The legacy we honor, Chief John Okemos...

It is with great honor that we recognize ourselves as Chiefs. It's also important that we always carry ourselveschief_okemos accordingly to represent the legacy of the man that the residents of "Hamilton" (what our community was called from 1839 to 1859) held in such high regard, that they renamed their town in his honor -Okemos.

As a matter of  fact, on the northwest corner of Central Elementary School (which was originally our high school), across the street from the site of Okemos' camp, has a marker that says:

Erected to the Memory of Chief Okemos
Whose Tribe Once Occupied the Grounds
Upon Which This School Stands

"Brave in Battle"
"Wise in Council"
"Honorable in Peace"

In 1839, the settlement of Hamilton was founded by Freeman Bray (Bray Mill occupied approximately the space of Ferguson Park) as a trading point with the surrounding Ojibwa people and as a farming community. After 20 years of being known as Hamilton, the non-native settlers chose to replace Alexander Hamilton as the namesake of their young settlement in 1859, the year after the Chief died. By this act, it is obvious that John Okemos must have been a popular and revered man to be given such an honor, especially when the popular opinion at the time was not necessarily favorable toward Native Americans.

Like any man who lives a long lifetime, John Okemos left a legacy of many parts. As is the case with many Native Americans from the era, it's not known exactly when Okemos was born, most likely in the mid 1770's. However, Freeman Bray speculated that he was born as far back as the 1750's. It's generally accepted that he was born in Shiawassee County, along the Looking Glass River near Knagg's Station. Okemos's lineage included several Chiefs including his mother's father, Ojibwa Chief Min-e-to-gob-o-way and uncles, Ottawa Chiefs, Kob-e-ko-no-ka and Pontiac (or Obwandiyag).


Hard was the life of the Native American during the times of settlement. Hard choices were made. With the encroachment of new settlers and conflict between the British and Americans, many tribes sought to stem the tide by allying with the British in the hopes of preventing further settlement. Thus John Okemos was first mentioned in documented history in 1796. It is then when he took to the warpath on Lake Erie. Okemos and 16 others enlisted with the British and acted as a scout against the Americans. Okemos fought at the Battle of Lower Sandusky (also called the Battle of Fort Stephenson) in what is now northern Ohio. The battle took place on August 2, 1813 during the War of 1812. As the story goes, one morning they lay in ambush near a road cut for passage of American Army and supply wagons. A group of American troops approached and the Indians immediately attacked. Many American troops joined the battle and the Native Americans were defeated. Okemos was one of only a few survivors and was nursed for many months before he regained his health by Native American women. During the battle, Okemos reportedly received a saber wound which severed his shoulder blade, this gash on his back never healed. In old records of the pioneers always mentioned this wound. Okemos also received a wound that left a five-inch scar on his forehead that remained for the rest of his life as a distinguishing feature. This is why depictions of Chief Okemos show him in a turbin like head dress, covering the scar. The Native Americans felt that he must have been favored by the Great Spirit to survive and named him Chief out of respect for his great courage. Although the British lost the battle and the United States repulsed the attack, Okemos accrued considerable respect in the fighting, which raised his standing among the Ojibwa.


Understanding that the new settlements were unavoidable, in 1814, he presented himself to a commanding officer at Fort Wayne in Detroit and announced that he would fight no more. For his valor he was recognized as the leader of a Red Cedar Band of Shiawassee Chippewa Indians. At the Treaty of Saginaw in 1819, Okemos represented the Ojibwa people as Chief. While several other tribes were represented by their leaders, the Ojibwa lost the most territory in this treaty. Other tribes with people displaced in this treaty were the Ottawa and Potawatomi. Okemos and the other Native American chiefs signed the treaty with General Lewis Cass the territorial governor of Michigan, giving up six million acres (24,000 km²) of land in what is now southern Michigan to the United States government. By the 1830s, Okemos was recognized as a leader not only of the Saginaw Chippewa, but of many other Ojibwa bands. He also acted as a leader of some Ottawa and Potawatomi groups who lived south of the Red Cedar River. A Michigan state historical marker at Ferguson Park indicates the area where Okemos and his people lived during this time. Following the white settlement of the area beginning in 1839, Okemos and his people conducted an active trading business through the 1840's.


