Turtle Island Pt. 2: “Defeated by Mishikinaakwa”

As it turns out, teeny little Turtle Island has a very interesting backstory of its own, apart from the Toledo War and boundary strife that I already mentioned. “A Brief History of Turtle Island,” a paper by B. Achinger that I found online in .pdf format outlines some of this. Of course the Miami (hence, “Maumee”) tribe were the probably the first inhabitants of the small island, though I am not sure that they ever had permanent dwellings there. They went there to collect seagull eggs and probably conduct fishing. According to Achinger, arrowheads and other artifacts could once be found on the small strip of beach on this island and the other islands in the area. The island is named for Mishikinaakwa, or “Chief Little Turtle,” one of the most famous Native American war chiefs of the American colonial period.

Mishikinaakwa earned his place as war chief of the Miamis in 1780 by defeating a French force under Augustin de La Balme, who were allied with the American patriots. La Balme sacked the Miami village Kekionga (present day Fort Wayne, Indiana), as part of a campaign intended to dislodge the British from Detroit. Mishikinaakwa’s party slew La Balme and 30 of his men, putting an end to this campaign. When the British were finally expunged from the continent after the American Revolution, this resulted in even greater friction over land between the new American government and the tribes, who formed the Western Confederacy under the belief that the Ohio River should be the border between the U.S. and native lands.

Mishikinaakwa helped lead the Western Confederacy to victory against U.S. forces in many battles in what was called the Northwest Indian Wars, (also known as Little Turtle’s War). In 1791, he defeated General Arthur St. Clair, inflicting 623 American casualties, the greatest single defeat the U.S. military ever suffered at the hands of Native American warriors. The Indians lost but 50 men. The battle was known as “St. Clair’s Defeat,” and the general resigned his military post as a result of this crushing tragedy, though he continued to be the governor of the Northwest Territory (and have Lake St. Clair named after him).

General “Mad” Anthony Wayne led another expedition into the Northwest after St. Clair’s Defeat, with a much stronger force of men. Mishikinaakwa knew that Wayne was a more formidable opponent, remarking that “he never sleeps,” and preferred negotiation with him rather than battle. The Western Confederacy was eventually defeated at Mad Anthony Wayne’s hands at the famous and decisive Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. Mishikinaakwa continued to advise cooperation with the U.S., even as many other tribal leaders became more and more incensed and combative over American encroachment, which led to his eventual estrangement from the Miami tribe. Mishikinaakwa died of gout and rheumatism early in the War of 1812, and was given a funeral with full military honors at Fort Wayne, Indiana.

My drive down to the Lost Peninsula was short but fairly treacherous, as the roads had still not yet recovered from the recent snowstorm. It was only 11°F, but compared to the -14°F of a day ago, this was like a heat wave.

Here is the marker denoting the state line, placed in 1915 by Governor Ferris of Michigan, and Governor Willis of Ohio when we at last agreed on the “final” location of the border between our two states. The Michigan residents north of this line pay taxes to and receive services from Michigan, yet they must go through Ohio to get anywhere outside their neighborhood, unless they go by boat or snowmobile.

People had of course recommended (or pleaded) that I do this trip with a snowmobile, but I had no idea how or where to rent one, how to transport it, whether a rental would let me go miles out onto Lake Erie with it, I had no snowmobile suit or any experience operating such a machine, and furthermore I had no desire to put any more weight on the ice below me than my own 150lbs. You can’t analyze what you’re traveling over when you’re moving at 40mph, and if you do see a bad spot you probably won’t stop in time. Nor did I think a snowmobile could climb over a five-foot tall ridgeline of shattered ice pack, though I suppose I could be wrong.

Not to mention a snowmobile is the pussy’s way out; any lazy slob could probably take a leisurely 10 minute spin out to Turtle Island on one of those things while eating chicken wings, guzzling Milwaukee’s Best, and listening to Matchbox20 on their headphones, then post a crooked iPhone pic to their Instagram, and head back home to continue playing Xbox (assuming they don’t fall through and perish). I was looking for the way that would actually make me feel I had accomplished something, and not like I was just checking something off a list. For what it’s worth, I saw plenty of snowmobile tracks across the ice out here, but none of them ventured very far from shore. I also did not see one single ice fishing shanty…could these have been signs that maybe the ice was not as trustworthy as I thought it was?

