posted November 4, 2008

Book Highlights Mission Colony that Preceded Holland

The journals kept by a pioneering missionary couple provide insights into life in the Holland area in the years before the arrival of the Rev. A.C. Van Raalte and his countrymen from the Netherlands.

A new book makes the diaries of the Rev. George N. Smith and his wife Arvilla available to a general audience for the first time. The writings are featured in "Old Wing Mission:  Cultural Interchange as Chronicled by George and Arvilla Smith in their Work with Chief Wakazoo's Ottawa Band on the West Michigan Frontier," edited by Robert P. Swierenga and William Van Appledorn and recently released by the Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

The publication is being celebrated with a book signing featuring Swierenga and Van Appledorn on Saturday, Nov. 15, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.  Copies of the book will be available during the signing for $35. The retail price is $49.

The signing will take place in the Smiths' Mission home on East 40th Street, which is the oldest building in the Holland area, and the place where Van Raalte and his family stayed when the vanguard of Holland settlers arrived in early 1847.

The book provides an intimate glimpse of pioneer life in early West Michigan.  Rev. Smith was a missionary teacher and preacher who had a strong desire to educate and evangelize the Native Americans. The Black Lake Ottawa Band of Chief Joseph Wakazoo (original spelling without the "u") came to the region each fall from their summer lodgings around Harbor Springs.

In 1839, Reverend Smith and Chief Wakazoo persuaded the U.S. Congress to allow Indian families to purchase land.  Wakazoo and Smith decided to locate their colony on 1,360 acres some three miles southeast of BlackLake (Lake Macatawa). The typical family owned 20 to 40 acres.  Initially, the colony numbered 29 families and 118 souls, but it grew to 300 souls. Wakazoo's band chose the name Old Wing Mission in honor of Wakazoo's brother, Chief Ning-wee-gon, The Wing.

Swierenga and Van Appledorn note that the move to the Old Wing site was a difficult sacrifice for the Smith family, whose first dwelling was a crude log cabin.  "Hardly a home," described Arvilla, "it was a pile of logs."  As pioneers, the family suffered greatly from sheer isolation, starvation, illness, and the deaths of babies. In 1845, they moved into the frame home that still stands, which was built largely by Isaac Fairbanks, who later taught the Indians to farm in the white man's way.

Smith's journal swelled with entries reporting mission tasks and interrelations with the Indians.  At times, according to the two editors, his relations with the Indians were troubling, and his aspirations challenged.  There was discord among the Indians, who preferred their traditional Catholic practices.  Rev. Smith struggled to teach the Indians to live like white men and become settled farmers.  Swierenga and Van Appledorn note that the Indians were industrious--in one year, the Old Wing band produced more than 15,000 pounds of maple sugar cakes for a cash income of $1,200.

In 1845, according to the two editors, the mission faced its greatest crisis, the death of Chief Joseph Wakazoo.  Reverend Smith held the chief in the highest regard and loved him like a brother.  Peter Wakazoo, Joseph's brother, won the contest to be the new chief.  He did not hold strongly to Smith's mission and talked of moving his band to the north, which happened in 1849 when the Indians and the mission moved to Northport.

Today the Smith home is owned by Robert and Carole Pavloski, who have carefully preserved the buildings and grounds because of their historical significance.

The book begins with an overall history of the mission by Swierenga. It also includes maps of the area and early photos, as well as recollections by Arvilla that were published in a Traverse City newspaper in 1892.

Swierenga is the A.C. Van Raalte Research Professor at the AC. Van Raalte Institute of Hope College, where he has been since 1996.  He has studied Dutch immigration and related topics since the 1960s. He has written or edited 23 books and numerous journal articles, and lectured widely on issues related to the Dutch in America.

Van Appledorn is the author of a biography of Chief Wakazoo:  "Chief Waukazoo:  From Roots to Wing." His interest in the local Native Americans began as a result of his being a Civil War history buff.  While conducting research, he learned of Payson Wolfe, a Native American who had been in the First Michigan Sharpshooters.  Wolfe was a nephew of the chief and had married the Smiths' daughter Mary.  Van Appledorn became acquainted with the Wolfe family, and through them was inspired to learn more about the Ottawas and their mission.

Copies of "Old Wing Mission:  Cultural Interchange as Chronicled by George and Arvilla Smith in their Work with Chief Wakazoo's Ottawa Band on the West Michigan Frontier" are available at the college's Hope-Geneva Bookstore and at other area booksellers.

The Old Wing Mission house is located at 5298 E. 40th St. (147th Avenue), about one half mile east of Waverly Road. While it will be hosting the book signing, the home will not be available for tours on November 15.