“The Indian Farmer” with Historian’s Commentary

“Progress” isn’t always what it seems – especially not in Wakazooville, 1850

Commentary by Mark Smith

The history of the Grand Traverse area is rich with stories of hardship, perseverance, and cultural encounters between the incoming settlers and the Native Americans.  Although Leelanau County was largely unpopulated at the time George Nelson Smith arrived in Northport in 1849, there were a few old apple orchards and sugar camps on the peninsula, evidence of sporadic visitation which preceded any white settlement.  There were also old clearings here and there, remnants of old summer vegetable gardens.  The Odawa and Ojibwe of this area kept their own kinds of gardens, not the type white settlers kept, but a simpler “slash and burn” method of clearing a space to be cultivated.  They did not spend their winters here, however, but migrated south to the Black River area to spend winters trapping and hunting.  In 1849 Reverend Smith moved north with his band of Odawa, leaving the present-day Holland, MI area to come north and start a new settlement, away from the ever-increasing pressure of the newly arrived Dutch settlers. This new settlement was called Wakazooville and would represent a firm intention by the Indians* to settle out and stay put in one place.

(*Note: the term “Indian”, although distasteful to some, was the designation used at the time of this story and indeed the term still used by many Anishinaabek themselves.  The Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, for example, is still the standard nomenclature. “Anishinaabek” or Anishinaabeg refers to several groups of indigenous peoples, including the Odawa and Ojibwe who feature in this paper.  “Anishinaabe” is adjectival. “Anishinaabemowin” designates the language spoken.) 

The story you are about to read is about what happened when the United States government sent an agricultural agent, or Indian Farmer, to help teach the Indians how to grow gardens and keep livestock in the manner of white folk.  The mission at Northport was just getting underway. For the first few years after arriving in 1849 Reverend Smith and his band seemed to prosper.  They continued to hunt and fish widely, having no private land boundaries to restrict them, but many white settlers were starting to arrive and there was a great pressure on the Indians to cease their nomadic ways and settle down.   The Indian Farmer’s job was to help the Indians learn how to become “proper” citizens and to lead what was then called a sedentary lifestyle (as opposed to nomadic). It was paramount for the whites that the Indians must live like them.

The story speaks for itself and if you have not read it already then please do.  You can read it here.  But before you read, I think a little background might be helpful. 

Grand Traverse Herald – Recollections from Mrs. Arvilla Powers – June 12, 1908 issue.

First, the post of Indian Farmer was a political appointment.  The Indian Farmer in this story is a Mr. John J. Merrill, and he seems to have been remarkably unsuited to the work.  Prior to Merrill arriving on the scene in Northport, the Indian Farmer was the much beloved Mr. McLaughlin, a true friend to the Indians.  But Mr. McLaughlin was let go when Millard Fillmore became president.  The system under which new appointees replaced old appointees whenever there was a change in political leadership was called the spoils system, or patronage system.  It was not until the Pendleton Act was passed in 1883 that the civil servant system was reformed and replaced with the largely nonpartisan system we have now, which is merit based.  But at the time of this story the appointments were political, which meant a lack of continuity and the distinct possibility that the new appointee would be a loyal partisan of little use.

Second, because of the spoils system personal allegiances tended to be political in nature.  Mr. Joseph Dame, who had served as Indian Farmer with Reverend Peter Dougherty in Old Mission, arrived in Northport shortly before Mr. Merrill arrived on the scene in Northport (1850).  When the Indians saw fit to draw up a petition against Merrill and send it off to the Indian Agent to complain about Merrill’s behavior, Mr. Dame took it upon himself to write a note defending Merrill, thereby inserting himself into the process.  Perhaps Dame truly believed in Merrill’s capabilities, but a pattern of behavior emerged over time whereby Dame undercut Reverend Smith in other ways, largely due to their political differences. 

Third, Reverend Smith was one of the few people of the area to advocate for the Indians.  Smith was a New England Congregationalist and as such was part of the anti-slavery movement.  Smith started out as a Whig but became a Republican when the Whigs died out.  The Republican party of the 1850’s was staunchly anti-slavery, unlike the Democrats.  Smith’s Congregationalist sensibilities extended to his belief in the inherent value of all peoples, with particular respect to his flock, the Odawa he had brought north with him.  Because Smith chose to advocate for the Indians, he was despised by many of the whites.  When young Jackson Merrill, son of James Merrill, lashes out and calls Reverend Smith and his wife “the God damnedest liars there are in the world” he does so because Smith takes the Indians’ side.  To some it seemed inconceivable that a white man should side with the Indians.  As Norman C. Morgan wrote of Reverend Smith’s life, “As a politician he was not a success because of his unswerving honestly and absolute incorruptibility. He was upright from principle and policy never moved him. No hope of vain ever induced him to countenance party intrigue. For this reason he was often cruelly misjudged.”

Rev. George N. Smith and family. 
Wife: Arvilla Almira (Powers) Smith.
Daughter: Mary Jane  (Smith) Wolfe (standing).
Daughter:  Arvilla Almira (Smith) Voice (seated).

Lastly, if you read the entire package of letters which go with this story you will be amazed to discover not settled history, but life as it is lived, untidy and ever evolving.  One of the most exciting aspects of my historical research is discovering primary documents, which probably have not seen the light of day in over 170 years.  In this package we have a letter from Merrill, defending himself against the charges made against him by the Indians in their petition of 1851.  Merrill’s letter is poorly written, grammatically and otherwise, and full of seething resentment against those he sees as depriving him of his pay.  At one point Merrill refers to Reverend Smith as a “Locofoco”, [The Loco-Foco Movement: A Lost Chapter in the History of Liberalism, Part One | Libertarianism.org](https://www.libertarianism.org/columns/loco-foco-movement-lost-chapter-history-liberalism-part-one)] a term I had never before heard.  A modern-day equivalent might be “bleeding heart liberal”. Imagine transcribing a badly written letter and coming upon a term like this, out of the blue!  Also, exciting is Agent Gilbert’s pithy verdict on Merrill: “Mr. Merrill during his residence at Grand Traverse made more out of the Indians than they out of him & if an account was fairly stated between them he would be the debtor.” (Gilbert to Manypenny, Detroit, Jan 28, ’54). A clever turn of phrase, an insight into the politics of the time, a discovery of previously undiscovered facts – all these rewards and more make primary sources like letters and diaries a rich trove for historians.

I hope you enjoy reading the story of the Indian Farmer as much as I enjoyed discovering it.  

-Mark Smith

The Indian Farmer Document, Researched & Written by Mark Smith

You will be redirected to the Leelanau Historical Society’s online archives.

Below are links to supporting historical documents, transcribed as best as can be:

“Merrill Rebuts Petition” and Transcription

“Merrill’s Claim” and Transcription

“Gilbert Denies Expense Claim” and Transcription

“Merrill Claims Again” (Not Transcribed) 

Mark Smith has lived in Leland, MI for many years.  He is a retired teacher of English, having taught for 25 years at Leland Public School as well as Northwestern Michigan College.  These days Mark spends much of his time gardening, hiking, taking photographs, reading, researching and writing.