Essay Project 2021: Chief Okemos - His Life and Undying Legacy
By Kailyn Howe
Chief John Okemos was once described as “Brave in Battle”, “Wise in Council” and “Honorable in Peace”. In order to have earned these titles, he must have had to do some pretty important things, right? He has a city named after him, surely he must’ve done something interesting. To give a brief summary before diving into who Okemos really was, he was the chief of multiple tribes here in Michigan, including the Grand River Band of Chippewa (Ojibway) Indians. He was a warrior, he fought many battles, he was filled with pride, he was smart and he was peaceful. Having these traits makes it very obvious that he earned his title of chief, a title he gave an exceptional definition to. Even though there is not much actually known about Okemos, there is so much to tell about his life, grave and his overall significance.
It is written, that Okemos was originally born in Shiawassee County, but according to Elizabeth Gorecki, who is a board member of the Nokomis Cultural Heritage Center, he “was born on an island near Pontiac [Michigan] which everyone believes it was Apple Island in the Orchard Lake area.” He has multiple names written as his real name, a few including: “Ottawatamie Okemos Kinne-boo", "Pottawatamie Okemos Kinne-boo", and "Ogimaans Kinne-boo". He later adopted the name “John Okemos”. Okemos’ parents’ names are also questioned, but it is speculated that his grandfather was the Ojibwe chief Min-e-to-gob-o-way and his uncle was the Odawa chief Kob-e-ko-no-ka. It is also unknown when Okemos was actually born, however he always claimed to be one-hundred and ten years old. It is speculated that he was born sometime between 1750 and 1788. According to John Robinson, who wrote the article “The Gravesite of Chief Okemos”, he is first mentioned in 1796 when “[he] and 16 others joined forces with the British scouted against the Americans”.
As stated in the article “CHIEF OKEMOS in life and death”, Okemos was described as a man who “usually wore a blanket coat with a belt and had a steel pipe hatchet tomahawk and a long hunting knife. He sometimes painted his face with vermillion on his cheeks and forehead and over his eyes. You could tell if he was around because he always played his pipe or flute in the early morning”. No one knows how many times he married, but it is hypothesized that he had between four and seven wives. The number of children he had is also a query, but he “made [appearances] at temperance picnics or any event along with 8 to 12 young ragged and dirty Indians all of whom he claimed as his children” as said by “CHIEF OKEMOS in life and death”. A few of his known children include John (Paymechewaysawdung), James (Waygeshegome) and two daughters named Kawbaishcawmoquay and Shawusquahbenoquay.
Though not much is known about Okemos, Marion Turner is able to recall events that included him. On November 30, 1899, she released the Chief Okemos Story When I Was a Young Girl. In this story, she writes that “Old Okemos” was “a frequent visitor at [her] house”. Turner writes, “I remember that we looked upon him as a great chief and we were much interested in hearing him talk of the terrible battles he had fought”.
During his lifetime, Okemos was not unfamiliar with war and battles. In 1811, he fought in the battle of Tippencanoe, Indiana. Afterwards, he joined the British forces to fight against the Americans in the War of 1812. He was a leader in the Battle of Sandusky in 1813, and later that year he took part in the Siege of Meigs in Ohio. His last battle took place on October 5, 1813 at the Battle of Thames. During that time, he was a Prisoner of War and was eventually pardoned by the Territorial Governor Lewis Cass.
Perhaps one of his most noticeable moments occurred in the spring of 1814 when other chiefs and himself presented themselves at Fort Wayne in Detroit. As reported by the National Park service, it was there he stated that “he was done fighting, with the white man”. Because of his surrender, he was named the chief of a Red Cedar Band of Shiawassee Chippewa Indians, which, according to “CHIEF OKEMOS in life and death, “was no outstanding position, but he did take the title Chief”.
Following his participation in the War of 1812, Okemos signed the Treaty with the Wyandot etc. 1815 (also known as the Treaty of Springwells) to be pardoned for the war and to pledge his tribe’s and his allegiance to the United States. Then, he signed another Treaty with the Wyandot etc. (Treaty of Fort Meigs) in 1817. As a result, he and other Indian chiefs ceded most of their remaining land in Northern Ohio to the U.S. government. This treaty was considered the most significant treaty in Ohio since the 1795 Treaty of Greenville.
