A colorful watercolor sunset painting of Zeba Residents Swimming at the Alligator on Keweenaw Bay

Swimming at the Alligator, Watercolor on paper, is available Here

Native Roots in Canada and the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community

Introduction

Since childhood I have been on the move all over Michigan, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts. Yet, I always came back to Zeba, my mom’s birthplace, on the shores of Lake Superior’s  Keweenaw Bay. 

In this blog, I will share my artwork and photos of Zeba. Also I will show how the community has changed the course of my family history, and how family members may have influenced Zeba. 

Background of Zeba

Zeba, is  a derivation of Ziibi or Creek in Ojibwa, a reference to a trout stream that flows through the L’Anse Indian Reservation. Many members of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community still call Zeba home.

There has been an Ojibwa, or Chippewa, community at Zeba for hundreds of years. See links at the end of this blog for more about Zeba.

The Native Community at Keweenaw Bay in the nineteenth century was divided in two: Catholics were mainly on the western shore of Keweenaw Bay-for more read my Assinins blog post. 

image of a painting titled Keweenaw Bay Sunset
Keweenaw Bay Sunset, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community

The Methodists started their mission earlier than the Catholics, around 1832, on the eastern side of Keweenaw Bay. The native community was originally called Kewewenon but is now known as Zeba.  

The influence of Mississauga Ojibwa missionaries from Ontario is perhaps why the protestant religion got going well before the catholic mission did.

How my Ancestors Became Established in Zeba

During the early 1800s, many Mississauga Ojibwa from Ontario converted to Wesleyan Methodism. A handful became preachers and missionaries. 

These Native Christians considered it their calling to convert other Ojibwa to Christianity. Some of these Native missionaries, including John Sunday, ventured along the southern shore of Lake Superior and set up missions, including one in Zeba.

A photo of the Zeba United Methodist Church
Zeba United Methodist Church

George Blaker-My Great, Great Grandfather

The Reverend George Blaker, my great, great grandfather, was a zealous convert to Christianity. One of the few Mississauga Ojibwa to have completed seminary school, he was ordained in the Wesleyan Methodist Church. 

He walked in John Sunday’s footsteps, working along Lake Superior’s south shore, making converts and translating for the non-native preachers. 

Although never as predominant as John Sunday and some other Native preachers, I have found a number of accounts of Reverend Blaker’s work in Canada and the south shore of Lake Superior. I’ve highlighted a few here with links at the end of the blog:

-Reverend Blaker also signed Tribal Chief David King’s letter to President Andrew Johnson. King was trying to get the U.S. government to honor rights retained in treaties that included remaining in the great lakes region.

-My great, great grandfather Blaker is mentioned numerous times in the biography “The Life of Rev. Peter Marksman, an Ojibwa Missionary.” 

Reverend Marksman and Reverend Blaker often preached together and held what were called “Love Feasts”, which were very Pentecostal in their descriptions. I find it sad however that these feasts included building a bonfire to throw medicine bundles in.  

I bought a copy of Marksman’s biography off of Amazon and downloadable versions can be obtained online. –

-After these evangelical visits, Reverend Blaker returned to Zeba and became the pastor at the Zeba Methodist Episcopal church between 1865 and 1867. See the methodist minutes link below for a good description of Reverend Blaker’s work and the Zeba congregation. 

-Reverend Blaker officiated the wedding of a civil war veteran named Amos Pine with a Madosh at the Zeba church, according to the book “Warriors in Mr. Lincoln’s Army.”
 

-The L’Anse Sentinel credited Reverend Blaker with helping to establish Methodism in Zeba, which led to the annual Methodist Camp Meetings.

-Blaker’s wife Charlotte, also a Mississauga, and their young son George, moved to Zeba as well. However George, at the age of 6, died in L’Anse in 1867. 

