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Early French Missions on the Saginaw
Reprint from Michigan Pioneer Society.
  • Transcribed February 2004.
  • Michigan Pioneer and Historical Collections, 22:244-246


    by Fred Carlisle (1899)

    Some time since, at the suggestion of Judge Miller, of Bay City, "That it was his belief missions had been planted by the French and that they flourished at a very early day on the banks of the Saginaw river and its tributaries," the writer took occasion to investigate as to facts in history leading to a confirmation of his opinion.

    He finds that as early as 1540 Jacques Cartier, or Quartier, knew about the lower peninsular as the Sagihnaw region. Subsequently, that Champlain in 1611 had described the safe harbor afforded by the Saginaw river from the stormy waters of a bay, which formed a part of a great inland body of water, connecting two larger bodies of fresh water which he denominated as "seas," and in his rough map, from which copies have been made and which is now in the office of the French Marine, he has delineated the mouth of that river as correctly as in the maps of the present day. These facts would seem to warrant a full knowledge on the part of the French of that stream at a very early period.

    Faillon (French) in his history of Canada refers to the Sagihnaw country and to the salt springs at the junction of two large rivers, which were the resorts of the Indian tribes of all the region between Lakes Michigan and Huron.

    He further says that "in 1684 a large body of farmers and artisans came from France," that a portion were sent to the Sagihnaw country, that with them were five Jesuit fathers, who were instructed to found missions in all that country between St. Ignace and Lake Erie." From these statements we must infer that the region of the Saginaw valley would be an important point at which to establish a mission. In addition we know that in 1686 the Jesuits Engelrau and M. Perrott were exceedingly active in establishing missions and depots in all the country between the missions at Cheboygan and St. Igace and the islands of Lake Erie, now known as, "Put-in-Bay." and the query is, would they pass the valley which was resorted to by the Chippewas, Pottawatamies, Hurons, Ottawas, the Sacs of the upper peninsula, the Fox and Illinois Indian tribes, for the salt which that region was known to produce?

    But coming down to a later period, we find that when in 1819 General Cass called the Chippewas and Pottawatamies together at Saginaw certain reservations were made, as follows:

    Treaty with the Chippewas at Saginaw, September 24, 1819.

    For use of John Riley, the son of Me-naw-cum-e-goqua, a Chippewa> woman, 640 acres of land, beginning at the head of the first marsh above the mouth of the Saginaw river on the east side thereof.

    For the use of Peter Riley, the son of Me-naw-cum-e-goqua, a Chippewa woman, 640 acres of land, beginning above and adjoining the apple trees on the West side of the Saginaw river, and running up the same for the quantity.

    For the use of James Riley, son of the same Chippewa woman, 640 acres beginning on the east side of the Saginaw river, nearly opposite to Campau's trading house, and running up the river for quantity.

    For the use of Kaw-kaw-is-kon, or the Crow, 640 acres on the east side of Saginaw river at a place called Me-ni-te-gow and to include in said 610 acres the island opposite.

    Fort St. Joseph, at the head of St. Clair river, was built by Du Luth under the direction of Denouville' in 1686. Two years prior there had arrived at Quebec a large number of immigrants who were farmers and artisans and a number of priests of the Jesuit order, and the Jesuit Engelrau was instructed to establish missions throughout the Saginaw region, which he did. - Rev. Faillon's History of Canada and Prominent Men.

    In the memoirs of Captain Whitmore Knaggs, he states in respect to the reservations made to the Riley family: "That John was a man sixty years of age. Peter was at least fifty-eight. Both told him that the "apple trees," which formed a point in the boundaries of the lands which were reserved for them, bore apples when they were boys. That Kaw-kaw-is-kou, their chief, said they were grown or brought there by men who wore long black robes coming below the knees, white men, whom they knew as Onetia.'”

    Assuming that all the statements, in reference to those made by biographer of "Quartier," "of Champlain," "of Engelrau," "Perrott" and the history of Faillon to be well based, taken in connection with the physical facts, that the pear and "apple trees" found at the forks of the Tittabawassee, Flint, Shiawassee, and Saginaw by General Cass, and 'Whitmore Knaggs, as early as 1819, must have been over sixty years of age, and the further fact that the existence of saline springs at these points was well known to the early white explorers and missionaries and was traditional with the Indians of Illinois, and all the northwestern tribes, that for a long period prior to Du Luth’s construction of Fort St. Joseph at the outlet of Lake Huron in 1786, the Chippewas had their permanent villages on the banks of these streams, we must reach the conclusion that the Jesuit missionaries and the Recollet fathers would utilize this locality and make it important as a permanent stopping place between the upper and lower peninsulas

    Related Pages & Notes

    1918 Map
    Area where Riley Reserve was located. The map link below shows river from Saginaw Bay to city of Saginaw.
    {1918 Saginaw River Map}
    People Referenced

    Cartier, Jacques
    Cass, (Gen.)
    Faillon, (Rev.)
    Kaw-kaw-is-kou, Chief
    Knaggs, Whitmore (Capt.)
    Miller, Albert (Judge)
    Perrott, M.
    Riley, James
    Riley, John
    Subjects Referenced
    Bay City
    Campus's trading house
    Chippewa Indians
    Flint River
    Fort St. Joseph
    Fox Indians
    French Marine
    Huron Indians
    Illinois Indians
    Indian tribes
    Jesuit fathers
    Jesuit missionaries
    Lake Erie
    Lake Huron
    Lake Michigan
    Ottawa Indians
    Pottawatamies Indians
    Recollet fathers
    Sac Indians
    Sagihnaw region
    Saginaw River
    Saginaw Valley
    Saginaw Treaty 1819
    Salt springs
    Shiawassee River
    St. Clair River
    St. Ignace
    Tittabawassee River
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    WRITINGS: History As It Was Written Then.