The Frostbitten Convention; or, How Michigan Ended the Toledo War and Became a State

177 years ago today, on December 14th, 1836, Michiganders signed a compromise that lost them the city of Toledo, gained them the Upper Peninsula and allowed them to become the 26th state in the union. The compromise was accepted at what became known as the Frostbitten Convention due to both the cold spell sweeping the area and also due to the frosty feelings of many towards the signers  of the questionably legal document – a document that many saw as an acceptance of defeat. Defeat by our enemy to the south, Ohio.

Marker commemorating the event in Ann Arbor (source)

Marker commemorating the convention in Ann Arbor

You may or may not have heard of the Toledo War – a “war” fought between Michigan and Ohio concerning the Toledo Strip, a narrow strip of land at the northern end of Ohio claimed by both states. Toledo and the surrounding area, which included the Maumee river and access to Lake Erie, were considered valuable to both sides due to the existing waterways and potential for canals, a major mode of transportation. The origins of the dual claims root back to the creation of the Northwest Ordinance in 1787, which stated that if states were eventually formed out of the territory, their border would be drawn by an east-west line extending from the southern tip of Lake Michigan. Only trouble was, nobody was sure exactly how far south Lake Michigan went, and in fact thought it was much farther north than it actually was (cartography wasn’t so good in those days).

When Ohio petitioned for statehood in 1803, it assumed it would include the Toledo area, but then discovered that Lake Michigan went further south than they thought, which would cause them to lose Toledo and possibly even their access to Lake Erie. Their solution was to add a provision into their constitution protecting their claim to the land, no matter the boundary of Lake Michigan. Congress accepted the constitution but essentially ignored the provision. Two years later, in 1805, Congress created the Michigan Territory, using the same boundaries designated in the Northwest Ordinance. Although residents of the area pushed for a resolution to the issue for years, it was not resolved until 30 years later when Michigan petitioned for its own statehood – including the Toledo strip.

Michigan asked Congress for statehood, Ohio objected and stalled the measure, and both became determined to stick to their guns. Literally. In 1835, both Ohio and Michigan (led by hot-heated “Boy Governor” Stevens T. Mason) raised militias and sent troops to the Maumee River to basically taunt each other. There were two conflicts of what is now called the Toledo War – although neither  caused any casualties. The first, known as the Battle of Phillips Corner, is a bit of a misnomer. In April 1835, Ohio surveyors out trying to mark their claim of the border were forced to retreat by members of the Michigan militia. Although a few shots were fired into the air, nobody was hurt. The second incident occurred over the summer. Monroe County Sheriff Joseph Wood set out to arrest Toledo Justice of the Peace Benjamin Stickney, but he and his sons resisted. Although all were eventually subdued and arrested, Wood was stabbed in the scuffle by Stickney’s son, Two Stickney (yes, his name was Two. Guess what his older brother’s name was?) with a pen knife. Wood survived the injury, but the incident caused tensions to rise, especially after Ohio refused to extradite Two to Michigan for trial.

It is also remembered in Ohio (source)

It is also remembered in Ohio

Meanwhile, President Andrew Jackson realized that Ohio, with its growing influence in Congress and political position as a swing state (yes, even then), was more valuable to him than Michigan. In an attempt to end the conflict and keep Ohio happy, he urged Congress to propose a compromise in the summer of 1836 – if Michigan would give up Toledo, it would be granted statehood and gain the western Upper Peninsula from Wisconsin (Michigan already had the eastern portion). Because the UP was mostly still Indian territory, Michigan voters saw this as a raw deal and rejected it at a state convention in September in Ann Arbor.

Throughout that fall, Congress and President Jackson continued to pressure Michigan to accept the deal. Additionally, Michigan was in bad financial straits due to high militia expenses and needed the support statehood would give. The United States Treasury was posed at the time to distribute a $400,000 surplus to the states – but not territories. So they called another convention in Ann Arbor in December, which later became known as the Frostbitten Convention, and voted the compromise into law.

The convention was very controversial – it was not approved by legislation (neither the territorial legislature or the U.S. Congress), the delegates were chosen by caucuses rather than elections, and some counties (including Monroe, right on the border with Toledo) refused to participate – all of which caused many to say it was illegal. Many Michiganders rejected the results. Congress, however, agreed that the convention was questionably legal, but chose to accept the results anyway. Michigan officially became a state on January 26th, 1837.