In 1819, Okemos represented the Ojibwa people at the Treaty of Saginaw. There he met other tribe leaders, including Chief Mash Kee Yosh and Chief Wasso, and Lewis Cass. Signing this treaty meant that these tribes were going to lose land and unfortunately the Ojibwa people would ultimately lose the most land. Okemos, Cass and the other chiefs signed the treaty, the tribes giving up six million acres of land of what is now the southern part of Michigan to Cass and the United States Government.
Okemos died on December 4, 1858 near Portland, Michigan. Elizabeth Gorecki stated that he “was found dead along one of his small encampments along the Looking Glass River”. At the time of his death, he could have been anywhere between eighty-four and one-hundred and nineteen years old. He was buried at Shimnicon Cemetery in Portland, and was the last known person to be buried there. Gorecki said he was buried with all of the things that would be needed in the afterlife, which includes his hatchet, hunting knife and other unlisted items. Gorecki also said, “his people moved his body to an unknown location to any people other than his own.” Though his body is located in a different area, his original gravesite is described as “one of the most peaceful [and] serene places in Michigan” as reported by John Robinson in his article “The Gravesite of Chief Okemos”. In 1859, the city of Hamilton was renamed Okemos in honor of him.
After his death, multiple memorials were erected in honor of him. An example of one occurred on October 22, 1923 when a bronze tablet was unveiled at Meridian Consolidated Agricultural School in Okemos for him. In a Lansing State Journal article, it is written that the tablet was “unveiled with appropriate school exercises”. The article says, “Community singing was led by Rev. George H. Hudson… the invocation was also given by Reverend Hudson. Mrs. Ethel Leu then played a piano solo, “Indian Dance,” as a prelude to five scenes from Longfellow’s “Song of Hiawatha,” which the school children gave.” The epic poem is about an Objiwe Chief (much like Okemos) named Hiawatha and his love for a woman named Minnehaha. In the eighth section of the epic poem, titled Hiawatha’s Fishing, there is a quote that describes Okemos, “Up he rose with angry gesture, Quivering in each nerve and fibre, Clashing all his plates of armor, Gleaming bright with all his war-paint; In his wrath he darted upward…”, Okemos was a warrior, he fought when he needed to, he loved to hunt and fish, Hiawatha could be described as a representation of Okemos.
As a junior in high school, it has been quite a few years since I learned about Native people in school, in fact the last time I remember learning about them was in my ninth grade World History class. However, it has been since about fifth grade when we went more in depth about Native History. Writing this article gave me an opportunity to continue learning about the people (in this case a specific person) who have lived here before we “discovered” the land. To me, it is important to learn about people of history and Okemos is an important person of history. Being born and growing up in Michigan means I need to know the history of my state, and Okemos was an important part of that history.
It is without a doubt that Chief John Okemos was a very interesting and influential man. A man who deserves much recognition. It isn’t new news that many indigineous people have been erased from history, especially on their own land. Indigineous History should be a vital part of what we learn. We do learn about it in school for a period of time, but it is horribly sugarcoated. We don’t take enough time to really look at what Okemos and other indigineous people have done, because in reality, they have done so much, Okemos is an example of that. He played a huge role in the making of Michigan and deserves the same recognition as the other founders of Michigan. Just as Okemos once said to students of the Owosso school, “I don't ever want you to forget that you have seen this great Indian… for when you are grown men and women you will be proud that you once saw Okemos."
Chief Okemos was an Indian Chief who has undoubtedly left an impact here in Michigan. Much may not be known about him, including when he was born, how old he was and even where he lay to rest today, but he has done so much during his lifetime. As written by the National Park Service, he is remembered as a man “who outlived and survived all the misfortune of the times”. He played a key role in the expansion of Michigan because without him we wouldn’t have most of Southern Michigan. Though there are many versions of certain stories and we may never know the true version, he remains a vital figure of Michigan’s history and creation.
This essay is part of a writing project by students in Chandra Polasek’s ELA class at Portland High School. The project asked students to focus on elements of their own town while getting students engaged with the community. The essays were written with the intention of being published in The Portland Beacon.