Native American Graves Found on Water Street Property

September 5, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

Every Ypsilantian is familiar with the story of Indian artifacts and bones that have been found over the years along the western bank of the Huron River from roughly the location of the Museum to south of Michigan Avenue. Less well known are other discoveries of burial sites throughout the city, suggesting a much wider scope of Indian burials in the area.

Modern-day Ypsilanti was once the site of the intersection of several Indian trails, including the Great Sauk Trail (now Michigan Avenue). Four tribes are thought to have lived in the area: the Huron (also called Wyandot), Chippewa, Ottawa, and Potowatomi.

In 1927, Wilbert B. Hinsdale published his study of the area’s indigenous people, “The Indians of Washtenaw County Michigan.” A former U-M internal medicine professor and dean of the school’s Homeopathic Medical College, Hinsdale’s lifelong interest in archaeology led him into the field after his 1922 retirement from medicine. He was put in charge of U-M’s archaeological collections and eventually became known as the “Father of Michigan Archaeology.”

The 1927 Hinsdale map showed a burial site north of Washtenaw, marked by a circle with a cross.

The 1927 Hinsdale map showed a burial site north of Washtenaw, marked by a circle with a cross.

“The Indians of Washtenaw County” contains a map indicating several burial sites in Washtenaw County that include Saline and Ypsilanti. The symbol for the Ypsilanti burial site on the small-scale map is placed north of Washtenaw within the westward curve of Huron Street as it turns to the northern edge of the EMU campus. This placement, if accurate, suggests that burial grounds extended further north along the river than the Riverside Park area, possibly into the modern-day EMU campus.

In 1970, onetime EMU student Edward Heyman wrote a one-page memoir, preserved in the Ypsilanti Archives, of his encounter with a purported Native American burial site. As a student, he volunteered to help with a 1920s pine tree planting program on the then-northwest corner of EMU’s campus (now the site of the Student Center). “I was interested in the area,” wrote Heyman, “and especially in the fact that Professor William H. Sherzer, head of the Department of Natural Science, told us that the area was the site of an early Indian cemetery.” The group planted what later became known as Pine Grove.

In the 1940s, when the university planned to cut down some of the pines in order to build the Pine Grove Terrace Apartments, alum Heyman returned to look at the site. “Seeing the pine trees, which I helped plant years before, being cut down and basements being dug, I walked over to the area to see what was happening. In the debris of the digging were a dozen of more old, old bones. The man in charge of the excavation said they were Indian bones, that the digging had uncovered remains of several graves.”

The Pine Grove Terrace apartments were demolished in the early 2000s to clear space for the Student Center. The Center’s Kiva Room rises over the approximate location of the onetime graves.

There’s other evidence that the burial sites were not confined to the Riverside Park area. In 1914, burial sites were discovered in the Water Street area, at Parsons and Lincoln streets. In 1914, the Westfield and Fall River Lumber company had a lumberyard there. Behind it lay a gravel pit, where the graves were discovered.

“Men who are drawing gravel from the pit on what is known as the Jan Williams place back of the [lumber yard] for the state road have come upon three Indian skeletons,” said the June 11, 1914 Ypsilanti Daily Press. “”Monday morning Mr. Platt, who is in charge of the work, found a large copper kettle which was filled with seeds resembling pumpkin seeds but upon trying to get the kettle from the ground it fell to pieces. “This morning the men found two more smaller kettles which were extremely heavy and a few minutes later they unearthed three skeletons deeply embedded in the sand.”

The term “kettle” refers not to a teakettle but to the wide-bottomed copper cooking bowls found in numerous indigenous burial sites in Michigan and throughout the Midwest and Northeast.

The paper continued, “Upon the bones of two of these they found two bracelets and in the graves they found small white beads which were still fastened to a loose woven cloth. These also fell to pieces. A large double cross and a smaller cross was found, also two silver ornaments which resembled a whisk broom holder, the large one with a picture and the words ‘King of Spain,’ a small brush which showed the trace of color upon it and many other small silver pieces with fancy ornaments upon them. A spoon was among the collection.

“One of the skeletons was in perfect condition and the workmen scraped the sand away but when they attempted to move it, it fell in a heap.

“Professor Jefferson from the Normal College was on the ground and made several photographs of the skeletons and the various ornaments.

The Water Street location corresponds with local onetime county surveyor Charles Woodard’s 1893 memoir, which includes his childhood recollection of Ypsilanti in the early 1830s.

“At times hundreds [of Indians],” he recalled, “might be seen camped out on the banks of the Huron near the East Public Square [a onetime city park on the southwest corner of Michigan Avenue and Park Street] but I do not remember ever hearing of anyone ever being molested by them or even troubled by their begging food. . . They were better off than their white brothers, being better hunters.”

The site was neither studied or preserved using modern archeological protocols.

“Early this morning students from the Normal College as well as others began to arrive on the scene to gather relics,” reported a front page story in the June 12 Ypsilanti Daily Press.

“One small boy had several teeth which he had taken from one of the skulls; another had a collar bone, and still another a piece of the spinal column. Bert Vealey, one of the workmen, decided that if there was to be anything left to show, it would be a wise idea to take steps to care for the bones so he procured a box and placed them in it, and took them to his home on South Street.

The paper continued, “Oscar Lawrence found three bracelets, a silver crown, a silver heart, and two copper kettles. Lewis Green found a whistle made from a buffalo horn. Frank Fletcher found a large cross made from silver about ten inches in length. James Carer found a bracelet [and] silver buckle. Verne Vealey found a knife handle made of bone, also some quill shields. Ben Singer found a breast pin with three crosses attached and ornamented with two small silver bells.”

Although the site was destroyed, a memorial remains to the onetime indigenous Ypsilantians whose graves were found in the gravel pit.

The gravel was used in 1914 to build the state road M-23. Later, this road was called US-112 and subsequently US-12, or Michigan Avenue.

The road workers unwittingly commemorated in concrete the route that the Native Americans found in the Ypsilanti gravel pit may have traveled many times: the Great Sauk Trail.

Laura Bien is a local history writer. Have an idea for a column? Email her at ypsidixit@gmail.com.

The 1927 Hinsdale map shows a burial ground (circle with cross) north of Washtenaw.

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