And that is how on a cold, dark day in December, 177 year ago, we realized we had been beaten and gave up the Toledo strip in exchange for statehood. But hey, I think it turned out to be a pretty good deal. Although many wrote off the U.P. as useless wilderness at the time, it turned out to have vast stores of copper and iron that became a major industry in the state. Also, it’s just breathtakingly beautiful and Toledo is…….not. So I’m going to go ahead and call this a win, and celebrate the Frostbitten Convention with a steaming mug of hot chocolate while I watch the snow outside. I hope you do the same!


Famous Michigander Friday: Harriet Quimby

I’ve mentioned before on the blog that I have previously worked on a digitization project for the Michigan Women’s Historical Center and Hall of Fame in Lansing, and also had the opportunity to attend their annual induction ceremony in October 2012. At that event, I also signed up to be a judge for the 2013 awards. Judging for the Hall of Fame was so fun! There are two categories to judge, Historical and Contemporary. Of course, I chose historical. Anybody can nominate some one for the Hall of Fame, and the judges then read the nominations and rank them. I really enjoyed reading the many nominations, which ranged well-known Michigan women to local heroes I had never heard of. One nomination really stuck out for me, and it must have for other judges too, as she was inducted into the Hall of Fame this year: Harriet Quimby. Although I wasn’t familiar with Quimby before reading her nomination, she’s actually pretty well known in the aviation world – she was the first American woman to receive a pilot’s license and the first woman to fly across the English Channel.

Quimby had always been an ambitious woman. As a young woman in the early 1900s, she moved on her own to New York City and became a photojournalist at Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly. Quimby loved writing but also loved the theater (as a girl, she wanted to be an actress) and had a flair for the dramatic. Her writing included photos and articles about her travels as well as theater reviews. In 1910, perhaps looking for her next challenge, she attended an aviation exhibition, where she met John and Matilde Moisant. Along with his brother, Alfred, John ran an aviation school. Entranced by the idea of flying through the air in a man-made machine, Quimby convinced John to teach her to fly (fun fact: the Wright brothers refused to teach women). She became the first licensed American female pilot by August of 1911. After that, she began traveling with the Moisants to exhibitions, performing in her signature custom-made purple silk flight suit.

Harriet Quimby, c. 1911.  Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Harriet Quimby, c. 1911.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

In March of 1912, she decided to become the first woman to fly across the English Channel. So she traveled to England and convinced Louis Blériot, who had made the first successful Channel crossing in 1909, to lend her his plane. Although many believed she would fail, she completed the flight (in a borrowed plane!) a month later, on April 16th. Not long after this great accomplishment, Quimby headed back to the States to take part in the Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet in July. Sadly, her luck would run out there. After a flight over the harbor with the event organizer, William A. P. Willard, she lost control of the plane. She and Willard were both thrown out of the machine and fell to their deaths in front of the crowd. Although her life met a tragic end, her legacy lived on as an inspiration to countless other women who looked to the skies and dreamed of flying.

At this point you may be thinking that this is an interesting story, but what the heck does it have to do with Michigan? Well, before Quimby moved to NYC, she grew up in Michigan. However, where exactly she was born is a bit of a mystery, which I think is an interesting story in and of itself. Although there is no birth certificate for Harriet, many sources state she was born in Coldwater, Michigan, where local lore claims her parents worked as tenants on a local farm. In 1988, a Michigan State Historical Marker for Harriet Quimby went up at Coldwater’s Branch County Airport. The marker itself has been used as evidence in publications about Quimby, as admitted by Ed Y. Hall, author of Harriet Quimby – America’s First Lady of the Air. Hall has stated that at the time, there was no reason to doubt a state historic marker, and so he cited the location in his book and held a book signing in Coldwater. The Mayor even created a Harriet Quimby holiday!

