Emelia Christina Schaub – An Influential Force

Researched and written by Diana Baxter.
Leelanau Historical Society 2023 Summer Intern.
2022 Colgate University Graduate.

Emelia Christina Schaub was born on September 2, 1891 to Simon and Frieda Schaub. Emelia was the first of eight children, who together lived in Provemont (now Lake Leelanau, MI) where the family operated a general store from 1900-1912. Emelia’s grandparents, Simon and Christina Schaub, came to the United States from Albersweiler, Germany in 1854. They were eager to settle on Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula in particular because of its location along the 45th parallel, which they knew to be ideal wine country based on their experience living near the same latitude in Germany.[1] Emelia’s grandparents settled along Lake Leelanau and quickly developed a crop of grape shoots on their homestead for the purposes of producing wine.

From the time of her birth until age 9, Emelia and her family lived in a log cabin in Leelanau Township and carried on the ways of life of the previous Schaub generations. They farmed the land, producing mainly potatoes, corn, hay, and grain. However, by 1899, a foot injury that Emelia’s father Simon sustained six years prior while working as a lumberjack had worsened and made it incredibly difficult for him to keep up with the pace of the exhaustive farm work. The family moved in 1900 from their quaint cabin to their new home in the village center of Provemont, where they operated their general store, Simon Schaub’s Dry Goods & Groceries.

In her family genealogy entitled Family Yesterdays, Emelia looks back on her time working for the family business with pride. She and her sister Emma operated the Bell telephone switchboard housed in the store, while her brothers Germain John and Henry ran deliveries. She credits her work at the store with sparking her desire for self-improvement, and by the age of 24, Emelia had saved enough money to pay for a train ticket to Grand Rapids, MI, and to cover the tuition for MacLachlan’s Business University. In 1916, the university assigned Emelia to act as secretary for William E. Robb at his insurance company, Citizens’ Mutual Automobile Insurance Company in Howell, MI.

While Emelia was interested in joining the legal profession, she admits that she believed it to be “out of reach” for her as a woman.[2] However, during her time working for Robb at the insurance company, she began to seriously consider the idea of practicing law. While traveling with Mr. Robb and his wife, Emelia had two interviews with the deans of the Detroit College of Law and Wayne State University. She recalls that during her interview with the dean of Wayne State, he said, “You [sic] a woman and you want to be a lawyer? Oh, no!”[3] Later on, reflecting on her time at law school, Emelia recalls: “Many people said to me, ‘What’s the idea of taking law? Why don’t you take something better for a woman?’ I just paid them no attention and kept going to class.”[4] Despite facing such discouragement, Emelia attended the Detroit College of Law, graduating in June of 1924 with a Bachelor of Laws.

During her time at the college, she was a member of the Kappa Beta Pi Legal Sorority. Upon her completion of the bar exam, she learned she was one of two people to achieve the highest marks, receiving an impressive 87%. She later earned a Master of Laws from the University of Detroit. She was the first woman from Leelanau County to practice law in the State of Michigan.

Although Emelia graduated with a specialization in insurance law, she took on many criminal cases during her early years as an attorney in Detroit. In 1925, only about a year after graduating from law school, she became the first woman lawyer to successfully defend a person accused of murder. Her client, James Corbett, had been accused of conspiring and planning an armed robbery at a Detroit apartment building, which resulted in the murder of the building manager.[5] The two other defendants involved in the murder were found guilty, but Emelia successfully plead Corbett’s case.

After over ten years of practicing law in Detroit, Emelia was urged back to Leelanau County to run for the position of prosecuting attorney for the county after the incumbent had relinquished his position. Of her decision to return to her home county, Emelia writes, “Anyone who has ever lived in Leelanau County and then been absent from it for any number of years will appreciate my willingness to give up a lucrative law practice in the City of Detroit and return to Leelanau County.”[6] Emelia was elected county prosecutor in 1936 and was re-elected five times, serving twelve years in total. In addition to her duties to the county, Emelia operated a private law practice in Lake Leelanau.

