By Bob McCarthy
Learning about the heritage of Lambton County is like having a dialogue with the past. What might you discover if you had a chance to listen to voices of our past and you were able to better picture what actually happened, what it may really have been like?
I have always believed that history is best told when it is presented as a series of stories. But where do all of the stories come from in the first place?
In Voices from the Past, I have taken information I have gathered about Lambton County’s heritage and presented it as stories told by the people who lived in our past.
I hope these verbal images presented as Voices from the Past will help to illustrate our history as it might have been experienced by the people that came before us.
These dialogues allow me a way to present glimpses of our culture and the hearing of these stories hopefully will allow you to create a picture in your mind of what it might have been like to have lived in another time.
It is the year of our Lord 1925. My name is William Leonhardt. A resident of Port Lambton, I have just crossed on the Walls Ferry to the Island of the Walpole Nation to talk with a most remarkable man, a great chief of the Walpole Nation. His name is Pe-to-e-kie-sic and he claims to have been living for more than one hundred and ten years. Ah. There he is now.
You can see by his appearance that he is almost a skeleton in figure. Yet he contains so much life. His face is wrinkled and apparently dried, yet his eyes still sparkle and he seems to still have a fair intelligence. If he is able to converse in English, he will not. Anything he tells me will have to be interpreted by Chief Joseph White, a real Indian of the old type who I know well to possess a keen intelligence.
Listen while we hear the words of Pe-to-e-kie-sic interpreted for me.
“I am one of the ancients of my people. I bid you welcome. Please just speak to me as Old Pete. That is easier for you to say and it is a name I like to hear.
“I have now passed my one hundred and fourteenth summer and am one of only a few of my people who can remember what it was like here before you people of pale skin came to our lands. Listen while I tell you about some of the many memories of my own past.
“I was born near what you know as Mount Pleasant across the great river in Michigan. Let me tell you first about my father, who was named Pa-zeh-ke-zheek-quash-kum. He told me he went to what you now call Detroit many times to trade when he was very small and at that time there were only 12 of your square wigwams in that place. He would tell me that the great river you call St Clair was often black with canoes journeying to the trading post at Detroit.
“I know that the floating land in the river that our people call Saw-ge-too-yawn is now known to you as Stag Island. This floating land faced on to the lands that had been given by our people to a family of Courtenays, who once lived in Port Huron. When the deed was drawn, it was on buckskin and done in figures. Courtenay, being a tall man, was pictured as a grasshopper. The village that you know as Corunna is now on the lands our people deeded to the Courtenays.
“The floating lands of St Anne, Squirrel and this land of Walpole along with the floating lands across the river and Peach Island and Belle Island all belong to our people as it was arranged by the Great Queen from across the big sea. I was but a young boy when she was born.
As he paused and stretched his arms and turned a slow circle, Pe-to-e-kie-sic continued. “Perhaps you did not know, but in my youth, the hunting grounds in every direction from where we now stand were filled with game. I myself killed many bears near Dresden and Wallaceburg and across the mother river.
“From the time when I was a boy of but a few years, I was able to hunt bear and beaver and ducks and gulls and the fish were plentiful. Now there is much sorrow in my heart. The beaver and bear have been driven away by your people. Now all we may find to hunt are a few ducks and gulls. It is so sad.
“Now, I would like to tell you of a house on the Snye River which many of your people thought to be possessed by spirits. I was there often. On one occasion all the glass was broken in the windows. As one who has been a chief for many years, I can tell you the cause of that house being haunted.
“Over there, not far from us,” he said as he pointed to the west, “on a little hill by the station for the iron horses you know as Whitebread was the site where our people had erected a medicine lodge. When the white man interfered with this sacred ground, the spirits of our people showed their resentment by haunting the McDonald homestead. This I am sure of.
“My father also told me that this place was the former residence of the Mamagwasemug or fairies. Our forefathers used to see them on the banks of the river. When the white man came and pitched his wigwam on the spot where they lived, the fairies removed to the poplar grove where they lived for several years.
“Now when the white man cleared and burnt this grove, the Mamagwasemug were obliged to remove; their patience and forbearance were exhausted; they felt indignant at such treatment and began to vent their vengeance on the white man by destroying his property.
“All of my friends I grew up with are dead and buried on these High Banks. All of them were pagans as I am myself. The burying place is a special place and is most dear to our people.”