Hall later realized that there was little actual evidence for Quimby’s birth in Coldwater. The closest he found was a section of land owned by a “W. Quimby,” but that turned out to be a Wilsey Quimby rather than Harriet’s father, William. So in a reprint of his book in the 1990s, Hall noted the lack of evidence and asked that anyone who had any information to please contact him. He did receive a number of responses, including a woman who said she had evidence that the Quimby’s lived in Arcadia, Michigan, 250 miles north of Coldwater. Hall investigated further, and now believes that despite the lack of birth certificate, there is overwhelming evidence that Quimby was born and raised in Arcadia rather than Coldwater. Among the evidence are records showing that her father bought land in the area in 1868, birth records for other children in the families, and an 1880 census record showing the Quimby family, including a Hattie (Harriet). In 1998, the state of Michigan put up another marker in Arcadia (although the sign in Coldwater still stands as well.

There is a possible explanation for the mix-up. Before moving north, William and Ursula were married in Branch County in 1859, and had their first child, Jennie, while living there. It’s possible that the Coldwater residents who claimed they remembered a young Harriet were simply remembering the wrong daughter. But it looks pretty clear that the family moved away from Coldwater before Harriet was born.

In any case, the Quimby family left Michigan around 1885 to move to San Francisco, and in 1903 Harriet moved on to New York. She may not have had fond memories of her time in Michigan, as in later interviews she claimed to have been born in California. But here in Michigan, we’re still proud of her! At her induction into the Hall of Fame, one of the women who nominated her arrived to accept the award dressed as Quimby – complete with her signature purple flight suit. Now that’s what I call style!

Courtesy of the


Michigan’s Polar Bears

Back in January, I visited the Detroit Zoo, where I found a small historical marker about the “Michigan Polar Bears,” soldiers from Michigan who fought in Russia at the end of WWI. I had vaguely heard about the Allied mission to Russia after the Russian Civil War, but never realized that most of the American men involved were from Michigan.

Plaque dedicated to Michigan Soldiers

Photo from my visit to the Zoo last January

I was instantly intrigued, but somehow my plans to do more research on the Polar Bears got put to the side. Then in May, I noticed this book at the library – and of course I picked it up and read it (side note: reading this book on the deck on a cruise ship in the Bahamas will get you some weird looks). It is a fascinating memoir written by Godfrey Anderson, a west Michigan boy who ended up in the 337th Hospital Unit (with no previous medical training), about his experiences in Russia as a part of what was officially known as the American North Russian Expeditionary Force (ANREF), but is colloquially known as the Polar Bear Expedition.

A Michigan Polar Bear Confronts the Bolsheviks - A memoir by Godfrey Anderson

A Michigan Polar Bear Confronts the Bolsheviks – A memoir by Godfrey Anderson

Finally, in late July I headed over to the White Chapel Cemetery in Troy to check out the Michigan Polar Bear Memorial. And then I spent about two weeks procrastinating writing this post.

The Polar Bear Memorial

The Polar Bear Memorial

Why did I procrastinate so much? Because I was trying to give a detailed description of the events of the Polar Bear Expedition, yet do it in a short, blog-appropriate manner. However, there’s a big problem with this approach: I’m terrible at explaining military campaigns, and a blog isn’t really the the appropriate format for a detailed explanation. After two weeks of writing down names and dates and trying to make sense of it all, I realized that I was trying to fit far to much in, and that I really needed to just WRITE THE DAMN POST ALREADY. So instead, I’ll try to give a brief summary, and at the end make some recommendations as to where you can find further information.

In late 1918, the U.S. sent around 5000 men to northern Russia to join an international force determined to fight the Red Army of the Bolsheviks, who had previously taken control of Russia and pulled the country out of WWI. The exact goal of their mission isn’t clear now, nor was it then, especially to the men on the ground. American troops landed in Arkhangelsk, and then pushed south along the Dvina River and the Vologda railroad. The further south they went, the more Bolshevik resistance they encountered. When winter set in, the Allied commanders planned to hold their position until spring. Unfortunately for them, the Red Army had no intention of sitting out the winter – they knew this land, and they knew how to fight in winter. Throughout the winter, they pushed the Allied forces back north to Arkhangelsk. Amid growing questions in Russia and at home as to why troops were still overseas (as the war in Europe had ended the previous November), in April the troops received the order to withdraw. As soon as shipping lanes were open, the American troops began to return home. British troops stayed on a little longer and local anti-Bolshevik forces held the city until February 1920, but it eventually fell to the Red Army.

