Northwest corner of Irving Township



This is another shot from Monday’s ride. It was starting to sprinkle just a bit — I got out the rain cover for my handlebar bag and stowed my electronics — but managed to ride ahead of what little rain there was. The farmers on the John Deere tractors kept cutting hay.

This scene is in section 8 of Irving Township, Barry County, Michigan. It’s not the best agricultural land. Much of it is part of the Middleville State Game Area.

Just a mile to the northwest some Odawa families had bought land from the government — 240 acres altogether. The Barry County history of 1880 had some comments about them, in the section about Irving Township. The remarks are — well, let’s just say they go beyond even some of the common prejudices of the time:

Until 1848 settlements in Irving were confined almost entirely to the vicinity of the southern town-line, while north of Peter Cobb’s the township had not been penetrated by the pioneer in any direction. About the year named there was a small colony of Indian farmers on section 6, where they had purchased government land and set about improving and cultivating it. Their attempts, like similar attempts by other redskins in other townships, resulted in the overwhelming conviction that whatever the noble red man might be fitted for he was assuredly not fitted to be a farmer, so after brief and disastrous experiments they gave up the task and returned to a nomadic and more congenial state of existence.

A few comments about this:

As for the idea that Indians were not fit to be farmers, it ignores the fact that Indians in much of North America had been farmers for many generations. Military expeditions against Indians in Ohio and Indiana in the 1790s and during the War of 1812 commonly encountered large fields of corn near villages — sometimes hundreds of acres producing tens of thousands of bushels — which they took the time to destroy. (To those who say William Tecumseh Sherman waged a new kind of warfare when he targeted civilian property in the south, one has to say: Nonsense. That’s the kind of war that had been waged against Indians for many decades.)

It is true that most Native Americans had trouble adopting the European-American methods of agriculture. There were some cultural differences that made it difficult, including family values that made it more important to help out relatives than accumulate capital and pay taxes. Whether those differences were a factor here in Irving Township, I don’t know. But the land soon came to be owned by non-Anishinaabe people.

Another point is that this was not prime farmland for anyone. As the writer said, this part of the township wasn’t settled until after 1848. Just a few miles south it was different. Down there were prairie patches and oak savannas that made good cropland. The Odawa families that bought land on section 6 chose that land because they were trying to keep out of the way of the land most coveted by white settlers. That was a big handicap, right from the beginning.

They had practiced swidden farming, which is not quite as settled a mode of farming as the white settlers followed. But it was not nomadic. If these Odawa people seemed nomadic at all, it was because they kept trying to move out of the way.

It may well be that not a single one of the 240 acres is being farmed now. Monday afternoon, about all I saw anywhere nearby was some haymaking.

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