others, most of which praise him as an exceptionally wise chief. This could be one reason the Chicago Area Boy Scout Council was inspired to name its scout camp east of Whitehall, founded in 1911, after the local Indian leader.
Frederick Norman (1847-1928), the White Lake area’s famous documentary painter of the logging era, was especially fascinated with local Indian lore and artifacts, as was his daughter Bernice Norman (1891-1976). The painter provides a colorful account of the Burying Ground Point story in “White Lake Reminisces,” a publication of the Ladies Aid Society of the Congregational Church in Whitehall, published in 1898. The 90-page booklet is an eclectic and rich mix of information on founding families, local lore, stories, and history – a veritable treasure trove of information about the area in the late 19th century.
Norman wrote of his contact with a local Native American (identified as John Stone by daughter Bernice Norman in her later writings) who relayed the story. Stone told Norman of a small Indian village situated below a high hill about three miles up the White River from Whitehall. An old chief (reportedly Chief Owasippe, according to Bernice Norman’s later account) had two beloved sons who often took expeditions down the White River to the Big Lake. Norman describes their leaving in his story: “One morning in Autumn when the wood and marshland was aglow with the red and gold of an Indian Summer, these young men, taking their canoes, started for the great water (Lake Michigan) and promised the old father that they would be back before the fog and shadows of night fell; a promise that was never to be fulfilled, for the shadows of night fell, and the days came and went, but the pride and life of the old chief’s heart never came.” The chief sat beneath a massive pine tree on the high hill above his village and waited for his two sons to return. They never did. When the sad chief died, his people buried him beneath the pine tree where he had sat waiting for so long.
Norman then recounts how in the early 1890s, three boys came across the end of a canoe protruding from a point downstream from where the village had been situated. Police were called, the site was excavated, and two canoes and skeletons, along with implements and other artifacts were found. The point was dubbed Burying Ground Point, as it was thought that a burial ground had been uncovered. It wasn’t long, however, before local folks realized that the site exposed the fate of Chief Owasippe’s sons, according to Norman, who wrote: “But the mystery of its name was now apparent, and it was plain what became of the old chief’s sons. They had undoubtedly got that far back from their trip when the shades of night and the thick fog settling over the marshland detained them from going farther, and so had pulled their canoes up under the projecting bank, making of them a bed for the night, and while asleep were caught by the treacherous bank caving over them.”
The storytellers are long gone, but Burying Ground Point is still here, and there may be more stories to come in the future. Burying Ground Point is on Hilt’s Landing, a 230-acre property on the White River in Whitehall Township. A portion of the property (19 acres) has been set aside for a Michigan Heritage Park, to be developed and managed by the Lakeshore Museum Center. The educational and historical park, scheduled to be open in June 2015, will have a visitor’s center, auditorium, walking trails, and interactive historical exhibits such as a 1840s log cabin, logging shanty, 1880s farmhouse, Civil War setting, French Fur trading post, and fittingly for the site, an Ottawa Indian village.
“Hilt’s Landing has been sacred ground for Native people for thousands of years,” according to John McGarry, executive director of the Lakeshore Museum Center.” “The Michigan Heritage Park intends to celebrate these cultures as well as the history of all of the people who have lived here in the region in an engaging and enlightened manner.”
Members of the public are invited to visit the site and follow the development of Heritage Park on Friday afternoons at 3 p.m. Contact the museum beforehand at (231) 722-0278 to inform them of your plans.
Tanya Cabala is a lifelong resident of the White Lake area. A former educator and professional environmental advocate, she is currently the owner of Great Lakes Consulting, which provides project support and grant writing services to environmental and community nonprofit organizations. More information is available at www.tanyacabala.com. Tanya loves her hometown, loves writing, and loves to hear from her readers. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (231) 981-0016.