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Issue 1440 February 26, 2012
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New Details Emerge About French Settlement of Saginaw Valley

Salt Springs in Midland Area Brought French Missionaries in 1684

December 18, 2011       Leave a Comment
By: Dave Rogers

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About 150 years before Leon Tromble and a handful of pioneers established Lower Saginaw in 1834, French missionaries and settlers had moved into the Saginaw Valley.

A previously obscure source states that the French were enticed to settle here because of the salt springs at the intersection of the Saginaw and Tittabawassee rivers.

This 325 year old news flash is notable because for much of our time historians have dated local settlement to 1834, when several families joined Tromble and built homes in the area of Wenonah Park.

Bay County Executive Thomas L. Hickner has called attention to historical sources listed in the Michigan County Histories Collection compiled by the Michigan Council of Library Directors.

The collection is projected to provide access to 192 histories dating from 1866 to 1926. There are 172 volumes in 146 titles currently online. This collection has recently been posted online by the University of Michigan at

One part of the posting contains this statement: "Some time since, at the suggestion of Judge (Albert) Miller, of Bay City, 'That it was his belief missions had been planted by the French and that they flourished at a very early day on the banks of the Saginaw river and its tributaries,' the writer took occasion to investigate as to facts in history leading to a confirmation of his opinion.

"He finds that as early as 1540 Jacques Cartier, or Quartier, knew about the lower peninsular as the Sagihnaw region. Subsequently, that Champlain in 1611 had described the safe harbor afforded by the Saginaw river from the stormy waters of a bay, which formed a part of a great inland body of water, connecting two larger bodies of fresh water which he denominated as "seas," and in his rough map, from which copies have been made and which is now in the office of the French Marine, he has delineated the mouth of that river as correctly as in the maps of the present day. These facts would seem to warrant a full knowledge on the part of the French of that stream at a very early period.

"Faillon (French) in his history. of Canada refers to the Saginaw country and to the salt springs at the junction of two large rivers," which were the resorts of the Indian tribes of all the region between Lakes Michigan and Huron.

"He further says 'That in 1684 a large body of farmers and artisans came from France, that a portion were sent to the Sagihnaw country, that with them were five Jesuit fathers, who were instructed to found missions in all that country between St. Ignace and Lake Erie.' From these statements we must infer that the region of the Saginaw valley would be an important point at which to establish a mission. In addition we know that in 1686 the Jesuits Engelrau and M. Perrott were exceedingly active in establishing missions and depots in all the country between the missions at Cheboygan and St. Igace and the islands of Lake Erie, now known as, 'Put-in-Bay.' and the query is, would they pass the valley which was resorted to by the Chippewas, Pottawatamies, Hurons, Ottawas, the Sacs of the upper peninsula, the Fox and Illinois Indian tribes, for the salt which that region was known to produce?"

The report on the Saginaw Valley is contained in an article from the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Collections in 1899 attributed to Fred Carlisle, who writes further about the Treaty of Saginaw in 1819:

"In the memoirs of Captain Whitmore Knaggs, he states in respect to the reservations made to the Riley family: 'That John was a man sixty years of age. Peter was at least fifty-eight. Both told him that the 'apple trees,' which formed a point in the boundaries of the lands which were reserved for them, bore apples when they were boys. That Kaw-kaw-is-kou, their chief, said they were grown or brought there by men who wore long black robes coming below the knees, white men, whom they knew as Onetia.'

"Assuming that all the statements, in reference to those made by biographer of 'Quartier,' 'of Champlain,' 'of Engelrau,' 'Perrott' and the history of Faillon to be well based, taken in connection with the physical facts, that the pear and 'apple trees' found at the forks of the Tittabawassee, Flint, Shiawassee, and Saginaw by General Cass, and 'Whitmore Knaggs, as early as 1819, must have been over sixty years of age, and the further fact that the existence of saline springs at these points was well known to the early white explorers and missionaries and was traditional with the Indians of Illinois, and all the northwestern tribes, that for a long period prior to Du Luth's construction of Fort St. Joseph at the outlet of Lake Huron in 1786, the Chippewas had their permanent villages on the banks of these streams, we must reach the conclusion that the Jesuit missionaries and the Recollet fathers would utilize this locality and make it important as a permanent stopping place between the upper and lower peninsulas."

The salt, of course, later attracted lumbermen who drilled salt wells near their mills and another important settler, Herbert Henry Dow, who built one of the world's largest chemical companies using brine from the salt wells as a raw material.

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Dave Rogers

Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
respected journalist/writer in and around Bay City.
(Contact Dave Via Email at

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