Hugh Heward – Across Lower Michigan by Canoe

It is early spring of the year 1790 on the Detroit River. It has been: More than 100 years since the explorer Robert de La Salle sailed up the river in the Griffin; first sailing ship on the upper Great Lakes. *

Nearly 89 years since Antoine de Cadillac came down the river and founded the settlement of Fort Ponchartrain du Detroit.

30 years since the British gained control over Detroit following the French and Indian War.

17 years since Chief Pontiac ended the siege of Detroit.

It will be another 6 years before the British finally relinquish Detroit to the Americans who had won the region during the Revolutionary War (1775–1783).

Early spring – April 1st, 1790, and British trader Hugh Heward with seven French Canadian “engagés”, or indentured servants, are heading down the river in birch bark canoes on a journey that will take them across Lower Michigan from Lake Erie to Lake Michigan by way of the Huron and Grand Rivers. Seeking a “short cut” route from Detroit to the Mississippi Heward deviated from the established trade route north through Lake Huron and the Straits of Mackinac, then south through Lake Michigan to the Chicago River by instead heading downstream on the Detroit River into Lake Erie. From there he proceeded upstream on the Huron River and subsequent tributaries until reaching the divide between the Lake Erie and Lake Michigan watersheds. Here they portaged into a tributary of the Grand River, followed it to the Grand itself which took them to Lake Michigan. Heward’s detailed day-to-day journal of this trip has been preserved and can be seen in its entirety as part of The John Askin Papers published in 1928 in Vol. 1 of the Burton Historical Records and entitled Journal of a Voyage made by Mr. Hugh Heward to the Illinois Country.

Heward’s route through the interior of Lower Michigan was still mostly wilderness; his party would be among the first, if not indeed the very first, white men to travel on the upper reaches of this river system. They would rely on local Indians not only as guides but also for provisions as very few trading posts had yet to be established along even the beginnings of this route. The path he was setting forth on was, however, a well established route among the indigenous tribes of the region though his failure to trust his guides resulted in losing his way on more than one occasion.

After 5 days of strenuous paddling they reached a fork in the river at what is now the village of Dexter. Heward wrongly insisted on following the south westerly branch which we know today as Mill Creek, an honest mistake as Mill Creek is the Huron River’s largest tributary. Six arduous days were spent exploring Mill Creek before Heward admitted his mistake, returned to the fork, and resumed his journey up the north easterly branch which led him into what is now known as Portage Lake.

Crossing Portage Lake in a westerly direction led Heward’s group into Little Portage and from there up Portage Creek. Journal entries describing camp sites on April 12th puts Heward in the vicinity of current day Tiplady road which is south of the current day village of Pinckney and downstream of the area now known as Hell, Michigan. Portage Creek continues as a network of small streams meandering ever north and westerly and occasionally becoming mired in extensive swamp lands until finally encountering the rushing waters of the Grand River. The journey would have required frequent over land portages, at times through bogs and swamp, to circumvent downed trees and debris choked river bends; surprisingly little mention is made in Heward’s journal of the difficulties and challenges undoubtedly presented by these natural impediments. *

Heward reached the Grand River by April 22 and within a few days they were at the spring snowmelt swollen river rapids that gave the present day city of Grand Rapids its name. Heward’s journal entry of April 26 describes the necessity of portaging around the rapids on the river’s west side as the east side was all steep, wooded hills.

The journal entry for April 27 details their last day on the Grand River. Heward notes “The river larger and larger to the mouth. Surrounded with pine on all sides and very wide at the entrance to the lake”; they had arrived at Lake Michigan at the site of present day Grand Haven. His journey had taken little over a month, and though arduous, had proven the benefit of establishing a more direct cross state trade route between Detroit and the Mississippi River.

*In 1680 French explorer RenéRobert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle traversed Lower Michigan by foot from Lake Michigan to Lake Erie claiming this territory for France along with half the North American continent.

Excerpted and paraphrased by Ruth Ehman from the books by Jim Woodruff on Heward and LaSalle.

Milt Charboneau, age 88 in April of 2014, came to Pinckney in 1946. Milt has been the area’s unofficial historian for over 40 years. Milt, an avid canoeist, paddled the trip up the Huron River to Little Portage Lake and on west to Lake Michigan in 1976. (The bicentennial year of the United States.)

Verlen Kruger, Michigan’s far-famed, long distance canoeist made the Heward crossing of Lower Michigan in 1990. Verlen paddled and bushwhacked his way from the Huron River to the Grand River to validate Jim Woodruff’s theories regarding Howard’s route made 200 years before. Verlen was 79 at the time.

Jim Woodruff’s books on LaSalle and Hugh Heward were used for the essays included on this site. Jim is 91 years old as of April 2014 and his books are: The Search for the Route of Lasalle’s 1680 Walk Across Michigan

Across Lower Michigan By Canoe – 1790

Note: Canoeing across Lower Michigan appears to be a key to longevity.