The White Swan Community and the legend of Chief Wabasis

Linda Critchett was the speaker at the April 4th Rockford Area Historical Society meeting at the Community Cabin. She kindly provided the following history for the enjoyment of the Squire readers.

Mystery of hidden treasure is an unanswered question

by Linda Critchett

The White Swan Community is located east of Rockford, between Myers Lake Road and Wabasis Lake. The first settlers in northern Kent County, Mr. and Mrs. Wm. Davis and family settled here in June 1838. They were the only settlers in the wilderness until the following year when the Isaac Towers family came from Springfield, Vermont and settled near them. It wasn’t until 1842 that others came. One of these, Rev. David Gilbert has an interesting connection to Rockford History. Rev. Gilbert and his family were from Washtenaw County. The spring after they moved here, his brother, Orin, set out to visit them. He was found frozen only four miles from their cabin. Later that summer another brother, Luke, and a brother-in-law came from Washtenaw County to visit. They walked to Okemos, built a canoe and floated down the Red Cedar to the Grand River to the mouth of the Flat River and then walked the rest of the way to their cabin. The brother-in-law was Smith Lapham.

The White Swan Community was mostly an agricultural community. At one time there was a saw mill on Beaver Creek, and a shingle mill on the south shore of Brown Lake. In 1846 a school district was organized. At first the school was in a private home and then in a frame building on land leased by the Tower and Stewart families. This building was located on Tower Street between Wabasis Lake Road and Nugent Ave. In the early 1860s there were over 80 pupils on the school list. The new school was twenty-six wide by thirty-six feet long. The school had an excellent reputation for the number of students, who later became good teachers.

There were two churches in the Community. The Oakfield Methodist Episcopal Church was on 12 Mile Road. It was built in 1868 by Gabriel Bowman. It was built on land given by David Gilbert. Gabriel Bowman also built a church for the Baptist. The church buildings built by Gabriel Bowman and the school are no more, but what remains is the White Swan Cemetery. The cemetery is located on 12 Mile Road near the corner of Nugent Ave. The Main gate to the cemetery is a large cement arch given by the Tower family in 1930. The Tower family also gave part of their land to the county for the Wabasis Lake Park.

WhiteSwan-Chief-Wabasis03aChief Wabasis was born about 1800 along the Thornapple River to a Pattawatomi mother and a French-Canadian father. His name Wabasis means White Swan. Later he was adopted by an Ottawa Chief named Wobiwidigo or White Giant. In 1827 Wobiwidigo was in failing health and Wabasis took a small band of Indians and moved down the Grand River near Plainfield. In 1836 he felt there were too many people in that area and moved his tribe again to the western shore of Wabasis Lake.

The legend of Chief Wabasis begins about this time. Chief Wabasis received a large sum on gold for selling Indian land. Some believe he sold the land to the U.S. government in the Treaty of 1836. Others believe he sold the land to settlers after they gave him too much “fire water”. Anyway the Indians were not happy about it and wanted Wabasis to give them a share of the gold. When Wabasis refused to do that, they became even angrier and wanted to kill him. They called a council to decide what to do. If they killed him they would never know where he hid the gold. So it was decided not to kill him, but to confine him to live in a one mile square area along the western shore of Wabasis Lake. If he left that area he would be killed. Sometime in the 1860s Chief Wabasis left his home on Wabasis Lake to attend a green corn dance in Grand Rapids, (some say the dance was at Plainfield). While at the dance, Wabasis learned that he had been spotted and there was a plan to waylay him on his way home and rob him of his money. So Wabasis left the dance early and headed home. On his way he stopped at a Michael Smith’s home along what is now West River Road. He was friends with Michael Smith and his wife. He asked if he could borrow an iron cooking pot from them. (Some say he also borrowed a horse.) He left and came back a couple hours later without the cooking pot. The Smiths asked him to stay for supper but he refused saying he needed to get home. He made it as far as Kies Road where his body was found the next morning. He had been badly beaten. His body was taken to Plainfield and buried, Pottawatomie style, on the bluffs overlooking the river. Pottawatomies buried their dead sitting up above ground, and they covered the body with a log cage. The Indians came and brought food and offerings to the grave until they were sure his spirit had left. They then left his body to the elements and the protection of the log cage. It wasn’t long before the Chief’s decomposing body was a problem for the people living in the settlement at Plainfield. So a small group of men from the village buried his body on the bottom lands on the north side of the river just east of the bridge. They placed a large stone over the grave. Later his grave was dug up and the skull was sold to a museum in the east. It is not known where the skull is today.

So what do we really know about Chief Wabasis? He was an honest and well respected man by both the white man and his fellow Indians. He always paid for the things he needed with coins, and was known to always have a small amount of coins on his person. He didn’t sign the Treaty of 1836, 1855 or 1821. However, Wabasis’ mark appears on government papers showing that he received a blanket and $1.50 every year on Indian payment day in Grand Rapids. This payment was usually made with silver coins not gold. Rockford historian, Homer Burch, believes the Legend began with a lengthy poem written by Mrs. J. Minerva Kutz of Courtland Township published in 1870. In this poem, which she said was inspired by an Indian spirit, she takes a bit of local history and weaves it into a story of the Bostwick Lake area. Many people have searched the cave on the west side of Wabasis Lake, but no gold has been found. You can see the entrance to this cave near the boat launch at Wabasis Park. Limestone caves are unusual for this part of the state but there are several in the area of Wabasis Lake. Looking at the cave today you wouldn’t think this to be a very likely spot to find the gold. The cave used to be much deeper, going back away from the lake for at least a quarter of a mile. In the 1930s the Wabasis Lake Road was

Legend dating back to the 1800s has had people searching for the gold Chief Wabasis was supposed to have hidden in this cave. A Greenville man claims to have found the gold in 1888.
Legend dating back to the 1800s has had people searching for the gold Chief Wabasis was supposed to have hidden in this cave. A Greenville man claims to have found the gold in 1888.

moved west, away from the lake. The new roadbed had to go over the cave. The road commission thought the new road might cave in so they opened up the cave and filled it with gravel and cement and sealed the cave. Most people believe that if there is buried treasure it will be found in two places, a large amount of gold near the lake and a smaller amount somewhere near Michael Smith’s place. There is no record as to when Chief Wabasis died. It was sometime in the 1860’s. The last record of him being alive was 1862, when he visited the family of Simon Welch at the time of his death.

So where is the gold? Richard Geldhof, a local historian believes that the money may have been found by a Greenville man in 1888. W. G. Nelson placed an article in the Rockford paper saying that there was no need for people to look for Chief Wabasis’ gold as he had found it several years ago. Maybe so, but every year people ask the park supervisor at Wabasis Lake about the story of Chief Wabasis’ gold. Maybe it is still out there waiting for some lucky person to find it.

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