Early Settlements

Bands of Ottawa inhabited the area around the Bay centuries before the first Europeans arrived. The Ottawa lived near the harbor entrance and continued to camp there into the late 1800s.  They also lived east of the Bay in the Betsie River Valley. The Ottawa fished, hunted and trapped here. They also cultivated fine gardens and orchards as well as harvesting wild fruits and making sugar from the maples and other trees. In permanent settlements they lived in long houses, and they carried with them portable wigwams for seasonal migrations. In addition to the Ottawa, their Algonquin cousins, the Ojibway, frequented these parts. They used the Bay as a stopping off point for war parties and for southward migrations ahead of the winter. Both Ottawa and Ojibway died in great numbers from small pox long before American settlers arrived here in the mid-1800’s. But many still remained, and witnesses to the building of the first piers recall the Ottawa flocking here to see the steam shovel they “the big machine.”

The first American to settle in Frankfort was Joseph Oliver, who served as guide for the first governmental survey of Michigan. He bought fourteen acres on the Bay in 1852 and erected a small cabin by the old outlet from the Bay to Lake Michigan. Oliver made a living fishing, hunting and trapping. He was known as a friend to the Indians hereabouts who reportedly traveled out of their way to visit him. Three years later, a schooner captain “discovered” the little-known harbor seeking refuge from a November gale on Lake Michigan. Based on his captain’s report, the ship’s owner bought and sold a thousand acres around the Bay to the Frankfort Land Company, which in turn sent investor George Frost and agent Louis Dauby to establish a settlement.  By the early 1860’s several families has settled here. A sawmill was built, its first task to saw the timbers for building a pier and improving the harbor entrance. A small plant was built to fashion barrel staves from elm logs. Hemlock bark was shipped south to tanneries to use in tanning leather. Not much happened during the Civil War, but after the war, settlers started coming in droves as the real logging boom got underway and also an iron furnace that provided many jobs.