Sharing Personal History One Life at a Time

Lost in Translation

Indians Black River Pic

Fort Gratiot, Michigan, the outlet of Lake Huron, adjacent to Auminchaw reservation.  From Castlenau, Vues et Souvenirs du L’Amerique du Nord, pl. 18, fig. 4.

Belief is a beautiful armor
But makes for the heaviest sword
Like punching underwater
You never can hit who you’re trying for
Some need the exhibition
And some have to know they tried
It’s the chemical weapon
For the war that’s raging on inside
– John Mayer, 2006, Belief

Beliefs, Values, Morals & The Great Leap Forwards

Our beliefs form from our experiences, what we see, hear, read, and think about.  They are assumptions or thoughts we associate with who we are and how we perceive others to be.  They help shape and form our opinions and attitudes about what we perceive to be “good” or “bad”.   Values come from our beliefs.  They are the things we think are important.  Whether it’s honesty, education, loyalty, money, faithfulness, etc.



Morals are based upon a group of beliefs and values we are taught.  They are the rules or values society judges to be “good” or “bad”.  They have a social value and are the root of social acceptance.  They can be motivation for leading what society determines to be a good life.  They often influence a legal system and acceptable societal behavior.

Our beliefs and values can be strengthened or change over time as we encounter evidence or experiences that challenge previously held views.  A change in the moralistic code of society derives from conflict that sets our morals against an experience or situation that begins to change our mode of thinking.  Unfortunately, the winds of moralistic change can blow for a long time before they realign, as the number of victims set in its path grows.

In performing genealogical research, it is often hard to find documentation to tell the personal history of females.  This is in large part due to the fact women were once subject to laws that did not afford them the same rights as men and thus, in many instances, they became hidden members of society.  For Indian women, documentation is even more scarce, making proof of their existence even harder to uncover.  Two of these women are represented here.  One is of fiction, the other was Francis Harsen, an Indian woman, the wife of Jacob Harsen, II, who once called Harsen’s Island her home.

Indian Women Wild Rice

Ojibwa women harvesting wild rice, circa 1850.  By Seth Eastman.  The American Museum of Natural History

A Squaw Wife

Before the white man stepped foot on Michigan soil, Indian women of the Great Lakes area had a unique understanding of the wilderness and waterways they lived in.  They were hardworking and dedicated to their tribe and families serving as active participants in their society.  They bore the responsibility of childrearing, farming and sugar making.  The men of their tribes hunted and fished.  Because of their upbringing and skill sets for survival on the frontier, Indian squaws were considered prized assets to the male fur trader community.  It was common for these men to pursue them and take them as wives in order to reap the benefits of having both a sexual companion and free labor.  In its early days when Michigan was a remote wilderness, Catholic Priests and Protestant Ministers travelled the area.  Therefore, they were not always present to perform marriage ceremonies.  In lieu of a traditional marriage ceremony, a tribal ceremony known as a “country marriage” took place from the early 1750s until around 1820.  The British Canadians, who controlled the Great Lakes Region, called this form of marriage, “a la facon du pays” meaning “in the way of the country.”  While common place, this form of marriage was considered illegitimate by white society in civilized British Canada.

In many instances, Indian women married to fur traders were treated like slaves.  They bore Metis children and raised them, farmed land to grow crops to trade as supplemental income for their husbands and remained loyal to their husbands despite the hardships of frontier living.  In the fur trading business, there was a hierarchy to the portage areas where trading took place.  Most traders started out working in the poorer areas.  If they achieved financial success for a trading company in a poorer area, they were promoted and transferred to work in a higher profit territory around the Great Lakes, Illinois and Ohio.  Some Indian wives were sold to other fur traders before their ambitious husbands made way for new territory, but many were abandoned.  It was highly common for a fur trader at the beginning of his career to marry an Indian woman, profit from her hard work for his trade, abandon her, return to civilized white society after he had established himself, and marry a white woman of his choice or one he was contractually bound to marry.

As the saying goes “Facts often bleed into fiction.”   The story below titled “A Squaw Wife – A Story of Early Days on the St. Clair River” was written by an author known only as “B”.  It was posted in the Port Huron Daily Times on February 16, 1895 and serves as a valuable representation of a “country marriage” and the realities Indian women in the Great Lakes Region faced at the end of the 18th century, beginning of the 19th century.  The stain of its practice, and its shameful hush in society are exhibited by the fact the author did not disclose his identify, even in 1895, almost a century after this type of ceremony was no longer performed.  Ironically, the last name of one of the main characters in the story is Moraux, which translates to “morals” in English.

A Squaw Wife – A Story of Early Days on the St. Clair River by B. – Port Huron Daily Times

“They were long in coming,” said Battiste Levias, as he came to the store door and looked anxiously down the river.  “Unless the Indians below are troublesome, or an accident has befallen them, they ought to be here soon.”

It was near the closing of the last century.  The bright sun of an August afternoon was shedding its warmth on the beautiful St. Clair River, just below where the sparkling waters of Lake Huron, then known to the early voyagers as “Mere Duce” of Champlain, glistened in the sun.  The pine forest, which skirted its western bank, at the spot where once the tri-color of France had waved proudly from the stockade of old Fort St. Joseph, cast a shadow on the water, and a deeper one in the background as it receded from the river towards the unbroken and impenetrable wilderness, which extended back, no one knew where.

Here and there, scattered through the edge of the forest, could be seen the log cabins of the early French traders, with their small patches of garden surrounding the rude habitations.  Just above, near the old stockade of the abandoned fort, was located the store, where the traders and Indians came and exchanged their pelts for the goods and trinkets of the agent.

In front of the store a number of sturdy traders and trappers sat discussing prospects and wondering between drinks of rum why the voyagers long past due, had not returned from their annual journey to Montreal, bringing stores and ammunition for the coming winter and letters and messages from loved ones left behind.

Off to the left under a mammoth oak, were grouped a dozen or more swarthy, stern looking Chippewa Indians to all appearances totally oblivious to their surroundings.  In the center of the group quietly smoking sat their head chief and prophet, “Wemenns,” and by his side his beautiful and gifted daughter “Wanoma,” who was idolized by her stern old father, worshipped by her people and courted and loved by the whites for her intelligence and kindness of heart.

