Traverse City Record-Eagle

July 3, 2011

Eyewitnesses populate GT history book

Record-Eagle associate editor

NORTHPORT — Local historian John C. Mitchell faced a big question in 2007 when he considered writing a book about the Grand Traverse region.

Was there enough local historical information to create the book he envisioned? He didn't want to rehash Civil War history or write a military history filled with minutiae.

"It had to be about Civil War life and times in this region," he said. "I wanted to give readers a picture of the Civil War here in the Grand Traverse region from the eyes of those who lived it."

He found what he needed: original local sources.

Mitchell's 344-page "Grand Traverse: The Civil War Era," came out last month. It brims with localized Civil War history and sheds light on the sparsely settled wilderness and its important place in Great Lakes history.

"Northern Michigan was at the heart of the American experience at that time," he said. "It was the western frontier of the United States."

Mitchell said he couldn't have written his book without two key sources — the complete diaries of early Waukazoo/Northport Indian missionaries George and Arvilla Smith, and the 1861-65 Grand Traverse Herald published by Morgan Bates, a radical abolitionist and recognized veteran newspaperman who founded the Traverse City weekly in 1858.

"I couldn't understand our history until I read Rev. Smith's diary," Mitchell said. "After that, every day was a surprise."

Mitchell spent 2008 reading Smith's 40-year diary and another diary kept by his wife. Both were transcribed over several years by Avis Wolfe, the wife of the late Clarence "Bud" Wolfe, a great-grandson of Payson Wolfe, an Ottawa who married the Smiths' daughter, Mary Jane. The Wolfes donated the complete diaries to the Northport Area Heritage Alliance in 2008. Bud Wolfe died this year at age 93.

In 2009, Mitchell researched the Heralds, and gleaned more information than expected from Bates' fervent anti-slavery editorials, descriptive local stories, soldiers' letters to the newspaper and reprints of national newspaper stories about the war and abolition politics.

Mitchell sees Bates as an important influence in early area life and attributes the original concept of a "Grand Traverse Region" to him because of his regular reports describing villages, land and soil in Grand Traverse, Antrim, Benzie, Kalkaska and Leelanau counties.

"I knew then that I had a really good book if I didn't blow it," he said of his Herald research.

Mitchell's book starts in May 1833, just three years before the federal government's Treaty of 1836 with Michigan's Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. The last major treaty, it ceded more than a third of modern-day Michigan to the United States and paved the way for statehood the next year.

The first chapter begins with the Smiths waiting on a Lake Champlain dock in northern Vermont for a paddle-wheel steamboat to begin their 12-day journey up a series of lakes, rivers and finally the Erie Canal to Buffalo — the gateway to Lake Erie, the Great Lakes frontier and the Michigan Territory.

"We went on board of a Steam Boat on Lake Erie Monday Morn. 20. She had on board about a thousand passengers," Arvilla Smith wrote in her diary in 1833.

In some ways, the Smiths symbolize tens of thousands of settlers from the Northeast who spilled into Michigan in the 1830s in search of land and opportunity. The state's population soared from 30,000 to 200,000 during that decade, thanks to the Erie Canal's opening in 1825.

In other ways they are atypical, particularly because of the Rev. Smith's deep concern for what happened to Indians.

It took the Smiths a week to travel the 140 miles to Kalamazoo County, where they remained 16 years until they moved in 1849 with the Black Lake Band of Odawas to northern Leelanau County to escape Dutch settler encroachment on their lands.

From 1849 on, the Rev. Smith's diary serves as an important area record. It notes everything from the 29 ships he saw in one day at Northport's growing harbor to his worries about Indian life and treaty violations as more settlers arrived.

Mitchell is no stranger to American and state history. He's been a Civil War buff since age 9 during the nation's Civil War Centennial in the early 1960s. He also wrote four children's illustrated history books: "Michigan" (1987), "Great Lakes and Great Ships" (1991), "Indians of the Great Lakes" (1994) and "Prehistoric Great Lakes" (2001). "Woodboats of Leelanau" (2007) won him a State History Award that year.

He served as executive director of the Leelanau Historical Society and Museum in Leland from 2002 to 2006 and was owner and operator of Leelanau Architectural Antiques in Suttons Bay. He and his wife, Anne Marie, live near Omena.

Mitchell considers the Civil War "the holy grail of American history" because it ended slavery, held the nation together and shaped it.

The Grand Traverse region's history is important, too.

"As a tourist area, this area is a wonderful place and a reprieve from tough American life, but it's more than a resort area. It has tremendous local history," he said. "People automatically attach to anyplace they love. They want to know about it, and it makes this place richer."