Friday, January 3, 2014

The Bible of John Riley, Indian Chief

Many years ago my mother-in-law gave a family bible to my husband. This is what she wrote about the bible:

This testament is being passed along to you. It was given to me by your Grandmother O’Dell and given to her by her maternal grandmother Margaret McDonald who was born in Batavia, New York in 1807 and married Abija Schoville. When she was in her 20s they moved to Lynn Township, St. Clair Co., Michigan. Indians were the most predominate resident in this yet uncleared land. Margaret McDonald Schoville was given this book by John Riley, an old Indian. This book was an old one then and she kept it in her bedroom and read it until her death in 1890 at the age of 83. In 1976 the book would have been in the family approximately 144 years.

nelson 5 gen copy
Margaret McDonald Scoville and family. On Margaret's right side is her daughter Harriet Scovill Nelson,
 who is holding her daughter Grace Nelson. Grace married John O'Dell; their child Laura was my mother-in-law.
Margaret McDonald Scoville, according to her granddaughter, was born in New York State around 1807.  She appears with Abijah and their children, Edward, Alexander and Laura, on the 1840 New York State Census in Bath, and on the 1850 New York State Census in Lyndon, Cattaragus. By the 1860 Census the family is living in Lynn Township, St. Clair County, Michigan. I know they were living in Lynn by 1851 because there is a marriage record for their son Edward at that date. Margaret and Abijah appear on the 1860 Census in Lynn, Riley Twsp., St. Clair County, MI. In 1890 Margaret is a boarder, widowed, still living in Lynn Township. Margaret died in 1891, twenty years after Abijah had passed.

The John Riley New Testament has a leather cover, and is held together with string lacing.
 It shows great wear.  It may date to the early 1800s.
Once the book had a beautiful leather cover. The leather has worn away along the edges. At some point heavy thread or string was used to stitch the leather onto the paperboard. The book has a curved shape, as if carried in pants back pockets for many years. The inside front cover is filled with writing. The letter ‘S’ is penciled over and over. A penciled triangle shape appears ghost-like hovering near the center of the page. And in pencil is written, "Indian Chief John Riley his book."
I was skeptical that an "Indian Chief" had given the book to Margaret, and went to to research this John Riley. I was shocked to learn that there was a John Riley in Michigan history. How did Margaret McDonald Scoville come to meet John Riley, and why did he give her his bible?

A Brief History of the Riley Brothers
John and his brothers James and Peter were the Metis sons of an Ojibwa 'Indian Princess" and James Van Slyck Ryley of New York State. Ryley worked as a U.S. Indian Commissioner and interpreter. He was born around 1761 and served in the Revolutionary War. He also had a wife and children in Schenectady. "Judge Riley" served on the court of common pleas, as sheriff and as postmaster back in Schenectady. He appears as an elder in the First Reformed Presbyterian Church in 1818.

Ryley was with Territorial Governor Lewis Cass at the Treaty of Saginaw and his signature appears on the treaty. He used his power to obtain tracts of land for his three Metis sons. 

The Riley brothers were described as passing seamlessly between 'white' and 'Indian' society, being well-spoken and intelligent. They sided with the Americans, fighting with General Lewis Cass, in the war of 1812. The 1810 Michigan Census shows John Reilly as an interpreter in the Saginaw, Michigan area. 

The treaty reads:

ARTICLE 3. There shall be reserved for the use of each of the person hereinafter mentioned and their heirs, which persons are all Indians by descent, the following tracts of land:
For the use of John Riley, the son of Menawcumegoqua, a Chippewa woman, six hundred and forty acres of land, beginning at the head of the first march above the mouth of the Saginaw river, on the east side thereof.
For the use of Peter Riley, the son of Menawcumegoqua, a Chippewa woman, six hundred and forty acres of land, beginning above and adjoining the apple-trees on the west side of the Saginaw river, and running up the same for quantity.
For the use of James Riley, the son of Menawcumegoqua, a Chippewa woman, six hundred and forty acres, beginning on the east side of the Saginaw river, nearly opposite to Campau’s trading house, and running up the river for quantity.

For oral histories on the Treaty of Saginaw go to

Articles can be found at

Another signature on the treaty is that of Louis Campau, nephew to Joseph Campau who was an early landowner and trader in Detroit. Louis later was an early landowner in Grand Rapids, MI and employed James Riley until James died in 1829. James had been Lewis Cass's interpreter during his 1820 expedition to find the source of the Mississippi River. Read more at

In 1835 John Riley owned land and a general store in what is today downtown Port Huron, MI where the Black River enters Lake Huron.

From "A History of St. Clair County" by A.T. Andreas:

The site of Port Huron was then owned by John Riley, the half-breed...He was not only proprietor of the place, but the chief of a band of Indians, most of them, at that date, residing on the opposite shore of the St. Clair [river]. He had been educated at the Presbyterian Mission at Mackinaw, and read and spoke good English. He was a gentlemanly appearing man, mild in his address...He dressed after the fashion of the whites, but his wife, a full-blooded Indian, though neat and tidy in appearance, dressed in true Indian style."

From "The Early History of St. Clair County": 

One of the leading spirits among the Indians was an Ojibwa chief who resided on the south side of Black River, Port Huron near the corner of the present Military and Water Streets. He was a half-breed, a man of commanding appearance, quite educated, and spoke English very well. He was here in 1813 and may have been earlier.

