Kalamazoo's First Residents
Our Native Americans
When the first non-native settlers arrived in the Kalamazoo area, the Native Americans already in residence were members of the Potawatomi nation, believed to be a branch of the Chippewa that had migrated south from the Upper Peninsula along the western shore of Lake Michigan. They were also a part of the Algonquin nation. Even they, however, weren’t the first inhabitants of this area.
The first pioneers in Kalamazoo County found numerous mounds and earthworks that the Native Americans living here at the time knew nothing about. It was long held that these were the work of a distinctive group of highly skilled agriculturalists called “moundbuilders” who lived here at least three hundred years or more before the Potawatomi nation settled in this area and before the white settlers arrived here in the 1820’s and 1830’s.
The best-known mound in Kalamazoo County is in Bronson Park in the heart of the city of Kalamazoo. Originally it had a diameter of fifty-eight feet at its base, a height of four feet nine inches and was in the form of a perfect circle. Though there have been several archeological excavations conducted on the mound, nothing of significance has ever been found in the mound barring some evidence that it may have been a burial site. What is known is that, throughout the years, many historical figures in American history have used the mound to give speeches, among them Theodore Roosevelt, Stephen A. Douglas and William Jennings Bryant.
Even more intriguing than the mounds were the “garden beds” found in Kalamazoo County. They came in assorted shapes and sizes: rectangular, triangular, circular, elliptical and complex. Like the mounds, it is uncertain what the beds were used for and “garden” was a term applied for wont of a better word. They consisted of raised patches of ground, separated by sunken paths and were arranged in plats or blocks of parallel beds. They varied in dimensions and could range from five to sixteen feet wide and from twelve to more than one hundred feet in length and a height from six to eighteen inches. Later historians have assumed that the builders of these mounds and “garden” beds were of a peaceable disposition, had an excellent work ethic and subsisted on what the earth had to offer rather than hunting. It is also assumed that their tools were made of wood and decayed, since none have remained to be discovered.
Traders had set up trading posts here in Kalamazoo long before the arrival of Titus Bronson. The river that ran through this area was referred to as the “Kekalamasoe” or just plain “Kalamasoe.” Trading posts in Michigan were in the hands of the American Fur Company, headed by John Jacob Astor, with headquarters on Mackinac Island. From this point, goods for the trade were obtained, and the pelts gathered during the winter were shipped to the various posts. In a letter written in his 73rd year, Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard claimed he had spent the winter of 1820-1821 in what is now Kalamazoo in a trading post that he said was built by a man named Laframboin. Hubbard claimed he had succeeded Rix Robinson at the post. Robinson is the man longest associated with the Native American trade here and was about 21 when he left his home in New York for the frontier. The trading post in Kalamazoo was located close to the present Paterson Street Bridge where several old Indian trails converge at a ford in the river.
Where traders are, missionaries are not far behind. Many men arrived to “convert” the indigenous people. The most notable in our area was the Rev. Leonard Slater, who was born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1802. He came to the Carey mission at Niles, Michigan as a Baptist missionary and then moved to Kalamazoo and the Kalamazoo Valley. He also preached in Grand Rapids for ten years, then moved back to this area and had an Indian mission and school in Barry County. Finally, he moved to Kalamazoo and “commuted” to his other posts on Sundays. He died in Kalamazoo and is buried near the spot in Riverside Cemetery where he had first seen the view of the Kalamazoo valley.
Most of what is now the city of Kalamazoo was once part of an Indian Reservation called Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish established by the Treaty of Chicago in 1821. Six years later it was replaced by the much larger Nottawasepee Reservation that began near Austin Lake and spread south into St. Joseph County. As brief as it was, the earlier treaty left a small but interesting remnant. As you go west on Cork Street, it jogs slightly north and continues on Whites Road, then jogs back south as it reaches Parkview Avenue. Cork and Parkview follow the section lines, as most major roads in the Midwest do. Whites Road, however, is located on the southern boundary of the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Reservation.
In 1821 the Potawatomies signed a treaty giving their land to the federal government in exchange for a yearly payment and some land west of the Mississippi. They did not leave right away, however, and since there were no settlers in the area at the time, there was no pressure on them to leave, so they continued to live as they had. When the first permanent white settlers arrived, the local Indians generally welcomed them and, for 10 years, they lived together peacefully. As one settler, Bazel Harrison, wrote, “We never could have got along without the Potawatomi in those days. He was a sort of leather stocking. They were our friends, and we were their friends.”
Finally, the time arrived in 1840 when the U. S. Government decided to enforce the treaty. In Kalamazoo County, Colonel Thomas A. H. Edwards gathered the Indians together for the long trek west of the Mississippi. Kalamazoo became the rendezvous for a large group starting west. The indigenous people were encamped for several days north of where the current Kalamazoo Transportation Center sits on Rose Street just north of Kalamazoo Avenue. They visited local residents, many of whom had developed a warm friendship between them. When the march beyond the Mississippi began, most walked, with their sick and aged on ponies, which also carried their tents and household goods. Infants were carried on their mother’s backs. They were reluctant to leave the home of their ancestors and were concerned about the danger from the Sioux tribe in the area assigned to them, but they had no choice. Along their route they passed the house of Judge Epaphroditus Ransom, the prominent Kalamazoo man who often had befriended them in their dealings with the government. As they passed by, they raised their hands and headdresses in respect and farewell.
Written by Fred Peppel, Kalamazoo Public Library staff, May 2006, based on research by Susan Brower. Last updated 8 November 2022
Kalamazoo and How it Grew, and Grew
Dunbar, Willis F.
Western Michigan University, 1969
H 977.418 D89.2
History of Kalamazoo County, Michigan
Durant, Samuel W.
Originally published in 1880 by Everts & Abbot, and reprinted in 1976 by Unigraphic
H 977.417 H67u
Archaeological Atlas of Michigan
Hinsdale, Wilbert B.
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1931.
HR Atlas Case, Left Shelf 5
“Ancient Garden Beds of Michigan,” Michigan Pioneer Collections
Volume 2, pages 21-35
Lansing: Michigan State Historical Society, 1929
H 977.4 M62
“The Old Slater Mission,” Meader Historical Directory
H 920 M481