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American Fur Company; Its History and Organization

Native American Nations | Thirty Years with the Indians

Trip to Detroit--American Fur Company; its history and organization--American Lyceum; its objects--Desire to write books on Indian subjects by persons not having the information to render them valuable--Reappearance of cholera--Mission of Mackinack; its history and condition--Visit of a Russian officer of the Imperial Guards--Chicago; its prime position for a great entrepot--Area and destiny of the Mississippi Valley.

1834. About the first of July, I embarked for Detroit, for the purpose chiefly of meeting the Secretary of War, during his summer refuge from the busy scenes at Washington. There were some questions to be decided important to my duties at Mackinack and St. Mary's, arising from recent changes in the laws or regulations. He wrote to me on the 21st of July, from the White Sulphur Springs, in Virginia, that he should probably reach Detroit before the 10th or 12th of August; but his delay had been protracted so much, that after reaching the city I felt compelled to return to my agency without seeing him.

One reason for this step, which operated upon my mind, was the change in the partnership and management of the affairs of the American Fur Company, consequent on Mr. John Jacob Astor's withdrawal from it. This company was founded by this noted and successful merchant's having purchased, at the close of the war, about 1815, the trading posts, consisting of buildings, property, &c., of the British North-West Company, who had been so long the commercial, and to all practical intents, the political lords of the regions of the north-west. He organized the concern in shares, under an act of incorporation of the Legislature of New York, and began operations by establishing his central point of interior action at Michilimackinack. This was in 1816. From data submitted at a treaty at Prairie du Chien by Mr. R. Stuart, the whole capital invested in the business, was not less than 300,000 dollars. The interior sub-posts were spread over the entire area of the frontiers up to the parallel of 59 deg. north latitude, extending to the Missouri. Together with the posts, indeed, the North-West Company turned over, in effect, some of its agents and the principal part of its clerks, interpreters, and boatmen for this area, who were, I believe, without a single exception, foreigners, chiefly Canadian French, Scotchmen, Irishmen, and perhaps a few Englishmen.

Congress passed an act the same year (1816) providing that this trade should be carried on under licenses, by American citizens, who were permitted, however, to employ this class of foreigners, by entering into bonds for their proper conduct. This created a class of duties for the agents, on the line of the Canada frontiers, which was at all times onerous. To carry on the trade at all, the old and experienced "servants of the N.W.," as they were called, were necessary, and it was sometimes essential to take out the license in the names of American boys, or persons by no means competent, by their experience in this trade, to conduct the business, which was, in fact, still in the hands of the old employees.

It was a false theory, from the start, that ardent spirits was one of the articles necessary to trade. Congress entertained an opinion of its injuriousness to the character of the Indians, and passed laws excluding it. This constituted another class of duties of the agents who were entrusted with their execution, and required them to "search packages," and to judge of the probabilities of all persons applying for licenses keeping the laws.

To expect that this mixed body of foreigners would exert any very favorable political influence on the mass of Indian minds in the north-west, was indulging a hope not very likely to be fulfilled. They were employed to glean the Indian lodges of furs, and expected to make good returns to their employers at Michilimackinack; and, if they kept the ground of neutrality with respect to governments, it was considered as exempting them from censure.

The great body of the Indians in the upper lakes, and throughout the north-west, extending to the sources of the Mississippi, were averse to the American rule. Many of them had been embodied to fight against the Americans, who were successively met by ambuscade, surprise, or otherwise, as at Chicago, at Michilimackinack, Brownstown, River Raisin, Maumee, Fort Harrison, and other places. They had been assembled in large bodies, by the delusive prophesyings of Elksatawa, and by the not less delusive promises of the agents of the British Indian Department, on the lines, that the Americans were to be driven back to the line of the Illinois, if not of the Ohio--an old and very popular idea with the lake Indians from early days.

The lake Indians had suffered severely from the war, chiefly from the camp fevers and irregularities. They had finally been defeated--their great war captain killed, their false prophet driven from the Wabash into Canada; and, to crown the whole, were themselves abandoned, one and all, by their allies, at the treaty of Ghent. Many never returned to the homes of their fathers--entire villages were depopulated, and their sites overgrown in a few years with shrubbery. Those who came back from the active campaign of 1814, were sullen and desponding. As an evidence of what they had suffered, and how completely they had been abandoned by their allies, the transactions of the first treaty at Springwells, at the close of the war, may be referred to. The tribes were literally starving and in rags.

