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Prehistory and Native American History

Excerpted from the Final Environmental Impact Statement /

Management Plan and Martin, Jay C. 1996. Preliminary Comparative and Theme Study of National Historic Landmark Potential for Thunder Bay, Michigan. Great Lakes Visual/Research, Inc. Lansing, MI.

Relatively little is known about the earliest inhabitants of the Thunder Bay region. Archaeological evidence indicates that Native Americans occupied southern Michigan as early as 12,000 years ago, but northern Michigan probably was not occupied by these nomadic hunters until several thousand years later. Stone and copper tools, which may date to about 1500 B.C. (late Archaic), are the oldest artifacts discovered in Alpena County.

Archaic peoples appeared to survive in a subsistence economy based primarily on hunting and gathering, although they began to utilize fish sometime around 3000 B.C. Fishing-related artifacts of Archaic peoples found in upper Great Lakes sites include bone or copper fishhooks, gorges and spears, notched pebble net-sinkers, and fish bones (especially sturgeon).

Great Lakes fish were of particular importance in the diet of Ottawa and Ojibway peoples inhabiting the northeast lower peninsula of Michigan during the Woodland and historic cultural stages. Methods for catching fish included netting, spearing, hook and line, and weir construction. Nets were usually constructed of nettle stalk fiber or basswood twine and were used as seines or gillnets. Seines were either hand held or pulled by boat; gillnets had a much larger mesh size and were usually set in one place. Weirs were enclosures built of logs, saplings, and cord that prevented fish from swimming upstream, funneling them into a narrow opening where fishermen could harvest the fish by net or spear.

Gill nets were also used by the Ojibway to capture whitefish and lake trout on offshore shoals during fall and early winter spawning. Ojibway villages in the Thunder Bay region during the 1800s included Mujekewis, Shoshekonawbegoking, and Sagonakato on the north shore of the Bay, and Shingabawassin on the south shore.

Native Americans became an integral part of the regional economy in northern Michigan during the late 1800s. They worked at mining and lumber camps, on survey crews, as stevedores on vessels plying the Great Lakes, and as mail carriers. Fishing remained an important occupation, and some hunting and trapping also continued in this region. Other Native Americans produced traditional craft items for sale, or found seasonal and factory work in Michigan cities and towns.

Traditional ways of life and the activities of the inland shore fishery have been altered by modern culture, development, and technology. Nonetheless, Ottawa and Ojibway treaty rights to fish for subsistence and commercial purposes on the Great Lakes were reaffirmed by Federal Court decisions in 1979 and 1981. Much of northwestern Lake Huron was declared a tribal fishing area based on Federal Court interpretation of the 1836 Treaty at Washington.

Little physical evidence remains of the prehistoric and historic Native American ways of life in the Thunder Bay region. The villages and camps of the early inhabitants are marked only by a scattering of ceramic fragments, chert flakes and broken or abandoned stone and copper tools. Most of the burial mounds have been destroyed.

Native American Transportation Early historical accounts and some archaeological evidence indicate that Native Americans used the Great Lakes for travel, trade, warfare, and extracting resources. Most of these activities were carried out within sight of shore and the craft used were relatively small and built from local materials. The double-ended canoe was the most common native craft.

The dugout canoe was constructed first from a solid log that was alternatively burned and gouged with tools until it was hollowed. The exterior was also shaped using fire and stone tools, or later iron and steel implements. These heavy and cumbersome craft had largely been superseded by the time of European contact by the bark canoe, which was constructed with a thin bark exterior supported by wood battens and waterproofed with pine pitch. The bark canoe was very light, carried a large cargo on a shallow draft, and could be built and repaired from local materials, but it was easily damaged. Both the dugout and the bark canoe could vary in shape and size dependent upon the purpose they were intended to fulfill. Bark canoes as long as thirty feet were sometimes used.

Canoes were used by Native Americans to travel along the Lake Huron shoreline of Thunder Bay. To date, no canoes have been located within the proposed sanctuary, but it seems likely that during the thousands of years that these craft were used in the region that some were lost or scuttled in the area and therefore await discovery. The discovery of native craft and their cargo could contribute to our knowledge of aboriginal interactions with the Great Lakes environment, social structure, trade relations, and interactions with Europeans.


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