The Native American Indians of Michigan and their Connection to the Rochester Area

As Rochester marks the 200th anniversary of its founding this year, have you ever wondered about the native people who lived here before white settlement? 

According to The Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History, our area’s indigenous population was very small two centuries ago. By the time that James Graham’s family and other pioneers settled Rochester and Avon in 1817, many of the Native American residents of the area had already moved on. 

Most European-ancestored settlers did not venture into the interior of the Michigan Territory until after the signing of the Treaty of Detroit in 1807. In this agreement with the U.S. government, leaders of the Odawa, Ojibwe, Potawatomi and Wyandot peoples ceded all claim to land in southeastern Lower Michigan. A series of additional treaties after the War of 1812 cleared all Native American claims to the remainder of the Lower Peninsula, except for specifically established reservation lands. 

The Potawatomi and Wyandot people left Michigan after the War of 1812, and many of the Ojibwe and Odawa relocated northward. That did not mean, however, that the early white settlers in Rochester and Avon never encountered any indigenous people. 

Treaty map of Michigan showing the different native American lands ceded by the tribes

Treaty Map of Michigan

James Graham’s grandson, William, told the Pontiac Press in 1928 that for a dozen years each summer after the family settled their farmstead on Crooks Road, a band of Ojibwe camped nearby. After helping the Grahams with their fall harvest each year, the Ojibwe returned to the Clare area for the winter. According to William Graham, his father, Benjamin Graham, had a strong relationship with the Native Americans and spoke the Ojibwe language as well as he spoke English.  

Another Avon pioneer, Christian Z. Horton, published his early memories of Native Americans in the Rochester area in an 1874 newspaper account. According to Horton, a small band of Ojibwe camped on land along the Clinton River located east of today’s Main Street and south of Second Street. They occupied the spot during fishing season each year, and then decamped to return to the north in winter.  

As more white settlers flooded into the region after the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, Native American visits to this area became less frequent. Before long, burial grounds and the remains of some campsites were the only physical evidence of local indigenous people. 

The Rochester Era noted a campsite discovery in November 1899. David H. Ross, whose farm in Avon Township lay in part of today’s Springhill subdivision on the southeast corner of Walton & Adams roads, brought to the newspaper office a collection of arrowheads that he had picked up on his farm. Ross told the newspaper that an old trail ran through his farm and that Native Americans had once made camp beside a small lake there. This body of water, sometimes called Miller’s Lake, appears to be the only natural lake in the former Avon Township. It would have been a likely spot for a Native American camp. 

C. Z. Horton’s 1874 account locates three Native American burial sites in the Rochester area. Horton identified the first as the site of the Sprague store, which we know today as the Home Bakery building. The second was on a hill north of the Barnes Brothers paper mill, and according to Horton was obliterated by excavation work done for the Clinton-Kalamazoo Canal. The third burial site was on a hill next to Green’s saw mill in Avon Township. Green’s saw mill was on the Clinton River at what is now known as the intersection of Avon and Livernois roads. 

The Sprague store/Home Bakery burial site has been disturbed twice in the past two centuries. The first incident happened in 1899, when the store was undergoing a complete renovation. Some excavation work being done in the basement, uncovered part of the Native American burial site. The discovery was reported in the Rochester Era in the summer of 1899: 

“Last Saturday morning workmen were engaged in deepening the cellar under the stone store. There was a cement bottom, under which was a layer of cobble-stones. … After they had taken up the stone they dug down and about two feet under the patched portion they unearthed two skeletons, one with the head to the east, the other to the west. The bones were gathered up and it was not long before the matter was noised about town and a large crowd gathered to view the remains. One of the skulls was quite perfect, the other one was badly broken. The teeth were remarkably firm and even, although worn down very much, denoting evidently a very old person.” 

The newspaper reported much speculation about the nature of the remains and disagreement about whether they were of Native American origin. In the summer of 2012, road crews working on the reconstruction of Rochester’s Main Street uncovered additional skeletons at the corner of Third & Main, making it likely that those found over a century earlier in the basement of the store were also Native American. However, archaeologists dated the remains uncovered in 2012 to the prehistoric era (prior to about 3000 B.C.), meaning that they were not contemporary to the Native American people encountered by C. Z. Horton or the Grahams during their lifetimes. 

Over the years, archaeologists have linked at least two other local sites to prehistoric people. In 1963, a large burial ground was studied on the old Tessmer farm on School Road in Avon Township. A gravel-mining operation at the location first unearthed remains, and further excavation revealed a total of 113 burials. Archaeologists estimated that the complete site, had it not been partially obliterated by the gravel mining, might have contained upwards of 500 burials. They also determined that the Tessmer farm was likely the site of an ancient Owasco village. 

In 1977, human remains were found at a housing development along Paint Creek in Oakland Township. Students from Oakland University studied the site and documented about 20 human skeletons dating from approximately 1200 A.D.

About Deborah J. Larsen

Deborah J. Larsen recently retired after 34 years as local history librarian at Mount Clemens Public Library. She currently serves as the research chairperson for the Rochester-Avon Historical Society, and writes on a wide range of local history topics.


  1. Lyn Sieffert says

    Dear Deborah: Thanks so much for adding more to what was previously written about our local Indian population. I’m sure Dr. Stamps was involved in much of the research of the older sites too. Would love to know his opinions.

  2. Deborah J Larsen, Janet Cobb 2/1/51 searching for info. Harriet E Proctor was ggram. Peter J Knight & Harriet E Proctor had Ethel ,she born Avon Mich. Story was told us ,Gramp Burton Cobb had to swim Mich.Lake to steal her from her tribe..Apache??He married her & had my dad..Maurice Cobb..Probably not right story at all..Id like to find truth out. Im unable to find any info on Harriet E Proctor 1848.Parents Ira Proctor & Harriet E Butler both of Can. Could there have been tribes in area?? Id like to locate birth certificate of both ladies???
    I appreciate it!! thank you!!

  3. janet cobb says

    Hi to anyone who is reading this.Im doing my familytree..i have hit brick wall. I have grampaKnight but not his wife.I do have name.however it doesnt come out right.Peter J Knight came from gramp..far as i have found she might be from Can too..or from Michigan,,native tribe..Ethel their daughter married Burton Cobb from Vt.She was born Rochester Mic.. Im on Facebook “Janet Cobb’ MY GRANDAUGHTER with purple coat..plz anyone,I really need help.Thanks so much..

  4. Janet L Cobb says

    Hi, I haven’t heard from anyone yet. I’m searing for info. Maurice Cobb & Pearl Slade my parents. My grama is looking for Ethel my dads mom, her mom. Her dad Peter J Knight 1823 Otisfield Maine. They married in Rochester MI. I have one name Harriet Proctor 1848 Can.? I cannot find anything. I’m Janet Cobb FB Cavendish VT. I could really use help on this. My address is Janet Rowe. Divorced. I’m doing my family tree. I’d appreciate help.

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