After their son’s death, George and Charlotte left Zeba and returned to Canada. (side note: there were Blakers in Bad River, Wisconsin as well. Blakers from Zeba often visited them),

Wesley Blaker-My Great Grandfather

In 1870 my great grandfather Wesley Blaker got into trouble with Ontario law, the Indian agent, and other band members.  He fled to his father’s former mission in Zeba. 

His second wife Eliza, a member of the Curve Lake Band in Ontario, joined him years later. I have written a blog post about Eliza which can be read here.

Wesley became an important leader of the Zeba Community, living there the rest of his life. Canadian Indian Agency documentation stated he was residing on the L’Anse Indian Reservation and was no longer a member of the Alwmick Reserve-now called the Alderville reserve.  Many L’Anse Sentinel articles establish Wesley as a member of the L’Anse Indian Reservation. 

I have read in the L’Anse Sentinel digital archives dozens of accounts about Wesley, including involvement with the Methodist church.  Later he helped establish a Seventh Day Adventist Church in Zeba. 

He also got into various business ventures in Zeba such as running a general store, hunting and fishing guide, and a horse watering station along the Pequaming Road.  

After emigrating to Michigan, his only trouble with the law was when he was arrested for poaching a deer, which he challenged in court but lost. 

A Story

Matt with Ribbon Shirt
Uncle Matt, Wesley's Grandson

I thought I knew of no stories about my great grandfather Wesley Blaker. However writing this blog jogged a childhood memory. 

When I was twelve, my uncle Matt Whetung told me a story about his grandfather on his death bed. His grandfather had quit speaking English but would yell out in Ojibwa to people that weren’t there. It scared my uncle who was twelve at the time. 

I just verified with my mother that the grandfather would have been Wesley Blaker since his Whetung grandfather, if still alive, would have been in Canada at the time. 

There are no known images of Wesley but his brother Jonathan is in a few pictures. He is the distinguished looking gentleman on the far left of the photo below, presumably taken in Zeba

An old black and white photo of a Native American Family titled Blaker Photo
Blaker Family with Guests and Mungeeduke, the Dog

Charlotte Blaker, My Grandmother

My grandmother Charlotte, Eliza and Wesley’s daughter, was the second of the Blakers to be born in the United States. She is the smiling woman in the back center of the above photograph. 

Raised in Zeba, Charlotte first married Joseph Whetung, a late-coming transplant from Curve Lake Reserve in Ontario. Years after Joseph died, she married George Matthews and my mother Elizabeth “Chiz” Matthews was born in Zeba but raised at the house near the Silver River. 

For more about this period read my blog “A Family Treasure.”

 During the early fifties, after her father died, my mother and Charlotte moved back to Zeba to live along the lower road. My mother recently told me a humorous story that I never heard before. My mom was with a group of people and they were waiting for Charlotte to finish using the outhouse, which was perched precariously on a cliff that was part of the Keweenaw Bay shoreline. She had just exited the outhouse when the structure slid into the lake!

I never got a chance to know my grandmother. Tragically, when my mom was a young girl, Charlotte was walking home from L’Anse one night and was struck and killed in Zeba by a drunk driver at the intersection of the Whirl-i-gig and Skanee Road.  

No charges were brought to this individual and he purportedly was a member of the Mafia in Gary, Indiana.

My Childhood and Zeba

As a young child we lived in L’Anse but often visited relatives in Zeba. We frequently visited Evelyn Holappa, my mom’s first cousin, and her husband Ernie.  

There is a L’Anse Sentinel article stating that my great grandfather Wesley Blaker gave Evelyn her Ojibwa name during the Zeba camp meetings. 

I enjoyed the visits and the Holappas were always kind and considerate.  The smell of wood smoke and coffee is still in my memory. 

I have one unfortunate memory at the Holappas-I must have been 3 or 4  when I snuck in the back of their house and tried to swallow a small amount of bleach. I vaguely remember gagging and coughing with lots of adults rushing around.

an ink sketch of a blue abandoned structure called the Holappa House.
Abandoned Holappa House, Ink on Watercolor Paper

Photos From the Seventies

All my teen years were spent living in Zeba. I went off to college in 1978 but Zeba was still the home I returned to on breaks.

