MC History Spotlight: Notipekagon, when the PM ran red with blood.

February 21, 2019

MC History Spotlight: Notipekagon, when the PM ran red with blood.

MC History Spotlight is a weekly history column brought to you by Ludington Woods Living and Memory Care. Each week this column will feature a story from our county’s past.

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief.

The Pere Marquette River is a designated National Wild and Scenic River that covers 66 miles flowing westerly from Lake County draining into Pere Marquette Lake and eventually Lake Michigan. Today, it is mostly used for recreation. In the 19th century and early 20th century it was used to move lumber from the woods of eastern Mason County and Lake County to the mills on the shore of Pere Marquette Lake. Before that, it was a thoroughfare for Native Americans. It was common for the Ottawa Indians to live along rivers and relocate every few years. 

Before it was named after Father Jacques Marquette, the river had a much more disturbing name, Not-a-pe-ka-gon (also spelled Notipekago or Niindibekagoning), meaning “heads on sticks,” a name given after a battle that took place at the modern site of the Custer Road Bridge.

The story of the battle was passed down orally by local Ottawa Indians for almost two centuries and eventually written down in the late 19th century. Published stories vary on the location of the battle, its circumstances and those involved. The official version, according to the Michigan Historic Site marker at the Custer Road Bridge states:

“Ottawa oral tradition tells of a war between the Ottawa and Mascouten tribes in the 17th century. The defeat of the Mascouten allowed for permanent Ottawa settlement in lower Michigan. One battle took place in the Custer vicinity along the Pere Marquette River. Many years later, erosion exposed the buried remains of those from both tribes who died here. Indians placed many of the skulls along the riverbank. The battle site became known as Notipekago — the place of the skulls. The story holds an enduring place in Ottawa oral tradition.”

A 1957 article in the Ludington Daily News tells a slightly different but more detailed version. The article states the Potawatomi were also part of the battle. “This famous Indian battle, according to Indian history passed on from one generation to the next, took place some time in the early 1700s. The site of this great clash has been established by Indian historians as near the site of the bridge over Pere Marquette River on the county highway leading south from Custer to Fern (the Custer Road Bridge). Evidence of the conflict was found by the white settlers who later came to establish farms and picked up baskets full of Indian arrowheads, tomahawks and other weapons of primitive warfare as they followed their ploughs tilling the new land.”

The article states that the Mascoutens were fleeing eastward from the Sioux who possessed the lands in the Mississippi valley and had sought refuge with the Potawatomi, who lived in lower Michigan. The Potawatomi agreed to give the Mascouten safe passage through their lands to the lands of the Ottawa in central and northern Michigan.

“The refugees were permitted to remain in Ottawa territory and for a time all went well. The tribes helped each other, traded and all prospered.” The article then states that some of the Potawatomi saw the Ottawa and Mascouten getting along so well together and “decided it was time to stir up a little trouble between the two.

“Passed down by the Indians themselves, the story is that a band of renegade Indians, presumably Potawatomi, came upon a small band of Ottawa encamped near the present site of Ludington and exterminated them. Blame was promptly placed on the Mascouten.

“The Ottawa massed forces to avenge the deaths of their fallen brothers and they were joined by some fo the Potawatomi. The Mascouten, hearing of the danger which threatened them and unable to get aid from other Michigan tribes, decided to seek refuge in Mohawk territory. They made preparations for a mass evacuation from Ottawa lands using as their highway to Lake Michigan, the (modern) Pere Marquette River.”

The article then states that the Mascouten, in their canoes, reached a point near present Ludington where the Ottawa was waiting for them.

“The unprepared Mascouten turned and retreated up the river, stopping only now and then to give battle to protect their retreating wives and children. The Ottawa pressed closer and near the present site of Custer Battlefield park (Custer Road Bridge), the Mascouten warriors were overtaken. The battle waged on for days and the river ran red with blood of the fallen warriors.

“The Ottawa were victorious and, so the story goes, after annihilating the Mascouten, they severed the heads from bodies of the slain and mounted them on sticks along the river. Hence, when the first white man, Burr Caswell, came to settle in Mason County in 1847, the Indians who lived on the Lake Michigan shore south of Ludington called the river now known as the Pere Marquette ‘Not-a-pe-ka-gon” meaning river with heads on sticks.”

The article also states that the Ottawa village near the Caswell home (modern day Historic White Pine Village) was called Nin-de-ka-tun-ning, which means “a place of skulls.” The Ottawa abandoned the village in 1848.

According to Gary Dittmer, Riverton Township resident and former manager of the Mason County Road Commission, the river between Scottville and Ludington was once much wider. Some even considered it a lake. Dittmer said he recalled seeing maps from the late 1800s showing the river wider. The lumber industry changed portions of the river and Pere Marquette Lake, causing the river to narrow. This puts a slightly different perspective of the plight of the chase described in the above account. Many know that the river between Scottville and Ludington is far more challenging to navigate.

In the 1970s, the Scottville Boy Scouts Explorer Post 144, led by Bud Dodson, coincides with the 1957 article. The scouts built a sign commemorating the battle, which stated the battle took place in 1725.

The article states the Mascouten lived in the area between Reed City and Baldwin and were “discredited in the eyes of the Ottawa Indians, who lived in the Mason County area, by acts of thievery and murder that were committed by a small party of Potawatomi who placed the blame on the Mascoutens. The Ottawa planned a battle to wipe out their imagined enemy, the Mascoutens. The planning and training lasted about one year.

“The Mascouten Indians were forewarned of the plan and received a promise of sanctuary form the Mohawk Indians in the area of New York state. The Mascoutens made preparations for a mass movement of their 3,000 men, women and children down the Pere Marquette River to Lake Michigan.

“The battle raged for three to four days, the river ran red with blood of the fallen men, and the rushing water swept the dead toward Lake Michigan.

“The Ottawas, following their complete victory at Custer tracked the fleeing Mascouten women and children. There were about 12 of the Mascoutens who reached sanctuary in the New York area.”

Other early accounts published leave out the Mascoutens and state the battle was between the Ottawa and the Potawatomi.

Ludington Woods Assisted Living and Memory Care, 502 N. Sherman St., Ludington, MI 49431; 231-845-6100;

This story is copyrighted © 2019, all rights reserved by Media Group 31, LLC, PO Box 21, Scottville, MI 49454. No portion of this story or images may be reproduced in any way, including print or broadcast, without expressed written consent.

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