Aug. 28 2009 12:00 AM

Newly acquired photo stirs up murky history

Hit Man for Hire: It’s rumored, probably falsely, that Chief Okemos was hired by the British to assassinate George Washington with a bow and arrow and missed nine times. This tintype, one of three photos of Okemos, was taken sometime in the 1850s an

With millions of items being sold every day on eBay, you never know when a needle will be found in the online haystack. Imagine the excitement of local historian and collector Craig Whitford when last September he came across a listing for an “original ID’ED Indian Chief Tin Type.” An inscription in the case identified the photograph as “Okamus” and indicated the Indian chief was from Lansing.

Whitford, a veteran collector, was able to quickly verify that the image in the photograph was of Chief John Okemos.{mosimage}

For Whitford, this was a find of a lifetime, one spent collecting Michigan and Lansing-related items. The Okemos photograph is extremely rare only two others are known to exist. This was a piece I never knew existed, let alone one I thought I could ever own, Whitford says.

Whitford's tintype photograph of Okemos was likely taken in 1857 or 1858, at the same sitting as a partner photograph now held in the Archives of Michigan. He was able to confirm the relationship between the two photographs from the identical backdrop, clothing, a cane in Okemos' hand and only a slight difference in the placement of the chief's hands.

Although it is nearly impossible to pinpoint Okemos' exact age at the time the photographs were taken, the images show an older Okemos just a few years before his death in 1858. He was believed to be in his 80s.

The chief wears a turban-style headpiece and a dark coat with a sash that has been hand colored. He holds a cane in his hand and displays his leather mittens.

He has a very fashionable 'skunk bag' hanging from his waist, Whitford adds.

How Whitford's photo ended up with an eBay seller in California is as much a mystery as the life of Okemos. Most of what we know about Okemos is myth, Whitford says.

Vaseline on the lens

Jim LaLone, a bookseller at Archives Book Shop in East Lansing and a historian who specializes in American Indians, located an 1856 deposition of Okemos that sheds some light on his life, but even that document contradicts itself.

Okemos was purported to be the son of an Ottawa hunter and a Chippewa mother. He was born anywhere from the 1750s to the mid-1770s. Some accounts of his life say he was born in Shiawassee County, but in the deposition, Okemos said he was born near Pontiac in Oakland County. In the deposition, Okemos said he was 76 years old, which would place his birth in 1780. But later in the deposition, he makes statements to suggest he was born in 1769.

Much of the confusion comes from the relative paucity of little written history about American Indians. This, combined with translation problems, has resulted in often conflicting and exaggerated claims about Okemos' life.

Some claims identify Okemos as the nephew of Chief Pontiac. He supposedly led a mixed band of Ottawa, Chippewa and Potawatomi Indians in war, including battles in the 1790s, the Border Wars and the War of 1812. One account has him fighting in the Battle of the Thames in Ohio, where Tecumseh was killed.

However, Okemos said in the deposition that he did not fight at Thames. The state's historical marker has him fighting in the Battle of Sandusky (Ohio), leading a mixed band of Indians against an American force. It is likely his wounds were received sometime during the War of 1812, possibly during the 1813 battle for Fort Meigs in Northwestern Ohio.

During that battle, Okemos purportedly received a 5-inch sword gash across his face, as well as other wounds to his shoulder, chest and back. Some written histories claim he would later let people see and even touch his scars.

The Illustrated London News wrote a brief account of Okemos' life on March 5, 1859. The article includes a dispatch from Rufus Hosmer, who was the editor of the Lansing State Republican newspaper at that time.

Okemos fought at Fort Meigs, Hosmer wrote, and there received wounds in the head which, if had been a white man, would have made his obituary an old story forty-five years ago, but being an Indian they simply left holes in his skull, into which we have placed three of our fingers.{mosimage}

Because of his battlefield heroics, Okemos was said to have been elevated to one of the chiefs of the Saginaw Chippewas. He signed the 1819 Treaty of Saginaw, which transferred 6 million acres of land to the federal government.

In his later years, Okemos was a fixture in the Lansing area, according to Hosmer. Okemos was familiarly known to most of the Lansing people, young and old, and was wont to pay this place more of less visits every season, Hosmer wrote in 1859. Indeed, during the years 1847, '48 and '49, he for the most part kept his wigwam near the village which bears his name, six miles to the eastward, during which years he was in our streets almost daily.

The chief is in the house

One of those people Okemos regularly visited was Marion Turner Reasoner (of Turner-Dodge House fame), who wrote an account of Okemos in the Nov. 30, 1899, edition of The Lansing State Republican. Turner, who lived in Lansing, wasn't born until 1846, so her account is likely of Okemos' final years.

When I was a young girl, she wrote, Old Okemos, the chief of the Saginaw Chippewa, was a frequent visitor at our house. I remember that we looked upon him as a great chief and were much interested in hearing him talk of the terrible battles he had fought. We gazed upon the scars on his head and face with awe and decided he must have been one of the greatest warriors.

As he grew older his visits became less frequent and he was almost blind. He came to us one night quite late in summer, he put his pony in a field near the house and mother prepared a bed for him on the floor by the kitchen fire. He was astir very early in the morning. A cousin (who was visiting me) and I hastily dressed and after filling our pockets with doughnuts, followed him out. We soon discovered that his pony was missing and as he was too blind to follow it, we took compassion on his helplessness and tracked the pony west on the plank road, then north, then east, finding it near Jones Lake. The old veteran seemed delighted with our success, kissed us both, then mounted and rode away, leaving us alone.

Of the chief's final years, Hosmer wrote: Okemos was inoffensive and honest; as sober as Indians generally are, and always affable and willing to communicate the result of his recollections, which were much more vivid the farther back he went. Of late years the favourite weapons of the old chief were the knife and fork.

Okemos died in DeWitt in 1858 and was buried in the Portland area. The town of Hamilton, Mich. was renamed the next year in his honor.

Not being troubled with large earthly possessions, Hosmer wrote, Okemos left no will, and it is doubtful if the very numerous heirs will take out letters of administration. He owed only one debt that of nature which he was rather slow about, and took his own time, but paid at last.

According to accounts by Ford Stevens Ceasar in his 1976 book The Bicentennial History of Ingham County, Okemos' grave may have been desecrated and his body intentionally moved. It was uncovered by diggers in the 1930s.

Accounts in the Lansing State Journal at the time tell how a skull, purported to be Okemos', was showcased by a local photographer during Lansing's celebration of its incorporation in 1934.

A face for radio

In addition to the three known photographs of Okemos, there are four paintings showing him in various regalia and at different ages.

A painting in the Ingham County Courthouse shows Okemos trading with pioneers. The state's historical museum has a painting of Okemos in its storage facilities. An additional portrait, completed in 1976 by local artist John DeMartelly, depicts Okemos as a proud young warrior. That painting is on loan to the Nokomis Center in Okemos. A final portrait, depicting Okemos sitting on a log with his dog at his feet, in the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University.

DeMartelly exhaustively researched Okemos before painting the chief. In a broadside accompanying his painting, deMartelly wrote: I chose to paint Okemos as a younger man at the height of his career. The painting shows a warrior with a war club and a bone-handled English hunting knife. He wears a British colonial officer's coat, indicating he fought on the side of the British.

I was pleased that John chose to paint him in his prime, defending his family, says MSU history professor George Cornell, who is the director of Native American Studies for the university.

The painting cast Okemos in a much better light than the photos, Cornell says, which show him as a destitute old man who has had his country wrenched away from him.

Cornell isn't surprised by all of the confusion surrounding Okemos' life.

The history was written by the winners, Cornell says, and the 19th century perception of Native Americans was as savages.

Cornell says it's unlikely that translations of Okemos' statements, such as white man was heap brave, are accurate. Native Americans had a strong oral tradition and were much more articulate in their own language than that, Cornell says.

In his research, deMartelly found other mythical examples of the local chief. Perhaps the loftiest is the myth that the British hired Okemos to assassinate George Washington. After shooting nine arrows at the kneeling Washington (and missing), the story goes, Okemos relinquished his fight against the Americans and returned to the British. However, local historians say Washington never made it this far west.

Whitford says the ambiguity surrounding Okemos' life is partly due to Lansing's lack of a local history museum. 

That and eBay are contributing to this loss of history.

Mark Harvey, an archivist for the Archives of Michigan, says eBay is a double-edged sword.

It enabled Craig to bring this incredibly rare piece of history back to Lansing and it has heightened awareness of history, Harvey says.

However, price tags are first and foremost, with decisions being made for profit and not where an object would be best stored or available for viewing.

David Votta, local history reference librarian for Capital Area District Library, says that since the library's Lansing branch reopened its local history room several years ago, collections of memorabilia have been donated. Whitford says the Babe Ruth aviation collection was only two days away from being auctioned off piece-by-piece when he purchased it. The Ruth collection occupies 500 cubic feet and includes items such as letters from Amelia Earhart and an original drawing of the Red Baron by Charles Schultz.

Whitford refuses to say just how much he paid for the Okemos photograph but it was more than the Dutch paid for Manhattan.

I would be willing to loan the photograph to a local museum for an exhibit of Native American history, Whitford says. There is still a great fascination with Chief Okemos.

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