What Campau Saw
Let us, in our mind's eye, gaze over this happy home of the Red Man as it was when Louis Campau came here in 1826.
In those days the bottom lands along the Grand river were covered with heavy timber---elm, black ash, sycamore, walnut, burr oak, hickory, and soft maple. The underbush was often willows. On the hills were oak openings extending back from half a mile to several miles from the lowlands. Then came heavy timber lands covered with beech and maple, with spots on which there were heavy pine or scrub pine and oak. Here hazel was part of the underbush, with occasional clumps of hawthorn and prickly ash. There were a few wild plum trees and grapevines bearing their fruit.
The turbulent river flowed then as now in a southerly direction at the site of the city, only its banks were much more widely separated and there were four islands below the falls. The rapids were about a mile long, extending from the present Leonard street to below Pearl street. The drop was uniform and in all was 18 feet in the mile of water flow. The east extension of the flow came as far as where the Hotel Pantlind now stands, and in high water boats were known to land almost exactly where now stands the Fourth National Bank building in Campau square.
The island nearest the rapids, known on old maps and charts as No. 1, was on the line of Pearl street, and the bridge spanning the river at that thoroughfare today crosses its northern extremity. The antiquated county jail is on Island No. 2, the city market on No. 3, and a railroad bridge has been built across No. 4, near the foot of Wealthy street. Islands 1 and 2 were small but 3 and 4 were fairly large. The deep channel of the river was on the east side, and later when vessels came upstream they discharged and took on their cargoes on that side.
The Indians had cleared a portion of the bottom lands west of the river and on it raised their corn. There were two Indian villages on that side. One was along the river, north from where modern Bridge street crosses. The center of the other was near where Watson street intersects National avenue. The southern village was the larger, numbering in all about 300 souls. Its chief was Mex-ci-ne-ne, or the Wampum-man, an eloquent speaker and something of a dandy in dress. His wife was the daughter of Chief Noonday, who presided over the destinies of the upper village. This chief was a noble Red Man, standing over six feet and well worthy the esteem in which he was held by all men of both races.
In those days the mounds, or tumuli, erected by the predecessors of the Indians, existed within the confines of modern downtown Grand Rapids. There were at least four of these mounds along West Fulton street, there was one at the west end of the present Pearl street bridge, one on Scribner avenue and several in the vicinity of West Leonard street. The Indians had their burying ground near the mounds along West Fulton street. A brook emptied into the river about midway between Bridge and Pearl streets. This brook, wandering through a ravine, drained swamp and low-lying lands north of Bridge street.
The land east of the river differed much from that on the west side. There was a narrow border of lowland next the river bank, but back of this was hill, vale and swamp. Right in the heart of the modern business district of the city was a mass of high ground which the early settlers called Prospect Hill. It was of hard clay. Its steep western face rose from a point about ten rods north of Lyon street, east of Bond avenue, and extended south to Monroe avenue, where it presented another fairly steep face. Its southwestern angle was less than 200 feet from the river bank. Its highest point was near or slightly south of Pearl street, west of Ottawa avenue. There two streets, as well as Lyon, have been cut through the hill. Toward the east Prospect hill sloped off gently. Between it and where Division avenue now is, there was a depression through which ran northerly a spring brook. Near the site of the present federal building there was a swamp, with a pond of about one acre in extent.
Back some fifty rods from the east bank of the river there was a commanding sand bluff, with a steep western surface, extending practically all the way from Coldbrook creek on the north to Fulton street on the south, about a mile and a half. The valley of the Coldbrook lay north of this bluff. South of Fulton street and west of Division a large swamp covered the land upon which the present Union Passenger station is built. A brook emptied into the river near where East Fulton street now meets the stream. And few of us today would suspect that then a rivulet, starting from some springs along and south of Fountain street and west of Division, flowed northerly through a pond bordered by flags and willows; going near where the post office now stands, thence out towards Crescent street near Ionia street half way to Canal street (now Monroe avenue) where there was another little pond, and thence meandered northwesterly to discharge its waters into the Grand near Erie street.
There was a fording place in the river between Islands 2 and 3. North of the rapids there was a deer and bear "run" across the river.
Just north of Michigan street, half way up the hill, was a cluster of cedars, in the midst of which was a very large spring of excellent water. There were numerous springs in and near the present downtown district, one on the river's bank at Pearl street, above which in after days Louis Campau erected his "milk house."
All around the site of the city was forest, dense and often impenetrable. In this the Indians had made a few trails, but the white man had to cut roads through the timber to move his wagons. The real approach to the city was by way of Grand River, which at Grand Haven gave it an outlet on the Great Lakes, and upstream led to some of the sections settled earlier by white men.
The Indians had chosen well when they settled in two villages along the banks of the O-wash-ta-nong river at its limestone rapids. They were as peaceful and as happy as any of the tribes in America, with fish and game in abundance and amity between the chieftains. As eloquently brief as any description could be are the words of Joel Guild, who came here in 1833, and who wrote that same year to his brother and sister back east:
"Here is plenty of fish and plenty of game, and the greatest country for honey that I ever saw."
No more could be said of Canaan, the Promised Land, as the Israelites looked down upon it in the days of Moses and their wanderings.
Of the Red Man who settled here when the first missionaries paddled up the river we know little, save through unreliable tradition. This tradition tells us that the Mish-ko-tinks, or Prairie Indians, were the first to settle in Michigan. Then the Chippewas, Ottawas and Pottawattomies, calling themselves the Three Brothers, all of Algonquin stock, came down from Canada and fought the Mish-ko-tinks. Three great battles were fought along Grand river, the big one near the intersection of Mt. Vernon avenue and West Fulton street. The Mish-ko-tinks wee annihilated and the valley of Grand river was chosen as the abiding place of the Ottawa of the invading tribes. The Pottawattomies settled further south in Michigan and the Chippewas made their abode in the north. But generally there was peace between the tribes of the Three Brothers, and there were constant intermarriages, which helped to preserve good will.
It is estimated that in all there were not more than 1,000 Indians in Kent county when the first whites came, and that then all of Michigan contained not more than 50,000.
Transcriber: Ronnie Aungst
Created: 10 December 1999