It was during her tenure as Leelanau County prosecutor that Emelia began to intercede on behalf of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. At the time, the Native people living in the region had recently been denied federal recognition under the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934. This meant that the federal government did not recognize them as an organized tribe, and they thus could not benefit from the provisions for self-governance, recovery of lost land title, and economic self-sufficiency that federal tribal recognition under the IRA entailed.

It is necessary here to provide some historical context in order to clearly grasp the circumstances under which the Grand Traverse Band lived at the time. The Bureau of Indian Affair’s denial of the Grand Traverse Band’s petition for recognition hinged on the assertions of several federal officials that the Band had fully assimilated into local society and retained little to no tribal identity.[7] Having been neglected by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and deprived of federal assistance, the majority of the Grand Traverse Band were in dire straits by the early 1930s.

In 1943, the Band was denied federal recognition for a second time. Since they were not federally recognized, they were technically eligible for state and local assistance like their non-Native neighbors, a fact highlighted by John Holst, supervisor of Indian schools, in his 1939 report on the demographics of Michigan’s Native communities.[8] However, government officials like Holst used this technicality as reasoning to deny the Band’s requests for federal recognition. According to their logic, the region’s Native people had been living for so long without federal assistance and were eligible for state and local services, so it was best not to disturb this arrangement.[9] Further, Holst claimed that the Band had lost their traditional cultural identity and therefore should not receive federal designation.[10]

In reality, Holst completely misrepresented the situation on the ground. Members of the Grand Traverse Band continued to practice their traditional arts such as basketmaking and quill art. They continued to take part in traditional ceremonies and dances. They retained seasonal patterns of hunting, fishing, foraging, berry picking, and maple sugaring. They continued to speak Anishinaabemowin, their ancestral language, and continued to use their deep knowledge of the land to act as guides for settlers in the area. Even the St. Kateri Tekakwitha Catholic Church in Peshawbestown integrated Anishinaabe spiritual rites, mide, into its services.[11]

It was under these circumstances that Emelia Schaub began to petition the federal government on behalf of the Ottawa and Chippewa tribes in Leelanau County. She wrote a letter to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1937 on behalf of the Grand Traverse Band. It reads, in part:

Many of them cannot earn their own living; they find it particularly difficult to get work with equal pay… and they have not adjusted themselves readily to civilized life and many will never be able to do so… May I ask you to assist us by urging the Department of Interior or the Re-settlement administration to formulate some plan to rehabilitate these Indians, some program specially suited to the problems of the American Indian, he must have a special program as he cannot take care of himself.[12]

In response, Assistant Commissioner of Indian Affairs William Zimmerman wrote:

Although a way has been opened to us to extend aid to Indians who, as in Michigan, have not in recent years been under Federal jurisdiction, we are not anxious to assume responsibility for Indians who have adapted themselves in anything like an adequate manner in their present communities. For this reason, it seems best not to make a blanket policy with each group as its legal status and economic needs require.[13]

Zimmerman’s letter seems to ignore Schaub’s assessment that the Native people in the Grand Traverse region were struggling to earn a living and were being neglected by the state and local services that were obligated to assist them. To this point, historian Richard White found that in 1938, almost all Peshawbestown residents were out of work, “only two out of thirty remaining families had members employed in federal works programs, and only two more received state and local relief.”[14] Federal officials seemed eager to pass off responsibility for assisting the Ottawa and Chippewa peoples to state and local agencies—who themselves were discriminatory and did very little to assist the Native people—and time and time again these officials misrepresented the on-the-ground living conditions.

