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3/15/2013 3:31:00 PM
History of Emmet County's name
Jessica Evans
News Manager

If it hadn't been for two patriotic Irish-Americans living on Mackinac Island in the 1840s who wanted to honor their homeland, Emmet County would have a vastly different name today. In fact, Emmet County was once named after a notable Odawa chief, Tonedagana, who was from Cross Village. Henry Schoolcraft, a geographer and ethnologist who had been contracted to survey northern Michigan for the territorial government had first given the county the name Tonedagana in an effort to preserve the area's Native American heritage.

"Schoolcraft traveled the area and often named counties after Native American names," said Jim Gillespie, a member of the Robert Emmet Society in Petoskey. "Considering the time period, this was not necessarily a popular thing to do. He was probably ahead of his time," he noted.

The county's name did not change until 1943 when 17 Michigan counties were renamed, many to honor the homeland of the numerous Irish immigrants in the region.

"There were lots of Irish immigrants here at the time," Gillespie said. "They helped in lumbering, steamships and the railroads, and also helped to settle the area, so naturally some of them ended up having some political clout."

Even though Michigan was not yet a state, as a territory, it still had political representation. Charlie O'Malley, a territory representative, and his brother Tulie, the local sheriff on Mackinac Island (which was the county seat at the time), had some political influence and because of this, Charlie had a part in the Great Renaming of 1943, which was part of a bill in the territorial legislature. Four other counties in northern Michigan were changed to honor the area's Irish heritage, including Clare, Roscommon, Wexford and Antrim.

Robert Emmet, for whom the county was named, was an Irish patriot and martyr who led a failed uprising in 1803 against the British who ruled Ireland at the time.

"Robert Emmet was inspired by the French and American revolutions, and also by democratic values," Gillespie said. "He was a well-known historical figure in Ireland, and still is today. Many Irish immigrants living here weren't that far removed from this history and so they wanted a way to pay tribute to Emmet. Naming the county in his honor was the way they did this."

Robert Emmet was captured, tried and executed for high treason by the British government at age 25. His story served as inspiration to many Irish immigrants who themselves had fought for their country's freedom in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and had escaped to America to avoid persecution.

"The Irish are very attuned to their history," Gillespie said. "Probably more so than Americans are. Their long struggle for independence made people like Robert Emmet a national hero and he was someone who was revered by Irish immigrants during the 1800s here."

The Robert Emmet Society in Petoskey still pays homage to the man for which the county was named. The organization started in the early 1990s, and offers an annual scholarship to a student at North Central Michigan College to travel to Ireland for a semester each year. The Society has sent 14 students abroad so far, where scholarship recipients have the opportunity to study at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology.

The group's upcoming scholarship fundraiser, the 8th Annual Robert Emmet Hoolie, will be held March 16, from 4-10 p.m. at Stafford's Perry Hotel in Petoskey. The cost of the event is $10 for adults and $5 for students and Society members. For more information about the Robert Emmet Society or the Hoolie fundraiser, go to www.emmetsociety.org.

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