The morning of the burnout was cool and crisp, Chambers says, recalling memories passed down from his great-grandmother, Elisa. A light layer of autumn frost had settled on the village, and the air between the woods and water on Indian Point crackled with the promise of winter. All of the Indian men, among them Elisa’s husband, Albert, had just left on the wagons that carried them 20 miles north each day to Cheboygan, where they worked at the paper mill, tannery and area farms.
Elisa stood over the fire, cooking up breakfast for herself—Indian fry bread and tea—when a white man kicked open the door, grabbed her around the waist and dragged her kicking and screaming from the house, then tossed her to the ground. Around her, a dozen men armed with torches and guns stormed from door to door, doing the same to the other Indian women and children. As the women huddled together crying and begging, the men doused the homes with kerosene and set them ablaze. Within minutes, the Indians’ homes, their belongings, the outbuildings that housed their food for the coming winter, all of it had been reduced to ashes.
Accounts of the aftermath vary. Early newspaper accounts state that as many as six Indians died from exposure that day. Some people say that the homeless Indians walked some 35 miles through the cold to the mission settlements at Cross Village and Middle Village, west of Indian Point. Others say they walked to Cheboygan. One article notes that a 106-year-old woman, Negonee, walked to Middle Village, where she died soon after.
One eyewitness, Irene Trane Mosser, a teacher at the Burt Lake Indian School in 1900 (the school wasn’t located in the Indian village), recalled in a newspaper article published 70 years after the burnout, “One morning we arrived at school to find the Indians’ household goods piled all over the schoolyard and several of the families making their homes as best they could in tents, and crowded in with the one family that lived in a house near the school.
“One little Indian pupil who was crippled was carried to school each day by her old, grizzled grandfather. When she failed to come for several days, some of the pupils accompanied me one noon to visit her. We found her ill in her home … a one-room hut … so dark and noisy with crowded living. We were shocked to see anyone existing in such quarters.”
Dr. Alice Littlefield, a historian for the Burt Lake Band, says she’s wary of some of the more sensational accounts from the newspapers of the day—a time when sensationalism sold. Research she’s undertaken with genealogists working on behalf of the band suggests that no Indians died as a direct result of the burnout, that some may have walked to distant towns, but that most of the Indians displaced from their village were taken in by other Indians and sympathetic white settlers living nearby.
How many Indians died, where they retreated to, whether they walked for miles through the cold, or camped on nearby tribal land, or stayed on with sympathetic neighbors, of course, does little to change one indisputable fact: John McGinn, Sheriff Ming and his henchmen destroyed the homes of at least two dozen Indian families. They took by brute force land that wasn’t theirs. And no one did anything to stop it.