Brothers of Three Fires

The Portage, Rocky, and St. Joseph rivers converge at a scenic location where Indians have gathered for centuries. First settled in 1828, the town of Three Rivers Michigan was platted at this confluence in 1836. In this region were the principal Indian tribes which were known as the Brothers of the Three Fires.

My sister Terri lives outside of Three Rivers with her husband Scott and two children Kyle and Audrey. During the September Labor Day holidays, my girlfriend Wanda and I drove there to visit and do some sightseeing. We came across a boulder with a bronze tablet in Scidmore Park on the south bank of the St. Joseph river. The plaque reads "Site of Legendary Battle between the Shawnee and Federated Indian tribes in 1802. Erected by Abiel Fellows Chapter D.A.R. Oct. 1925." (See accompanying photo of plaque.) The park was established and named in 1921 in honor of Dr. A.W. Scidmore who bequeathed the land to the city of Three Rivers.Boulder with plaque located in Three Rivers Michigan park

I had never heard of this battle or the federated Indian Tribes. A battle taking place in 1802 was to early for the War of 1812, and too late for the Black Hawk Wars. What is the federated Indian Tribes? Was it something analogous to the Seven Tribes of the Iroquois?

Through many hours of correspondence with individuals throughout the country and looking over reference material, this story has emerged. I first emailed many individuals in the related Michigan area. Most did not know of any battle which may have taken place in the area. The Glen Black Lab located at Indiana University has a web site with an enormous amount of information available on the Potawatomi tribe which inhabited the upper Indiana an lower Michigan area. Yet no available information existed about any battle. I then emailed the Potawatomi Indians web page point of contact. Again no information existed. They were not even been aware of a battle which may of taken place in the area at that time.

Finally after two months of waiting from a request of the Daughters of the American Revolution National Society in Washington DC, a reply came that I thought would shed some light on the topic. No such luck. They had no records from the regional societies, but they had forwarded my letter. Even though they commented that many regional societies had closed, many remain open. The local society which erected the monument still exists.

After another month I finally received a reply in January of 1998 from the Regent of Abiel Fellow Chapter of the Daughter of the American Revolution. In this letter, I was told of the plaque and a brief legend of the battle which took place. 'The decisive battle between Chief Elkhart's Shawnees and the three confederate tribes of Michigan was fought around 1802 in two stages. The first half of the struggle for possession of the land occurred in the area now known as Scidmore Park. The last part of the battle was along the Portage and culminated where the power house now stands on its bank. Chief Elkhart occupied the Wabash valley in Indiana was aggressive and attempted to move into southwestern Michigan. The invasion was repelled by Chief Pokagon and his Pottowatomies, in a conflict centered in St. Joseph County. Chief Pokagon centered his forces north of Three Rivers, and Chief Elkhart's Shawnees had gained possession of the White Pigeon Prairie. Chief Elkhart attacked Chief Pokagon around April 1st close to the confluence of the three rivers.' The federated Indian tribes, I have determined, are in fact the Brothers of The Three Fires, being the Ojibwa, the Ottawa, and the Potawatomi. There are three major tribal groups in Michigan today: the Chippewa (Ojibwe), the Ottawa, and the Potawatomi. They comprise what is called the Three Fires Council. Although these three tribes have similar cultures and share the same territory, there are still some differences.
Plaque located in Three Rivers Michigan park
Ottawa are found in the northern reaches of the Great Lakes; in Michigan they occupy the western half of the Lower Peninsula. The Ottawa people were seasonal wanderers of the land and sailors of the Great Lakes gathering wild rice, netting fish, trapping both large and small game, and hunting large game such as moose, deer, and caribou.

Ottawa people continue to be great traders and craftsmen. One hallmark of Ottawa life is the birch bark canoe. When the French came, the Ottawa people adapted well to the fur-trading economy and managed to avoid major military entanglements with the European colonial powers competing with each other for North American land and resource dominance. They did, however, fight with the Iroquois throughout the early 1600's.

At the point of European contact, the Potawatomi tribe inhabited the southwest corner of what is now Michigan in the areas of Kalamazoo and the St. Joseph River and adjacent parts of Indiana. They moved there deliberately from more northern regions to take advantage of the milder southern climate. Although they shared many traits with the Chippewa and the Ottawa, they lived a more sedentary lifestyle.

The addition of horticulture to the Potawatomi cultural pattern allowed them to establish a more stable food supply and eventually a level of political unity which was unusual for Great Lakes tribes at that time. Not only did they grow the American staples of corn, beans, and squash, the Potawatomi were famed for their medicinal herbal gardens. Besides enjoying the advantages of farming, the retention of the canoe and a fondness for trading helped the Potawatomi become a strong tribe through the early 1800's when many of them were forcibly removed to Kansas and Oklahoma by the U.S. military.

The Chippewa, also known as the Ojibwe, are the second largest tribal group in the United States with bands in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota, as well as Ontario. In Michigan, the Chippewas occupied the eastern half of the Lower Peninsula and most of the Upper Peninsula except the northern shore of Lake Michigan. Besides using the resources of the Great Lakes, the Chippewa also intensively used the resources of inland lakes, rivers, and streams.

The Chippewa were nomadic like the Potawatomi and the Ottawa, moving their villages to follow the fish or game. They also were highly skilled at treating illnesses by using the medicinal plants from the territories with which they were so familiar. Like the Ottawa, the Chippewa engaged in fur trading with the French and English and had some involvement in European colonial conflicts.

The treaty of August 29, 1821 concluded at Chicago resulted in the cession to the United States of a large tract of land in the southwestern portion of the state of Michigan designated No. 117 on Royce's map of the state. From this cession, the Indian's reserved for their own use the following tracts; (1) one tract at Mang-ach-qua village, on the river Peble, of 6 miles square; (2) one tract at MIch-ke-saw-be of 6 miles square; (3) one tract at the village of Na-to-wa-se-pe of 4 miles square; (4) one tract at the village of Prairie Ronde of 3 miles square; (5) one tract at the village of Mastch-e-be-narh-she-wish, at he head of the Kalamazoo river. While these tracts were subsequently ceded to the United States in 1827 and 1833, they do serve to indicate the areas in which the Indian villages were concentrated as well as their tribal affiliation. The areas set aside as reserves were located in the central and southern portions of the region. The most northern-most centered around the village of Matchebenashshewish on the Kalamazoo river near the present town of that name. Others were to the south on the St. Joseph river and its tributaries. All of the villages listed above are of Potawatomi affiliation.

The distribution of the villages and their tribal affiliation indicates that the region to the north of the Kalamazoo river was occupied primarily by the Ottawa and Chippewa while the region to the south was Potawatomi country. Nogee or Nongee, which is not identified by Hinsdale, is probably of Chippewa affiliation. Kewagoosheum may also be of Chippewa affiliation, though this is not certain. While no major battle recorded in history took place in Three Rivers close to the St. Joseph river, there was an extensive amount of history which took place in the region. Life and death, the constant struggle which took place all through time, not just when recorded history initiated. The plaque is a reminder to all of the people who inhabited the area long before the fur trappers and settlers.

  W. B. Hinsdale ,The Archaeological Atlas of Michigan
  W. B. Hinsdale, Primitive Man of Michigan Lake Superior Press 1983
  Denise Frederick, St. Joseph County, MI Town Histories Chart
  David Staddon, Past and Present
  Director American Indian Programs, Central Michigan University
  Helen Hornbeck Tanner , Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History
  University of Oklahoma Press 1986
  Daughters of the American Revolution

By Jeff Anderson
Sunday, December 21, 1997
© 1997 Jeff Anderson