An old color photo showing a teenager named Mike Sherman getting mail in Zeba
Mike Sherman getting mail-seventies
An old photo of the seventies showing a dead buck tied to a car
My First Buck with Ted Whetung, Don Tolonen Sr. and brother Mark Sherman
My Brother Loring's 11th Birthday Party

Two Role Models

I had many relatives from Zeba that were good role models and had a positive impact on my life. Here are 2.

George Curtis

George Curtis married my mom’s first cousin Alice Spruce, who’s mom was Lizzy Spruce Blaker. 

My first memories of George and Alice was when we stayed with them in the mid-sixties because my dad had abandoned us. 

Later he and Alice moved back to Zeba and lived in tribal housing just across the street from our house. 

Next to my uncles, George was my constant companion in the woods hunting, fishing for rainbows (spawning steelhead), or assisting him with his commercial fishing in Keweenaw Bay. 

I wish I would have asked George more about my great grandparents Wesley and Eliza Blaker.  I do recollect him stating he knew my great grandparents well but I don’t remember any specifics. 

George’s death in the seventies was my first experience with real grief from a death.

My Aunt Myrtle Tolonen

Much has been written about Myrtle, my mom’s older sister and next to her in age. She was the Keweenaw Bay Indian Communitie’s first female tribal chairperson and served on many committees. 

Like many others, she lived elsewhere while raising children, including Dearborn, Michigan, where I was born. However she too returned to Zeba in the seventies and lived out the rest of her life there.

She was very interested in family history, and it was her death a few years back that really got me interested in geneology. I wish I could have talked with her about her great grandfather George Blaker and grandfather Wesley Blaker-and how, like her, had a profound impact on the Zeba community. 

A black and white photo of a high school grad in cap and gown from the fifties titled Myrtle Graduation Pic
Auntie Myrtle's Graduation Pic
A pastel pencil drawing of an elderly Native American Woman named Myrtle Tolonen
Portrait of Auntie, Conte Pastel on Charcoal Paper

Visiting Zeba and Art

The last time I lived in Zeba was in 1998, shortly after my divorce. I stayed with my mom for a month before moving downstate where I currently live. Since then, Zeba has always been a place I consider “going home”. 

The following art work was done on my many visits back to Zeba. You can tell I love painting sheds and garages!

 

The New Zeba Hall

Recently the Tribe constructed a new Zeba Hall where the baseball field used to be.  I say new because the old Zeba Hall from my childhood burned down in the early eighties. 

The new building has a long back deck overlooking Keweenaw Bay and is available to tribal members for funerals, celebrations, etc. 

Below are some of my photographs taken at the Zeba Hall during my mom’s surprise 80th birthday party.

A selfie photo of a married couple named Sherrie and Mike taken on the deck of the Zeba Hall in January
Sherrie and Mike on the Zeba Hall Deck
A photo of Native American elder Chiz, resting After the Surprise Birthday Party
Chiz Resting After the Birthday Party
A photo of the Zeba hall deck view in the svening just after the sun set.
Zeba Hall Deck View

Conclusion

My mom Chiz, for the first time since 1973, no longer lives in Zeba. She sold her house, and is now living with my brother and his wife in northern Wisconsin. I have lost a vital tie with the community of Zeba. 

I haven’t been back there for almost 2 years now (in part due to the pandemic). I only know of a few cousins left in Zeba; most of my  family has moved to the Baraga side of the L’Anse Indian Reservation where they are closer to more resources and other family.

Zeba has problems similar to other small northern, rural, communities in poverty. I recall a much more vibrant Zeba in the seventies when there were a lot of us close-knit teenagers walking up and down the roads and people seemed to be outside more doing things.  

Of course the years and distance have influenced my current perception of the community.

I would appreciate any comments about this blog, especially those that live in Zeba or still have strong ties. I understand my description is from one who left; people that still live their may have different things to say about Zeba. 

