Just days before Thanksgiving, it seems only appropriate to pay tribute to Native Americans. After all, back in 1621 at the first celebration of the harvest - that's what Thanksgiving is, you know - it was the country's native inhabitants who set the pattern for much of the menu we will enjoy Thursday, including turkey and pumpkin pie.
With such treasured American culinary history in mind, I circled Baw Beese Lake, just an 18-mile drive from home. Besides adding tremendously to my new interest in southern Michigan's Native American ancestry, it proved the adage about how close you can be to the forest and not see the trees.
Though I have driven by Baw Beese hundreds of times, I had never turned down Ashtewette Road to see the lake. Surprisingly, the shoreline is not lined with cottages, as are other southern Michigan lakes such as Devils and Round lakes, and Posey Lake, where I live.
Baw Beese, once a popular resort with a hotel, now is left largely to the beautiful natural landscape, which seems only right for a lake named for the chief of a tribe that roamed these parts freely and, according to history, preferred to camp on the banks of the lake. My affection for Chief Baw Beese was kindled at the corner of Squawfield and Waldron roads in southern Hills-
dale County. There, a bronze plaque in the shape of an arrowhead, on a large rose-colored rock, pays homage to the chief and his followers and marks their last encampment before they were forced to leave this area. The memorial was built by Ralph Lickley in 1938.
The plaque with its brief explanation of the tribe whet my appetite for more information. I decided to do more research in Tales of the Old Sauk Trail by Hillsdale historian Daniel Bisher, and another book, Hills and Dales, by local contributors.
Chief Baw Beese led a band of 150 Potawatomis who are said to have wandered without a permanent village, but always returned to the bark cabins they had built by the lake. Unlike the Potawatomi nation that had a reputation for being fierce and warlike, this band is said to have been peace-loving and generous to the pioneers. History records that when the first settlers arrived in 1827, the chief welcomed them and the pipe of peace was smoked.
It is believed that the first settlers may not have survived the harsh Michigan winters had not Chief Baw Beese come to their rescue, much as the native Americans did at Plymouth, Mass. In the book written for the Hillsdale centennial in 1969, and other accounts of the popular chief, it is recorded that he frequently went to the homes of the pioneers with wild game, corn, wild turkeys, and quail. The story goes that he dropped his gifts of food at their feet and then stayed for dinner. He obviously had a curiosity about the white man that matched his kindness.
The tribe's presence is kept alive in the names of roads and in one town. As an example, Squawfield Road is where the chief and his tribe camped for the summer and where the women cultivated corn and pumpkins in a 15-acre field. It also is believed that a racetrack on the same land was used to raise and train ponies. Territorial Road was so named because it was an old Indian trail between Toledo and Chicago. The town of Osseo is named for a granddaughter of the chief. Ashtewette, the road leading from highway M-34 to Baw Beese Lake, was the name of the cousin who the chief's daughter, Wenona, loved, although she ultimately married a man from another tribe.
In 1840 Chief Baw Beese and his followers were rounded up by the government and sent to Council Bluffs, Iowa. Later they were moved to a reservation in Kansas, but the chief's soul forever belonged to his little corner of Hillsdale County. It is noteworthy that his name is not among the more than 55 Potawatomis who signed the federal government treaty that relinquished their titles to the land. He died believing it was his land.