Pausing and looking west across the river, he seemed to have gone into some kind of trance for a few minutes before he looked back at me, a reverence in his voice. “One of the greatest of our people was Tecumseh. I never met him, but I have been near to him. Tecumseh was like the Big Man those in the land to the south call Roosevelt. Our Tecumseh was a great man who could speak at a distance, when it was desired to have many warriors to stop the Whites.
“Tecumseh would sit still and send a message by his mind, as far west as the Stone Hills, demanding that all Red Men should come and help stop the Whites from coming farther this way.
“Our Great Chief Tecumseh would get an answer saying that they would come as the leaves on the trees for numbers. He would say that all Indians should live in a wigwam or bark shanty as they would kill all those who lived in houses.
“You may have heard that there are many resting places where the bones of Tecumseh are said to rest, including our own St Anne’s Island. All that I can tell you is that no White man will ever see those bones again.
“I would like to tell you now about the channel from Lake Huron into the St Clair, known as the Rapids. Many, many summers ago, this channel was on the Canadian side of the river. I can tell you that my father’s father’s father was told by his father’s father’s father who was told by his father’s father’s father who was told by his father’s father’s father who was told by his father’s father’s father who was told by his father that a long time past this river had its beginning from the big lake close to the side where Sarnia is now, and then it was changed by a storm. Listen as I tell to you the story of the shifting of this mighty river you call St Clair.
“Many, many years ago, the river bed and course ran down on the Canadian side, but one day there came a great bird, with wings more than two miles long. It lit in or near the mouth of the river and began to wash itself, ducking and diving and flapping its wings. It got up such a great commotion, whirling and diving its extended wings, threshing the waters at a furious rate and making a terrible commotion causing the winds to blow so fiercely that trees were uprooted and wigwams were destroyed.
“The canoes were lifted in the air and blown far to the south. Later many of these canoes were found in the treetops along the River Thames. The wind had driven them across the country in its fierce storm, all caused by the great bird and its wing-flapping. The front of the shores was greatly changed and in the commotion the river broke through where it now is on the American side.
“Now, my new friend, Mister William Leonhardt, I must rest.”
I was so inspired by the stories he had told that I sat right down on the ground, pulled out my ledger book and began to write.
The River St Clair – by William Leonhardt of Port Lambton
based on a Story told to me by the great chief of the Walpole Island, Pe-to-e-kie-sic
Alone on the banks, where I often have wandered;
Alone on the banks, where the wind ripples ride;
I see the broad sheeted streams still sweeping onward,
While memory comes back with a rush to my side.
And I gleaned from the fancies, I often have pictured,
The sweep of the sun kissing solitude’s care,
When silence alone, wooed the dream that has sweetened,
The pond touching scenes of the river St. Clair.
Again is my youth standing firmly beside me,
The quiver is full, and the bow unstrung,
And I roam with the velvet foot soft treading onward,
The forest so deep where the fallow deer run.
How eagerness leaps, with the strides of my cunning!
As I draw the long bow, to its measure with care,
Ah! My heart bounded light, as I threw in the doorway
The roebuck I slew by the river St. Clair.
Again sweeps the sun in the dawn of the morning,
Anew through the woodlands that beckons me on.
And memory again skirts the hills undulating,
With wild winged partridge, still feeding along,
The ridges of lands that we gave to the stranger,
And drew on the deerskin its boundaries with care.
And the Eagles lone island we pledged it in friendship,
Where, sleeping, our fathers yet view the St. Clair.
Back! Back there the wigwams stood thick near the rapids,
The Pines ever green, hit the stars in the sky,
And the smell of the forest trees, laden with sweetness
Enchanted to shores, where the wild waters ply.
The trees seemed to sway, when the song birds awakened;
And memory still wings me their echoes so rare,
Oh! The scenes of my boyhood in life’s rosy morning,
Unfold in my dreams as I view the St. Clair.
Oft! Oft in my youth have I sped o’er its waters.
My wayward canoe, its fierce anger would brave
With the long bending sweep of the paddle I wielded,
My heart was as light as the autumn leaves falling
That tinted the streams with their beauty so rare,
But the brush of the spirit-hand now has departed!
That showered its beauty along the St. Clair.
