The Ottawa Mission -- Unsuccessful Attempt of Mr. McCoy -- Success of Rev. L. Slater -- The Mission School -- Some of its Characteristics
From 1764 to 1820 the history of the Indian settlement in the vicinity of Grand Rapids is necessarily disconnected; yet, during most of this period, there were two or more permanent settlements on the west bank of the river -- one of the Ottawas, and another of theis nation and the Chippewas. The population of these villages varied with the seasons. In the spring and fall, the number of Indians collected here would often reach three or four thousand, but in mid-summer or winter it would sometimes be decreased to three or four hundred. Like all other Indian villages the inhabitants were a transient set, constantly moving away or returning, as their savage notions or the requirements of the chase demanded.
The village of the Ottawa was the most permanent, and, in point of population and influence, was the strongest settlement on the Grand River when the first rays of civilization broke through the forests from Detroit. Their rude huts were clustered along the western margin of the rapids to the number of about one hundred when Mr. Isaac McCoy visited the village in 1723, for the purpose of establishing a station in the interests of the government and civilization.
This gentlemen, who resided at Fort Wayne, visited Gen. Cass, at Detroit, in June 1822, for the purpose of securing the privileges of the Chicago treaty. The Governor had already appointed a commissioner to make definite arrangements with the Indians for the sites of the missionary stations, and Grand Rapids had been designated as a suitable place for the Ottawa Mission. Mr. McCoy made the journey to this place in company with a Frenchman, named Paget, in the following year. On their arrival they met with so many difficulties that they failed to accomplish their purpose. A council was held with the Ottawa chiefs, and Mr. McCoy addressed them through an interpreter, at considerable length, setting forth the plans of the government and the advantages which the Indians would derive from a cheerful acceptance of them. Kewaykushquom, chief of the Ottawa village, replied in a brief speech, refusing the accept the conditions offered.
In 1824, Rev. L. Slater, came to Grand Rapids, accompanied by a blacksmith and several workmen, and succeeded in winning the friendship of the savages. He established the Baptist Mission, which afterwards performed efficient service in the interests of civilization. The life of this christian pioneer was fraught with many hardships; he began his work at Grand Rapids by erecting a log house for his own residence, and a log school house. Those were the first buildings ever erected by civilized persons at Grand Rapids, although the American Fur Company had built a small store house about two miles further up the river, as early as 1780.
Mr. Slater's labors were among the Ottawas, and he soon became a favorite with Chief Kewaykushquom. The little block school-house which had been erected under the auspices of his mission was soon filled with the children of the forest, where the light of Christianity and civilization found its first admirers among the savages in the Grand River Valley.
At this point in our narrative, a mention of the events in commercial enterprise would seem necessary, but we shall follow out the record of the Baptist Mission, and at the beginning of the succeeding chapter, return to the scenes of the fur trade.
It is hardly necessary to say that Mr. Slater's efforts to convert and educate the savages were, like all other attempts of the kind, without satisfactory results; but while this end proved to be unattainable, the devoted missionary saw the fruits of his labors in another direction. If the Indian mind and heart could not appreciate and fully possess his religious doctrines, the christian influence which he brought to bear upon them so far subdued the savage nature as to give the votaries of commercial enterprise a welcome among their villages. In this way Mr. Slater had his reward.
But his endeavors to convert the Ottawas were not wholly barren; nor were his labors to educate them without a degree of success. After laboring for some time in this rude building, a frame school house was erected and the old block house converted into a dwelling. This modern mission school house was erected in 1837, by the same mission, and was situated near the corner of Bridge and Front streets. It was originally devoted to the Indian children attached to Mr. Slater's mission, but, owing to the influx of white population, and to the indisposition of the Indians, it was soon after appropriated to the former.
The first white school was opened in the spring of 1837, and Miss Bond, a young lady attached to the mission, installed as its first teacher. She taught one year beginning her labors with the following list of pupils: George and Emily Slater; Ezra, Samuel M., Selden E. and Alfred B. Turner; Mary and Sarah C. Sheldon; Aaron B., Alzina, Chester B., Clarissa and Thereosa Turner; Reuben E., Almira M., and James N. Davis; Lucy Sliter; Cornelia and Henry W. Norton; Sally Willard and Nathan Sibley; George M. and Clarissa White; and Arsnich, daughter of the Indian chief Mec-cis-si-nin-ni.
An old resident, writing of this school house, truthfully remarks: "It was not furnished with furnaces, wood ready sawed and a man to build fires. The caloric was generated by a huge sheet-iron box stove. Each patron of the school furnished so much wood per scholar, and as the wood was generally cut in shed lengths, the male portion of the scholars carried their axes and cut it into stove-wood at noon-time or recess. The 'Board of Education' was not pestered at that time for gymnastic apparatus for the purpose of giving the scholars an opportunity for exercising their muscle in order to give tone to their minds, for the teachers furnished all the apparatus necessary for that purpose, and, I may add, applied it with severity."
The school, in those days commenced at 8 o'clock A.M. and closed at 5 P.M., and was kept open six days in the week. Nothing was considered a sufficient excuse for dismissing school save the celebration of the "Glorious Fourth."
The inside of the house was not furnished with patent desks and seats, but with benches, some of which were made of planed boards, and others of unplaned slabs, flat side up, with pegs for legs. There were two desks for writing, extending for the length of the sides of the building. When the hour for writing arrived the scholars were directed to face the wall. This afforded an excellent chance for the teacher to look over the shoulder, see how the quill pen was held, and when the marks were too horizontal and perpendicular. If either were the case, "a reminder" was put in, the position of the scholar affording too good an opportunity to be lightly thrown away. The result of this "correction" would be the making of sundry lines and curves known in geometry.
It was the custom in those days to hold evening "spelling school" about twice in every week. There was a larger attendance at this than at the regular school. The exercises usually closed with the scholars standing up and "spelling down," and the contest was usually attended with considerable excitement.