Indian Trails of the Upper Thumb

4 Amazing Stories About the Michigan Indian Trails of The 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 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

Indian Trail Map
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

“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.” This area was documented in the 1831 novel “A Fortnight in the Wilderness” by Alexis de Tocqueville.

“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.”

By the late 1870s, the entire Native American population in Michigan was reduced to about 10,250. Of these, about 2,000 were the Chippewas of Saginaw.

Sources for Michigan Indian Trails

  • Cover Image Map – 1844 map with trails highlighted- Mark Putnam
  • Archaeological Atlas of Michigan [by] Wilbert B. Hinsdale…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.
  • Indian Occupation of Western Michigan, Chapter II, Prepared by Dwight Goss

The Mysterious Fort Gratiot – We really like to dig into the history of rapid and dynamic growth of the Thumb region in the 1800s. It was during a photo run of the Port Huron area that we found a new and interesting subject to focus on; Fort Gratiot.

Founder of Grindstone City – Captain Aaron Peer – Captain Aaron Peer, who founded Grindstone City, is the Upper Thumb’s first major industry site outside of lumbering. The manufacturing of Grindstones went on for almost 100 years before a technology change wiped the industry and the town out. 

Plan a Day of Michigan Kayaking the Upper Thumb – If the weather looks to keep Saginaw Bay calm and the winds low, consider a morning of paddling the waters of the Upper Thumb. The region offers some of the finest Michigan kayaking areas for both the novice and expert.

12 Native American Indian Trails in Michigan – For thousands of years, Native Americans crisscrossed Michigan on a system of trails that were in tune with the land and so perfectly placed that the routes are still in use today by our highways and state roads.  The Michigan Indian Trails were part of the Great Trail network, which extended hundreds of miles to the eastern seaboard.

Michigan M-25 is State’s First Scenic Highway in 1940 – In the months prior to World War II, the major topic was the US’s stance on our stated isolationist policy. Yet the war had not yet been declared and rationing was not even thought of. Large portions of M25 were now paved and this Michigan Scenic Highway was viewed as a tourist destination.

The Saginaw Trail – Of all the named Indian trails in Michigan, the Saginaw Trail is the oldest and indeed the most traveled in the trail system. Originating from the Straits of Detroit, this Sauk trail heads northwest through Pontiac, Flint, and supposedly terminating in Saginaw.

The History of the Mysterious and Remote Charity Island – There it sits—a lush tree-lined island on the horizon of Saginaw Bay. Big & Little Charity Islands are ten miles from the southern shore of Saginaw Bay.  Except for the seasonal residents who live and host tours at the lighthouse keepers’ house, the island is uninhabited.

Michael Hardy

Michael Hardy is the owner of Thumbwind Publications LLC. Michael was born in Michigan and grew up near Caseville. In 2009 he started this fun-loving site covering Michigan's Upper Thumb. Since then, he has authored a vast range of content and established a loyal base of 60,000 visitors per month.

View all posts by Michael Hardy →

3 thoughts on “4 Amazing Stories About the Michigan Indian Trails of The 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.

    1. 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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