Michigan’s (Almost) Forgotten Trails

For several months, I’ve been kicking around the idea of starting a new book project.

Field Atlas to Michigan, Memoirs of hiking across the UP, reprinting all my articles previously published in newspapers, and a guidebook to Pictured Rocks & Hiawatha National Forest have all been contenders.

Originally, I was going down the path of taking my previously written articles and rehashing them as material for a Field Atlas to Michigan. But, I just couldn’t get excited about it. I was trying to cram an old article into a new format and it just wasn’t working. I was trying to connect Michigan’s history, with my articles, and giving the reader a place to hike a trail.

It was Christmas time when my brother, Timothy, showed me the grave of James Stevens, a Revolutionary War Patriot who is buried about a mile from where he lives and about three from where we grew up. I had no idea there were Revolutionary War Patriots buried in Michigan. I later found there are about 137 patriots buried in Michigan. Most came here as pensioners late in life. At this point, I started visiting cemeteries with these patriots thinking I could incorporate them into the book.

James Steven, Revolutionary War Patriot, buried in Arlington Township, Van Buren County.

Then, the epiphany. I was visiting Daniel Wilson, Patriot buried in Yorktown, a settlement on the south end of Gull Lake in Kalamazoo County. I discovered that Yorktown was near a long abandoned railway, stage line, and Native American Trail.

It hit me like a ton of bricks! Why not write about abandoned trails, their origin, their use, their downfall, and if there are any remnants, where can you find a portion to hike?

I had started a timeline of Michigan History, which included the explorations of French Explorers, British shenanigans, mining, logging, etc. During that research, I read quite a bit about Henry Schoolcraft, LaSalle, Marquette, Brule, Nicolet, Raddison, etc., finding their way across the Great Lakes & Michigan mostly using native american water and land routes.

I realized that most of the trails the explorers, road makers, railroaders, miners, voyagers, etc., used were of Native American origin. In addition, Native Americans accompanied, directed, advised many of the early explorers of trails and portages. When you look at a map of the primary & secondary Native American trails in Michigan, the map looks like a spider web there are so many. In addition, ancient portages used for thousands of years were pointed out the European Interlopers. We have a lot to thank our Native American neighbors.

Archaeological atlas of Michigan [by] Wilbert B. Hinsdale…
Author: Hinsdale, W. B. (Wilbert B.), 1851-1944.
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan press, 1931.

Today, I am working up a list of Native American pathways, portages, old stage lines, abandoned railroads, plank roads, and even abandoned motor vehicle routes. It is a huge list, to the point where I believe I can make this into a two-volume project.

For now, I will be concentrating on Native American Pathways & Portages (ooh, I just came up with that!) and how they shaped today’s hiking trails, water routes, roads & railroads. An aspect of this project will try to find signs of old hiking & portage routes, whether its an actual tread in the ground or if a currently in use trail/road/railway utilizes its route. Time–more like European settlers– have not been kind to old trails. Many have been plowed under, flooded, ignored, grown over, etc.

For example, a major Native American portage between the Great Lakes & Mississippi Watershed exists just south of the Michigan State Line. The St. Joseph River, when you paddle upstream from St. Joseph, you are paddling south towards its most southerly point in what is now South Bend. This portage has been used for centuries by Native Americans. French Explorers did not discover this and other portages on their own, they were told or shown by Native Americans. This knowledge transcended not only tribes but Nations. Their oral history is something to be commended.

Baker, George. 1897. The St. Joseph – Kankakee Portage.

At nearly the most southern bend in the St. Joseph, voyagers were to look for a beat down area on the west bank. At this point, they would portage up and over the banks then slightly downhill in a WSW direction to a massive marsh, known at the time as the Kankakee Marsh, which

cradled the origin of a tributary of the Kankakee River. This portage was perhaps 4-5 miles. This is a stone’s throw when you consider it links a traveler between two major watersheds. Since it has been used for thousands of years, it was a beat down path, as evidenced by the photo below.

Today, this portage has been obliterated by urban buildup & ditching and draining of the marsh. There is still a ditch, one could portage this utilizing roads in the area, but the path is long gone. The Kankakee Marsh was over 500,000 acres in size and was drained in the latter half of the 19th Century.  The Blue Line is a “as the crow flies” representation of the portage route.

Google Earth: Accessed 30 January 2020

It will be stories like these I’d like to tell. Identify the trail, tell its history, find the trail if it still exists, and/or identify how its route has shaped our history.