You wouldn’t think an American mission to Russia would be an important part of Michigan history, but the fact is that two thirds of the men who were part of the ANREF were Michiganders. Michigan troops were chosen for a few different reasons: because they were familiar with harsh winters, because their commander, Cl. George Evan Stewart had previously served in Alaska, and because at the time of the decision,  there were a number of Michigan troops at Camp Aldershot, the camp location where they could most easily be transported to Newcastle and from there board ships to Russia. Godfrey Anderson wrote that in his company, the difference between ending up in France and being sent to Russia was one of luck and speed – at Camp Custer in Battle Creek, MI, where he did his basic training, the men were split into different units based on where they were in a line – those in front eventually went to Russia, while the stragglers went to France.

The men of of the ANREF chose the name “Polar Bears” for themselves, and were permitted to wear Polar Bear insignia on their left sleeve after returning home. In 1922, veterans of the campaign held a reunion in Detroit and formed the Polar Bear Association. The association lobbied the U.S. government to allow a few members to travel to Russia and bring back the remains of their fallen comrades, a dream that came true in 1929. They brought back the remains of 86 soldiers, and another dozen were returned by the Soviet Union in 1934. 56 soldiers were buried in Troy at the White Chapel Cemetery, where the Polar Bear Association erected a monument in honor of the mission and in memory of those who died. The solid marble polar bear, standing over a cross and helmet, is surrounded by gravestones for each of the soldiers buried there. A historical marker stands to the side.

The site of the memorial

The site of the memorial

The memorial is magnificent. The polar bear towers above you when standing close, displaying a fierce snarl. His expression seems to be one of anger – whether it is aimed at those who may disturb the honored dead, or anger over the lives lost in a fruitless campaign I’m not sure. Despite its height, the size of the statue is dwarfed by the vast cemetery it is located in. The historical marker helpfully puts the memorial in context for anyone who might wander over, attracted by the unusual statue, but I can’t help but wonder just how rare that is. Honoring the dead with a statue at their final resting place is understandable, but I wish there was a polar bear statue in a more frequented place, to help keep this event in the public memory a little better. The plaque at the Detroit Zoo caught my eye, but that’s because any and all historical plaques catch my eye. I’m sure most people walk on by, paying more attention to the live polar bears nearby. A larger memorial outside the cemetery might help this forgotten piece of history be a little less, well, forgotten. So far as I can tell, there are no other statues or memorials of the Polar Bear Expedition – if anybody knows of any, I’d love to hear about them!

There’s plenty written about the Polar Bears if you would like to learn more. I recommend checking out the Polar Bear Expedition Digital Collections at the Bentley Historical Library of the University of Michigan. The Polar Bear Memorial Association also has a website, and holds annual events at the White Chapel Cemetery on Memorial Day. To get a true sense of what it was like for the young Michigan men who were sent to Russia, read one of the many memoirs and diaries – Anderson’s is available as a book, and but there are also number published online (see these links from the PBMA), or these collections digitized by the Bentley. The PBMA also has a helpful list of books about the conflict if what you really want is just a good old fashioned history book.

And the next time you are near Troy, go visit the White Chapel Cemetery and just spend a few minutes at the memorial to honor the Michigan men who fought in a forgotten war.

Brighton District No. 8 (Lyon School)

Brighton District No. 8 School

Brighton District No. 8 School

I spent this past weekend visiting family in Brighton and came across this lovely old schoolhouse while out for a run Sunday afternoon (side note – I hate that it was warm enough for an outdoor run 3 days ago but today I woke up to snow). Fortunately, I had my phone on me so I stopped to take some pictures and then jumped on a computer to do some research when I got home. I was really excited to come across this building as it is a very out of the way site that I probably wouldn’t have known to visit. Random historical site run-ins are the best!

Here’s the text of the historical marker on the site, which provides some basic information about the school:

“In 1842 pioneer settler Richard Lyons donated land for the first school in Brighton Township’s District No. 8. Area Methodists worshipped in the log school until 1874. In 1885 the log building was replaced with this one-room clapboard structure. Classes were held here until area schools consolidated in 1956. The building then served as the Brighton Township Hall. In 1984 it was restored for use as a museum.”

