News from Omena, January 1855

Letter to Walter Lowrie from Peter Dougherty, Grove Hill, January 1, 1855
Transcription and commentary by Mark Smith, secretary, OHS

I’m always thrilled to discover a cache of old diaries or letters. Both fascinating and informative, they are also some of the best primary sources for historians. Letters and diaries are a slice of life lived now, with no clear sense of how the story will end, as it is in life itself. History is settled, it seems, but letters show the true ephemeral nature of history unfolding, before the stories solidify, and sometimes what we find causes us to reassess everything we have been told by the history books.

Written one hundred and sixty-seven years ago, this letter from Reverend Peter Dougherty of Omena to Walter Lowrie, corresponding secretary of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions, shows the immediate difficulties and challenges in running the mission and the associated school, Grove Hill Academy. We discover several things. First, we have a list of who was employed at the school, including one George Craker, who would later marry the widow Mrs. Mary McConnell and be the mainstay of the mission church for decades after Dougherty’s departure in 1870. George’s descendants, with Aghosa’s descendants, kept the church in service to its congregation as documented by Ruth Craker, George’s granddaughter, in the book The First Protestant Mission in the Grand Traverse Region, 1932. Also mentioned is Mr. Greensky, Odawa interpreter Peter Greensky, who would eventually become a Methodist minister in his own right, founding Greensky Hill Church, which still stands today, between Petoskey and Charlevoix.

We also discover that some of the boys have been getting in to visit with some of the girls after hours in the boarding school, which results in some strict punishment and a few expulsions from the school. The school, Grove Hill Academy, was residential and focused mainly on manual arts training and basic education for the young Indian residents.

Dougherty’s third paragraph opens with mention of land claims amongst the settlers over at the Old Mission he has left behind, and would seem to indicate that he would like Lowrie to put his weight behind their initiative.

I think paragraphs four and five come to the very heart of the matter for the survival of the mission: the fate of the Indians being swindled out of their land and falling under the influence of intoxicating liquors. 1855 was a time of great turmoil for the Odawa, with a treaty to follow in the summer which would have far reaching implications, but would do little to stop the advances of civilization and its attendant vices.

As if to reinforce the point, Dougherty relates the sad but true tale of Chief Peter Wakazoo’s selling off of the village of Wakazoo (part of present day Northport) to whites while under the influence of strong drink provided to him by those whites. In effect this would be the end of Reverend George N. Smith’s mission, as the Indians dispersed more widely, selling their village lots (which should not have been for immediate sale under the terms of the patents, but due to slack enforcement and incompetence, the details never were enforced.) This reference by Dougherty is priceless as it helps us to triangulate from Reverend Smith’s account of the event in his own diary.

Lastly Peter Dougherty closes with a recap of winter weather so far and notes that they get mail very scarcely and may not see any until winter is over, which means a few more months at least. Such were the vagaries of travel and the sheer isolation of Omena, whose main visitors came by boat, but not in the winter, and proper roads were but a notion at the best of times. Letter writing under these circumstances was almost an act of faith. It is fortunate that these letters have survived their difficult journeys and have been preserved for us to see.  If you would like to see the originals of this letter, and many others from Rev. Peter Dougherty of Omena and Old Mission, click on this link.
Thanks to Marsha Buehler, Archives and Committee Chair, for help with background biographical info and help with transcription.

Walter Lowrie, Esq
Grove Hill, January 1st, 1855

Dear Sir

After long delay I have filled out my report from the 1st of May to Nov. 1st. There is now employed in this institution under pay besides ourselves Miss Isbell, Porter, wife, Mr. Glen and Mrs. McConnell, Sarah Rogers cook, Mrs Milne & Miss Jane Milne and Mr. Greensky Interpreter. Mr. Porter I presume has informed you why Mrs. Milne & her daughter were retained. The circumstances in the judgement of all made it indispensable that they should stay. Mr. Greensky lives in the institute this winter but expects to build himself a house on some land I bought for him, in the spring. He is to receive at the rate of 100 dollars a year. Mr. Glen (and we fully agreed with him) thought he could not do all the choring and attend school. And as he had the right of school three months we had to retain George Craker. He was intending to leave to attend school some place and we offered him his board with the privilege of attending school if he would help do the work morning and evening which he agreed to do. There is due to him for wages from May 1853 to middle Dec 1854 two hundred thirty seven dollars. We borrowed a hand mill to grind corn for hominy. It answers very well.

Grove Hill Academy eventually became Hotel Leelanau

In my last letter I made allusion to a difficulty which led to the dismissal of one of the girls and the punishment of several other scholars. We discovered one night two of the boys in the girls’ sleeping room and found that some of the girls had secretly got a key which opened into the boys’ apartment and had encouraged the boys after we were gone to bed to get up and visit the girls’ rooms. The girl who appeared to be the chief guilty one we dismissed and punished by whipping the girls and boys who had been concerned in the matter. One boy to escape the punishment ran away. One was quite determined not to be whipped and wished me to consent to his going away without punishment which I refused and after some array of rope [?] he pulled off his coat and received the punishment. I then gave him the privilege of leaving if he chose but advised him to stay and behave himself which he decided to do and has behaved very well since. The matter was a painful one at the time but the effect of the punishment good. One of our boys has been very sick with inflammation of the bowels, is now some better after four weeks confinement in our room.

I would mention that the settlers at the old mission who are making claims there, had a meeting some month ago, and agreed to draw up a petition to congress and address letters to all the representatives from the state to have an act passed by which each one whose claim was described, and whose name was on the petition might have his claim secured at the government price. It was said at the meeting the mission would probably represent their own interests and aid the effort by their influence – as there is little communication between that and this this time of year. I have not heard whether the petition has been forwarded. You may be able to further the object and secure the rights of the Board there if you approve of this movement.

The present prospect is that the country will rapidly settle and I am fearful of what the effect will be on the Indians. More or less men will keep liquor. There has been a good deal of drinking during the past season on the Peninsula North of us, at Mr. Smith’s mission, there is danger they will be broken up. Some men have come in and purchased and by furnishing liquor got the chief of that band [Peter Wakazoo] drinking and he has sold the lands of the Indians. The Indians are dispirited and are selling their lots to white men. What they will do time will determine.

Our people are quiet; and not occupying any point that will immediately excite the cupidity of the white men as a point for business and speculation, and their lands being surrounded by state land which is not yet for sale, may not be disturbed. But the only hope for them here or elsewhere is to be men, be sober, industrious, and resist the destructive effects of intoxicating drink.

There has been much stormy weather and cold during the fore part of December but it is now very pleasant and the snow fast wasting. Our mail arrangement is all out of order. We have had no mail yet this winter and do not know if we will get any. I send this to the Post Office it find [sic] its way out.
P. Dougherty