The peace treaty he had signed was faithfully kept. During the subsequent years he is remembered by early settlers as known to boast of his exploits via entertaining stories and gratefully relying on the generosity of the community. As he continued the culture he'd always known, Okemos continued to move camp, making appearances at temperance picnics or any event along with 8 to 12 young Native Americans all of whom he claimed as his children, or tribe. He was seen in Lansing many times. By 1850, disregarding the Treaty of Saginaw, the United States government began moving Native Americans to reservations from the lands where Okemos led his people. In the early 1850s, Okemos moved, with his people, to Ionia County. Okemos died near DeWitt, Michigan in 1858. He is buried in the Native American mission village of Shim-ni-con in Ionia County.

An article published in the Portland Observer of 1873 gives the following account of his death and burial.

"On a bleak day on the 6th of December of 1858, a small train of Indians entered DeWitt, having with them drawn upon a hand sled the remains of an old Indian Chief of the tribe of the Ottawas. The body was that of Okemos and they who accompanied it were his only kindred. They brought it from five miles northwest of DeWitt where he had died on the previous day.

They brought tobacco and filled the pouch, powder for the horn and bullets for the bag. They also brought, contrary to the usual custom of their race, a coffin in which they placed the remains and then took up their silent march toward the Indian Village of Shimnecon on the Grand River, twenty-four miles below Lansing, near Portland, the principal residence of the Chief."

okemosmarker2001Hall Ingalls tells an entirely different story. He was known to be a friend of Chief Okemos and even spoke the Indian language and was working on the mission house in Shimnecon at the time. He claims that Okemos died there after an illness of several days and he was asked to bury the Chief. A direct quote from a newspaper article follows though it is not documented for name and date.

"The grave the Indians dug was larger than usual, for it had to hold the personal effects of the chief as well. It was four feet deep, seven feet long and wide. Mr. Ingalls had the Indians gather bark, a floor was laid on the bottom and the grave was also sided with bark.

It was so close to the hut where the remains were lying that but a few steps were required. The body was lowered and then covered with blankets. Blankets were placed under the head so that the August sun fell upon the face. At the Chief's right side were his tow guns. At his left his tomahawks, scalping knives and other personal effects were placed and over the whole went another blanket as a shroud. Bark was then laid over the whole and the grave was filled with earth."

Three years later the brother of Mr. Ingalls interupted vandals at the gravesite as they were digging for what they thought might be valuables said to have been buried with the Chief.

The Ingalls brothers then placed a number of stones in the hole which had been dug and so when the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.) wished to place a gravestone in 1921, Mr. Ingalls was able to vouch for the fact that it was directly over the head of Chief Okemos for the stones were intact.

The gravestone is located south of Portland and is perhaps a half mile walk back from the main road on State land in the oxbow of the Grand River. This area sits high atop the river and is one of the most peaceful spots in the State of Michigan.

He usually wore a blanket coat with a belt, a shawl wound around his head, turban style, leggings and moccasins. He carried a steel pipe hatchet, a tomahawk and a long English hunting knife. He sometimes painted his face with vermilion on his cheeks and forehead and over his eyes. Some said they could tell if he was around because he always played his pipe or flute in the early morning. Chief Okemos was just five feet tall. Ojibwa, for "Little Chief", Okemos's remarkable life and legacy surpass his physical stature.

So, we are lucky to have such a man as our namesake. Folks back in the late 1800's knew it, we need to honor this as well. Though all of these years have passed, nothing has changed. They knew him back then, we need to recognize it now... Respect the Chief! Honor the Chief!


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