The agents of the Executive and Governors, who were appointed to conduct their intercourse after the war, were, in reality, called to execute a high class of diplomatic functions, second only in general importance to those required at the prime courts of Europe. The several classes of duties which have been described denote, to some extent, in what this importance consisted. Eighteen years had now elapsed since this important commercial company had furnished traders to the discomfited tribes. During twelve years of this period I had had charge of the intercourse with by far the largest and most unfriendly and warlike of the tribes; and, when I saw that Mr. Astor had disconnected himself from the concern which he had organized; and that, to some extent, new agents and actors were called to the field, I felt anxious to be at my post, to supervise, personally, the intercourse act, and to see that no improper persons should enter the country.

15th. Dr. L.D. Gale, of New York, writes me that the American Lyceum has resolved to enlarge the scope of its objects. "We have, therefore," he remarks, "as we now stand, 1. The department of education. 2. The department of physical science. 3. Moral and political science. 4. Literature and the arts. The influence of the society has been very much enlarged since its last meeting, and it now enrolls amongst its active members many, indeed I may say a large share of the most valuable men of science of the United States. The chief object of the physical science department is to obtain, as far as possible, a report of the recent history and progress, and, in some cases, the future prospects of the different departments. So that we may be enabled to form a volume of transactions that shall embrace all that is new or recent in the departments, posted up to the present time.

"The subject of the antiquities of the western countries of the United States, and especially the remains of towns and fortifications, which appear to have been built by a civilized population, has been frequently agitated this side of the Alleghanies, and it was thought by the executive committee that justice would be done to the subject in your hands. They have, accordingly, requested that you would consent to give them a paper on the subject. They presumed that you were in possession of much interesting and valuable matter that has never yet come to the eyes of the world."

26th. I have been often written to, by persons at a distance wishing for information on the Indian tribes, or their languages, or antiquities, and uniformly responded favorably to such applications, sending a little where it was not practicable to do more. It has ever appeared to me, that the giving of information was just one of those points which rendered me not a whit more ignorant myself, and might add something to the knowledge, as it certainly would to the gratifications of others. The only good objection is, that time and attention is required for every such effort. But cannot this be easily redeemed from waste hours, when the object is to add to the moral gratifications of others?

A letter was addressed to me, this day, from a Mr. H. Newcomb, Alleghany, near Pittsburg, which certainly seems a little onerous in the tax it imposes on my time; as the writer announces his intention of publishing two or three volumes, on the subject of the Indians, and presents a formidable array of subjects respecting which he is to treat. In only one respect it strikes me as singular, namely, that any writer west of the Alleghanies should set down to write a work on such a subject, without personal observation. In older areas, where the Indian has disappeared, books must alone be relied on; but in the West, there should be something fresh, something distinctive and personal, to give vitality to such a work. The writer observes, "I have not yet been able to obtain materials for the first two volumes satisfactory to myself."

August 1st. Mr. Theodore Dwight, Jr., writes: "Cannot a syllabic, or semi-syllabic alphabet, be applied to our Indian tongues?"

Rev. Leonard Woods, Jr., of New York, Editor of the New York Theological Review, desires a paper on the subject of the American Indians. "I have found," he says, "that while the subject is one of very general interest, there are few who possess the requisite information to do it justice."

15th. The cholera, which first appeared in this country in 1833, made its second appearance in Detroit, in the month of July. It was not, however, of the same virulence as the first attack. "From present appearances," writes a friend at that place, "the cholera is vanishing." Having matters of eminent concern there, I determined to make a brief visit to the place. My health was very good, and had never, indeed, been subject to violent fluctuations of the digestive functions, and, after attaining the object, I returned to Mackinack. I again visited Detroit for a short time, during the latter part of August, and resumed my position at Mackinack in September. Indian affairs, in the upper lakes, were now hastening to a crisis, which in a year or two, developed themselves in extensive sales of territory by the Indians, who, as game failed, saw themselves in straits. These events will be mentioned as they take definite shapes of action.

Sept. 2d. Mr. David Green, Secretary of the Board of Commissioners for American Missions, Missionary Rooms, Boston, depicts a crisis in the mission at Mackinack. "Your favor by Mr. Ferry," he remarks, "has come to hand. As you anticipated, he has requested our Missionary Board to relieve him from the missionary service, and they, though with much reluctance, have granted his request. He seems fully convinced that he is not likely to be hereafter useful, to any great extent, in connection with the Mackinack mission; and that the claims of his family call him to a different situation. This movement on his part, though he has before suggested that such a step might be expedient, was quite unexpected by us at this time; and I fear that we shall not find it easy to obtain a suitable man to fill his place. No such person is now at our disposal. I have written to the Rev. Dr. Peters, of New York, Secretary of the American Home Missionary Society, stating the circumstances of the place, inquiring if it would not properly fall within that portion of the Lord's Vineyard, and whether they could not furnish a suitable man to cultivate it.

