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Chief Okemos (1775-1858)
Chief of Chippewa Indians.

1922 bio. (Added Mar., 2009)

Michigan History Magazine, Michigan Historical Society, 1922


by Dr. F. N. Turner, Lansing.

This meeting today is for the purpose of marking the last resting place of one who in the past was a chief of the Chippewas or Ojibway tribe of Indians. This powerful tribe is nearly gone. There are only a few members left. Poverty and disease had scattered Okemos' family before his death. A nieghtbor, -- a white man, buried him on this spot on the banks of the Grand river and placed some boulders on the grave to mark the place. We look from this grave and we find no dwellings, no schoolhouse or church to tell us the occupancy of the Okemos family; saddest of all, we have no members of his tribe or family to join us in paying this tribute to the dead.

A brief history of Chief Okemos would be interesting to those present and especially those who have spent the time and who have been to some expense in locating and marking this grave. The writer of this biography has been handicapped by a very scant historical record. The red face has nearly vanished and the only means we, their successors, have of finding anything about are the old legends handed down from generation to generation by white traders and missionaries. All the people of the red face have left are a few burial mounds. Even these have been desecrated by the white race for relics and bones to display in our public museums. The only way our children can remember this aboriginal race is by the Indian names they have given to rivers and other natural objects and the modified Indian names of our villages and pioneer cities.

Chief Okemos was born in Shiawassee county, this state, about 1775. His father's camp at that time was on the banks of the Shiawassee river, at a point where today the Grand Trunk railroad crosses the river in Vernon township. Years ago there was a small railroad station at this crossing, named Knaggs' Station. Okemos was a nephew of Pontiac, the powerful Chippewa chief, head of the “Five Indian Nations.” Some of my talks with the old pioneers gave me the impression that he was a Pottawatomie and his father belonged to that tribe. In searching the pioneer history of our state I find he was a Chippewa. His father was a simple hunter and trapper and so Okemos had no hereditary claim to the title of Chief. He was ambitious to become famous so he entered the warrior ranks in early life. Nature had endowed him with an iron constitution, sturdy frame and, -- for an Indian, an extra amount of courage. He proved himself an able warrior on many a bloody battlefield.

When opportunity offered to become the Chief, as it did when his kinsman Tecumseh formed his great conspiracy, by serve in the British army, he renounced his allegiance to the United States and joined his relative. Okemos has been blamed for this act but his ambition and obligations were stronger than loyalty to our government. Some of the white soldiers under General Wayne did the same thing when they were placed in a similar position. Okemos was sent with his cousin and 16 warriors to stop by ambuscade a detachment of United States cavalry at the battle of Sandusky. He attacked twice his number, but the United States force were reinforced and he and his band were hacked to pieces and every one left as dead on the battlefield. The squaws in caring of the dead for burial found Okemos and his cousin severely wounded, but by careful nursing saved their lives. His cousin was an invalid and crippled all his life, but the iron constitution of Okemos was so great, that in after years he could only make people believe he had been in this great battle by showing the saber scars on his head and body. This service and courage gave him his title. He was revered by the Chippewas as a great warrior and chief. Okemos, in his old age, always wanted to be addressed as chief. After he recovered from wounds he was held in custody by United States authorities as a prisoner of war until General Cass pardoned him and sent him to an Indian reservation in Shiawassee county. He and his relatives were afterwards placed on the reservation in Danby township, Ionia county, Michigan. This reservation is on the banks of the Grand river and contained 140 acres of land. Okemos named it Me-shim-me-ne-con-ing. He died in December, 1858, at the age of 83 years.

Okemos before he became incapacitated by old age, was a great hunter and travelled all over Shiawassee, Clinton, Ingham, Jackson and Washtenaw counties. His favorite route was along the banks of the Grand and its branches, the Red Cedar and Huron rivers in Michigan, and the Maumee river in Ohio. The banks of these rivers were his hunting and trapping grounds while the rivers and lakes near them were their fishing preserves. He had favorite places where he camped and planted corn. One of these was on the bank of Red Cedar river, seven miles east of Lansing. The village located on this camping ground was name after him. Four miles east on the bank of the same river was another camping and planting ground. The late J. H. Mullet who owned this farm where this planting ground was, was acquainted with Okemos and his younger brothers played with the Okemos children. Pioneers of Jackson, Ann Arbor, Dexter, Ypsilanti, all knew Okemos and his canoes on the Huron. He and his band would come up Grand river to Lansing, then up the Red Cedar to Okemos, then up the west branch of the same to Cedar Lake, portage or carry canoes across the head waters of the Huron to Lake Erie, then down the lake to Sandusky. That old battleground near Sandusky had a fascination for this band as it does to every warrior, red or white.