To her the settlers owed a special debt of gratitude.  Once the haughty old chief had threatened war on the whites for some fancied wrong but owing to her intercessions and good offices an understanding was arrived at and a massacre averted.  For this she was at all times a welcome visitor at the post, and the ties of friendship between her people and the whites were more closely cemented.  At this time Wanoma was about 17 years old, tall and perfectly formed, with fine teeth, black sparkling eyes, and long glossy hair falling to her waist.  Her features were finer than those usually found among the people of her race, and their blending and expression was such that she seemed to be entirely out of place among such rude environments.  Her demeanor was proud and haughty.  Full of pride of her race and ancestry, she had no ambition other than to rule a queen over her people and command the respect of the whites.

More than one rash young Frenchman had found to their sorrow that Wanoma was not to be trifled with:  for when they talked of love her eyes flashed defiance and scorn and they were quickly told to go back to their own people and choose a mate whom the priest would force them to love and keep.  As for her, she would not consent to be a white man’s slave, only to be deserted when he returned to his home beyond the great river.  When she gave up her freedom her heart would go where love sent it, to some worthy brave of her father’s nation.  And so it was at the time this story opens.

It is while this scene is being enacted in front of the post that a rifle shot is heard, a moment later followed by a volley, which echoes and re-echoes over the waters.  In a moment all is excitement.  Even the stolid Indians evince an interest.  Soon every man reports to Commandant Battiste Levais gun in hand ready for any emergency.

At that moment a flotilla of four large canoes moves grandly around the bend and propelled by glistening paddies come swiftly toward the anchorage.  A moment later, amid shouts of welcome, the canoes grate upon the pebbly shore and the hardy voyagers are welcomed back.  Kneeling on the sand they give thanks to Him, who has watched over them on the long journey, and brought them safely through peril back to their friends.

Willing hands quickly unload the boats and take the supplies to the storehouse.  All were members of the post except one, who was evidently a stranger.  He was a young man of about twenty, tall and strongly built, handsome and courtly.  But his bearing and dress showed that he was out of his proper sphere among such rough companions.  Casting a wondering glance at the strange surroundings, he sauntered leisurely up the path which led to the post.  On his way he noticed the group of Indians and stopping for a moment his attention was directed to Wanoma.  Through force of habit he lifted his “chapan” from his head and bowed with courtly grace.  Their eyes met for a moment.  Out of his shone admiration and wonder.  From her black orbs flashed anger and defiance.  He then turned toward the post, strongly impressed with the beauty of this wildflower of the forest and wondering if they would meet again.

“I hate him!” she said as he vanished from her sight and turning to the chief said, “Let us return to our tepee.”  Without a word they all arose from the ground and went to their village on the bank of the “Riviere Delude” (Black).

When Paul Moraux (for that was the name of the stranger) presented a letter to the agent informing him that the bearer was the son of the president of the fur company, he was warmly greeted and informed that he would be made as comfortable as the rough surroundings of a frontier post would allow.  The letter stated that he was to remain one year at least and a year longer if he so desired.  He was to have the freedom of the post privileged to go and come and be to all intents and purposes his own master.

Thus firmly installed in his new home under such favorable auspices, it was not long before Paul became a prime favorite with the attaches of the past, and a familiar figure to the Indians.  Every day something new and strange happened that made him more and more in love with his new life.  Reared and educated in the strictest seclusions of a Catholic college, the freedom of the wilderness was a revelation to him.

Every day he found himself thinking of the Indian girl.  In conversation with Battiste he had been told who she was and was gratified to learn that her home was at a village on the opposite bank of the Riviere Delude, only a mile distant.  Every day he had hoped to see her and each day he had been doomed to disappointment.

At last after waiting a week, he concluded to visit the village, hoping that he might see her.  Fortunately for him the day chosen was the one on which the annual games of the Indians took place.  Crossing the river in company with several of the young men belonging to the post, he arrived at the village just as the festivities were about to open.  In front of the chief’s tepee was a large plat of ground, flanked on all sides by Indian spectators.  The games were the usual ones practiced by all the Indian tribes.  There was running, jumping and wrestling, and the victor received for his reward a beaded crown, which was placed on his head at the termination of the contest by the daughter of the chief.

For two years in succession, young Waposse, a stalwart brave, had easily defeated all comers.  If he could win this time his ambition would be satisfied, for under the rules any contestant winning three times in succession could ask any favor of the chief and it would be granted.

Waposse had long loved Wanoma, although the affection was in no way reciprocated and he had decided if he won this last contest to ask the chief for his daughter’s hand in marriage.  Waposse seemed more than usually jubilant, for the contests were likely to go to him by default; as none of the young braves dared to meet so formidable an opponent, whose fame as an athlete had spread through all the tribes of the lake region.

Wanoma, who disliked the vain Waposse, mistrusted by certain insinuations that he should win she would be compelled to marry him.  When he appeared for the final contest, his triumphant bearing and insinuating glances intensified her fears.  Casting an apprehensive glance around the circle as if in search of someone to save her from her fate, her eyes met Paul’s who, having been apprised of the conditions of the contest seemed intuitively to divine her meaning.

Just as the young brave was about to be declared the victor, the ranks opened and the fair-haired stranger entered the arena.  In a moment all was excitement.  With a scowl of rage and disappointment Waposse refused to contest with the white stranger.  At the suggestion of Wanoma the chief decided that Waposse must meet all comers.  Then the young gladiators faced each other.  In appearance the Indian seemed the more powerful of the two.  In the running bout the Indian won after a close finish, but when the jump occurred Paul won.  Now came the final struggle.  The wrestle was to decide the contest.  When the white stranger stripped to the waist for the last struggle a cry of admiration went around the circle.  He stood like a young giant conscious of his power, and calmly watching his opponent.  At last, with a rush, the Indian bore down upon him, they clinched, and after a terrific struggle which worked the spectators up to a high state of excitement, the Indian was thrown heavily to the ground, where he lay breathless and unable to rise.  Paul assisted him to his feet and then walked calmly to the tepee of the chief, where he was proclaimed the victor.

Wanoma brought the crown and with a glad smile placed it upon Paul’s head, and addressing him in broken French said, “Wanoma hated you up to this moment, now she has changed her mind.”