How memory comes back, with a touch of the grandeur
When the golden leaves tinted the hush strewn breeze
That fell in the streamlet, that slowly sped onward,
To smile in the sunlight that danced on the leas,
How sweetly the sunlight hung over the shadows,
The smoke from the tepees rose high in the air,
And the dew gleaming gems that were kissed in the morning,
Shone rich in the autumn along the St. Clair.
Gone! Gone are the scenes, where the forest was thickest,
Gone are the haunts of the fawn and the deer,
Gone are the streams that were dammed by the Beaver,
And the song of the wildfowl so sweet to the ear.
The wild geese have gone and ducks have sought shelter,
The song of the gull, yet but arches the air,
Oh! Sad is my heart, as my memory runs backward,
Reviewing the scenes that were on the St. Clair
Ah! The beauties of nature are gone from the river;
The White Man has come with his ships of the deep,
And I long for the hunting ground dear to the Red Man
Where the fathers have passed in their long silence sleep.
Their camp-fire’s gleam shines no more by the river;
They’re gone! Oh, they’re gone, and affection grows bare,
For the Indian’s soul, it has died in the beauty
The Manitou showered along the St. Clair.
No more by the river, their voices will mingle,
Or join in the Warrior’s echoing cry!
Oh! Sad are the days when you’ve no friend can number,
The snows that you’ve lived, or the moons that are by.
The sigh of the rushes, alone seems familiar,
As the lull of the wind, lifts its cry on the air,
But the moon’s silvery beams at once shone through the timber,
Now shadowless falls on the River St. Clair.
Oh! Could I forget the sweet scenes I remember!
Or memory be lost from the trails that I know;
It would gladden my heart and my spirit would wander
Away from the shadows that creep into view.
My eyes now are dim, and my step slow and feeble,
Alone! All alone, in a land once so fair;
Now a few lowly mounds on the High Banks are dearer,
Than all that is left me along the St. Clair.
Farewell, ah! farewell, to the visions of memory,
The sweet recollection of nature I see.
Bite deep in the heartaches that sorrow has wounded,
For the strangers that knew me are strangers to me,
And I wait by the river, the broad, sweeping river,
The deep-rolling river with water so blue,
Near the scenes of my childhood I fondly yet linger,
Awaiting, awaiting the White Stone Canoe.”
As I finished writing, I added:
July 16, 1925 The story to me spoke in a sorrowful tone; having lived so long, he was practically without companions – W.L.
But a few minutes later when I heard the ancient voice of Pe-to-e-kie-sic once again, I asked “Old Pete, could you please tell me more about the people who live here on Walpole Island?
Pe-to-e-kie-sic answered: “I would be happy to tell you about our people of the Walpole Nation.
“There have been people living on these floating lands for more thousands of your years than there are fingers on this hand, from a time which was even long before your Christ child was born.
“The Neutrals were here at one time but left because of pressure from the Iroquois. Then the Ojibway and the Ottaway began to move into this area while the French were beginning to explore along the great lake to our south. Our people have been here on these floating lands since a long time before my birth.
“We were at one time part of the Ottaway, Ojibway, and Potawatomi Nations, all of whom lived in this area in the past. Our language is Algonkian. Our three nations joined together many generations ago to become a Council of the Three Fires.
“We have always hunted, fished and trapped, and for more than a thousand of your years our people have planted corn and harvested other crops from our land. My people have been the keepers of this land and have protected this land through our customs, our laws, and our way of living.
“All of these floating islands have become known by our people as Bkejwanong or ‘where the waters divide’.”
“Now, I am tiring. That is all I have to say at this time.”
HISTORICAL NOTES from the author:
In 1856, a group of Walpole Islanders were welcomed to Great Britain. The following is quoted from an article with photograph on page 41 of Belden’s Illustrated Historical Atlas – Lambton – Ontario 1880 (available in the Sarnia Library).
“This interesting group of Walpole Islanders, from Canada West, is now located at that very popular place of scientific recreation, the Panopticon, in Leicestersquare, where the original of the accompanying illustration has been photographed by Mr. Claudet for our journal.
The party consists of the great head chief and orator Pe-to-e-kie-sic, with his five chosen warriors, four squaws, and one child, ten weeks old:–
– Pe-to-e-kie-sic – (A middle cloud) – The great Chief of the Walpole tribe, and sole Monarch of Walpole Island.
– Pe-way – (A hare) – Head Chief of?the Potawatamies,
– Ka-she-gos-e-ga – (Moon-light) – A Walpole warrior.
