Updated: Jan 10, 2021
"Many moons before the white men entered the great forests of the North, a tribe of Indians lived among the great pines between the Escanaba and Menominee Rivers. They were a peaceful people and loved their forest homes. The lakes and rivers, the valleys and hills with their forests of pine, were all theirs and they wanted no more. They were satisfied to live in peace with all their neighbors."
-- Hermansville from the Beginning, by Charles M. Case, 1925
Menominee Indian family, 1931. Source: Library of Congress
The human history of Menominee County doesn't begin when the first white people arrived.
The Menominee Indians were the original human inhabitants of 10 million acres of land stretching across Wisconsin and into the south-central Upper Peninsula of Michigan. According to the present day Menominee tribe, their lands reached as far north as the Escanaba River, south to the Milwaukee River and west to the Mississippi River. This area includes what is now known as Menominee County, Michigan.
"The Menominee lived by hunting, fishing and gathering. The abundant wild rice was the staple food which was augmented by corn, beans and squash, grown in small gardens. Some of the food was dried in the sun for winter use. Boiling and roasting were the common methods of cooking. Maple sugar and syrup was used as sweeteners and flavorings."
-- Menominee Tribes of Wisconsin, Facts and Figures Reference Book
According to a 1925 history of Hermansville written by Charles M. Case, the Menominees' great chief, Bear Paw, lived in a village where Hermansville now stands in northern Menominee County. Case relates a legend passed down by Bear Paw's sister, a prophetess named Och-kum-in-kee. The legend says the Chippewas, a more aggressive tribe in the northeast U.P., persisted in pushing westward and southward into the Menominee lands. In the battles that followed, the Menominee dwindled in number, eventually retreating south to the mouth of the Menominee River, where they were found by French explorer Jean Nicolet in 1634.
By all accounts, the Menominee were a peaceful people, who welcomed and traded furs with both English and French traders from the late 1600s to the mid-1800s.
"The abundance of fish running out of Green Bay into the river; the check they received in climbing the rapids two miles from the mouth; and the abundance of game in the woods around, enabled them to obtain a living very easily," wrote Eleazer S. Ingalls in an early history of Menominee County. "Their favorable location, too, on the shores of the bay rich with fish, and at the mouth of the river whose branches enabled them to penetrate the vast regions to the north with their birch bark canoes-these advantages drew large numbers about the mouth of the Menominee. The peaceful character of the Menominees was early noted by the white traders, and although they were brave as a people, yet wars rarely arose between them and other tribes, and violence was seldom committed on those who visited them."
Two-hundred years after Nicolet's arrival, the Menominee were still living in traditional villages, though their economy had begun to depend on trading. In the 1835 "Tourist's Pocket Map of Michigan" shown below, you can see the sites of some of their villages on the shores of Green Bay and along the Menominee River and "Little Menominee River," (which I believe may be today's Escanaba River).
[The Tourist's Pocket Map Of Michigan Exhibiting Its Internal Improvements Roads Distances &c. by J.H. Young. Philadelphia: Published By S. Augustus Mitchell. 1835. Sold By Mitchell & Hinman No. 6 North Fifth Street. Entered ... 1834 by S. Augustus Mitchell ... Pennsylvania. Engraved by J.H. Young., CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons]
By 1876, when Ingalls wrote his centennial history of Menominee County, the Menominee people had become scarce.
"The Menominee Indians are fast fading away, and where there were thousands when the white men came, it is rare now to find one," Ingalls wrote. "When the writer came here, it was very common to sec a village of wigwams at the rapids, the occupants busy catching and smoking a season's stock of the staff of life, i e., Sturgeon, as a supply of provisions to last until the deer were fat enough to eat. It was also common to see fleets of bark canoes, loaded down with squaws and pappooses, coasting along the shores of Green Bay."
As white settlers sought to establish permanent residence in Wisconsin and Upper Michigan in the 1800s, the U.S. government forced the Menominee to cede most of their land. In 1848, the tribe was coerced into selling the last 4.5 million acres of land they held in northern Wisconsin. "They were told, by the Indian Agent, if they refused the government would take the land without paying for it and they would be moved ... whether or not they sold the land," according to a tribal history.
When the chiefs saw the land they would be forced to move to, they balked. Eight chiefs traveled to Washington, DC, to meet with President Fillmore. Through their persistence, the tribe was allowed to remain in Wisconsin.
In 1854, tribal leaders signed the Wolf River Treaty, through which the Menominee were granted 12 townships in Wisconsin “for a home, to be held as Indian lands are held, that tract of Country lying upon the Wolf River.” The Menominee became successful loggers and established a mill on the land, and were also known for their sustainable logging practices.
One-hundred years passed. The men in Congress changed their minds.
In 1954, Congress abolished the reservation and eliminated the Menominee Indian identity when it passed the Termination Act. "This was an experiment to force tribes to join the mainstream of American Society as an assimilation attempt," according to tribal history. "The Menominee were singled out for termination because the tribe was self-sufficient and progressive in the eyes of the federal government."
The Termination Act was a disaster for the tribe. They lost their property and their assets. The Menominee people fell into deep poverty.
It wasn't until the 1970s that the Menominee were able to reverse the loss of their tribal lands and identity. U.S. Senators William Proxmire and Gaylord Nelson introduced legislation to reverse the Termination Act, and President Nixon in 1970 encouraged Congress to end the termination policy. The bipartisan Restoration Act passed on December 22, 1973.
Today, the Menominee live on a reservation along the Wolf River in Wisconsin, where they attempt to keep their culture and language alive while pursuing prosperity for their people.
The tribe says it best: "The Menominee have survived for over 10,000 years of existence in this area, and are indigenous to the State of Wisconsin. ... We continue to have strong leadership and it was this type of leadership that has taken us through much adversity. We continue to speak our language and practice our traditions and our traditional religion. Spiritually, we continue to speak with our creator through tobacco, prayers and other offerings. We will continue to survive because we are a sovereign nation, a nation that refused to be pushed from our territory, a nation that will remain strong and independent."
I'd like to visit the tribal cultural museum at the Menominee Reservation some day and learn more about the earliest human residents of Menominee County. How about you?
The Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin (tribal website): https://www.menominee-nsn.gov
The Menominee Clans Story, sponsored by the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point:
Menominee History, Wisconsin Public Television: https://www.pbs.org/video/wpt-documentaries-menominee-history/
Centennial history of Menominee County, Ingalls, E.S. (Eleazer Stillman), 1820-1879. Accessed at https://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/micounty/ARH7760.0001.001?rgn=main;view=fulltext
Hermansville From the Beginning, By Charles M. Case, 1925. IXL Historical Society, Hermansville, Mich.