Agatha Biddle is not exactly a name that rolls off the tongues of historians or history teachers. But Eric Hemenway is working hard to change that. The director of archives and records for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians in Harbor Springs, Michigan, is teaming up with Mackinac State Historic Parks to retell the story of Mackinac Island from a Native perspective—Biddle’s.
“Agatha is a very interesting character in our island’s history. Like many people in the region at the time, she was of mixed heritage—part French, Odawa and Ojibwe, but she identified as Odawa, and had this massive kinship network all through the Great Lakes,” Hemenway said.
In the first half of the 1800s, Mackinac Island residents were mostly Native American, a fact often overlooked in the island’s history. “When Agatha was a child, Michigan was almost exclusively Native American. By the time she was an elderly woman in the late 1800s, Natives were the vast minority and had lost most of their land. Agatha saw firsthand the complete transformation of Anishinaabe life and culture,” Hemenway said.
Born Agatha de la Vigne in the early 1800s on Mackinac Island, she rose to prominence after her marriage to Edward Biddle, who hailed from a wealthy Philadelphia family. The couple ran a small, but well-respected independent fur-trading business in town when beaver pelts were all the rage. “She controlled the family business. She set the prices, negotiated with fur traders and hosted functions at her home,” Hemenway said.
In fact, the Biddle House still stands and is the oldest home on Mackinac Island. It is believed to date back to 1780, according to the Mackinac State Historic Parks website. A lot happened under that roof. Not only did it serve as an economic hub for fur trading and a gathering place for Agatha’s Native kin, but she and Edward also raised three children there, and sheltered and fed many others. Hemenway said Agatha was always taking in orphans and needy children. “She was like an impromptu foster parent, and also helped families and the elderly who were down and out. She treated people well, and in return, they did business with her.”
By all accounts, Agatha was a modern-day woman, far ahead of her time. She was a wife, mother, successful businesswoman, a leader in the church and community, and a chief to the band of Mackinac Indians. “She had a lot of facets to her character, all rolled into one persona,” said Hemenway, an Anishinaabe quite familiar with strong, Native American women. “We have a long history of women leaders in our tribe. My mother, Peggy Hemenway, was actively involved in the fight by the Little Traverse Bay Bands Odawa tribe for treaty and civil rights in the ’80s.”
Most important, Agatha was an eyewitness to history. Mackinac Island was the site of two battles during the War of 1812. “They happened right in her backyard,” said Hemenway, who added that her loyalties were likely torn. “Because of her business interests, she remained neutral. However, the Odawa and Ojibwe were adamantly against the Americans and allied with the British.”
According to Hemenway, Agatha also witnessed the signing of the Treaty of Washington in 1836. Through this treaty, the Odawa and Chippewa of Northern Michigan ceded about 16 million acres to the U.S. government. In return, the government allowed these tribes to stay in Michigan on small reservations and access natural resources.
“The treaty was brought back to Mackinac Island for all the tribal representatives to sign. More than 4,000 Anishinaabe gathered for the signing and Agatha was right there in the thick of it,” Hemenway said.
Frank Straus, a writer for the Mackinac Island Town Crier, credits Agatha’s well-developed kinship network with the Odawa, Pottawatomi and Anishinaabe nations for saving many tribal members from forced removal from their lands as mandated in the Indian Removal Act of 1830. He said Agatha used her senior standing in this network to develop ties between Native American hunters and the “capitalist system.” He wrote: “This may have helped ensure that the Odawa and Anishinaabe were not forced to move westward in the 1830s/40s … Many of her kinfolk were too valuable as participants in the Michigan Territory economy to be subjected to brutal ethnic cleansing.”
To bring this rich, Native story of Mackinac Island to life, Hemenway and Mackinac State Historic Parks are overseeing a $300,000 makeover of the Biddle House, scheduled for completion in 2019—more than 50 years after its original restoration in 1962. Renovation highlights will include a two-room exhibit on the Native American history of the island. The Biddle House is currently open to the public, but soon, visitors will learn all about its hero, Agatha Biddle, whose name might not be recognizable now, but Hemenway hopes that one day it will be.
“I can’t think of a better female leader or historic figure for the Odawa tribe,” he said.