– Saw-gutch-a-way – (A man from the hills) – A Walpole warrior.
– Ta-pis-a-qunk – (The loudest sound of thunder) – A Walpole warrior.
– Saw-gee – (Head of the tribe) – A Walpole warrior.
– Pung-gish-a-mo-qua – (A woman from the West) – A Walpole squaw.
– Nais-waw-be-no-qua – (The break of day) – A Walpole squaw.
– Saw-gutch-a-way-qua – (A woman from the hill)- A Walpole squaw.
– Pa-pe-shan, mother of the Paupoos – (Twilight) – A Walpole squaw.
Their performances at the Panopticon consist of –
1. The Indians in Council – Oration by the Great Head Chief, Pe-to-e-kie-sic
– War Path – the Great War Dance of Victory.
2. The Child and Cradle.
3. The Bow and Arrow Dance.
4. Indian Music; Solo on the Flute by the great Warrior – Saw-gutch-a-way.
5. The Great Medicine Dance and Feast.
The following was written under the photo.
Walpole Island, as our readers may be aware, is in Lake Huron, Canada West, and the chief of these primitive warriors is the lord of that territory, now on a visit to England, on a mission connected with the encroachment of the whites, for which he prays that compensation may be made. In the accompanying group the chief, Pe-to-e-kie-sic (middle cloud), is the figure standing third from the right hand. His five chosen warriors are splendid samples of the red man, and average six feet in stature.
The father of this chief received a medal, in 1812, from George III, which our distinguished visitor wears, and of which he is veproud. A circumstance of great interest is that Pe-to-e-kie-sic volunteered to send a chosen band of braves to serve in the Crimea; an offer not accepted by the British Government; but which was an extremely valuable one, as the red men with their unerring rifles and wonderful means of approaching the enemy unseen and unheard, would have been admirable scouts, outposts, and reconnoiterers; and no surprise could have taken place had such a body been scattered throughout our lines. The chief is an orator, and before leaving his people made a speech exhorting them to be good and loyal subjects. His countenance is full of intelligence and amiability, mingled with dignity and firmness.” (Illustrated London News, 12 July, 1856)
It was this same Pe-to-e-kie-sic who, almost 70 years later, was the focus of a news article and poem. This story and poem are based on an article resulting from a 1925 interview between Pe-to-e-kie-sic, the former Great Head Chief of Walpole Island and William Leonhardt. The article was published on page 14 in a special centennial edition of The Sarnia Canadian Observer printed on July 29, 1936.
There are several different spellings for his name. I have chosen to use Pe-to-e-kie-sic throughout this story.
There was once a small settlement in Sombra by the name of Whitebread at the junction of the Pere Marquette Railway and the Lambton-Kent county line. Never a large community, it did at one time boast a railway station, a school and a post office. The only remnants today are the old foundation of the school, the elevated railway bed and a sign which states:
“Whitebread – population ? last person out please turn out the lights?”
The part of the story about the river changing course was also based on the article written by William Leonhardt of Port Lambton.
But there is another reference to the channel in Canada – Past, Present and Future penned by W.H. Smith in 1852. In the chapter on Essex, Kent and Lambton, the author writes:
The River St. Clair, proper, is about twenty-five miles in length, and from three-quarters of a mile to a mile and a half in breadth. In many parts of its bed are numerous springs, some of which discharge a considerable body of water, with so much force as to cause a great agitation even on the surface of the water. At one place in particular, a short distance below Port Sarnia, the commotion is so great that the Indians have taken notice of it, and say that his Satanic Majesty once came up there and went down again. Within the memory of persons still living, three channels connected the River St. Clair with Lake Huron; two of these became gradually filled up and covered with vegetation, forming with the islands a projecting cape to which the name of Point Edward has been given, and enclosing a capacious bay, capable of holding a considerable fleet of Lake craft, which is under shelter by American as well as British shipping – the American side of the river being destitute of harbours.
Records and lore do seem to bear out the story that the channel once ran on the Canadian side of the river and/or ran in several channels, all but one of which has since been filled in by sand or breached by the force of the flow of water.
Perhaps a strong cyclone might have filled in the shallow entrance to the rapids, forcing the water to break through on the side where the channel now is. But I like to think the shifting of the St Clair River channel actually was caused by the flapping wings of a great bird.