When hew was old, poverty and hunger compelled him to make a journey to Sarnia, Canada, to beg an annuity from the British government for service he rendered under Pontiac. On one of these journeys his aged wife died and was buried among strangers, Okemos was a pagan and lived and died in the Redman's belief of the Great Spirit and Happy Hunting Grounds. His totem was the bear. He was buried as a pagan chief in the pagan part of the Indian burying ground.

1907: Recalling Chief Okemos. (Added Apr., 2009)

Historical Collections by Michigan State Historical Society, 1907

A Boy's Story of Pioneer Life in Michigan.

By Theodore E. Potter.


Page 405.

While building the log school-house, olk Chief Okemos, then eighty years old, and a few of his tribe camper near us. They had been hunting near our home not long before, and he knew me, and also about my killing the buck with a club, and had said it was a brave and dangerous deed. He delighted to prove his own bravery and many dangers by showing the numerous scars he carried from many conflicts with both Indians and white men, made by the tomahawk, knife and rifle. History tells us of the British commissioning him as colonel of an Indian regiment to fight the Americans at the battle of the Thames, and afterwards he went to Detroit and agreed with General Cass to lay down the tomahawk and scalping knife, and became a good Indian, and never broke his agreement. He took great interest in me, calling me his “Pick-a-nin-ne,” “Sho-mo-ke-man” (white young man), and watched me intently while making a crotch dray, and hauling and skidding logs with the oxen and a log chain. As it was very warm, and I was working with bare feet, he pointed to his own feed, and said: “Squaw make moccasins – you wear moccasin,” -- and at night he took me to this wigwam. The squaws looked at my bare feet and then at each other and began to shake with laughter. One of the men said they were making fun of my bare feet. Soon one of the squaws handed Okemos a pair of new, nicely beaded moccasins, and he asked me to put them on. I offered to pay for them, but he refused it. I then proudly walked around showing them in all their wigwam, greatly to their delight.

Since then I have been conversant with numerous tribes of Indians, but Okemos is the only Indian I ever knew to give a present to a white man. I did not go barefoot again in Lansing. Then Okemos asked me to have a night hunt with him up the Cedar river. Three of us went in a large canoe, Okemos in the bow, I in the center, and another Indian int he stern to steer the boat. We rowed up about two miles and stopped until it was dark. The weather was warm and sultry, and mosquitoes very thick and tormenting. Torches were lighted and then the boat was permitted to slowly drift down the stream in complete silence. Okemos in the bow of the boat sat armed with a hatchet on a long handle. In a short time we saw the antlers of a large deer's head protruding out of the water, his body immersed to keep off the mosquitoes, and his eyes shining like two small brilliant stars. Before we reached him we discovered two more heads of submerged deers, all intently gazing at the bewildered lights, unconscious of danger until Okemos with his hatchet struck the antlered one in the head, then struck one of the others, which made such a splashing in the water as to frighten the third one away. Before midnight we were back to camp with two fine deer. This was the first time I took a hand in this kind of still hunt, though I had heard about it and practiced it on the lakes and rivers of the west years afterwards.

Okemos lived to be over 100 years of age, and died at one of his camps on the Looking Glass river east of DeWitt, his body lashed to his favorite pony and taken to Shim-le-con, and Indian mission village on Grand river, south of Portland, where it was buried.

1903: By Victor De Land. (Added Apr., 2009)

De Land's History of Jackson County, Michigan, 1903


Among the sub-chiefs who often visited Jackson in an early day was Okemos, the head of the tribe on Cidar river in Ingham county. Okemos was a good Indian when sober, but a very bad one when drunk. At one of his visits he ran amuck in the settlement, which caused a good deal of terror, until he ran across Mr. John McConell, and came out of the scrimmage a good deal worse for wear. In 1832 General Cass visited Okemos, going down Grand river and up the Cedar in a canoe, and made a special treaty with him that cut off his control over the tribe, and was a source of much satisfaction to the white settlers.

1895: Okemos witness to 1819 Treaty. (Added Apr., 2009)

Indian Cession of 1819 made by the Saginaw Treater
by William Lewis Webber, 1895


Page 11.

