Who Died and Why? Ottawa Death Records in Emmet County, Michigan.

Our ancestors, and all people, speak through the records they leave behind. It’s up to us to weave the story being told by listening to the whispers that drift through the ages.

Emmet County Michigan kept death records beginning in 1867 through 1875 inclusive that included race and quite a bit of additional information.  Blanks to be completed, although not all always were, included death date, place of death, sex, race, marital status, age, cause of death, birthplace, occupation, father’s name and residence and  mother’s name and residence.  Ironically, nothing about a spouse.

In the 1860s in the upper portion of Michigan, many of the Native people did not yet speak English.  French was their second language. 

The 1870 census shows many of these families, but the death records provide us with information that the census can’t.  Let’s see what these records have to say, as a group, about these people.

The Native death records stack up like this:

  • 1867 – 7 records
  • 1868 – 0
  • 1869 – 36
  • 1870 – 42
  • 1871 – 32
  • 1872 – 28
  • 1873 – 26
  • 1874 – 29
  • 1875 – 21

I don’t for one minute think that all Native deaths were recorded, especially not in 1867.  In 1868, people did not stop passing over, but they may not have been recorded as Native, or at all.  We’ll use the records we do have.

There are a total of 218 deaths recorded.  Of these, most are recorded in a normal way in terms of the child’s name matching that of at least the father.  The mother’s name is often recorded as the same as the father but in some cases, it appears to be the mother’s  maiden name.  The form is not specific in what it’s asking. 

In one case in the death of a very young baby, the child’s surname matches neither of the parents surnames, so there are anomalies.  In a second case, the surname appears 3 times, once for the child that died and once for each parent, but it’s spelled differently in the same death entry for all 3 people. 

Surnames were new to these people and not everyone used them.  In another case, the childs name is one word.  The father’s surname is similar, but written in 3 syllables.  You can see the evolution of that name.  There’s no telling what it wound up being in the 1900s. 

The cause of death field is very interesting, although in about half of the deaths, the reason is either blank or “unknown.”  Of course, we don’t know if the people involved didn’t know why the person had died, or it was simply unknown to the registrar. And language was a barrier, so we are left to wonder.  My favorite “cause of death” found was very succinctly put – “birth.”  Well, yes, now that you mention it!

Those that we do know are shown as follows:

  • Abscess of lower limb – 1
  • Apoplexy – 2
  • Asthma – 1
  • Birth – 1 (5 days old)
  • Bled to death from navel – 1 (3 days old)
  • Born fever – 1 (child 1 month old)
  • Burns – 2 (children ages 1 and 5)
  • Childbirth – 2
  • Chills and Fever – 2 (2 babies)
  • Chronic diarrhea or diarrhea – 11 (all babies under one year)
  • Cold – 2
  • Congestion in lungs – 2
  • Consumption – 26 (tuberculosis) ages 1 to 75
  • Croup – 1 infant
  • Dysentery – 4 (infant through 21)
  • Ergslipelas – 1, age 80, streptococcal skin infection known as “holy fire”
  • Fall of tree limb – 1 (age 42)
  • Fever – 6 (all age 3 or under)
  • Frozen – 1 (male, age 22)
  • Infantile disease – 1
  • Inflammation of the lungs (one says from a cold) – 3 (ages 16-57)
  • Injuries from fall – 1 child
  • Insanity – 1 (age 11)
  • Lung disease – 1
  • Old age – 4 (ages 63, 77, 82 and 100)
  • Rheumatism – 1 (age 59)
  • Scarlet Fever – 5 (ages 1 – 18, all in 1870/71 winter, all in Bear Creek)
  • Scrofula – 1 (tuberculosis infection of the lymph nodes in the neck)
  • Scurvy – 1 child 2 months old
  • Spinal Meningitis – 34 –  called by several names:  Meningitis – 14, ages 5 days to age 64, 3 in 1873, the rest in 1874, looks like it started in Bear Creek and spread to Cross Village: Brain Disease – 2 – 1870, 1873; Disease of the Brain or Head – 10 – 1 in 1969 and 9 in 1874; Headache – 8 – 1 in 1869, 5 in 1870 and 2 in 1873 for a total in all categories of 34.
  • Veneral(sic) – 1 male age 22 (probably meant to be venereal)
  • Weak Infantile – 1 infant 1 day old
  • Whooping cough – 9 in 1869 and 1870, all children 3 or under

It looks like the big killers were Meningitis which killed 34, consumption which killed 26, although all lung issues (except whooping cough) totaled 35, so very close to meningitis.  All types of bowel issues totaled 15. 

