By Bill Leutz
Most of us, who live around Clark Lake, are familiar with the name “The Chicago Pike.” Today it is known and traveled as U.S. 12, but it’s history as a route across Southern Michigan goes far back into the period referred to as Pre-History. Many of us also know it as the “Old Sauk Trail”, and recognize that those people native to the region used it long before the arrival of European-based settlers in the early 19th century. However, this is only one leg of a far larger Indian Trail system that connected the east coast to the Mississippi River; and extended into the distant reaches of the past when the native peoples of prehistory hunted Mastodons with stone spear points.
My genealogical researches into my late wife’s ancestors in Eastern Pennsylvania, acquainted me with the pre-revolutionary Indian trails of that area, as her family dated its American involvement from two, Scotch-Irish, immigrants named Jack and Alexander Armstrong. These men were registered Indian traders in Pennsylvania as early as 1744. It was their involvement with the Tolpehocken/Shamokin Trail and the Conestoga/Raystown Trail, that first introduced me to the extensive network of Indian trails that were the continental transportation network for may hundreds of years before the landings at Jamestown, VA or Plymouth, MA. These two trail systems, originated at tidewater in Delaware and Philadelphia, and crossed Northern Pennsylvania and Southern Pennsylvania respectively to reach the Forks of the Ohio – present day Pittsburgh. The later is better known as Forbes Road – the route taken by General Forbes during the French and Indian War in the last, and finally successful attempt to drive the French out of Western Pennsylvania.
In Ohio, these paths connected with the major east/west trail following the southern shore of Lake Erie as far as Sandusky Bay, and now usually referred to as the Shore Trail. From there it skirted the area of the Great Swamp to arrive at the site of old Port Lawrence, now Toledo, and then followed the Maumee River further west, eventually as far west as the Mississippi River near present day Peru, Illinois. This combination of paths was called “The Great Trail”. Near it’s eastern end in Pennsylvania, around the Susquehanna River, it connected with northern and southern branches that also extended north to Cape Cod and south to the Chesapeake Bay.
But our current interest starts at Toledo, where a northern spur of the Great Trail followed the western Lake Erie Shore to the mouth of the Raisin River at present day Monroe, Michigan. From there, it followed that river upstream to the Saline River and then up it to near the town of Saline. It was here that the Great Trail and the Sauk Trail connect. Branches north from Monroe and east from Saline met at old Fort Detroit. These connections made the Sauk Trail a significant branch of the Great Trail, proving a link to the Upper Great lakes and to southern Canada.
The history of the Sauk Trail is rich in lore both before and after the advent of American history. It originally seems to have followed the meeting of the great northern forests and the mixed, grass lands of present day Indiana and Ohio. Excavations along it have indicated usage for the past 10 – 15,000 years – dating back to an era when this lands first settlers may have hunted Mastodon along the forest’s edge.
In 1824, President Monroe and the U.S. Congress allocated money to build roads into the newly developing lands west of the Allegheny Mountains. A major portion of it was allocated to build a road from Detroit to Chicago. It was the second road to receive such approval and funding from Congress. This road was to follow the old Sauk Trail. By 1835, the new road had reached the Indiana-Michigan border, and towns were springing up all along its length. During the period between 1835 and the Civil War it was known as the Chicago Turnpike, and twice-weekly stage coach trips were in operation – stopping at such places as the Eagle Tavern in Clinton, Walker Tavern at Cambridge Junction, the Fayette House in Jonesville, and Clark’s Quincy Tavern in Quincy.
While paving the old wagon trail in the 1920’s, several Indian skeletons were discovered near Allen Lake. These were later reburied in the vicinity of Walker’s Tavern. The name Dead Man’s Curve for that stretch of road has remained in local lore.
Over the years the road has had many names – The Chicago Pike, The Chicago Road, M-23 from 1919-1926, US 112 from 1926 to the advent of the Interstate system, and finally US 12 as we know it today. It 2004, under the Heritage Route Act, Public Act 69 of 1993, it was designate the US-12 Heritage Route Trail. So next time your drive down U.S. 12, or browse the US 12 Heritage Trail Garage Sale, imagine for a moment that you are following in the paths of those early Mastodon hunters from the distant past.
Note–Bill Leutz’s newly published book is The Clams Are Still Baking: Memories of Clark Lake. It’s now available online at http://www.williamleutzbooks.com. Bill plans a book-signing event when he returns from his winter home in Oklahoma. Periodically, Bill will add chapters to this section of the website (Historical Perspectives). He’ll write about various aspects of Clark Lake history, bringing out some of our past that could surprise!