An oral history told that the Riley clan camped around John's cabin. Other stories tell how he was with Black Duck and became incensed when Black Duck bragged about the American scalps he had taken during the war, and John shot him dead. Luckily Lewis Cass intervened and instead of Black Duck's clan taking John's life they settled for a lot of whiskey and some trade goods. John was also reported as to have killed a Harsen's Island settler while drunk. Another history by an early Methodist pastor says that the Riley clan was hospitable and taught him to hunt and fish. There is evidence that John was disbanded from his chiefdom and returned to "white" society for the rest of his life. There is another story about the Riley boys riding with Cass to retrieve a "white" boy who was captured by "Indians" during the War of 1812. The boy was outside of the city limits of Detroit looking for a lost cow when he was taken.

Riley Township was organized in 1841 and named for John Riley, "a mixed-race Chippewa whose father had bought land in the area in 1836 and gave John a lease on the land for six cents a year." 

RILEY This township-town 6 north, range 14 east-was detached from the township of Clyde and organized by act of March 6, 1838. It was named for John Riley, the half-breed Chippewa Indian who lived for several years on the reservation at Port Huron, and was in the habit of going regularly to the woods in what is now Riley township for making maple sugar and for hunting. In October, 1836, the same year the Indian Reservation at Port Huron, upon which John Riley lived, was bought by the United States. Riley's father bought the southwest quarter of section 27 in this township and a few days later gave to John a life lease of it at the rental of 6 cents yearly. It is said that John opened a store but extended too much credit to his white friends with the result that he lost his goods, and money, and first mortgage and then sold his property. Belle river runs southeasterly through the township, and the incorporated village of Memphis lies partly in section 35 and partly in the adjoining township of Richmond, in Macomb county.;view=fulltext

One history reports that in 1851 John Riley was Chief in Munceytown on the Thames River in Ontario, and the Rev. Peter Jones was the Methodist missionary. The Rev. Jones had been converted by "The Father of American Methodism," the Rev. William Case, in 1823 at a camp meeting. The Rev. Jones was an Ojibwa of the Mississauga clan from Brant, Canada. He became an import missionary to the Native Americans, translating hymns and the Bible, and traveled to Europe and met Queen Victoria. He was also a political activist who helped his people obtain clear title to their lands.

There is some evidence that John Riley died in 1858 in Saginaw Co., Michigan. This based on Michigan 1812 Pension paper showing an $8 payout to John Riley who died December 11, 1858. But an oral history has a man saying he performed John Riley's funeral in 1842!

History of Margaret McDonald Scoville/Scovil/Scovile/Scoville
According to my mother-in-law, her grandmother Margaret McDonald was born in 1807 in Batavia, New York. I do not find a McDonald or Scoville on the Batavia, NY census in either 1810 or 1820. Margaret and Abijah Scoville were certainly Methodists. The name Scoville also appears as Scovil, Scovile, Schoville.

(Incidentally, in 1840 a Jeremiah Scoville appears as a landowner of Section 33 in Fort Gratiot, St. Clair County. He also appears in the 1834 Michigan census and later appears as a Port Huron tavern keeper. I have no evidence of his being a relation to Margaret.)

And Where Did the Twain Met?

As far as when John Riley and Margaret McDonald Scoville met, I cannot find evidence of Abijah and Margaret Scoville in Michigan before the 1850 census, nor do I know where John Riley lived after 1836. 

When Michigan became a state, land previously awarded to or owned by Native Americans was 'bought back' -- and the Native Americans were removed to reservations in north-western Michigan. 

There are different stories about what happened to John Riley at this time. The county and state histories published in the late 1800s are mostly based on oral histories. John may have returned to his people on the Thames River in Ontario. He may have died in 1842 or 1851. He may have had his "chief" status removed and returned to live with Americans. Another source says he is buried in Sarnia, Ontario.

A website by Native Americans states that John Riley was a Methodist and there is evidence that he had Methodist friends.

Somehow, John Riley and Margaret McDonald met as Methodists, and for some reason, John gave Margaret his bible. Considering the time and place, and the differences between them, and how relations between men and women were so constricted in those days, their mutual faith had to be what drew them into association. My mother-in-law was told that the bible was very old when Margaret received it. According to her note, the bible has been in the family for 181 years. That means the book was likely printed about 200 years ago.

As of August 2019, the John Riley New Testament is in the hands of the Port Huron Museums on a permanent loan. Gary and I meet with the museum director Victoria and manager of community engagement Andrew Kercher and members of the Blue Water Indigenous Alliance.  Andrew confirmed that the book was published by the American Bible Society shortly after its inception, perhaps around 1820.

The book will be on display at the museum and eventually become part of the display for an Indigenous history museum in the future.


Anonymous said...

Wow! Well written. Such a history in my little old Bible.

Unknown said...

That's so amazing. Remarkable story about a family heirloom. You are so fortunate to have that Bible in your possession and that somebody thought ahead and kept it instead of tossing it aside.

Unknown said...

Nancy; What a wonderful history to have for your family. Good work....

Unknown said...

Wow, I'm amazed, and intrigued. What wonderful information to find and to go sooo far back. I love it. Gives me goose bumps.

Port Huron History said...

Hello! It was really a surprise to find this post that describes something belonging to John Riley, and a Bible with writing in it! I'm finishing up a project that only has a little to do with John Riley in Port Huron, Michigan, but I very much want to do much more research on the Rileys. I live in Port Huron and am president of the Port Huron Area History & Preservation Association, and am hoping that you'll get in touch with me. I would love to know if there's any other writing in the book, and if so, what it is. His neighbor in Port Huron is significant to the city's history. Some photos of the book would be very cool, for using in an article. You can see our site, PHAHPA.ORG, and you can contact me (Vicki) via our email, It IS an interesting mystery as to why your family ended up with the bible, but perhaps through my research you can find out more. I don't recall reading anywhere that John had children, but then I've hardly done any research on him yet. His dad was apparently useful to the US Government, and I was just starting to find out about him. Anyway, I'd love to hear from you! Thanks