So I guess 130 million people or thereabouts watched the Superbowl in Detroit yesterday; I had the game on while my nose was stuck in a book about early settlers who civilized the wilds of Michigan in the 1830s.
I couldn't help but contrast the picture on TV with the picture painted by the letters describing early life in Detroit and in particular, the stories of two Native American men who faced frontier justice and the death penalty.
In the 1830s, settlers who passed through Detroit described it as an old town, with old, rotten buildings and muddy streets (at least that much hasn't changed). In 1835, it was a rough town filled with lowly French fur traders and Indian men drunk on firewater. One woman who came from New York State would later say she could walk the entire place and not see anyone dressed in decent clothes.
From Woodward Heritage
Then, one day in 1825, an old Indian named Chief Kishkawo, leader of the Saginaw Ojibwa tribe, drunk and/or ill, attacked a white man on the streets of Detroit. According to the pioneer who recorded the story, "just in pure wantonness, without the least provocation, he had thrown a tomahawk at a white man who was walking peacefully along, and struck him down."
Chief Kishkawo was arrested, tried, and condemned to hang. But when word reached the Saginaw Ojibwa, they assembled a great number of Indians in full war paint and dress, muskets, knives and tomahawks in their belts, to rescue Chief Kishkawo from the white man's jail.
On their arrival in Detroit, the Ojibwa found that the white man's government was too strong to permit a rescue. Yet they could not let him be "hung like a dog," which was to them an overwhelming disgrace. So they gave Chief Kishkawo some poison. This he took on the morning of his execution, and thus the chief eluded the death penalty.
In 1839 would come news of another white settler murdered by an Indian. In Kalamazoo County, a white family by the name of Wisner allowed an Indian named Joseph Muskrat (or Sin-ben-nim), his wife and two children to take shelter from the harsh winter in their cabin. But one day Joseph Muskrat got drunk, began wrestling with Mr. Wisner, and, when bested, stabbed him in the temple in a fit of pique. Wisner's neighbors arrested Muskrat.
Joseph Muskrat was certain that the white men would burn him to death for his crime, and he was desperate to avoid such suffering. To one white woman who showed him sympathy he said, "Good squaw, good squaw, you tell white man to kill me quick; no burn me, but kill me quick." He also tried to anger the white woman so she would strike him down, so he told her that he murdered one of his own children. "Me very bad Indian," he told her. "You kill me quick, me very bad, me kill papoose, put him under ice in swamp."
Joseph Muskrat was tried in Kalamazoo, found guilty of murder, and condemned to be hanged. But at that exact moment, the newly formed territorial legislature in Detroit abolished capital punishment. Muskrat was the very first beneficiary and was resentenced to a term of life in the newly constructed state prison in Jackson. He served two years before he died and was said to have ended his days heartbroken, docile, and a sincere Christian.
It was actually quite rare for an Indian to kill a settler in those days, but the crimes of Chief Kishkawo and Joseph Muskrat fueled a dread of Indians, though in the end Chief Kishkawo and Joseph Muskrat both managed to cheat the hangman.
Source: Birchbark Belles: Women on the Michigan Frontier by Larry B. Massie, Ed. (Priscilla Press, 1993).
For more on Michigan's early death penalty cases see Michigan and the Death Penalty -- A Brief and Horrible Experience