The next few hours were pleasant ones to Paul.  Physical prowess had gained for him the admiration of the Indians and the regard and gratitude of Wanoma.  The following afternoon Wanoma visited the post and asked for Paul.  On being informed that he was over in the bay shooting waterfowl she launched her birch bark canoe and crossed the river in search of him.

Paul’s boat was hidden in the rushes of the bay, where its occupant was patiently waiting for a shot, when the rushes suddenly parted and Wanoma’s canoe shot up alongside his own.  She looked paler than usual and the hand that held the paddle trembled.  After a pleasant greeting, Paul noticed her changed appearance and asked her the cause of it.

“The white stranger is in danger,” she replied and “I have come to warn him.”

“In what way?” Paul asked.

“Waposse is angry at the white chief because he robbed him of his prize”, she answered with down cast eyes, “and swear to kill him.  Wanoma fears that he will keep his word.”

“Would Wanoma care if he did?” asked Paul.

“Yes!” she replied.  “The first time you looked at me I hated you because I thought you like the rest, and the cry of the black swan rung in my ears.  If he had killed you then I would have been glad. Now…..”

“Have no fear, Wanoma; Paul can care for himself.”

When they returned at dusk they talked and acted like lovers.  The time sped on and nearly every day found Paul and Wanoma together, sometimes propelling their canoe up the rapids into the lake, but oftener sitting under the shade of the pines and talking and acting as lovers are wont to do.  Occasionally a shadow would steal over the face of Wanoma, as if danger threatened her, but would as quickly disappear under the spell of Paul’s impassioned wooing.  One night, while sitting by the river watching the reflection of the stars in the water, Paul asked Wanoma to be his wife.  The first thought that flashed through her mind was of the women of her tribe who had married traders, only to be deserted, and she answered:  “No, it is better to love like this.  I would hate and kill the man who would abandon me after a few moons of happiness.”

“But I am different from the others, Wanoma.  I will love you always,” he said.

“If you did not I would hate you, I hate you now!” she said, as the old shadow crept over her face and the cry of the swan again echoed in her ears.

“But I will be true to you Wanoma.”

“Then swear! Swear you will be true to me all your life Paul Moraux and I will be your slave forever; but break your word and I will kill you with my own hand!”

“I swear it!” he said as he looked unflinchingly into her flashing eyes; but while he took the oath, which he knew he could not keep, he shuddered, and his thoughts drifted far away to his home.

The old chief readily gave his consent to the marriage for he could deny Wanoma nothing that her heart desired.

She wanted the marriage postponed until the periodical visit of the Jesuit Father, but Paul protested against the delay and again the shadow crossed her face.  However, she at last consented to the Indian service, which was fixed for the following day.

Simple and primitive was the marriage ceremony.  After the mutual promise had been given publicly and the present to the chief had sealed the compact, the Indian bride turned her piercing eye of the groom and with a look that startled him with its intensity said:  “Paul, this marriage is the binding before your God as the service of your priest.  Break your oath and you die by the hand of the Indian wife who loves you.”

To his dying day he never forgot that moment, never forgot that look of mingled love and hate.  He knew that she could keep her word.  The newly wedded pair received the rough, though hearty congratulations of their friends and retired to a cabin prepared for them near the post, where they spent the honeymoon.  She was as happy as the modern bride and his cup was full and overflowing.  A year passed and nothing happened to disturb their love dream.  Paul had mastered all the details of frontier life and occupied his time in hunting and trapping, while she was content to bask in the sunshine of his love and minister his wants.

Occasionally his mind would revert to his home far distant, for he knew that some day he would have to abandon his frontier life and return to the restraints of civilization.  One day, a little stranger came to gladden their hearts and brighten their home.  It was a baby girl.

Indian Woman with Child

Ojibwa Woman and Child.  Published by E.C. Biddle, Philadelphia, 1837.  The collection of C.J. Hambleton

During the next year things moved on in their usual channel, broken occasionally by the visit of traders from Detroit and Point St. Ignace.  But as time passed on Wanoma began to notice a change in Paul.  He no longer seemed the bright, happy fellow that he had been in the past.  He seemed to be brooding over something, in spite of his efforts to appear natural.  One day she found him weeping with their child in his arms.  Again she heard the cry of the swan in the bay across the river, and again the old shadow crossed her face.  This time she could not dismiss the premonition of coming danger.  The shadow failed to pass away; the death song of the swan still rang in her ears – her savage nature asserted itself and again she would be forced to say, “I hate him!”  Then her mood would change and her love for him would soften her heart.

At last the annual expedition set out for Montreal.  Paul waited in trepidation for its return, knowing the crisis in his life had come, that he would be obliged to decide his future.  He knew that according to agreement, he should have returned to his home, with that expedition.  As he had not, he expected to receive on its return a preemptory order to return home at once.

After a weary week of mental suffering and anxiety to Paul, the expedition returned, bringing him two letters; one from his father and the other a dainty perfumed one directed in a fine, delicate hand.  He knew too well who had sent it.  Opening his father’s letter his worst fears were realized.  He was ordered to return home at once, in language that could not be misunderstood.  From the tone of the letter Paul was satisfied that his father had received an inkling of the event which had taken place at the post and when his parent threatened to disinherit and disown him if he disobeyed the paternal mandate, he was satisfied that some member of the expedition had divulged his secret.

The hour he so much dreaded had come.  He must return and pick up the threads of civilized life where he dropped them two years before which meant marry the girl he was engaged to at that time by a family arrangement and live a life of luxury and ease; or cast his lot with his Indian wife, a disinherited son, obliged to eke out his own existence at a wild and savage frontier post.

What was he to do?

If he disobeyed his father, he would have to sever every tie that bound him to his people.  He could not take his wife and child with him, for that would bring down ridicule upon himself and disgrace to his family.  His pride was too strong for that.  Much as he disliked to own it, there seemed but one thing for him to do.  He must break away from the tenderest associations it is ever given to man to experience – the attachment of a husband for a wife and child that he loves.  For he did love them with all the passionate ardor of youth, in spite of the peculiar conditions surrounding them.

