The human history of the Irish Hills is a long and complex one with roots in the first hunter gatherers who traveled through the area following and hunting animals along their migration routes. There is evidence that the Great Sauk Trail, a prominent Native American trail now mirrored by Highway US 12, was originally a corridor for mastodons and other megafauna following the edge of the last Ice Ages glacial advance. This article makes no attempt at being a comprehensive history of the individual struggles of any nation but hopes to prime the reader for continuing their own research and scrutiny of our areas history. While the Open Grown School is based in the Irish HIlls of southeast Michigan it can be difficult to dive into the specifics of local history without the broader context of the first peoples and colonialism and the impacts they have both left on the present.
The first reliable signs of human habitation in southern Michigan come in the form of earthworks left by a group of people known commonly as “The Mound Builders.” These Mound Builders were part of a larger cultural complex described as the Hopewells. This name is not representative of any one tribe but describes the lead up to and culmination of various cultures throughout the fertile river valleys of middle North America from approximately 500 BCe to 500 CE. In fact, the name Hopewell itself comes from the surname of the European farmers who happened to “own” land on which earthworks were studied that partially gave rise to the understanding of these cultures. While there are mounds in the Irish Hills specifically it can be tricky to confirm their Hopewellian origins without detailed archeological studies as the subsequent groups of Natives also built their own mounds.
The Anishinaabeg are a large group of tribes, bonded by language and culture, that largely resided in the Great Lakes region at the time of contact. Their tribes include but are not limited to the Algonquins, Nippissing, Cree, Mississauga, Ojibway, Ottawa, and Pottawatomie. The last three being the most powerful and closely allied, themselves being part of an alliance known as The Three Fires. Their origin story relates that the Anishinaabeg moved west from the eastern seaboard, following a prophecy to find the place where “food grows on water.” On this generations long journey the original group separated at various points leading to the different tribes we know today. Their search led them as far as the western Great Lakes where they found Wild Rice growing in quantities enough to sustain them along with game and other food. It should be noted that there were other groups of humans living here prior that they pushed out.
The arrival of European culture and the shockwaves it sent out disrupted life throughout North America often before Europeans reached a new place. In the mid 17th century the Beaver Wars [a decades long conflict primarily between the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and Anishinaabeg but fueled by European trade] were upending life in the Midwest. Anishinaabeg tribes displaced by the fighting pushed west into southern Michigan and Wisconsin, expelling in turn the tribes already living there. The Mascouten or Muscodesh lived in the lower peninsula and this tribe is perhaps more mysterious than the Mound Builders as their legacy was quickly swallowed by the Anishinaabeg. Following the Beaver Wars in which most of Michigan was empty of humans for a time the Anishinaabeg resettled in Michigan with portions of many tribes centering around Detroit. The Pottawatomie largely settled across southern Michigan and likely found an abundance of fish, game, and other food in the lakes and valleys of the Irish HIlls.
The first explorers to come through Michigan were French and they allied with the Anishinaabeg. The two nations lived in relative cohesion throughout the peninsula. Apart from the chaos of The Beaver Wars the French and Anishinaabeg domination of the Michigan peninsula continued through till the end of the French and Indian War in 1763 when the territory was won by the British. Soon thereafter the British lost control of this land as a result of the American Revolutionary War
Up to this point the lower peninsula was populated by the occasional European trader and bands of migratory Potawatomi, Ojibway, and Ottawa nations. Before long, the United States government looking to expand opportunities for the burgeoning population opened the Erie Canal and expelled, through force and deceitful treaty, the native populations. This sparked its own series of retaliatory hostilities including Tecumseh’s Rebellion. In preparation for new settlers the entire territory was surveyed for land and timber quality during the late 1810’s and early 1820’s. From these initial relatively blank maps to the first plat maps of the late 1800’s the white population of the Irish Hills had boomed. Villages and mills in the Irish Hills sprung up throughout the 1830’s and soon, with homesteads regularly spaced across the landscape the Native population had dwindled to only those moving through their old homelands on their way to receive treaty granted supplies near Detroit.
It was not long before industry revolutionized the way we lived and worked. The automobile made it possible to travel relatively long distances in a day and more homes sprung up in country towns and the surrounding landscape as people chose to commute to the cities. At this time the Irish Hills boomed as a tourist destination for motorists coming from Detroit. Similarly and perhaps inspired by this tourism various families also bought land to serve as a weekend getaways from city life. My own family, led at the time by my grandparents, bought a tract of largely undeveloped land in the northeast corner of the Hills. With a few cabins they and my then young mom and uncles began a long journey of deepening their connection to the land. We largely still reside in the area and have endeavored to build and be part of the cultural and natural communities that makes this area so unique.
Written by Silas Bialecki