Further research at the website of The Brighton Area Historical Society and an online version of an 1880 History of Livingston County book told more of the story:

Richard Lyons came to Michigan in 1835 from New York City to buy land for a number of members of his artist’s guild. New York was experiencing a terrible cholera outbreak at the time and people were looking to move west. Lyons traveled to Michigan to make purchases twice, eventually purchasing 20,000 acres of land in the area then known as Upper Green Oak before finally bringing his family out and settling on one parcel in 1837.

The Lyons family traveled in a group of 12 guild members to their new home. When they arrived, they all crowded into one small log cabin built by William Valentine, a guild member who had come west earlier but had given up on making a living in the wilderness and returned to the city. When another two families arrived soon after, the crowd in the cabin swelled to 22. The settlers quickly went to work building more homes and each family had their own house within a year. As they came from the city, these guild members had very little farming experience and struggled initially, but most eventually prospered. A log schoolhouse, built a few years later in 1842, was the first non-residential structure the settlers built. It served as both a schoolhouse and as a general community gathering point for the next 40 years.

As the marker states, in 1885 the current frame structure replaced the original cabin. The one room schoolhouse had a wood stove for heating the building, a well and outhouses outside and oil lamps for lighting the inside. The community was still small and only around 20 students attended the school.

The small schoolhouse continued to be used into the 20th century, finally adding electricity and indoor bathrooms in 1940. However, after WWII, Brighton experienced a rapid increase in population as the construction of freeways made travel to nearby Detroit and Ann Arbor easier. This growth caused the city to outgrow its one room schoolhouses. Additionally, educators around the country pushed for bigger schools, claiming they would provide a more standardized education. The rise of the automobile, which allowed the creation of the school bus to transport students longer distances, also contributed to the decline of one room schoolhouses (source). Nonetheless, this one room schoolhouse lasted longer than most. Although school consolidation in the United States began in the 1920s and 1930s, Brighton schools didn’t consolidated until 1956.

The building was used as the Brighton Township Hall for many years until it became too small for that function as well. According to the Brighton Area Historical Society, it now serves as their headquarters and has been fully restored for use as a museum. However, there is no information about when/if the public can visit the museum, which is a shame as I would love to see the inside. The BAHS does state that it can be used for school field trips and even has a third grade curriculum that can be used to show students what education was like in the early 20th century. So apparently I just need to impersonate a teacher and find a group of random kids to get inside…..bad idea?

What I really like about this schoolhouse is the setting. It is tucked away down a dirt road and largely surrounded by trees. Although there are a number of houses in the area, it still feels fairly rural and thus does a better job of replicating the feel of a 19th/early 20th century schoolhouse than buildings relocated to historic parks, such as in Greenfield Village or Troy Historic Village. The National Register of Historic Places call this relationship between a property and its surroundings “integrity of setting.” I love sites like these because they can really take you back in time mentally. As I stood there, I could imagine schoolchildren walking down the road to get to class, playing in the schoolyard, dipping their feet in the nearby creek after class.

Sadly, that image was quickly blown away by the site of a car driving past, and I was drawn back into the modern world. Nonetheless, it made for a fun historical break on my run. Now if only all my runs took me past unexpected historical sites, I might enjoy running more!

photo-2 photo-1

Detroit Zoo

This weekend I went to visit the Detroit Zoo, which I have not been to since I was a kid. The zoo hadn’t been my first choice of places to visit, and I have to admit, I wasn’t too thrilled about the idea (the zoo in winter? won’t it be cold?). However, I actually had a great time. There are two great advantages to visiting the zoo in the wintertime: 1) there are less people and 2) the cold weather animals, like polar bears, are actually moving around instead of laying pitifully in the shade trying to cool off. As the Detroit Zoo has one of the best arctic zoo exhibits in the country, this makes a visit in January a pretty good deal.

The famous Detroit Zoo Water Tower

The famous Detroit Zoo Water Tower

Of course, me being me, I wanted to find out as much as I could about the history of the zoo. I learned some history at the zoo, as there are a small number of historical signs and one artifact (the original zoo train) on display, but then I did more research after we got home. I learned that although the Detroit Zoo  has some issues when it started up, it has long been a favorite attraction of Detroiters and has often been a leader in innovative and animal-friendly policies.