At last, after deliberating, for hours, he reluctantly decided to return to his home.  But he hadn’t the heart to tell Wanoma the truth; so he told her that he must leave her for a time to visit his home, but that he would soon return to her.  Wanoma received the news with the stoicism peculiar to her race, but made no comment.  If she doubted him she failed to show it.

When he left her to go to the store to select his escort and make preparations for his departure on the morrow, her face darkened for she realized that he was about to desert her.  She resolved to keep her word, “I hate him!” she muttered between her set teeth, “he is false like the others.”

Paul returned early, glad to spend his last hours with his squaw wife and child.  She returned his caresses quietly and by her actions failed to show that she mistrusted him.  Toward morning, while Paul was quietly sleeping, she stealthily arose from the couch and procuring his hunting knife and crept to the side of the bed.

“I hate him!” she said as she raised the knife and was about to plunge it into his heart.

At that moment his lips moved and he called her by name.  The knife dropped from her hand and falling on her knees by his side she said, “I am here Paul, what do you want?”

“I want you to believe me when I promise to return to you.”

“Wanoma believes her husband,” she said, as she threw her arms about his neck.  The next day she bade him a fond adieu and wished him “God speed” on his journey to his people.  Orders had been left to have Wanoma supplied from the store with everything she needed to make her comfortable.

Weeks passed.  One day Wanoma found the dainty letter Paul had neglected to take with him.  Woman like she wondered what it contained but being unable to read she could not satisfy her curiosity.  On the day that Father Dupray, the Jesuit priest, arrived on one of his periodical visits to the post, she called to him and asked him to read the letter to her.  Not having been informed of her marriage, and thinking it only a whim of the Indian girl, he read the letter aloud.  It was from Paul’s affiance wife.

“Where did you get his letter?” the good priest asked.

“From my husband.”

“Where is he now?”

“Gone, back to his people with a lie on his lips,” she answered as she arose and coolly walked away.

“God pity her!” remarked the good Jesuit father as she disappeared from view.  From that moment there was a change in Wanoma.  She no longer appeared bright and cheerful.  Her visits to the store became less frequent, and when she did come she had nothing to say to anyone.  The men believed with her that Paul never intended to return, and in their rough way they pitied her.  They had seen the same thing happen before, but the others were only common women of the tribe, and they did not seem to mind it.  With Wanoma it was different.  She was proud, and had loved Paul with all the passionate feeling of her Indian nature.  But after all, she was only a squaw, a common chattel to be thrown aside at will.

Months passed.  The autumn and winter had gone and summer reigned again.  The intervals between Wanomn’s visits to the store had been continually lengthening and the agent had noticed that she appeared ill.  At length her visits stopped abruptly.

One day the child came toddling into the store, and going up to Father Dupray pointed her finger in the direction of her home.  He divined her meaning and picking her up in his arms strode away toward the cabin.  When he arrived he found Wanoma in bed suffering with fever and unable to rise.  “Wanoma wants to ask the good father a question,” she said, as he approached the couch.

“What is it, my child?” he asked as he placed his soft hand on her burning temples.  “Do you believe that Paul will come back to me?  Tell me what you think,” and her dark eyes seemed to pierce his soul.

“I hope – I believe so,” he replied, but the lie nearly choked him.

“I heard the swan calling all the night – it is a sign of death.  If Paul were dead would you know it?”

He did not answer.

After a moment she asked:  “Do wives and husbands meet in the white man’s heaven?”

“Yes, Wanoma.”

“Then I can tell him I hate him.” and a pleased look illuminated her dark features.

“But do you hate him, Wanoma?”

“Wouldn’t a white wife hate him if he deserted her?” she asked.

“Not if she were a Christian.”

“What business would he have with a Christian?” she asked bitterly.

The priest felt the force of her question and made no reply.

“Wanoma, do you want to see your husband again?” the priest asked as he cast an anxious look toward her?

“Yes, father,” she answered.

“Then you must love him.  It is wicked to hate.  There is a happier world with love, and if you hate him you will never meet again.”

“I will try,” she replied and her dark features softened.

Day and night the good priest was at the bed side of the sick girl, ministering to her wants and giving her that consolation which no one but priests of the church known how to impart.  He felt that death was near, and his only hope was that before the dread summons came he would be able to bring her within the pale of the church.  He did not believe that Paul ever intended to return, and sometimes he almost hated him himself.

At last the crisis came.  Clustered about the bed side were the priest and a few attendants, and near the door stood the stern old chief, the father, giving no sign of the torture which racked his soul.

With a feeble voice Wanoma asked to see her child.  The little girl was placed in her arms, and after caressing her a moment she turned to the priest and said, “Keep her until her father comes.”

“He is coming now I can hear his voice!” she said as she half raised herself in the bed and appeared to be listening to a distant sound.  “Her mind wanders,” said the priest.

At last she turned to the holy father and with the light of a new born hope shining from her eyes said:  “If he comes too late, Father, tell him that I loved him to the last, and died believing him true to me.”  She then passed into a peaceful sleep.

But what of Paul?


Indian Women Fur Trading

Indians Bringing Beaver Skins to Fleet, Source Unknown

Frances Harsen, An Indian Woman

While society in the Great Lakes Region accepted “country marriage” practices as an excuse for the abandonment of Indian women, it was the rule of law moving into the 19th century which allowed for the mistreatment of Indian women to continue as their “oaths and evidence” were scarcely accepted by the courts.  The court system was not an even playing field for Indians against the white man due to their inability to speak or write English, ignorance of the law and timidity.  All these inabilities made it impossible for Indians to protect their rights as citizens.  According to Andrew J. Blackbird, widowed Indian women were a prime target for fraud and easy prey for the white man to steal their dowered lands.  These women were easily talked into signing papers with the understanding the white man would take care of their lands or sell them off for their benefit only to be left with nothing and no recourse while society turned a blind eye.

This was the case for Frances Harsen.  Frances was an Indian woman married to Jacob Harsen, II.  They lived together in the early to mid-1800s on Harsen’s Island where Frances was known as “Fanny”, “Queenie”, or “Aunty”.  It was said she was a “beautiful Indian princess.”  Family genealogies and local folklore describe Jacob and Fanny as childless having raised and adopted Jacob’s brother’s son, Jacob Harsen, III, after his mother died giving birth to him.  Upon Jacob’s death, it is said Fanny simply went back to her people.

I do not know what Indian tribe Fanny came from or where she disappeared to after the death of her husband.  What I do know is that she was victim of the white man’s court and the Harsen family in the 1840s, and she did not receive her dower lands as a result.  Fanny did not just mysteriously disappear from Harsen’s Island.  She was more than likely a victim of fraud and forced out by the family she appeared to have given her labor, life and love to.  With no home and resources to sustain herself, Fanny was ousted from Harsen’s Island.  What is openly stated as fact is Jacob Harsen, III was the rightful heir to his uncle’s estate and lands on Harsen’s Island.  However, this is a blatant misrepresentation of what really happened.

Jacob Harsen, II

From 1820 to the year of his death in 1843, Jacob Harsen, II, lived and worked as a farmer on Harsen’s Island trading Indian goods, wheat and guns, to the Indians on Walpole Island.  He was employed as a fur trader by the American Fur Company, and performed carpentry work for Sir William Selkirk at his infamous Baldoon community in Canada,

During his time working for the Chicago branch of the American Fur Company from 1823-1834, Jacob was assigned a license at the portage located on the Kanakee River in Illinois, by the U.S. government.  He worked here in partnership with his cousin, David Laughton.  David Laughton was the son of John Laughton, who had managed a trading post on Stromness Island, nka Dickinson Island, back in the late 1700s before the British pulled out of Detroit.

Indian Women - American Fur Company Buildings

American Fur Company Buildings at Fond du Lac, head of Lake Superior.   From McKenny, Tour to the Lakes.

In 1825, Jacob Harsen is mentioned in the American Fur Company’s correspondence as having the best sales record doing $571.57 of business that year.  Laughton is mentioned as having the second highest sales record of $245.60.   As the boys became notable traders in Illinois, David and his brother, Barney, purchased land and operated a tavern in Riverside, Illinois.  David and Barney are well noted as early pioneers in the local histories of early Chicago.  They are described as Scotch half-breeds who traded with the Potawatomi Indians on the Kankakee River.  David ended up marrying a Potawatomi woman known as Waish-kee-shaw from this area.

No documentation exists as to when Jacob Harsen married Fanny or what tribe she was from.  However, we can assume their marriage date took place before 1829 during his fur trading years with the American Fur Company.  We can also assume she was more than likely from Walpole Island.  Proof of the assumption of the timeframe of their marriage and her tribe include these facts:

  1. Jacob Harsen, III was born on November 25, 1829, and family history states his mother died in childbirth leaving him to be raised by Jacob and Fanny;
  2. Michigan census records for 1830 show Jacob and Fanny living together on Harsen’s Island;
  3. A memoir written by Mrs. Nancy Brakeman describes an Indian Medicine Dance and Feast given by the Indians of Walpole Island for the benefit of Mrs. Jacob Harsen in the summer of 1832;
  4. A Port Huron Times Herald newspaper article dated January 13, 1933, which discusses the Harsen family states, “Jacob II married a beautiful Indian queen known as “Aunty” who raised Jacob III. She was a picturesque and loved figure in the St. Clair River District and stories are told of how she used to make trips on the Great Lakes with Captain John H. Stewart……Many times in those early days the old Harsen homestead would be surrounded by Indians when dawn came who were waiting for their queen who would council with them and help them in their tradings with the white man.”

In 1826, David and Jacob formed a fur trading partnership and authored a document designating the other as their lawful heir.  Upon David’s death in 1834, the document the two men authored would have devastating effects on David’s wife and children.  Apparently, David had a Last Will and Testament that left his estate to his wife and children.  However, the partnership document presented to the Cook County Probate Court by Jacob Harsen ended up being recognized as the official Last Will and Testament by the court, and the Laughton heirs were disinherited.  Jacob was given all of David’s land in Illinois and a piece of property he owned on Stromness Island in Michigan.  Jacob sold the land to a Detroit merchant, David Cooper, who ironically ended up being appointed as the administrator of his estate in 1843.  Jacob held on to the property on Stromness Island, as it was listed on the real property inventory of his estate.

Jacob Harsen Estate Page 1

Jacob Harsen Estate File, Michigan Probate Records Calendar 1, p. 105 –

The Jacob Harsen II Estate

Jacob Harsen, II died without a will on October 31, 1843, making no provision for Fanny’s care.  The mere fact that Jacob would institute a partnership agreement with his cousin, David Laughton, to protect his assets, yet not draft a Will to protect his wife after his death, blatantly shows his disregard for Fanny and his esteem for money.  Probate proceedings to open his estate took place on November 3, 1843 in the St. Clair County Probate Court in St. Clair, Michigan.  In the initial probate documents, Jacob’s heirs are listed as Frances Harsen, his widow, two brothers, William and Frances Harsen, and distant relatives.  The Petition for Administration was brought by David Cooper, a Detroit merchant, who was the largest creditor of the estate.  Under Michigan law, creditors could make a petition to administer an estate in the event no next of kin opted to serve.

Chapter Two of the Administration and Distribution of the Estates of Intestates of the Revised Statutes of the State of Michigan of 1837, Section 4, First and Second reads, “Section 4. Administration of the estate of an intestate shall be granted to someone or more of the persons hereinafter mentioned; and they shall be respectively entitled thereto, in the following order, to wit:

First.  His widow, or next of kin, or both, as the judge may think fit and if they do not voluntarily either take or renounce the administration, they shall, if resident within the county, be cited by the judge for that purpose.

Second.  If the persons so entitled to administration are incompetent, or evidently unsuitable for the discharge of the trust, or if they neglect, without sufficient cause, for thirty days after the death of the intestate, to take administration of his estate, the judge of probate shall commit it to one or more of the principal creditors, if there by any competent and willing to undertake the trust.”

A hearing was set for December 4th, 1843, on the petition, and notice was ordered to be sent to Jacob’s next of kin, Fanny, William, and Francis on November 3, 1843.  The notice in part stated, “Whereas it has been represented to our Judge of Probate…..that Jacob Harsen late of said county has died intestate leaving goods, chattels, rights and credits within this state; and whereas David Cooper of the City of Detroit hath made application for Letters of Administration on the Estate of said deceased; you and each of you are hereby commanded and required to be and appear before our Judge of Probate to see fit to take upon yourself or some one of you, the Administration of the estate of said Jacob Harsen, deceased and if you refuse to show cause if any of you have as to why David Cooper should not be appointed Administrator of the same in pursuance of the notice in that case made and provide.”

