It might have been here on The Twelve that somebody suggested it would be interesting to discover who owned my land before my land was mine. Some of that history is well documented in Michigan as part of the larger early 19th century moving in of settlers and the moving out of native tribes.
The Treaty of Chicago (1833) and the Treaty of Washington(1836) ceded West Michigan ownership to the United States government. The Ottawa, Ojibwe (Chippewa) and Potawatomi Nations signed the treaties, setting the stage for Albertus VanRaalte to lead hordes of Dutch Reformed settlers into this land beginning in 1846. Joining a variety of other adventurous souls we got busy, prospered, multiplied, and celebrated Providence while others trudged trails of tears.
The land has a longer memory than that however. The Native Nations have an oral history to explain the many mysterious mounds the settlers found streaming up what would become Fulton Street in Grand Rapids. The mounds dated back maybe 2000 years but neither settler nor native knew exactly who built them or why. Similar mounds dotted the continent far beyond the Midwest, reaching south to the Gulf of Mexico and north into Canada.
The multitude of mounds were evidence of a massive ancient civilization that left no written record of their history or organization. They left us mounds of sculptured earth containing relics and some residue of human remains. At first the mounds were a curiosity to be dismantled for artifacts but eventually they were in the way of farming and urban expansion, bulldozed or used for swamp fill.
Only a handful of the original mounds remain. The Norton Mounds near Grand Rapids is one of the few intact historical sites still in existence. It is a protected area nestled between Indian Mounds Road and I-196, across the river from Millennium Park. There’s no signage or historical plaques to explain their existence. No trails but a muddy two track used by fishermen to get to the nearby Interstate lake dredged out for road construction. Ironically, the lake is now part of the protected area.
When I walked around the lake before I became aware of its protected status, I passed by discarded bait containers and chunks of abandoned concrete slabs to experience the peculiar humps of earth rising from the forest floor.
Standing in the middle of a grouping of three mounds was exhilarating. I breathed in the reality of a 2000 year old mystery. Mounds of earth built painstakingly, one basket full of earth at a time, as a celebration of existence and the grief of loss. No visitor walks away without some perspective and I was glad for the gift.
The mound builders were not the first people to occupy this land, of course. There’s evidence that even earlier people or peoples worked the land and the river as far back as glaciers carved out the Great Lakes. Evidence of flourishing nations who lived, loved, and passed out of memory. It’s an interesting place, this land I now call my own.
Here’s a suggestion: If you ever have the opportunity to travel through the heart of West Michigan from Grand Rapids toward Holland, take Interstate 196. It’s really busy so be very careful but look to your right just shy of mile marker 72. You will have a bird’s eye view of that pointy little interstate lake that’s really a gravel pit surrounded by ancient history. This view is made possible because Native voices redirected road construction plans that otherwise would have destroyed the mounds. We all would have been diminished without the intervention of land dwellers with deeper roots than mine.
Even at 70mph we can be reminded that we really own nothing and Wisdom calls us to see beyond our limits into the extraordinary.
Thanks for this. I can see them in my mind’s eye, on the right while on the way to Hudsonville. If I’m not driving, I always look for them, and they’re especially visible in the snow. Fifty years ago it was easier to enjoy them, with fewer cars and slower speeds.
Fascinating. Thanks. Where I grew up, just across “the big lake,” there are a number of mounds as well, also preserved (I’m sure that, once upon a time, there were more). There’s something about such discoveries that’s humbling, good for the soul.
Really appreciated reading – and the reminder of message
“Even at 70mph we can be reminded that we really own nothing and Wisdom calls us to see beyond our limits into the extraordinary.”
Thanks. Will we ever read or hear God’s History Book that explains the sources of these mounds? Surely the various ethnic groups that made up pre-historic Michigan are precious to Him?
I have traveled past those mounds thousands of times, both on I-196 and on Indian Mounds Drive and have often wondered what stories were buried there. It is sad to learn that no one seems to know the answer to that question, but gratifying that care was taken to preserve even unknown history.
Thank you! Read today’s essay brought back wonderful memories of a Saturday morning wandering around these mounds with our young sons. Our older son was taking pictures for a school project. The site was unmarked and seemed poorly preserved or protected but we experienced some of the wonder of the past eras.
Thank you Al. It would be good for all of us to learn more about the people who lived in this land and their cultures prior to European occupation. And in terms of the mounds, there was a larger group of mounds – the Converse Mounds – that were located on “Missionary Lands” between current day Bridge and Fulton Streets on the west side of the Grand River. They were leveled in the mid 1800s, quite literally eaten up by development of the growing city of Grand Rapids. Many of the artifacts were collected and sold to local jewelers or to private collections, and some ended up in the Museum of Natural History in Chicago and others in the Peabody Museum in Boston. As it is, about half of the Norton Mounds were destroyed during the construction of the highway. There are quite a few accounts of other mounds and groups of mounds in this area too, meaning that what we are left with is a very small reminder of the Hopewell, but only for those who know where to look and what to look for.
This sounds like a good place for a daughter to walk with her dad. Maybe in March….