Indian Trails of Michigan’s Upper Thumb

If you live or are in Michigan’s Upper Thumb long enough you will encounter unimproved roads and trails. One such system of Michigan Indian Trails was a well known and established by Native Americans for over 1000 years.

Sand Road – One of Michigan’s First Highways

Michigan Indian Trail Sand Road
Parts of Michigan Indian Trail Sand Road Still Exists

It’s called several names; Sand Road, Trail Road, and Old Sand Road. While it’s said that M-25 took the place of much of the trail, the area between Bay Port and Port Austin has miles of the old trail still intact. It’s not considered a major trial. It likely was a Michigan Indian hunting and fishing path into the Upper Thumb and part of a waterway trail that crossed Saginaw Bay from Pointe Aux Chenes (Oak Point) stopping midway at the Charity Islands the on to Tawas and the Shore Line Trail that hugged Lake Huron’s shore to Alpena. On the eastern side of Huron County, the trail picks up again at Pointe Aux Barques and hugs the eastern shore to St. Claire.

What follows are excerpts from research on the history of the Michigan tribes and the trail system.

Michigan Indian Footpaths Established Todays Highways

Michigan Indian Trail Now M-25
Parts of Michigan Indian Trails Are Today’s Highways.

“Traveling on land the Indians followed a number of established trails. One led along the banks of the St. Clair River, up the lakeshore, around the semicircular boundary of present Huron County, and then to the mouth of the Saginaw River. From there the trail continued to follow the shore to Mackinaw by way of the present cities of Tawas, Oscoda, and Alpena. In the Thumb region, Highway No. 25 now pursues the course of this trail. Another trail ran from the mouth of the Clinton River on Lake St. Clair and thence across the present counties of Macomb, Oakland, Lapeer, Tuscola, and Bay to the mouth of the Saginaw River. This trail crossed the Cass River at Tuscola. Two other trials followed the Belle and the Black Rivers into the interior. Pointe Lookout juts into Saginaw Bay from its western shore. Between Oak Point and Pointe Lookout, the Indians operated a ferry line by way of Charity and Little Charity”

An Indian “Ferry Line” Crossed Saginaw Bay

Thumb Indian Paths Highlighted

Huron County has a straight-line boundary upon the south side, which is about forty-five miles long. Upon the shoreline of eighty-five miles were numerous villages and camps, as is attested by the debris left by the dwellers. There is a village site every few miles along the shore of Saginaw Bay. A few small islands in the bay also have remains of villages and mounds. The remnants of mounds that have been mutilated by relic hunters are visible within a mile east of Port Austin and upon New River, near its mouth. A mound group was situated in the southeastern part of Sheridan Township, near the southern boundary of the county, but the section upon which it stood could not be ascertained. Mr. Harlan I. Smith, of Victoria Memorial Museum, Ottawa, Canada, who made a survey of the Thumb district, reported in 1901 that a number of small mounds stood upon Katechay Island, Fair Haven Township. There is an old record of a circular enclosure where the courthouse at Bad Axe stands. Traces of workshops and camps, Are still to be found along the Lake Huron shore. A trail followed the shore from Oak Point, and a “ferry line” crossed the bay for Point Lookout with a stopping-place at Charity Island.”

The Cass River was a Major Route

Michigan Indian Trails in Canoe
Indians Canoeing / Library and Archives Canada,

“The Cass River passes through what was a thickly populated Indian district lying east of Saginaw. Down the stream, according to archeological evidence, the Indians brought hundreds of chert nodules from which they made arrow points, knives, and other edge tools. The Flint River nearly parallels the Cass into the Thumb and was used extensively in Indian commerce.”

“The settlers who followed them came up the shore by the way of Pointe Aux Barques following the Indian trail along the beach. There were a number of Indians about here at this period belonging to the Chippewa tribe. They were generally peaceful and frequently exchanged visits with these early pioneers bringing them gifts of venison, bear meat, and in the spring maple sugar. They caught the sap in troughs made of birch bark and boiled it down in large brass kettles. These kettles had been so long in their possession that even the memory of the oldest Indian was taxed in vain when asked to give an account of how they obtained them.”


Sources for Michigan Indian Trails

  • Cover Image Map – 1844 map with trails highlighted- Mark Putnam
  • Archaeological Atlas of Michigan [by] Wilbert B. Hinsdaleā€¦Hinsdale, W. B. (Wilbert B.), 1851-1944., McCartney, Eugene Stock, 1883-, Stevens, Edward J.
  • The New History of Michigan’s Thumb, Gerald Schultz, c 1969, p 18-19.

Michigan Indian Trails

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3 thoughts on “Indian Trails of Michigan’s Upper Thumb”

  1. It took me a lot of time to put together the Indian Trails Map of the Thumb of Michigan that I overlaid in white on an early Michigan map. I took the information for the trails from the early surveys and other maps that don’t always show the end of the trail as many trails seem to end but go on to connect with another trail later in the general direction. This is true of the trail that goes north out of Lapeer, branches, and has one branch pointing to Chief Otusson’s Village, which is today the City of Frankenmuth, Michigan. There was also likely a trail all along the shoreline of the Thumb of Michigan.

    • The Indian trail road goes right by my parents cottage. I always thought is amazing that such a complex network was established for generations before Europeans set foot in the area. I would like to prove, somehow, of the canoe network between Oak Pointe, charity Island and Tawas.


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