Reverend Abel Bingham Lost in Pictured Rocks – 1842
Author’s Note: Every once in a while I come across a first person account of the early days of the Upper Peninsula that takes a bit of my breath away. Some of these accounts are so vivid, that I leave the story original and in their own words. That is the case with this account of a journey from Sault Sainte Marie to Grand Island by Rev. Abel Bingham. Bingham is quite articulate and to try to paraphrase this would be wrong.
Background: Abel (Abilone) Bingham was a Baptist minister that lived in Sault Ste. Marie as one of its earliest settlers. He established a mission there and began a school for local Ojibwa natives. Bingham frequently traveled into the wilds of the U.P. preaching the bible to the different tribes. The Reverend helped create the first bible in the Ojibwa language. Abel and his wife, Hannah, were well known and well liked among the Sault community.
Abel Bingham arrived in the Sault in 1828 on a mission to convert and baptize the Ojibwa natives of Lake Superior. He was ordained as a Baptist minister. He had been a veteran of the war of 1812 and was shot in the head. Fortunately he lived and when the wound had healed he went back to the war.
He then spent time ministering to Native Americans in New York. Because of this experience, he was appointed by the Baptist Board of Foreign Missions as Missionary to the Ojibwa Indians of Lake Superior, then sent to Sault Ste. Marie. Bingham was instructed by the Board to “establish religious services and extend the benefits of the mission to all within reach of his influence.”
Bingham enthusiastically went to work as soon as he arrived. He set up a Christian school to educate the native children. He established a Baptist mission that held services for Native Americans and the European community. They would be separate sermons. For the first year, he left his family behind, but in 1829 he brought them to the Sault. On the first of April he set out on snowshoes through the woods to Mackinac so he could meet a ship. He returned in July with his wife and children.
His wife was reputed to be a good doctor and often attended to wounds and ailments that would crop up in the Ojibwa community. The couple had at least three daughters. They would all take over for the Reverand when he was away on his missions.
Bingham also began a campaign of intemperance and started a temperance society. This was aimed at both European and native people. The Sault it was noted, was full of vice and needed to find its way to righteousness.
Abel Bingham would frequently set out on expeditions at all times of the year in his efforts to bring the word of God to the Ojibwa. From the Sault to Marquette, Bingham would travel summer or winter to fulfill his directive. One year he did a 300 mile mission along the southern shore of Lake Superior. He was so determined that he worked with a man named John Tanner and Dr. James, a surgeon at Fort Brady, to create an Ojibwa version of the bible which Bingham would carry with him and distribute to the natives.
He knew many of the Ojibwa chiefs of the day including Shingwauk and Shingaba W’Osssin, Kawgayosh and Shegud son -in-law of Shingaba W’Ossin. Shegud would work with Bingham as a guide and interpreter replacing John Tanner.
A quick note here. John Tanner and Bingham would have a falling out that would devolve into Tanner losing his wife and child to Bingham who helped them get away from Tanner’s temper. Tanner, who was raised by an Ojibwa tribe, would later be accused of murdering the brother of Henry Schoolcraft, James Schoolcraft. He then disappeared without a trace.
In January of 1842, Bingham set out for Grand Island a trip of about 150 miles along the Lake Superior Shoreline. There was a small band of Ojibwa residing on the Island that he regularly preached to. There was a theory at the time that if the natives weren’t regularly taught religion, they would fall back to their old ways and they would have to be reindoctrinated. He had with him as a guide and interpreter, Henry Shegud, a companion and interpreter who accompanied Bingham on many of his trips. Bingham’s account of that journey follows:
“Spent two days with the Indians at Tahquamenon holding services as usual. Snow had fallen during our stay, making heavy travelling for the dogs, who could go but a short distance without stopping. Did not reach White Fish Point the first day; feared our provisions would give out and felt almost inclined to return. But next morning, after taking a portage across the Point which lessened the distance, we found the traveling better, took courage and pressed ahead. Third day, came to a beautiful bay, at the mouth of Grand Marie River, ninety miles from the Sault. Being rainy the ice was covered with water, through which we had to wade the whole distance across. Next morning, passed the Grand Sable or great sand banks, stretching along the shore some eight or nine miles, nearly perpendicular, and from fifty to one hundred and fifty feet in height. The curious stacks of ice that had been formed by the restless motion of the great Superior on one side and the huge banks on the other side, presented as grand and sublime a view as imagination could paint. The heavy surf from the broad lake rolled in with awful majesty and dashed with tremendous force against the massive rocks.
“After passing the Pictured Rocks, we ascended the ledge and camped in a small ravine. We were within twelve or fourteen miles of the island, but could pass no further on the ice or beach, the lake not being frozen at this point, so must take to the woods. The travelling was so rough and uneven we were obliged to leave our dog-train, oil-cloth, buffalo robe and oil-cloth overcoat, let the consequences be what they might, strapped our provisions on our backs and continued our march till we came upon a hunter’s camp, so recently deserted that the embers were still alive and found by our compass that we were lost. I felt much uneasiness and concern; took my Bible and read the 41st, 42d, and 43d Psalms, which were the first that presented themselves. The word both reproved and comforted me. Spent the Sabbath here and held divine service, preaching to an audience of one. Monday, retraced our steps, descended a ledge of rocks into a deep ravine and made two or three unsuccessful attempts to climb the opposite bank. If we could not find a pass up this precipice, we must return without visiting the island, which would be very unfortunate, as we were now limited to one meal a day. My interpreter cast off his pack and snowshoes, commenced climbing and in a few minutes, sang out, ‘Here is a place I think we can pass.’ This was a small protuberance somewhat resembling a man’s nose, with perpendicular rocks on both sides of great height. Here we descended the ledge by letting ourselves down from bush to bush and found ourselves on Lake Superior again, within three miles of the lodges. It was excessively cold, with a severe headwind, so that, with my ear-caps and handkerchief both tied over my ears, I froze one of them going that distance. At 2 o’clock, found ourselves comfortably seated in Wazawwadon’s lodge, who was expecting us Saturday. Mr. Williams, an American living on the island, received us with great kindness and fed up our dogs, which were nearly starved while going through the woods. He also furnished us with provisions and everything necessary for our return journey. While there, held meetings at the lodges and at Mr. William’s house. Arrived at home much fatiqued; was absent twenty-seven days; preached fourteen discourses, camped sixteen nights in the woods and was detained one day by severe weather.”
Bingham would call Sault Ste Marie home for many years. His mission would flourish but the grueling pace would take its toll. In 1853 he wrote “As the white population of our place has increased, the Indians have decreased; numbers by death, and others by withdrawing from the place and going to other parts. And when the number was considerably reduced at this place I commenced travelling among them to bear the gospel message to them; and for several years I travelled somewhat extensively, visiting them at their distant locations; in the winter on my snowshoes, and in the summer in my boat. As both these modes of traveling required much labor and caused much fatigue, the chills of 67 winters have so far enfeebled my system that for two years past I have traveled but little. Yet I remain at my station and keep up my school and my religious services both with the white population and Indians as in former years.”
In 1855, he would retire and close his missionary school. After attending the opening of the Soo Locks, he boarded a ship and sailed to Detroit and then traveled to Grand Rapids. The land on which his missionary school and his home stood was sold. The Chippewa County Courthouse now stands there.
For more information on this story follow these links: