The band of tough women that helped settle Mackinac Island

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For nearly 40 years, Theresa L. Weller has used her prodigious genealogy skills to help families find lost relatives, but nothing prepared her for the difficulties she overcame in researching the Biddle Band, who occupied Mackinac Island long before it became a tourist destination. In her new book, “The Founding Mothers of Mackinac Island: The Agatha Biddle Band of 1870,” she documents the processes and primary sources she used in creating a history of the Native American families who first occupied the island.

She discovered in her research that the Biddle Band was made up of 74 individuals from various tribes, including the Indigenous Métis people. Perhaps the most unusual characteristic of the Biddle Band was that 66 of its 74 members were women of mixed genealogies. Generally, their only shared commonality was that they were owed reparations by the United States for land that was given up in the 1836 Treaty of Washington, which ceded 13.8 million acres in Northern Michigan and the Eastern Upper Peninsula. 

“I was driven to find the names of numerous women who weren’t identified by name on the payment rolls, but only as ‘Matis,’ ‘Sauvagess,’ ‘Sauteues,’ ‘Indiani,’ or only with the letter N,” Weller said. “I wanted them to have a name. I wanted everyone to know that there were everyday Joes living on the island before anyone else was there.” 

In her book, Weller gives Lansing-area genealogist Jim LaLone a big “thank you” for his assistance in short-cutting some of the arduous research. LaLone, who is a co-founder and past president of the French-Canadian Heritage Society of Michigan, has compiled a database of more than 32,000 Anishinaabe people.

Weller was also fortunate that a vast majority of the women and their families were married, baptized or interred by one of the area Catholic churches, which kept detailed records. Ste. Anne’s Catholic Church on Mackinac Island was especially helpful with its bulk holding of records.

“Ste. Anne’s provided the largest piece of the primary sources I used in my research,” she said.

Of course, church records were written in script, which is often difficult to read. They were also written in French and sometimes Latin. Weller said her familiarity with Spanish and French helped her identify words and passages while she pieced together a more complete record.

“After a while, you develop a talent to read handwriting – especially since the entries were formulaic,” Weller said.

One important document was the 1858 roster of annuity payments, which was the last year that names of recipients were written in Anishinaabe, like Keywaykenum and Nesaywaquit. Later names were recorded with different spellings, further complicating record searches. Most of the women in the Biddle Band were of significant Native American lineage or the daughters of fur traders.

Agatha Biddle, who lived on Mackinac Island from the early part of the 19th century, built a small home around the year 1780, which still stands today on Market Street. It is likely the oldest structure on Mackinac Island. The Biddle family ran a prosperous fur trade business from the home. Recently, the Mackinac Island State Park Commission opened a small museum at the Biddle Home to interpret the role of the Indigenous population on Mackinac Island. 

An added benefit of Weller’s book is the descriptions of everyday activities that were recorded in the field notes of payment records. She discovers detailed notes about the Biddle family and how they aided Native Americans visiting Mackinac Island by providing food and medical care.

Weller said several women in the Biddle Band were difficult to trace because of their multiple surname spellings. The book also provides some interesting and sometimes amusing anecdotes about life on Mackinac Island that today’s tourists give little thought to. How do you dispose of dead horses? How can you use an alcohol bath to save a horse that has fallen through the ice? Band member Theresa Bennett is detailed as having used fresh horse manure to save a man’s feet who had fallen through the ice.

One of the more interesting connections Weller discovers is Miss Martha Tanner, whose father was John “White Indian” Tanner, a man who had been kidnapped and raised by Native Americans. “A Narrative of the Captivity and the Adventures of John Tanner” was a popular book of the time, which told of Tanner’s life among the Native Americans. Weller, who is a graduate of Michigan State University and a member of the Sault Tribe, is planning her own book on Tanner.

Weller said it was the desire to identify one of her relatives, Angelique Montreuil, who had been identified as Paul Belonshay or before that as Keywaykenum, that spurred on her research. “I wanted to make sure she had a name,” Weller said.

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