Crest of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians

In addition, much of the land owned by the Ottawa and Chippewa peoples in the area had become mired in back taxes and was at risk of being foreclosed upon by the State of Michigan. Per Emelia’s recommendation, Leelanau County petitioned the State of Michigan to obtain the title to 72 acres of land in Peshawbestown.[15] The State approved this request, and the acreage was held in trust by the County starting in 1944. The County purchased additional lands for the Peshawbestown trust in 1954 and 1971. While these actions saved the land from foreclosure, they did little else to immediately improve the livelihoods of the Peshawbestown residents. The precarity of the arrangement meant that the County could revoke the Band’s land permits at any time. Also, since the land was owned by the County, the County also owned whatever property that was built or improvements that were made on that land.[16]

It wasn’t until 1980 that the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians finally received federal recognition under the federal acknowledgement process.[I7]  The Grand Traverse Band was the first tribe to receive federal recognition under this new petition process, which was created in 1975 for the express purpose of identifying tribes that, for whatever reason, had never received federal recognition. The approval of their petition was in large part due to their possession of the Peshawbestown land base that Emelia helped them secure 36 years prior.

In his book The Eagle Returns: The Legal History of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, Matthew Fletcher describes Emelia Schaub as one of several “heroes during these dark times.”[17] Both Emelia and her sister Emma were admitted as honorary members into the Grand Traverse Band on November 2, 1942. Emelia received the name “Ki-do-ni-ni-qua,” meaning “the woman who binds us with the law.”[18] In 1994, Emelia—then 102 years old—was presented with the Michigan State Bar’s “Legal Milestone” award for a lifetime of service in the legal profession before a crowd of over 120 people.[I8]  At the ceremony, Ruth Bussey, tribal spokeswoman for the Grand Traverse Band, stated, “Emelia Schaub did lay the foundation of the Grand Traverse Band… it was through her efforts that we were able to use our land… The impact of her efforts at that time have touched many of our lives as they are today.”[19] As an experienced lawyer with a voice in County government, Emelia was an influential advocate for the Grand Traverse Band.

Emelia was also deeply involved with community life in Leelanau County aside from her involvement with the Band. In 1938, she was elected to serve as the secretary of the first ever Leelanau County Chamber of Commerce. She was one of the founders of the Leelanau Township Community Foundation, a non-profit formed in Northport, MI, in 1945. She was also one of the original “Founder’s Life Members” of the Sugar Loaf Winter Sports Club, which began operating as a non-profit in 1946 before the land was converted into the for-profit Sugar Loaf Resort in 1962.

In the 1950s, Emelia and her friend Nan Helm began to discuss the idea of organizing a historical society for Leelanau County, and, on November 5, 1957, their plan came to fruition and the Leelanau Historical Society was founded. Emelia acted as the Society’s secretary for many years, and was instrumental in sourcing donations for the Society’s archives. Emelia herself donated numerous items from her and her family’s history. The Society’s growing collection, all of which was community-sourced, found its first home in the old county jailhouse, which was converted into a museum in 1959. In 1985, the Leelanau Historical Society & Museum moved into a new larger building located just across the Leland River from the old jailhouse, where it has remained to this day. During the August 1995 Annual Meeting of the Leelanau Historical Society, several months after Emelia’s death, Frederick Petroskey presented a portrait he painted of Emelia to the Society as a tribute to her legacy. The portrait is now displayed proudly in the Museum.

Emelia received recognition on several occasions for her lifetime of legal service before she passed away on April 24, 1995. In September of 1974, the Detroit Bar honored Emelia for 50 years in the legal practice. In 1990, she was admitted to the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame, and a year later she was named a “Champion of Justice” of the Michigan State Bar. At the aforementioned 1994 ceremony during which Emelia received the state Bar Association’s “Legal Milestone” award, state and county officials also unveiled a six-ton boulder with a bronze plaque honoring Emelia. This monument continues to rest near the entrance of the Leelanau County Government Center.

While living in Detroit during the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s, Emelia served as Detroit-area grand regent of the National Organization of Catholic Daughters of America and was a member of the Quota Club. She became a charter member of the Traverse City branch of the Zonta Club for professional and businesswomen upon her return to Leelanau County in the late 1930s.[20] She was also very active within the Women Lawyers Association of Michigan (WLAM), serving as its secretary and treasurer during the organization’s early years in the 1920s.

