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Readers Ask the Naturalist

By Master Naturalist Doug Jackson

(Publisher’s Note: Please continue to submit your story requests for Michigan nature-related articles to [email protected].)

Susan, a Chelsea Update reader, asked if I could write about the history of the Potawatomi Trail.

The Potawatomi Trail is a popular and nationally acclaimed hiking and mountain bike trail that runs a 17.4-mile loop within the Pinckney Recreation Area. It runs from Silver Lake State Park west and north to Doyle Road, down toward Blind Lake and back.

To begin aright, we must enter our wayback machines and set them to around 10,000 B.C.  We are now at the end of the Last Glacial Period when a mile-high ice sheet was retreating north over Michigan as the climate was warming.

The glacier was not only depositing mounds of gravelly till but also breaking apart and leaving huge chunks of ice scattered in deep depressions.  As these ice blocks melted, they formed the hundreds of kettle lakes that now dot the landscape of southern Michigan, as well as our vast wetlands, creeks, and rivers.

The region around here was part of an inter-lobal section of ice where more piles of till were deposited forming the hilly terrain we see around us today.

As this occurred, huge Pleistocene animals such as Mammoths, Mastodons, and 500-pound beavers created trails across what now connects Detroit and Chicago along corridors that we know today as I-94, I-96, and US-12.

Over the next thousands of years, North America’s first people moved in, hunted the game, and camped along these trails.

Around 1000 years ago, people who called themselves Anishinaabe, “the original people,” camped in this area to hunt and fish during the summer months.  They travelled in from Lake Michigan along canoe routes that included Portage Creek, which runs north and west from Bruin Lake and Woodburn Lake in Unadilla.

Around 700 years ago, the Anishinaabe split into 3 tribes, forming the Council of Three Fires: The Ojibwe (The Keepers of the Faith), The Odawa (The Keepers of the Trade), and the Potawatomi (The Keepers of the Fire).

The Potawatomi settled in southwest Michigan, with some camping around this area during the summers.

In the early part of the 19th century, the US federal government was auctioning Michigan land for around $1.25 per acre to European-American homesteaders out east. 

More often than not, the land was sold in 80 acre, or larger, parcels sight unseen.

After the Treaty of 1833, most of the Potawatomi were forcibly removed from their homelands in what is referred to as the “Potawatomi Trail of Death.”

The settlers, such as George Reeves – founder of the settlement of Hell, found their promised future farmsteads as mucky and flooded swamplands.

From the 1830s onward, most of the settlers got to work digging drainage and clearing the forests so they could farm and make a living.  They successfully lowered the water table here around 6 feet.  This is why it is no longer feasible to canoe to Lake Michigan anymore.

Life was hard for the early settlers.  The farmland was marginal at best because of the glacial soils and terrain around here. 

By the Great Depression of the 1930s, most farms were abandoned, and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program began acquiring these farms.

A patchwork of around 12,000 acres were purchased between Chelsea and Jackson for around $23 per acre.  This land was to be converted into a recreational area for Detroiters to enjoy and was to be named the Waterloo Recreational Demonstration Area.  It was managed at that time by the National Parks Service.

By the next decade, this land was deeded to the State of Michigan to manage.  And in 1943, the Michigan Department of Conservation (DNR) was appropriated money to purchase more land for State Parks, including what is now the Pinckney Recreation Area.

By the 1950s, the Portage Trail Council (Ypsilanti) of The Boy Scouts of America were wearying of having to travel to Indiana to train on hiking trails because there were no suitable trails in southern Michigan.

According to Dave Eby’s article in the US Scouting Service Project website, in 1957, boy scout Glen Seaver, Jr. asked his father, Glen Seaver, Sr.  of the Portage Trail Council of BSA, to help him build a trail for the scouts.

An arrangement had been made between their council and the State of Michigan to begin construction of what is now known as the Potawatomi Trail back in 1962. 

The trail opened with around 13 miles in May of 1964.  The scouts have expanded and maintained this trial over the next four decades. The Portage Trail Council named their council after Portage Creek, which crosses the trail.

The trail is now considered a favorite for mountain bikers and connects with the Waterloo-Pinckney trail and new DTE trail system by Embury Road.

Despite all these modern developments, there can still be found evidence of an earlier era, for those who know where to look. The DNR is aware of a historic Potawatomi camp near the trail in an undisclosed location.

Courtesy map.
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