I find it particularly interesting that the person who died at age 63 was considered to have died of old age.

Over and over we read of the “sickness” and “disease” that afflicted the Native people. Clearly, these are not the early plagues that included small pox, but the Meningitis epidemic and the bout with both Scarlet Fever and Whooping Cough were contagious and would fall into the category of a “sickness.”  We can also see that they were fairly well contained within villages, except that Meningitis spread to a second village where it was more deadly than where it was first introduced.  These death records put names to the sicknesses that killed people.  By this point in time, these would be the same illnesses that afflicted the European settlers in the same region, striking fear in the hearts of everyone.

By far, more infants died than anyone else.  Most people expected to lose half of the children they brought into the world.  Most of those deaths could have been easily averted by antibiotics, but antibiotics had not yet been invented.

Deaths by age were as follows, where it was recorded:

  • Less than 1 month – 14
  • 1 month to 1 year – 51
  • 1-2 years – 47
  • 2-3 years – 16
  • 3-4 years – 7
  • 4-5 years – 2
  • 5-6 years – 7
  • 6-7 years – 3
  • 7 – 8 years – 1
  • 8-9 years – 3
  • 9-10 years – 1
  • 11 -19 years – 17
  • 20-29 years – 12
  • 30-39 years – 3
  • 40-49 years – 8
  • 50-59 years – 7
  • 60-69 years – 6
  • 70-79 years – 4
  • 80-89 years – 3
  • 90-99 years – 0
  • 100 years – 1

Let’s think for a minute about that 100 year old Indian.  Her name was Mary Babapusqua and she died on October 28th, 1873.  She is noted as “white” although it would be nearly impossible for her to be white with a surname like that, unless she was adopted, and being born at Little Traverse, which was an Indian village.  She also died in the village.  She was a widow and no one knew her parents names or where they lived.  One thing is for sure, her parents in 1773 when she was born would have had entirely Native names, although Mary surely could have been mixed race although she is not listed by that name on the 1836 half-breed census.  I was not able to find her on the Michigan 1870 census, but she assuredly was there and living with someone.  It’s difficult to tell how and when she used her last name and in what way.

Mary was born when the United States was still 13 colonies.  Her parents probably were loyalists and her father may have fought with the British against the colonies.  She grew up in a time when there were no settlers on the Great Lakes, just a few traders and some missionaries on Mackinac Island.  The first mission was founded there in 1670, a century before her birth.  Since she had a Christian first name, and one that is venerated in the Catholic faith, she may have been baptized Catholic as a child, or she may simply have been given that name at a later time. 

She was born and died in the same location, Little Traverse, known as Harbour Springs today.  It was also known by the French name L’Arbour Croche, meaning Crooked Tree.  Little Traverse was the site of a wooden fort before the French built a much larger one on Mackinac Island in the late 1700s and a thriving trading community existed in the shelter of Little Traverse Bay.  Emmet County was the home of several Indian villages which dotted the shores of the Lake Michigan.  The county is located at the tip of the “mitten” of lower Michigan which adjoins the Straits of Mackinaw. 

Most of the Indians were born and died in the various Indian villages in Emmet County.  There seems to be a lot of movement between villages.  Outside of Emmet County, two Native people were born in Canada, 1 in Charlevoix, 5 in Cheboygan, 1 in Elk Rapids, 1 in Grand Rapids, 1 in Montreal, 1 in Muskegon, 1 in Ontario and 1 in Pentwater.  Aside from the two major villages in Emmet County, Little Traverse and Cross Village, we find other smaller villages including Bear Creek, Coop Village, Labroix, Little Mouse, Mesakotasing and Middle Village.  Some of these locations are lost to us today, but thanks to these death records, the people themselves are not. 

You can see the Emmet Count, Michigan Native death record transcriptions at http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~minatam/birth-death/emmet-native-death-index.txt

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About Roberta Estes

Scientist, author, genetic genealogist. Documenting Native Heritage through contemporaneous records and DNA.
This entry was posted in Michigan, Ottawa. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Who Died and Why? Ottawa Death Records in Emmet County, Michigan.

  1. Vi Gaisford says:

    Scarlet Fever is quite dangerous too if it is not treated at an earlier time. High fever can really damage the body. ;*.;.

  2. Heather says:

    So strange, yet interesting to read this.

  3. Heather says:

    Very interesting to read. My mother is descended from the Ottawa at Cross Village, my grandmother was actually born there. My mother passed away last year, from meningitis, contracted in a way that doctors say is highly unusual. I have read on the CDC that there are a disproportionate amount of American Indians, in comparison to other races, that contract meningitis even today. I wonder if it is something in our genes.

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