Fanny, Francis and William Harsen did not appear before the court for the hearing on December 4th.  The Judge ordered another notice and re-set the hearing on the petition for December 18, 1843.  At the hearing, an influential friend of the Harsen family, John K. Smith, a former probate judge and Justice of the Peace for St. Clair County, appeared alongside David Cooper with written testimony to the court of William and Francis Harsen’s wish not to be appointed Administrator.  It read, “Judge Cox, Dear Sir:  I was not a little surprised when Mr. Charles Kimball told me last Saturday that you had not received the notice that you issued to the heirs of Jacob Harsen, deceased.  William Harsen and Frances Harsen signed the notice therein relinquishing their claims to administer for said estate and requested the Mr. David Cooper should be appointed administrator of the estate of the said Jacob Harsen, deceased and I immediately enclosed it in a letter directed to your house and handed it to the steward of the steamboat directing him to see that it was left at Palmer (St. Clair) and I know no more about it.  Mr. Cooper expected that you would grant letters of administration on the 4th of November (I believe) and that a warrant of appraisal would be immediately granted and requested me to attend after certain fat cattle and hogs were appraised to dispose of them and I could only do that after the appraisal.”  John K. Smith signed the letter with a sworn statement which read, “I John K. Smith, do hereby certify on oath that after the decease of Jacob Harsen and David Cooper making application for letters of administration, I heard William Harsen and Frances Harsen say that they did not want anything to do with the estate of Jacob Harsen, deceased and they requested that Mr. David Cooper should be appointed said administrator.”

Judge Cox appointed David Cooper as the administrator that day.  However, there is no documentation from the hearing that mentions what Fanny Harsen wished or wanted, and there is no evidence of her signature or mark on a statement saying she relinquished any of her rights to administer.  No one at the hearing even mentioned her name.  The only concern was for the two white heirs of the estate.  Fanny must have been deemed incompetent to act due to her inability to read and write English, but there is no evidence in the estate file concerning her inability to serve or her incompetency.  It is obvious right from the start no one in the Harsen family was advocating for Fanny’s rights.  These early court filings also prove Jacob P. Harsen III was not considered an adopted son of Jacob and Fanny Harsen under the law.  If he had been, he would have been listed as a rightful heir alongside Fanny, William and Frances.  It was in fact his father, William, who was one of the initial heirs.

The Inventory

An inventory of the real and personal property of the estate was filed on January 20, 1844.  The total appraised value of the estate was $4,872.64.  Today, the estate property would be valued at roughly $169,000.  The real property was described as follows:

  1. The homestead of said deceased situated on Harsen’s Island in the Township of Clay, in the County of St. Clair, the same being Section 5 on Harsen’s Island, 640 acres valued at $2,500.
  2. Three hundred acres on the Northeast side of William Harsen’s farm on Harsen’s Island in said Township of Clay, as deeded by James Harsen, Robert Little, and John B. Laughton to the said deceased valued at $500.
  3. 280 acres of land on Stromness Island in the Township of Clay, aforesaid known as the David Laughton lot bounded on the east by the Middle Channel, on the south by the farm claimed by L. Davenport and others, on the North by the farm occupied by David Seuter valued at $200.
  4. One certain village lot situated in the Village of Newport County of St. Clair and State of Michigan, the same that was deeded to Jacob Harsen by Robert R. McNiffe valued at $50.

The appraisers for the estate were John K. Smith, Charles Kimball, and Nathan D. Smith.

The Distribution Scenarios

Under the Revised Statutes of the State of Michigan of 1838, the heirs of the Jacob Harsen estate were presented with these scenarios of the estate distribution:

  1. Real property – Because Jacob Harsen had no children, his real property would have passed to his brothers and sisters in equal shares. In the event any of his siblings were deceased, their shares would then be divided between the children of the deceased siblings.  Jacob had six siblings: four brothers, William, Francis, James and Bernardus and two sisters, Sarah and Catherine.  At the time of Jacob’s death, his only living siblings were William and Francis.  Therefore, the shares of real property of the estate could have been distributed equally into six shares.  William and Francis each receiving a one-sixth share and leaving the remaining four-sixths to subdivide between the children of the deceased siblings.
  2. Dower – Under the statutes outlining the distribution of real property, widows are not mentioned. Instead, the rights of widows to real property distribution of an estate are discussed under that statutes pertaining to dower rights.  Under the law of dower, Fanny Harsen was entitled to receive one-third of all the real estate of the estate.   However, in order for Fanny to receive a one-third share, she would have had to bring a separate matter before the court asking for a warrant of dower to be issued to the county commissioners to set off her one-third share by metes and bounds.  If she did this, the real property of the estate would have been split between her and Jacob P.  She would receive one-third and Jacob P. would receive two-thirds.  In addition, Fanny was entitled to live at the homestead for one year after the estate was opened rent free and receive reasonable sustenance from the estate for food and living expenses for the first six months.
  3. Personal property – Under the laws concerning the distribution of personal property, Fanny was entitled to live at the homestead for one year rent free and receive reasonable sustenance from the estate for food and living expenses for the first six months.  At the closing of the estate, after all the debts of the estate were paid, Fanny and Jacob P. were entitled to split the remaining personal property equally.

The Plotting of Heirs

Indian Women - Jacob P. Harsen

Jacob P. Harsen – Obituary Picture – Port Huron Times Herald, July 1912

On July 13, 1844, Fanny received and signed for food and 2 oxen totaling $200.00.  The probate records describe this transaction as a part of her dower.  Being that July 13, 1844, would have been seven months from the date of the opening of the estate, Fanny’s right to receive reasonable sustenance would have expired, and here we see evidence of the estate starting to charge her for her food and living expenses.   The fact the estate charged her as part of her dower and not as part of her share of the residue of the personal property she was entitled to receive is questionable.

