Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 28, 2012

A labor of history

Transcribing pioneers' diaries unlocks stories of Northport's past


OMENA — Avis Wolfe had little idea how important the diaries of pioneer Northport Indian missionaries George and Arvilla Smith were when she sat down to transcribe them in 1979.

She was mainly interested in learning more about her husband Bud's family.

"I knew it was important for the family," she said. "But I didn't realize how important it would turn out to be for the community."

"Bud" Clarence Burnside Wolfe — her husband, who died last year at 93 — was the great-great-grandson of the Smiths. He also was a great-great-great nephew of Chief Peter Waukazoo, whose Black River Band of 50 families followed the Smiths in June 1849 to the Leelanau Peninsula wilderness to escape incursions by Dutch settlers into their traditional lands near Holland.

They named their new village "Waukazooville." It was located just south of what is now Nagonaba Street in downtown Northport.

Rev. Smith's daily memoranda serve as an important area historical record. It noted everything, from the 29 ships he saw in one day at Northport's growing harbor to his worry about Indian life and treaty violations as more settlers arrived.

Sue Hanson, a volunteer at the Northport Heritage Museum, calls the museum's collection of the Rev. Smith's 1840-1879 transcriptions and Arvilla's 1835-1842 diary, donated by the Wolfes in 2008 for safekeeping, "our most valuable artifact."

"All of the Northport area's history during that time is based on George Smith's and his wife's diaries," she said.

Smith's daily "memoranda" cover the first three decades of Northport, when it was an important port for Great Lakes vessels and passengers before railroads entered the region.

The first Congregationalist minister to be ordained in Michigan after statehood, Smith recorded baptisms, marriages, births, deaths of his Indian congregation, the weather and snowfall.

He also mentioned news of Abraham Lincoln's election, Union army recruiters arriving by boat and many Ottawas leaving in 1863 to enroll in the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters all-Indian Company K, said Chris Czopek, a Lansing historian and author of "Who Was Who in Company K." It was the only all-Indian unit in the Union Army.

One of the recruits was Payson Wolfe. He married the Smiths' daughter, Mary Jane, in 1851, when he was 19 and she was almost 16 — much to the initial dismay of both of their families. He also was one of the most-documented soldiers of Company K, probably in part because of Smith's diaries.

John Mitchell, author of "Grand Traverse: The Civil War" published in 2011, spent 2008 reading the diaries at the museum before deciding to write his book. In 1849, Grand Traverse County still included Antrim, Benzie and Kalkaska counties.

"I couldn't understand our history until I read Rev. Smith's diary," Mitchell said last year when his book came out. "Northern Michigan was at the heart of the American experience at that time. It was the western frontier of the United States."

Czopek and Mitchell are just two of several historians, writers and genealogists who have visited Avis Wolfe over the years to look at her transcriptions and other documents.

One of the first was Holland historian Charles Lorenz, who began transcribing the Smith diaries that covered the missionary couple's work in the 1840s with the Old Wing Mission in Holland. After meeting Lorenz, Wolfe allowed the Joint Archives of Holland to photocopy her typescript.

Both she and Lorenz received special mention in the first pages of "Old Wing Mission," a 2011 book edited by Robert P. Swierenga and William Van Appledorn that is based on the Smith diaries and their missionary work with Chief Waukazoo's Ottawa band in the Holland area.

Wolfe was 53 and unemployed when she ordered microfilm copies of the Leelanau-era diaries from the Library of Congress in 1979 and set up an old surplus microfilm reader in her house. There, she transcribed the diaries for several hours a day, and sometimes the whole day, while Bud was at work.

About the same time, she also was named historian of Northport's Trinity United Church of Christ.

She had 17 notebooks full of transcriptions when she finished her project in 1981.

The notebooks don't include other documents and correspondence, Civil War letters or 12 articles Arvilla wrote in 1892 about the area's pioneer days for the Grand Traverse Herald, a forerunner of the Record-Eagle.

"It wasn't a task and it wasn't labor, it was enjoyment," she said. "My goal was to get accurate information out."