He said: I am 76 years old; have live in Michigan 48 years; I knew Gen. Cass well. I was at the treaty of 1819. I was at that time a chief of a certain band amoung the Ottawa tribe - a part of the band I was chief over were Chippewas. The treaty was signed at Saginaw, on the west side of the river, back of Mr. Campau's house, in a long shed. I signed the treaty as one of the Chippewa chiefs. As the time I signed the treaty my residence was at a place about six miles above Lansing, on the Red Cedear river. I was born in Michigan, near Pontiac, on an island in a lake. From that time to the time of the treaty I lived in Okemos City, near Lansing. I was 30 years old when I left the place where I was born. Min-e-to-gob-o-way, my mother's father, and Kob-e-ko-noka, my uncle were my chiefs. The first named was a Chippewa Indian and the last named an Ottawa. They were no connection to each other. I was first a chief when I was 20 years old, and was about 50 at the time of the treaty. I knew Kaw-ga-ge-zhic; he was at the treaty. He lived about six miles from the present village of Flint, at To-bosh's trading house; he was a chief at that time. I know Noc-chic-o-mi; he is acting as chief now; he is down the Saginaw River; he had two children at the time of the treaty, and lived at that time at the Big Rock, on the Shiawassee, called Chesaning.

1873 history. (Added Mar., 2009)

General History of the State of Michigan, by Charles Richard Tuttle, 1873


The engraving is a portrait of the noted Indian chief Okemos, who belonged to the Chippewa tribe.

He was born about the year 1788, and the first distinguished act recorded of him is his participation in the attack on Fort Sandusky, in the war of 1812. The commandant of the fort had been ordered to surrender, which, coming to the knowledge of the Indians, made them much bolder than usual, and they made a charge upon the fort, but were driven back. Cheered on by the chief Tecumseh and his subordinates, they made a second charge and were again driven back. In this charge, while urging on his braves, Okemos was severely wound in the shoulder, the bullet passing through his body. He fell to the ground, and as the Indians retreated, the occupants of the Fort made a charge upon them with their cavalry, and as many of the soldiers rode past the wounded chief, they gave him, as they supposed, the finishing blow. With that endurance known only to his race, he received these wounds without showing the least sign of life, not even uttering a groan. After the return of the soldiers, he crawled to a swampy piece of woods near by, where he buried himself in the soft soil and leaves, and there remained until the darkness of night afforded him a shelter for escape. Weak from the loss of blood and exhausted by the strife of the day, he mounted a pony which was grazing near by, and made his way to his camp on the Maumee river, where he remained until his wounds were healed.

Subsequently he participated in many of the Indian depredations on the frontiers, and took part in three different treaties made with General Cass.

Under the influence of the Indian agent, Colonel G. Godfrey, he was induced to forsake the British standard and espouse the cause of the Americans, to whom he remained a true friend until his death.

After the close of hostilities, with his band, he settled on the Looking Glass river, near Lansing, Michigan, where now stands the beautiful village which bears his name.

During this later day, though a beggar and a constant imbiber of “fire-water,” he was very proud of his name, and related the brave deeds of his more youthful days with great animation and pride.

He died at his wigwam, on the Looking Glass river, in 1863, leaving three sons, one of whom has since followed him to “the happy hunting grounds far beyond the setting sun.”

Related Pages/Notes

Chief Okemos

Memorial Marker

Placed by the
Stevens Thomson Chapter,
of D.A.R., Ionia, Mich.,
in 1922.

Related Pages:
People Referenced
Campau, Mr.
Cass, Gen.
DeLand, Victor (author)
Godfrey, G. Col.
McConnell, John
Mullet, J.H.
Okemos, Chief (subject)
Pontiac, Chief
Potter, Theo. E. (author)
Techumseh, Chief
Turner, F.N. (author)
Wayne, General
Subjects Referenced
Ann Arbor, MI
Battle of Sandusky
Battle of Thames
British army
Chippewa Indians
Chesaning, MI
Clinton Co., MI
Danby Twp., MI
DeWitt, MI
Dexter, MI
Grand river, MI
Grand Trunk R.R.
Huron river, MI
Ingham Co., MI
Ionia Co., MI
Jackson, MI
Jackson Co., MI
Knaggs' Station
Lake Erie
Lake Huron
Lansing, MI
Looking Glass river, MI
Maumee river, OH
Ojibway Indians
Okemos, MI
Ottawa Indians
Pontiac, MI
Portland, MI
Pottawatomie Indians
Red Cedar river, MI
Saginaw, MI
Sarnia, Canada
Sandusky, OH
Shiawassee Co., MI
Shiawassee river, MI
Vernon Twp., MI
Washtenaw Co., MI
Ypsilanti, MI
WRITINGS: History As It Was Written Then.