The Harsen family were well versed in the value of real property.  If the heirs to the real property decided to split the property into six shares and then subdivide the shares of each deceased sibling between their children, they had to of known this subdividion would have brought down the value of the property enormously.  Armed with this knowledge, at some point early on, the members of the Harsen family entitled to inherit must have all agreed to relinquish their right to the real property and settled on allowing the youngest of them, Jacob P. Harsen, III, then 15 years old, to become the only Harsen heir to Jacob’s estate to preserve the value of the property.  Having Jacob P. be declared the only lawful heir of the estate was a wise choice.  Because of his youth, Jacob P. could be easily controlled, and the distribution of the estate assets could be decided by his guardian.  Because the largest and most valuable piece of real property in the estate, Jacob’s homestead and farm, butted up against the Stewart property, it would be easy for family members to work the farm, split the profits, and get paid for their labor out of the personal property assets of the estate as long as the estate stayed open. To carry out their plot the family chose William Harsen, Jr.  He was the best choice, because he had access to the estate funds, having been chosen by David Cooper early on to act as his agent to handle his duties as administrator because he did not live locally.  David lived and worked in Detroit.     Also, William lived at the homestead with Fanny and Jacob P.  He had a close relationship with both and had the best chance of exerting his influence on them.

William Harsen, Jr. proved over and over through the pages of the estate file he was untrustworthy and of a deceitful character.  John K. Smith didn’t fall far behind him.  In one instance, William accepted payment with interest from the Department of Indian Affairs in Canada for $74.05 while he was acting as agent for David Cooper.  The payment was for log chains and guns Jacob had sold to the Indians of Walpole Island before his death in June of 1843.  William received the payment on September 14, 1846.  To receive the payment, he had to swear an oath he had witnessed the transaction between the Indians, and Jacob Harsen and John K. Smith backed him up by swearing he had knowledge of the transaction.  The receipt of this payment was never recorded on any of the estate accountings.  He and Mr. Smith must have just pocketed the money.

Almost three years after the estate was opened on September 14, 1846, Jacob P. came before the court and asked to have William Harsen, Jr. appointed his guardian.  Jacob P. stated in his petition, “The undersigned a minor over the age of 14 years, possessed of the right of certain goods, chattels, rights and credits, respectfully asks that William Harsen, Jr., his brother may be appointed his legal guardian, to take of his property and effects and to see to his education and maintenance.”

Frances Harsen Probate File Page 1

Guardianship File for Frances Harsen, Calendar 1, p. 148, Michigan Probate Records –

Right after Jacob P. filed for guardianship, Fanny started to have problems with William Harsen, Jr.  According to Fanny’s own account, William had forcefully taken all the personal property she had received from the estate in 1844 valued at two hundred dollars.  Henry Gill came to Fanny’s defense and filed a guardianship proceeding on December 2, 1846 to help Fanny get her property back.  Henry also wanted the court to investigate why the estate remained open.  He asked for a hearing on the matter and requested David Cooper appear and offer an accounting of the assets and reasoning for the delay in closing the estate and making distribution to the heirs.  In his pleading, Henry Gill stated, “That by order of your honorable court heretofore made there has been duly set off to your petitioner certain personal chattels of the value of two hundred dollars.  That said property is now in the custody of William Harsen, Jr., who has taken forcible possession thereof and deprived your petitioner of the use and increase thereof.  That your petitioner is an Indian woman incapable of speaking English and entirely incapable of regaining or maintaining possession of her property or her rights.  I respectfully present that William Harsen, Jr. agent of David Cooper administrator of the goods, chattels, and estate of Jacob Harsen having the property aforesaid in charge is careless, unprovidant, and neglectful of the best interests of said estate and is disposing of and squandering the said property and that I truly believe that all of the creditors of the estate have been fully satisfied.  I therefore respectfully pray that a day may be appointed by your honorable court for settling up said estate and that a citation issued to notify said David Cooper of the time and place of holding said court.”

Reading over the estate file accounts for the years 1843 to 1846, William Harsen, Jr. made payments to members of his family for the upkeep and maintenance of Jacob’s homestead and farm, yet he noted very few entries of income from the farm.  The accountings show true signs of a Harsen family plot to reap benefit from the estate assets for as long as they possibly could.  This behavior and the fact that William would take possession of the only assets Fanny held are true signs of the mistreatment she received by him and some members of the Harsen family.

Less than 14 days after the filing of her petition for guardianship and the appointment of Henry Gill as her guardian, Fanny faced pressure from William and members of the Harsen family to recant her petition. Somehow, they must have convinced Fanny she had caused great harm to David Cooper by filing her petition and that Henry Gill’s help was a ploy to take her money.  So, an intimidated Fanny sit with an interpreter and dictated a letter to David Cooper to show him she had not meant to cause him any harm.  All the while William knew David Cooper was not in harm’s way, he was.  Acting as David’s agent, an investigation into the assets of the estate might get him or his fellow family members in trouble.  William and the Harsen family also had to have known that if Fanny had help from Henry Gill, she might learn about her rights of dower and exercise them.  Fanny never signed the dictated letter with her mark.  It reads, “The widow Harsen and William Harsen, Jr. are here with Mr. Henry Robertson (an interpreter) and they or at least the widow requests me to write you.  The widow says that some time since a trifling difficulty rose between her and William which was made known to Henry Gill, that Gill then requested her to go with him to the county seat and see the Judge of Probate, that Gill told her it would cost only one dollar.  That she has since learned that Gill caused the Judge of Probate to appoint him her guardian to take charge of her property and that Gill has caused you to be cited to appear before him and give an account of your administration all of which she says is contrary to her wishes or expectations.  That she has always been perfectly satisfied with you and your management of the estate.  She says she hopes you will continue as such administrator and not give it up in consequence of this affair and that she does not want to make any complaint or assistance and that she told Gill so today.  That she never intended to make any complaint to anyone against you.  The difficulty above mentioned between the widow and William she says is all settled.  Mrs. Harsen says that she only expected a letter to be written to you and expresses much regret that you should be put to any unnecessary trouble and does not wish you to come up any sooner on account of the citation from Judge Cox.”  Witnesses to the letter include William Harsen Jr., Henry Robertson and John K. Smith.

