John Okemos (Chief Okemos) (ca. 1775-1858) was a Michigan Native American chief of the Saginaw Chippewa people of the Ojibwa nation. In the Ojibwa language, Ogimaans (anglicized to "Okemos") means "Little Chief." It is not known if this refers to Okemos' short stature or refers in some way to his actual power as a chief. "John" was an adopted name.
The exact date of Okemos' birth is unknown. He was born in what is now Shiawassee County, Michigan. Two registered historical markers attribute his birth here, possibly around the Knaggs Bridge area. He was probably born in the mid-1770s (although at least one of his white contemporaries—Freeman Bray—put his birth year as far back as the 1750s).
Okemos indicated that his mother's father was the Ojibwa chief Min-e-to-gob-o-way and his uncle was the Ottawa chief Kob-e-ko-no-ka.
Years with the British Army
The first formal reference to Okemos appears in 1796 when Okemos and 16 other men enlisted in the British armed forces as scouts.
Okemos fought at the Battle of Lower Sandusky (also called the Battle of Fort Stephenson) in what is now northern Ohio. The battle took place on August 2, 1813 during the War of 1812. Although the British lost the battle and the United States repulsed the attack, Okemos accrued considerable respect in the fighting, which raised his standing among the Ojibwa. During the battle, Okemos was slashed with a saber; this left a five-inch (127 mm) scar on his forehead that remained for the rest of his life as a distinguishing feature.
Treaty of Saginaw
At the Treaty of Saginaw in 1819, Okemos represented the Ojibwa people. While several other tribes were represented by their leaders, the Ojibwa lost the most territory in this treaty. Other tribes with people displaced in this treaty were the Ottawa and Potawatomi. Okemos and the other Native American chiefs signed the treaty with General Lewis Cass, giving up six million acres (24,000 km²) of land in what is now southern Michigan to the United States government.
By the 1830s, Okemos was recognized as a leader not only of the Saginaw Chippewa, but of many other Ojibwa bands. He also acted as a leader of some Ottawa and Potawatomi) groups who lived south of the Red Cedar River. A Michigan state historical marker in Meridian Township indicates the area where Okemos and his people lived during this time.
Following the white settlement of the area beginning in 1839, Okemos and his people conducted an active trading business through the 1840s. In 1840, Freeman Bray founded the city of what was then called Hamilton.
Removal and death
By 1850, disregarding the Treaty of Saginaw, the United States government began moving Native Americans to reservations from the lands where Okemos led his people. In the early 1850s, Okemos moved to Ionia County, Michigan. Okemos died near DeWitt, Michigan in 1858. He is buried in the Native American mission village of Shim-ni-con in Ionia County.
In 1859, the city of Hamilton was renamed Okemos, in honor of Chief Okemos.
Ashlee, Laura Rose (editor), Traveling Through Time: A Guide to Michigan's Historical Markers (revised edition), Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005, p. 183-184.
- Hepburn, Neil. "And You Thought You Knew All About Apple Island," Greater West Bloomfield Historical Society, http://www.gwbhs.com/articles/AppleIsland1.htm
- "John Okemos", http://www.shiawasseehistory.com/okemos.html
- Reasoner, Mary Turner. "When I Was A Young Girl," http://parks.cityoflansingmi.com/tdodge/page37.html
- Portland Michigan Centennial Book (p.p. 2, 4 & 5). Retrieved on 2007-02-11.
- Castanier, Bill (2006-09-13). "The surprise return of Chief Okemos". Lansing City Pulse. Retrieved 2007-02-11.
- "Chief Okemos (Historical Marker)" (PDF). Michigan Historical Markers. Michigan State Historic Preservation Office. Retrieved 2007-02-11.