Portland State Game Area & Chief Okemos Memorial


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In the sharp meanders south of Morris Road is Chief Okemos’s Grave.  There is some dispute about the actual internment of Okemos’ remains but this appears to be the most likely location.

This Portland State Game Area has been dedicated to wildlife conservation and management by the DNR Wildlife Division. The site is approximately 2,373 acres.

Chief Okemos

Chief Okemos

 

Chief Okemos (ca. 1775-1858) was a Michigan Native American chief of the Saginaw Chippewa people of the Ojibwa nation. In the Ojibwa language, Ogimaans (anglicized to “Okemos”) means “Little Chief.” It is not known if this refers to Okemos’ short stature or refers in some way to his actual power as a chief.

 

The exact date of Okemos’ birth is unknown. He was born in what is now Shiawassee County. He was probably born in the mid-1770s (although at least one of his white contemporaries—Freeman Bray—put his birth year as far back as the 1750s).

Chief Okemos Grave

Chief Okemos Grave

Okemos indicated that his mother’s father was the Ojibwa chief Min-e-to-gob-o-way and his uncle was the Ottawa chief Kob-e-ko-no-ka.

The first formal reference to Okemos appears in 1796 when Okemos and 16 other men enlisted in the British armed forces as scouts.

Okemos' Grave Marker

Okemos’ Grave Marker

Okemos fought at the Battle of Lower Sandusky (also called the Battle of Fort Stephenson) in what is now northern Ohio. The battle took place on August 2, 1813 during the War of 1812. Although the British lost the battle and the United States repulsed the attack, Okemos accrued considerable respect in the fighting, which raised his standing among the Ojibwa. During the battle, Okemos was slashed with a saber; this left a five-inch scar on his forehead that remained for the rest of his life as a distinguishing feature.

At the Treaty of Saginaw in 1819, Okemos represented the Ojibwa people. While several other tribes were represented by their leaders, the Ojibwa lost the most territory in this treaty. Other tribes with people displaced in this treaty were the Ottawa and Potawatomi. Okemos and the other Native American chiefs signed the treaty with General Lewis Cass, giving up six million acres of land in what is now southern Michigan to the United States government.

By the 1830s, Okemos was recognized as a leader not only of the Saginaw Chippewa, but of many other Ojibwa bands. He also acted as a leader of some Ottawa and Potawatomi groups who lived south of the Red Cedar River.

Following the white settlement of the area beginning in 1839, Okemos and his people conducted an active trading business through the 1840s. In 1840, Freeman Bray founded a city then called Hamilton. In 1859, the city of Hamilton was renamed Okemos, in honor of Chief Okemos.

By 1850, disregarding the Treaty of Saginaw, the United States government began moving Native Americans to reservations from the lands where Okemos led his people. In the early 1850s, Okemos moved to Ionia County, Michigan. Okemos died near DeWitt, Michigan in 1858.

Riverbank at Okemos Grave

Riverbank at Okemos Grave

Steep Bank at Okemos Grave

Steep Bank at Okemos Grave

Accessing the grave site from the river is difficult.  Exit the river at N42 48.308′ W84 54.391′.  Climb the steep clay bank, and follow the trail a short distance to the grave at N42 48.309′ W84 54.427′.