Here was the shore of icy Lake Erie:

I was a bit concerned that I couldn’t immediately see Turtle Island’s silhouette, but I figured it was hiding just around the arm of the Woodtick Peninsula. In zoom view, I could see that some other strange shape loomed in that area instead, possibly the Toledo Harbor Light:

To my right the smokestacks of the city of Toledo:

These are some pretty long shadows for it being almost noon.

Because of some silly delays on my part, I had gotten a much later start today than I wanted. No time to waste; I dove through the chest-high drifts and onto the hard surface of the bay. I jumped around a bit to test it, and it seemed rock solid.

Here was a snowmobile track already, leading to the south:

To the north, the distant plume of the power plant in Luna Pier, Michigan’s southernmost city on Lake Erie:

It was 1.5 miles from here to the tip of the Woodtick Peninsula, assuming I could take a straight line. From there, it was another two miles to Turtle Island, making for a realistic round trip of just over eight miles, if I didn’t have to do any wide maneuvers. Happily, Turtle Island itself came into view around the arm of the Woodtick Peninsula within minutes:

I was happy to see that the lake surface had little snow on it, making for easier going, and less concern about excess weight on the ice. It did occasionally drift up to a foot deep in spots, but they were fairly easy to steer around, and made absolutely gorgeous dune patterns in the wind:

According to Achinger, the white man’s history with Turtle Island begins in the late 1600s. An article in the October 8, 1936 Toledo Times states that the British “maintained a log cabin fort for defense against musketry” in 1794, a key strong point in their chain of defenses in western Lake Erie (yes, the Brits hung around in unorganized American territories after the Revolutionary War ended, and even occupied Fort Pontchartrain in Detroit until 1796).

One must remember that during the time Turtle Island would have housed such a fort it was much bigger in area, and has subsequently eroded away to a fraction of its former size. Achinger states that the goal of the British building a fort here was to thwart General Mad Anthony Wayne’s ability to establish a supply line via Lake Erie for battles up the Maumee River into Indiana Territory. With Mad Anthony Wayne’s resounding victory in the Battle of Fallen Timbers, the British abandoned the fort on Turtle Island.

Contrasting Achinger’s article, local lore in the Michigan-Ohio border region alludes to the Indians as having fortified the island at one time. Another story claims that the French took the small island from the Indians and established a fort for use as a fur trading post during the late 1700s. Another legend claims that the British held the island until the War of 1812 and subsequently lost it due to their defeat by Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry in the Battle of Lake Erie, but there is little evidence supporting any of these claims.

After Fallen Timbers, Achinger says, the recorded history of the island disappears until well into the next century. What became of the old fort, or what it looked like is anyone’s guess I suppose, but I would wager it was probably a simple log blockhouse or palisade, and was burned when the British left to prevent its use by the enemy. If there were any ruins left of it, they would have quickly been scraped away by lake ice.

Turtle Island reenters recorded history in 1827, when it was sold at public auction by the U.S. government in Monroe, Michigan. Keep in mind that the Toledo War was still eight years away, and Turtle Island was yet considered to be wholly within Michigan’s borders, and Monroe was the local governmental seat.

Just fours years later, Edward Bissell of New York sold the island back to the U.S. government for $300, when they decided they needed to build a lighthouse there in an effort to improve commercial navigation in the waters of Maumee Bay and enhance commerce in the Port of Toledo. At this time, the island had a surface area of 6.5 acres and included a modest lightkeeper’s house and a small farm. From LighthouseFriends.com:
One of the first keepers of the lighthouse was Samuel Choate, who fought in the War of 1812. Choate served until his sudden death of cholera in 1834 and was buried on the island by his son, Captain Seth Choate, who also died of cholera soon thereafter. Seth’s wife and two small children were left on the island alone, four miles from civilization, until a sailor rescued them when he noticed that the lighthouse was not lit.

