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Chief Okemos

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Chief Okemos was a Native American chieftain born in what is now Michigan long before it became a state, and died in 1858 after a long and colourful career as both a soldier for the British Army and the leader of his tribe. His long life brought him honours both from his tribe (the Saginaw Chippewa tribe of the Ojibwa nation), and from the white settlers.

Relatively little is known about his childhood. Some say he was born in 1769 on the eastern side of Michigan's Lower Peninsula. Others claim he was a relative of Chief Pontiac.

In the late 1790s when the US Government was new, its claim to the Northwest territories including Michigan was tenuous at best. Okemos and sixteen of his fellow Native Americans signed on as scouts for the British. Conflict escalated in these territories, and one day while Okemos and his fellows were attacking an American supply line he received a sabre wound that severed his shoulder blade. It was many months before he could join the battle again. His tribe, however, looked on him as favoured by the Great Spirit, and at age twenty he was given the title 'Chief'.

In the War of 18121 he distinguished himself as a leader and a brave man, winning the respect of all at the Battle of Frenchtown on 22 January, 1813, when the British practically massacred the surprised and disorganised US forces along the River Raisin. Later that year, Okemos was severely wounded in the battle of Lower Sandusky on 2 August, 1813, where an unsuccessful attack on Fort Stephenson sent the British into retreat. Head wounds left indentations on his skull; other wounds also left scars that would remain for the rest of his life.

In 1814 he reportedly came to the American fort in Detroit announcing that he would fight no more. Because of his heroics, he was named as a representative of the Saginaw Chippewa people to sign the 1819 Treaty of Saginaw. The Ojibwa nation ceded six million acres of their land in what was one of a string of dubious treaties by the US government obtaining land from the Native Americans and providing smaller areas reserved for them in return.

It is claimed that in his life, Okemos had four wives and many children but an epidemic in the 1830s wiped out much of his tribe. However, by that time Okemos acted as a leader of several of the tribes in the area, and was responsible for organising trading with the whites when they arrived and set up the city of Hamilton in 1840. However, by 1850 the government had broken the agreements of Saginaw and had started to force the Native Americans out of the area. Okemos spent many years thereafter wandering across the Michigan landscape, with one account stating that he eventually became almost blind. He died in 1858 at his camp on the Lookinglass River.

In 1859, the town of Hamilton was renamed Okemos in honour of Chief Okemos. Once a farming area, Okemos is now a suburb of Lansing, Michigan, and in 2004 the state of Michigan erected a historical marker just west of the village that bears his name. A sporting club and a Boy Scout Council also bear the great Chief's name.

1Known in the UK as the American War of 1812 to distinguish it from Napoleon's campaign in Europe.

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