Historical Marker at the Zoo

Historical Marker at the Zoo

The first incarnation of the zoo came about in 1883 when a travelling circus went broke while in Detroit and prominent Detroit citizen Luther Beecher bought the animals and erected a building to display them. The building was located at Michigan and Trumbull, where the Detroit Tigers would later play from 1895-1999. This first zoo didn’t last long – according to some sources, one of the problems was that Detroiters kept stealing the animals! The idea of a zoo was revived in 1911 with the founding of the Detroit Zoological Society, although the zoo itself didn’t open until 1928. A number of sites were considered before the society finally settled on the corner of 10 Mile and Woodward, where the zoo still stands today. There’s a great story that goes along with the zoo’s Grand Opening in 1928. Detroit Mayor John C. Nagel was supposed to speak at the opening but arrived late. He parked by the bear dens and rushed around front – where a polar bear, drawn to a piece of bread left out by the zookeeper, jumped out of his moat a stood directly in front of him. Taking it in stride (and unaware of the level of danger), Nagel out his hand a said “he’s the reception committee.” Zookeepers rushed the bear back into his enclosure before any damage could be done, but the event certainly added to the excitement of the day.

I would hate to have a showdown with one of these guys!

I would hate to have a showdown with one of these guys!

The first day the zoo was open to the public it was so mobbed with crowds that the turnstiles were ordered taken out so people could enter faster. Excited visitors also broke through the fence on 10 mile to get into the park. Admission was free at that time and many people were thrilled to see exotic animals without leaving metro Detroit.

Photograph of Paulina the Elephant, from a historical timeline at the zoo.

Photograph of Paulina the Elephant, from a historical timeline at the zoo.

The zoo’s design, with large cage-free enclosures surrounded by moats was influenced by Heinrich Hagenbeck of the Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg, Germany. These enclosures, which were supposed to allow the animals more space and a more natural habitat, were the first of their kind in the U.S. Nonetheless, the zoo still had many practices considered acceptable at the time that have since been stopped. In the zoo’s early days, you could ride Paulina the elephant for a nickel or see shows by Jo Mendi, a chimpanzee who had acted on Broadway and in Hollywood. Elephant rides ended in 1940, although chimpanzee shows lasted until 1982. Change is far from over, however, as in 2005 the Detroit Zoo became the first to give up its elephants completely on ethical grounds, stating that the Michigan winters were too cold and that keeping them inside all winter was psychologically damaging.

There’s one other bit history I learned at the zoo that I found interesting, and would like to explore further. Near the end of the Arctic Ring of Life exhibit, there is a small plaque dedicated to Michigan’s “Polar Bears,”  American soldiers who fought a failed campaign against the Red Army in northern Russia in 1918-1919. The soldiers were a part of an intervention by the allied countries of WWI in the Russian Civil War on the side of the pro-Tsarist White forces. The Allied intervention sought to stop the spread of communism and to revive the Eastern Front in WWI. Many of the soldiers were from Michigan and Detroit, and so they became known as “Detroit’s Own – Polar Bears.” I found this to be a very interesting bit of Michigan history, and I appreciated that the Zoo included it in the polar bear exhibit. It was a nice way way to connect some local history with the exotic animals on display. According to the plaque, there’s also a memorial to the Polar Bears at a cemetery in Troy – I may need to go check that out!

Plaque dedicated to Michigan Soldiers

Plaque dedicated to Michigan Soldiers

I really enjoyed my visit to the Detroit Zoo. Not only did I get to see some cool animals, but I learned some Michigan history as well. Well worth a visit, even in the middle of winter!



Houston, Kay, “How the Detroit Zoo’s First Day was Almost It’s Last,” Detroit News,

Garrett, Bob, “Polar Bears,” Michigan DNR,,4570,7-153-54463_19313_20652_19271_19357-175188–,00.html

Holcombe Site

I recently decided to look up some historic sites in the area, as I wanted to visit somewhere new this weekend. A quick search lead me to the Wikipedia pag* for the Holcombe Site (also known as Holcombe Beach), a Paleo-Indian archaeological site in Sterling Heights. Remnants of Paleo-Indians in suburban Detroit? I was instantly intrigued, and since the site was only a few miles away from where I live, I made plans to stop by during the long New Year’s weekend.