I tried to curtail my picture-taking as much as possible and keep on course despite the pretty landscape. After about a mile of hiking I saw this crack:

Granted, it looks kind of terrifying, but I believe it was merely formed by the ice sheets contracting as they cooled and thickened. The crack is not filled with water, but with new ice:

Nonetheless, I approached with extreme caution, and a little bit of terror, haha. None of the baby steps I took resulted in discomfiting noises or movement, even as I got within jumping distance.

In fact, the silence out here was monumental. I could faintly hear the distant rumble of Toledo industry to the south, but everything around me was as silent and still as if I were walking on the surface of the planet Pluto.

I held my breath and stepped over to the other side of the crack. Nothing. Certainly encouraging, I suppose. I tried hard to control my fear so as to remain rational. However, scenes like this made me consider whether the ice really was going to continue to be structurally sound:

As Rutabaga had predicted, the ice began to look more and more questionable as I neared the mouth of the creek along the west side of the Woodtick Peninsula, because that was most likely where the warm water outlet from the power plant in Luna Pier was running to. As a result I could be approaching the most dangerous area right now, over a mile from where I started. The above picture was taken almost at the foot of the peninsula, and it looks like something had caused the ice to break open at some point and rapidly re-freeze.

I continued going, but now with much graver caution and diminished hopes for success. Even though the power plant was about four miles to the north of me, the effects of its heated water could very well still be felt in a sort of fallout area, far from its source. By law plants are not supposed to be dumping exhaust water more than five degrees warmer at the outfall than surrounding ambient water temps. But because our politicians are more concerned with making "corporate citizens" as comfortable as possible than with protecting the environment, such laws are never enforced.

I continued on, but soon encountered an even uglier, much more defined soft spot than the previous one; one that even looked still wet a bit. I stood there, thinking, evaluating, trying to decide if I could risk continuing in this direction, or whether I could take another path on a wide detour to the south and get around the bad area. If I did this, would I be able to safely follow the same course back on my return trip? I knew that air temperatures were slowly rising, and the sun was beating down…was there a chance that there could be a breakup of the ice while I was out at the island?

While I was debating these questions and others, I suddenly heard what I’m pretty sure was a couple pops from the ice in front of me. That was it—I turned around and began walking back immediately. No f#$%ing way did I want to even @#$% around with this. I thought about the summer and how much easier it might be to tackle this journey in a boat on a nice 85-degree day. I took one last look back over my shoulder at Turtle Island across the vast desert of ice:

I headed back to land.

But on the long walk back, I eventually began thinking of other possible routes I could take to reach Turtle Island. What if I got around the hot water influence of the power plant by driving up to Luna Pier and taking the access road Rutabaga had mentioned to the Woodtick Peninsula? That way I could walk the shoreline of the peninsula south to the opposite side of the affected area, and depart on an almost due easterly course for the island. I would also be on ice for only two miles, as opposed to the whole trip. Granted, this would be a much longer trip overall, as it is 3.7 miles from the power plant to the south tip of the peninsula, then another two miles over ice to the island, for a round trip of about ten miles.

I drove to the power plant and found that there was indeed public access to the shore there, but when I stepped out on it, I saw a steaming jacuzzi the size of Tiger Stadium with a trillion geese splashing and playing in it. Well, so much for that idea. I couldn’t tell, but it looked like far out to sea there were fault lines of crushed ice forming tall mountain ranges of shattered ice knives. To the right in this next shot, you can see some of the birds swimming at the edge of the melted area, with Turtle Island shimmering in the distance:

I suppose it would be possible that the ice further south of here would be unaffected by the power plant’s heat plume, but in order to walk this snow-drifted shoreline I would absolutely need snowshoes, or I would never make it. It was also way too late in the day to start a hike of that magnitude. I decided to step out onto the ice here at the shore to see what it was like, but I found it to be very slushy. Nope. That was the final nail in the coffin; I drove home. I guess I would never know what lay beyond those jagged, forbidding fortifications of ice, but at least I would live to dream about it. And at least I could say that I tried.

CLICK for part 3

The Toledo War, The First Michigan-Ohio Rivalry, by Don Faber, pg. 178-179
“A Brief History of Turtle Island,” by B. Achinger
Toledo Times article, dated October 8, 1936
"Erie Township seeks bids to remove buildings," The Toledo Blade, May 29, 2008

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