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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

Mary Jane Smith and Payson Wolfe

Over a twenty-year period thirteen children were born to Payson Wolfe and his wife, Mary Jane Smith, and raising them was a heavy burden. Payson’s hunting, fishing, and agricultural efforts were not profitable enough to support the large family.

The greatest stress upon the family came from the physical and psychological cost of the Civil War. Payson was captured in Petersburg, Virginia in 1864 and incarcerated in Andersonville Prison. The Wolfe’s marriage continually deteriorated and in 1866 Payson and Mary Jane were divorced.

By the late 1850’s the four oldest children had gone to live with their grandparents, Rev. Smith and Arvilla. Etta, the third-born child, was in the care of the Smith’s who raised her in the white culture. Having been taught the values of a formal education by her grandparents, Etta left Leelanau to attend high school in Grand Rapids, MI in the mid-1870s.

Though Etta adopted the name Smith, she never forgot that she was a Wolfe, and she never forgot the value of her Native American heritage. Her respect and love for the natural world can be seen through her writings as well as the appreciation she had for her childhood experiences in Leelanau.

After Etta married Wesley T. Wilson, the supervisor of a furniture factory, in Grand Rapids in 1881, she maintained Smith as her middle name and was known professionally as Etta Smith Wilson or Etta S. Wilson.

Excerpted from:

Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies – Vol. 29, Nos. 2 & 3, 2008

Kin-ne-quay, by Etta S. Wilson, Holland Museum Archives

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