According to the website of the city of Sterling Heights, amateur archaeologist Jerome DeVisscher discovered the site in 1961 “on a hunch.” He drove past the area everyday going to and from work, and noticed a ridge on the side of the road. He knew that Indian artifacts are often found in similar ridges, and so he took to digging it up with a friend, Edward J. Wahla. They discovered a number of spearheads on the site, and alerted archaeologists from the University of Michigan about the find. UofM determined that the spearheads were Paleo-Indian in origin – probably used around 9,000 B.C. The ancient age of this find sparked a great deal of excitement. UofM archaeologists organized a five year dig of the site, which eventually produced more than 7,000 spearheads, along with flint chips and caribou bone fragments. They also determined that the site was on the edge of a the ancient Lake Algonquin, a glacial lake from the ice age that encompassed the current Lake Huron and parts of Michigan.

Holcombe Point - from U of M teaching collection

Holcombe Point – from University of Minnesota teaching collection

The spearheads that were originally found at the site were unlike any others discovered before, and were thus given a new name, “Holcombe Points.” They are small fluted points made of thin flakes regional chert or flint rocks, such as Bayport chert, Mercer flint, Onondaga flint, Kettle Point  or Haldiman cherts. The points are also known as “pumpkin seed” points because their shape resembles a pumpkin seed. Since the Holcombe Site discovery, Holcombe points have been found mainly in Michigan and southern Ontario, although small numbers have also been found in Wisconsin, Minnesota and northern Indiana and Ohio. Holcombe points are by no means the oldest spearheads in North America, as they are believed to be more recent that Clovis, Barnes and Gainey points. Nonetheless, they are still very old, and provide a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the people who lived in Michigan 11,000 years ago.

So what did I see when I went to visit the Holcombe Site? Well, not much, unfortunately. The only thing visible is a historical marker erected in 1977. The marker only states that it is “near” the site of the excavation, so I can’t even be sure I was standing on the actual site or not. Even though there wasn’t much to see, I’m still glad I checked it out. The marker is on the grounds of a school on the corner of Dodge Park and Metropolitan Parkway, surrounded by residential homes and not far from the busy commercial strip of Van Dyke. Paleo-Indians would be the last thing on anybody’s mind in such a developed area, so it is an interesting exercise to stand there and think about the fact that this was once wilderness on the edge of a massive lake, where people hunted caribou for food. Nowadays, the only caribou close by sells coffee! It is always good to remember that Michigan History goes back before Cadillac, before Marquette, even before the Algonquian tribes like the Ojibwa and Odawa. People have lived here for thousands of years and the more we can learn about the people of the past the richer our history can be.

Marker text: Near this site in 1961 archaeologists from the Aboriginal Research Club and the University of Michigan uncovered evidence of an early Paleo-Indian settlement. Here about 11,000 years ago these first prehistoric dwellers in the Great Lakes region inhabited a lake shore. Excavations of artifacts and bones reveal that for food the Paleo-Indian hunted Barren Ground caribou, a species suited to the tundra-like terrain of that era. As their environment changed, these Indians were forced to adapt to new ways of living, Different climate and sources of food required modified tools and methods of subsistence and the Paleo-Indian pattern of life developed into the culture of the Early Archaic people. The site known as Holcombe Beach is a reminder of basic changes in Michigan's physical and biological environment over the ages.

Marker text: Near this site in 1961 archaeologists from the Aboriginal Research Club and the University of Michigan uncovered evidence of an early Paleo-Indian settlement. Here about 11,000 years ago these first prehistoric dwellers in the Great Lakes region inhabited a lake shore. Excavations of artifacts and bones reveal that for food the Paleo-Indian hunted Barren Ground caribou, a species suited to the tundra-like terrain of that era. As their environment changed, these Indians were forced to adapt to new ways of living, Different climate and sources of food required modified tools and methods of subsistence and the Paleo-Indian pattern of life developed into the culture of the Early Archaic people. The site known as Holcombe Beach is a reminder of basic changes in Michigan’s physical and biological environment over the ages.


“Holcombe Site,” Wikipedia,
“Prehistoric History,” City of Sterling Heights,
“Holcombe,” University of Minnesota Department of Anthropology,