William Harsen, Jr. and some of his family members further pushed the issue to revoke the guardianship.  This time they worked to convince Fanny she was not incompetent, and she could manage her own affairs.  They appealed to her pride, preyed on her ignorance of the law, and her inability to read and understand English.  They pressured her into believing that Henry Gill would take all her assets and she would have no rights to exercise any control over them.  When in fact it was these men who did not want Fanny to exercise control over her assets.  They were the ones who wanted to exercise control, not Henry Gill.  On December 28, 1846, ten people signed a letter addressed to Judge Cox that read, “Honored Sir, we the undersigned are of the opinion that it is not in the interests of the widow, Frances Harsen, nor for the interests of those concerned in the just settlements of the estate of Jacob Harsen, deceased to have Henry Gill, Guardian to the said widow, Frances Harsen.  We are of the opinion that the widow’s case has been misrepresented to your Honor.  We know her to be perfectly sound and capable of managing her own interest.”  This letter was signed by several members and close friends of the Harsen family, including, Aura P. Stewart, John Stewart, William Harsen, Jr., John K. Smith, and Harvey Stewart.

William and his family members continued to push Fanny and she finally gave in to the pressure.  On February 8th, 1847, she filed a letter to Judge Cox asking the court to remove Henry Gill as her agent or guardian that was signed by her mark.  Henry Gill was not so easy to scare away.  He saw what William was doing to Fanny.  In an attempt to try to get Fanny to talk to him, he sent her a letter on March 3, 1847, telling her that he would be glad to resign his guardianship if she would meet with him so he could formally give her back her personal property in his possession and document the occasion for the court.  In response he received a letter on March 4, 1847, from John K. Smith on Fanny’s behalf telling him that Fanny did not wish to do or say anything regarding the settlement of his expenses for bringing the guardianship until Mr. Cooper comes up from Detroit.  He further represented, “She has nothing that she can call her own.  All is in the hands of the administration.  William Harsen, Jr. says that he does not know that you have resigned your guardianship, therefore he does not consider himself bound to pay you.”

By receipt of this letter Henry Gill surmised that William was purposefully keeping Fanny away from him.  Not willing to play games with William, Henry Gill held steady and continued to advocate for Fanny’s rights.  He went to court on March 6, 1847 and filed a pleading in which he explained how he had tried to meet with Fanny to return her property and discuss his resignation as her guardian.  He further discussed the fact that Fanny had stated to John K. Smith she had no property to call her own and as such he felt compelled despite Fanny’s request to have him step down to continue to act in her best interests until the matter of resignation was resolved.  In his desire to honestly help Fanny, he asked the court to set a hearing to warrant her rights of dower and asked for the court to order the county commissioners to set out her one-third share of the property by metes and bounds.  He also requested that William Harsen, Jr. pay Fanny her share of the money he recently received from selling off a portion of the sheep which were personal property of the estate in which Fanny had an interest.

The court set a hearing for April 5, 1847 to set off Fanny’s dower.  William Harsen continued to pressure Fanny to have Henry Gill removed as her guardian.  He hired attorneys John McNeil and M.E. Armes of Port Huron to represent her.  These attorneys sought to remove Henry Gill as guardian by presenting the argument that Fanny was in no way incompetent or incapacitated, she was of sound mind, she was not a minor, and therefore she was not subject to the appointment of a guardian under the law.  They asked the court to rescind, revoke, and vacate the appointment of Henry Gill as her guardian.  The pleading detailing this argument was filed with the court on March 31, 1847.  David Cooper filed a pleading on the same day asking the court to bring all parties into court and allow Fanny Harsen to have the opportunity to make a formal protest against Henry Gill continuing to act as her guardian.  These filings compelled the court to re-set the hearing on Fanny’s dower to May 3, 1847.

At the hearing on May 3, 1847, after all evidence was produced, the same court who had previously declared Fanny incompetent due to her inability to read or write English ordered Henry Gill to to discharge his guardianship of Fanny.  The court reversed its prior decision and found Fanny was of sound mind and competent to handle her own personal and financial affairs.  There is no mention by the court in the proceedings that day of the courts prior order or of her inability to read or write English being a factor in declaring her incompetent.  The court did not advocate on her behalf at all. The judge did not take the time to explain her rights of dower or even ask if she wished to continue to pursue her claim on the matter.  All the court did was discharge Henry Gill as guardian and close the matter.

The estate was finally wrapped up and closed on October 11, 1847, five months after Henry Gill stepped down as Fanny’s guardian.  After David Cooper was paid for his services as administrator, Fanny and Jacob P. each received $456.00 in personal property.  There is no evidence of the distribution of the real property in the probate file, but we know Fanny never received her one-third share of the real estate.  There is no mention of Fanny having inherited any real property of the Harsen homestead in local history.  The only person mentioned as having been the legal heir of Jacob’s homestead is Jacob P.

Clay Map 1897

Clay Township Map 1897 –

Fanny is not listed on the 1850 census living in Clay Township either.  William Harsen, Jr. is listed as living on the homestead property.  Jacob P. is listed as living on Stromness Island with Asa Dickinson.  Where did Fanny Harsen go?  Through the neglect of her husband in his failure to leave a will that would have taken care of her for the rest of her life and the ill treatment she received from the members of his family, no one knows.  And quite frankly, nobody cared to know.  Fanny was truly a victim of hate, bigotry and greed.  A beautiful Indian woman forever lost in translation.

Belief for Change

As John Mayer’s states in his song, Belief:

Belief is a beautiful armor

But makes for the heaviest sword.

The “heaviest sword” in Fanny Harsen’s story was society’s belief that she was less than human, a savage, not worthy of the same treatment of a white man or woman.  These beliefs led Fanny Harsen’s own family to treat her disgracefully, strip her of her rights, and abandon her.  What is truly remarkable about her story is these beliefs still exist in our society today.  While they may not be beliefs held by the bulk of society, as in her time, there are still members of our society that hold these beliefs to be true.  We now call them racists and bigots.  Even 200 years later, the war to defeat these mindsets and dispel these beliefs rages on.  Change is a choice that only you can make.  As Billy Bragg once wrote, “You can be active with the activists or sleeping with the sleepers, while we’re waiting for the great leap forwards,”   I suggest you wake up, throw down your swords, and choose wisely.


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