When Emelia was sworn in as Leelanau County prosecuting attorney on January 1, 1937, three of her friends from the WLAM watched on proudly. These were Suzanne M. Popp, then-president of the WLAM; Hazel Moran, former assistant prosecuting attorney of Wayne County; and Judge Lila M. Neuenfelt, Michigan’s first woman circuit court judge.[21] Judge Neuenfelt was invited to administer the oath of office to Emelia during the ceremony. In 2021, the Tip of the Mitt Region of the WLAM named its first regional award the Emelia C. Schaub Pioneer Award, in honor of Emelia’s legacy in the region and within the WLAM itself.[22]

During the later years of Emelia’s life, she sold her law office and retired to her home on the shores of Lake Michigan. She found joy in observing the various wildlife that paid her visits: doves, chickadees, cardinals, chipmunks, and squirrels all frequented her feeding stations.[23] She also enjoyed the company of two beloved Siamese cats, Rama and Vulture, and a Doberman Pinscher named Eric. She dedicated much of her time during these retirement years to researching her family’s history, which culminated in her publishing of Family Yesterdays, the Schaub family genealogy, in 1986. Although Family Yesterdays is no longer in print, the Leelanau Historical Society & Museum has a copy that is available to view by appointment in the Museum’s Research Center. Emelia’s family history stands as a testament to her commitment to preserving the past. Family Yesterdays has served, as she intended, as a valuable resource for subsequent generations of the Schaub family, many of whom still reside in Leelanau County. Emelia found her final resting place in Leland’s Beechwood Cemetery, which overlooks Lake Leelanau, the same body of water along which her grandparents settled 150 years before.

[1] Emelia Schaub, Family Yesterdays (Traverse City: Myers Printing Service, 1986), 1.

[2] Schaub, Yesterdays, 166.

[3] Schaub, Yesterdays, 166.

[4] “Emelia Schaub: College, county alum soon to be 100,” The Leelanau Enterprise (Leland), February 28, 1991. https://digmichnews.cmich.edu/?a=d&d=LeelanauLE19910228-01.1.50&srpos=33&e=——-en-10–31-byDA.rev-txt-txIN-%22emelia+schaub%22———.

[5] Schaub, Yesterdays, 168.

[6] Schaub, Yesterdays, 169.

[7] Matthew L. M. Fletcher, The Eagle Returns: The Legal History of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2012), 98.

[8] Fletcher, The Eagle Returns, 98.

[9] Fletcher, The Eagle Returns, 98.

[10] Fletcher, The Eagle Returns, 98.

[11] Fletcher, The Eagle Returns, 99.

[12] Fletcher, The Eagle Returns, 97.

[13] Fletcher, The Eagle Returns, 97.

[14] Fletcher, The Eagle Returns, 98.

[15] Fletcher, The Eagle Returns, 100.

[16] Fletcher, The Eagle Returns, 101.

[17] Fletcher, The Eagle Returns, 97.

[18] Schaub, Yesterdays, 101.

[19] Bill O’Brien, “’Wonderful day’ honors Emelia Schaub: 102-year-old ‘girl from Provemont’ sited for legal achievements,” The Leelanau Enterprise (Leland), June 2, 1994. https://digmichnews.cmich.edu/?a=d&d=LeelanauLE19940602-01&e=——-en-10–11-byDA.rev-txt-txIN-%22emelia+schaub%22———.

[20] Schaub, Yesterdays, 169.

[21] Schaub, Yesterdays, 170.

[22] Ross Boissoneau, “Emelia Schaub, Leelanau Luminary and Pioneer, Inspires New Award,” The Leelanau Ticker, September 24, 2021. https://www.leelanauticker.com/news/emelia-schaub-leelanau-luminary-and-pioneer-inspires-new-award/.

[23] Schaub, Yesterdays, 172.

Researched and written by Diana Baxter.
Leelanau Historical Society 2023 Summer Intern.
2022 Colgate University Graduate.