Zeba is more a memory now that mixes and flows with generations of family that lived there before me. 

A photo of my mom Chiz and Sherrie my wife sitting at the table of my mom's house
Chiz and Sherrie Around the Table

Zeba Links

Baraga County  A Historical Sketch, mentions John Sunday the Mississauga Missionary. Many historical references omit him. 

The Life of Reverend John Clark  Like many of the writings of the time, this is very ethnocentric and degrading account of Native Americans in the great lakes area. Clark was a strong friend and mentor of my great great grandfather Blaker. 

Zeba: Legacy of a Native American Mission provides a good account of how David King and Peter Marksman helped thwart attempts to remove Lake Superior Chippewa from their homelands.

For more images and information about the Zeba swimming spot called “The Alligator”, go to my shop page “Swimming Keweenaw Bay After Sunset“.

Reverend George Blaker Links

Lights and Shades of Missionary Life by Reverend John Pitezel mentions Reverend Blaker a number of times

1867 Minutes of the Methodist Episcopal Church states pay to George Blaker at the Kewewenon in 1865.

Annual Report of the Missionary Society of the Methodist Church gives a detailed description of the Zeba Methodist Church, the congregation, and it’s pastor George Blaker.

-Early Twentieth Century L’Anse Sentinel article about the History of the Ojibwa Camp Meetings, recognizes Reverend George Blaker as one of the founders of the Methodism.

David King’s Letter to President Johnson also signed by Reverend George Blaker

Warriors in Mr. Lincoln’s Army includes the account of Reverend Blaker officiating at the civil war veteran’s marriage. 

Wesley Blaker Links

 -Alnwick Agency-Resolution of the Alnwick Council to Remove the Name of Wesley Blaker from the Paylist

Alnwick Agency-Resolution that the Children of Wesley Blaker Be Put on the Paylist Separately

-L’Anse Sentinel Article stating Wesley Blaker gave Evelyn Holappa her Indian Name

More Links

-George Curtis is a descendant of Amos Crane, the civil war veteran mentioned earlier

-My Aunt Myrtle Tolonen’s Obituary

4 Responses

  1. Dear Mike,
    Recently I worked at KBOCC under your sister. During that time I worked on a grant that was preserving Ojibwa culture/history. I had the great fortune to interview your mother for the project. After reading your blog, I realized your stories should be kept in the College’s archives. Please talk with your sister about it.

  2. Miigwetch Mike ~ great story and, of course, the art work is A+.
    I was always wondering if Chief John Southwind (Shawanonodin) from Zeba had connections with the Mississauga and your article has spurred me to really check this out! Southwind was the village leader who allowed the first Methodist preacher(s) to set up their church in Zeba during 1832. He also signed the 1854 Treaty at La Point as a headman. Southwind is my great-great grandfather.
    I missed the KBIC powwow in 2021 for some reason but this year, for sure, we need to connect while there. Also, anytime you visit your mother in northern Wisconsin we need to get together, too.
    Miigwich. Mi’iw!

    1. Miigwetch to you JT thanks for your kind words and the information about Southwind. I have come across him a few times but don’t recollect anything specific. Anything to do with Protestantism along the south shore would have been entwined with the Mississauga Ojibwa; they had a lot of influence.

      I have read a lot about this transition time around 1830 to 1860 and it is sad but also I am impressed with the adaptability of the people coping with all the change. Christianity perhaps helped them get through this at least for a while. Seems like once the indigenous population was converted they became boring to the more affluent church and were then ignored for the most part.

      Let me know if you find anything out about Chief Southwind. Oh I will tell you something I took out of the blog. My mom bought the old farmhouse in Zeba that used to be a post office. She was cleaning out the attic and came across a chest of keepsakes that included a bunch of ancient tin types of Native men-some dressed in regalia.I didn’t recognize any of these photos. Perhaps Chief Southwind was one of them! Unfortunately my dad probably sold them for a few bucks in his pawm shop! More heritage lost!

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