A Long Way to “Here from There” – How the Potawatomi people left their original lands to become part of Saugeen First Nation

If 10 years ago someone had asked me “What does the word Potawatomi Mean?”, I would have said that it is the name of a First Nation Tribe, and I would have been correct. Beyond that, I knew nothing more, other than there is also a street in Southampton named Pottawatomie.

In late 2016, a local lady told me that she was Potawatomi First Nation, and her ancestors had come to Saugeen First Nation and settled at French Bay. The surprising thing she added was that some of the older folks had been born in the USA. She also knew that the original lands of the Potawatomi Band were along the North Shore of Lake Huron and Georgian Bay.

She asked me if I would do some research, and find out how they ended up at Saugeen First Nation.

Of course, I said yes, and headed down a new “rabbit hole”. Here is what I learned after researching and digging into the details for a few days and many hours of reading and learning. I had some basic knowledge, but I learned a “lot”.


It is known that indigenous people moved into the Great Lakes Region between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago. They set up settlements at the mouths of rivers or on large islands. These locations provided them with all of the needs of life they required including water, animals, and fish for food and clothing, fertile land, and convenience to travel to other groups in the area.

One of the largest groups in Canada was the Ojibwe Nation which stretched from Quebec to Manitoba, and south into Northern Michigan, Wisconsin, and, Illinois. These were the Eastern Woodlands, and it was here that they developed their history and culture. The Potawatomi Tribe existed for millenniums peacefully, living along the northern shore of Georgian Bay and Lake Huron. They share a common ethnicity with the Ojibwe, Ottawa, and Algonquin peoples.

All was well in the Eastern Woodlands until the arrival of the Europeans in the early 1600s. The demand for and the opportunity to supply Canadian furs back in Europe saw, first the Dutch and then the English arming the Iroquois, and then the French providing guns to the Hurons. The worst wars that the First Nation people had ever seen immediately developed. They are known as the BEAVER WARS (a.k.a. Iroquois Wars). Throughout the whole region, it was killing, raiding, and actual obliteration of some bands and tribes. It truly was a war of genocide.

Many of the Potawatomi of Northern Ontario saw and heard what was happening and left their homeland by crossing at Michilimackinac into Northern Michigan. They remained loyal to the French traders but felt under constant pressure from other tribes and bands to move on and find other lands in which to settle.

 Some of that history as it was recorded

As early as 1616, Champlain referred to the land of the Potawatomi people as the “Place of Fire”, for the natural forest fires he saw in his travels along the north shore of Lake Huron. This he referred to using the Huron name Asistguerouon. Later in the 1600s, the people were noted as being on the peninsula between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. In 1671, they were to be found on islands off of Green Bay Wisconsin and later, farther south, down in Illinois, north of Chicago.

They sided actively with the French against the British until the Peace of 1763. Shortly, after they became prominent with their support of Chief Pontiac against the American Revolution in 1775 and 1776. All this time they became less of a people of the woods and more a people of the plains. They had become mounted warriors dependent on horses which had been foreign to them in the centuries past. At this point, they kept being pushed farther and farther into the western plains.

Pony and Rider at Walpole Island

Word traveled that the British back in Upper Canada were treating the First Nation people far better than the Americans. Hundreds of the Potawatomi people left the plains and went to southern Michigan and crossed into Canada to the First Nation community of Walpole Island. They brought their horses with them but no longer had any need for so many of them. The horses were let loose, and a wild horse herd existed there for decades after.


About that time, the War of 1812 began between the British and the Americans, and the Potawatomi, and many other First Nation warriors went to war again. This time it was with Tecumseh, a Shawnee Chief. They joined with the British and captured Fort Detroit from the Americans in 1812. They remained loyal to Tecumseh and the British for the remainder of the war. As a result of the War of 1812, many other First Nation people who were originally from Canada, and others as well, crossed from the US to Walpole Island.

By the 1840’s, the only land in Southern Ontario that had not been ceded to the British was the Saugeen (Bruce) Peninsula. Throughout Southern Ontario, First Nation people were being squeezed by European settlers and their new communities. The people of Saugeen Ojibwa Nation let it be known that if any First Nation people in the south wanted to join them on the peninsula, they would be most welcome.

At the same time, Walpole Island was in crisis to house hundreds of these recent arrivals from the US. The British encouraged the Potawatomi people to return to their former lands on the North Shore of Georgian Bay and Lake Huron. Many did leave Walpole, and some went back to Spanish and other communities, between Espanola and Thessalon (ON).

Some families also decided to take the Saugeen Ojibwe Nation offer to settle in the Saugeen (Bruce) Peninsula. They took up residence at Cape Croker (Neyaashiinigmiing) or started a community of their own, at French Bay and Scotch Settlement, at the east end of the lands of the Saugeen First Nation Band. Eventually schools and both Catholic and Protestant Churches were built. Peace had returned and life for them developed some permanency. This became their new home.

One hundred and eighty years later the descendants of these Potawatomi people remain an important part of the Saugeen First Nation community and in our county.

It was a very long trip from “There to Here”.

Researched and written by: G. William Streeter