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  • Benjamin Rex Cross

Historical Hiking in Portland

During the past few weeks, we have been given a fantastic opportunity. A chance to spend valuable time making memories with our children, and exploring parts of our community and sharing time together. Most Portland natives are aware of Chief Okemos grave

, but it is surprising how many people don't know about an amazing place just south of Portland right on the "oxbow of the Grand River". My father and grandfather used to call the area "Shimnecon". My generation called the area "Little Egypt". If you look on your map, there is a space called "Portland State Game Area". If you follow Okemos Rd all the way south until it dead ends, there is a turnaround gravel parking lot, with a path going east (between two large rocks). If you follow that path, you will find Chief Okemos grave. The hiking is good, with a few down trees, but not too muddy and not too strenuous.

This is an excellent opportunity for a history lesson and hike with the family wrapped up into one beautiful afternoon. The hike back to the grave site is short, only about 10 minutes or so, but there are paths all throughout the game area and the riverside cliffs are beautiful. The soul of the woods is truly peaceful, and you can hear the whispers of Indian children playing and smell the campfires. Be aware of private property just north of the area, and also be respectful, this is an actual cemetery that reportedly holds hundreds of unidentified graves. In the more recent past, this area was owned by the Boy Scouts, and you may find remnants of decades old Scout projects back there.

Chief Okemos was born around 1769, around Bancroft, MI. Not born a Chief, he earned it through his strength and leadership in battle. Legends about Chief Okemos are myriad. "The Chief never lost his dignity and was a proud man until he died in 1858, at an Indian settlement near Portland. He was buried near Okemos Rd. on State land within the "oxbow" of the Grand River. Okemos died on the 4th of December, 1858, at his camp on the Looking Glass River, in Clinton County, above the village of DeWitt. His remains - dressed in the blanket coat and Indian leggins which he had worn in life - were laid in a rough board coffin, in which were also placed his pipe-hatchet, buckhorn-handled knife, tobacco, and some provisions; and thus equipped for the journey to the happy hunting-grounds, he was carried to the old village of Peshimnecon, in Ionia County and there interred in an ancient Indian burial-ground near the banks of the Grand River."

Shimnecon, as my father referred to it, was actually a pretty large Indian Settlement, and an Indian Burial Ground. "In the spring of 1839 there were about 600 Indians living at Meshimeneconing, meaning "apple orchard," a village in Danby Township upriver from Portland. In the fall of 1841, following the return of some of the Indians from a trip to Grand Rapids, smallpox broke out in the tribe and all but 150 of the Indians in the settlement died and were buried in Shimnecon."

In the book "Michigan History (1917)", you can read the following. "In Ionia County, the Ladies Literary Club of Danby has placed a fine boulder on the roadside between Portland and Sebewa bearing the inscription 1845 MISH SHIM ME NE CON ING. In the paper read by Mrs. L. P. Brock, it is stated that the name Mish shim me ne con ing is Ottawa for "Peaceful Valley"".

This map was provided by the Portland Michigan History group on Facebook, as was the following caption. "The Land of Shimnecon, the "Great Bend" of the Grand River, south of Portland, replete with historic sites. Most famous is the Shimnecon Mission site at the south end of Okemos road, with its nearby settlement of farming Indians and its cemetery where Chief Okemos is buried. Less than a mile to the east was an earlier site, where the Indians lived when the white man arrived. It too, was called Shimnecon. North of Towner road was yet another Shimnecon, located on both sides of the Grand river in 1827, and northeast of this site was a slightly earlier village. An Indian settlement (lower left of map) was noted in the mid-19th century at the mouth of Sebewa Creek. The Compton Church at Towner and Okemos roads lay to the north of the Shimnecon Mission."*F

While you are hiking, please be watchful of any littering, and if possible, leave the paths better than you found them. This area is an underutilized asset, and hopefully we can protect it for our descendants.

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