The Fire Not Forgotten
A lawman, his cans of kerosene and an Indian village burned—the ashes still smolder 100 years later.
Mar 4, 2008 Lynda Twardowski
(page 4 of 6)
Inconsistencies aside, in 1900 Burt Township officials taxed the Indian land. Though later state documents show the taxes were, in fact, paid, local officials that year declared that no payment had been made, and the land was put up for sale.
Enter John W. McGinn, a wealthy Cheboygan timber speculator. He bought all the land titles of Indian Point, secured a Writ of Possession, then called up his crony, Sheriff Fred Ming, to help him rid the land of Indians. As the tale goes, they tried first to formally serve the Indians with the Writ, but the Indians—either indignant or illiterate—ignored the Writ and refused to move from the land.
Ming and McGinn then, devised Plan B: Gather a posse and, when the Indian men are away, storm the village with torches blazing and guns firing to the sky, and burn the place to the ground.
“As a child you hear about that stuff happening in Germany, or now with the Taliban in Afghanistan. That it happened right here in Cheboygan County still shocks me,” says Chambers. “But the only thing necessary for evil to survive is for good people to do nothing.”
The limited extent to which townspeople might rise up against a sheriff and his gun- and fire-wielding posse is, if not forgivable, then understandable. But when word of Ming and McGinn’s small-town atrocity reached Lansing, then-Governor Pingree was outraged. He went directly to Washington to urge the Bureau of Indian Affairs to investigate the injustice.
Pingree didn’t live to see his efforts through—he died on the way home from an African safari with soon-to-be-President Theodore Roosevelt in 1901—but a decade later, the United States Department of Justice and Department of Interior brought suit against McGinn on behalf of the Indians, seeking to regain possession over the land at Indian Point. The case went on for six years, but ultimately the judge ruled that no wrong had been done to the tribe, because tribes—as was the skewed thinking of the time—ceased being tribes once they had entered a treaty with the government.
By then, Ming had left local law enforcement behind. His community had elected him to serve as a member of the Michigan State House of Representatives, and later, as a member of the State Senate. In 1929 he was named Speaker of the House. He ran, albeit unsuccessfully, as a candidate in the primary for Lieutenant Governor of Michigan in 1934.
McGinn, for reasons no one knows for certain, never lumbered the forests at Indian Point. He built himself a large, fine home, then parceled up the remaining land and sold it to developers. A large hotel went up first, which was for a while an en vogue dinner and overnight destination for passengers ferrying down from Crooked Lake.
Pinewood, an exclusive all-girls summer camp, was erected on Indian Point in 1923. Wealthy girls from the Eastern Seaboard arrived by the trainload each summer. They donned navy blue camp uniforms—skirts, blouses and tam hats—and rode horses, hiked in the woods and paddled Burt Lake’s waters in giant birch bark canoes, likely constructed by local Indians, while singing camp songs.
In 1925, former Detroit Tiger’s shortstop Chick Lathers bought property on the point. He built a dairy barn, which still stands, plus a sheep barn, chicken coop, icehouse and other buildings. The farm bottled and sold unpasteurized milk from Lathers’ prized Golden Guernseys to people in Petoskey. Giant chunks of ice cut from Burt Lake in winter—often with the help of local Indians—kept the milk chilled, and for years, supplied the iceboxes of area resorters.