"That Society, as well as ours, is, I believe, pressed for missionaries on every hand. The prayers of all the Lord's people should be, in these exigencies, 'Send forth laborers into thy harvest.' Men of devoted piety and zeal, and of high intellectual character, and judgment, and enterprise, are needed in great numbers both in our own land and abroad. The want of such men is now the most serious impediment which our societies have to contend with.

"You may be assured, sir, that we shall do all in our power, consistent with the claims of our other missions, to send some person to Mackinack; but we cannot promise to succeed immediately. Mr. Ferry, we hope, will remain the next spring.

"Some embarrassment is felt by our Board, from the fact that foreign fields, offering access to densely populated districts, where millions speaking the same language, can be easily approached--are more attractive to the candidates for the missionary work than the small, scattered, and migratory bands of our Indians.

"I fear that a preference of this nature will cause our friends--the Indians--to be neglected, if not forgotten. As Providence seems, in so many ways, to be against the Indians, I often fear that no considerable portion of them are ever to enjoy the blessings of civilization and Christianity. But we must leave them in the hands of God, after using faithfully the means which he places at our disposal."

"We are glad to hear that you still approve of the course pursued by our missionaries in the north-west, and that the advancement of the cause of Christ, in that quarter, is still a subject of care with you, and truth, and divine grace, will enable you rightly to bear the responsibility in this respect, which rests on you."

I have put in italics, in the above letter, a high moral truth, which accords with all my observation and experience on the frontiers; and upon the due appreciation and carrying out of which, the success of the missionary cause over the world, in my judgment, depends. It is a sentence that should be inscribed in letters of gold in every missionary room in America. It is certainly a mistake to send feeble men on the frontier, who are not deemed to have sufficient energy, talents, and sound discretion to enter foreign fields. Our frontiers are full of cavillers, and shrewd and bold gainsayers of Christianity, men of personal energy and will, who generally stand aloof from such efforts, and who, when they come into contact with missionary laborers, judge them by common rules of judgment--who are, indeed, not the best fitted to estimate "devoted piety and zeal," but who are, nevertheless, disposed to respect it, in proportion as it is joined with "high intellectual character, and judgment, and enterprise." In the frequent want of this--we do not include Mackinack in this category--is to be sought the true cause of our failures with the Indians, to whom the strange and intense story of the Gospel appears at first in something as wild and marvelous as some of their own relations; and who are, at any rate, firmly fixed in their heathenish rites and devotions to a subtil system of deism, and the invocation of gods of the elements and demons.

With respect to the mission of Mackinack, its influence, on the whole, has been eminently good, and not evil. Mr. Ferry possessed business talents of a high order, with that strict reference to moral responsibilities and accountabilities, which compose the golden fibres of the Gospel net. He sought to bring all, white and red men, into this net; and its influences were extensively spread from that central point into the Indian country. He gathered, from the remotest quarters, the half-breed children of the traders and clerks, into a large and well organized boarding school, where they were instructed in the points essential to their becoming useful and respectable men and women. They were then sent abroad as teachers and interpreters, and traders' clerks, over a wide space of wilderness, where they disseminated Gospel principles. Many of their parents also embraced Christianity. Many of the girls turned out to be ladies of finished education and manners, and married officers of the army or citizens. There were some pure Indian converts of both sexes, among whom was the chief prophet of the Ottawas--the aged Chusco. In 1829, after seven years' labor, he witnessed a revival among the citizens of that town, which appeared to be his crowning labor, and it had the effect to renovate the place, and for many years to drive vice and disorder, if not entirely away, into holes and corners, where they avoided the light. He came to this island first, to begin his mission, I believe, in 1822. The effort to set up a mission there seemed as wild and hopeless, to common judgments, as it would be to dig down the pyramids of the Nile with a pin. I defended its course of proceedings from an unjust attack in the legislative council of the territory, in 1830, having had extensive opportunities to scan its principles and workings--which were only offensive to worldly men, because, in upholding the Gospel banner, a shrewd knowledge of business transactions was at the same time evinced. To be a fool in worldly things is sometimes supposed, by the wits of the world, to be an evidence of pious zeal.

6th. Being on my passage this day up the River St. Clair, in the steamboat "Gen. Gratiot," in company with several others, I asked Capt. Wm. Thorn several historical questions respecting the settlement of Michilimackinack. The following memoranda embrace his replies: He is a native of Newport, Rhode Island, although he was for many years engaged, before the transfer of posts in 1796, in sailing British vessels on the lakes, and therefore deemed, when he was taken prisoner during the late war, to have been a British subject.

He says he began his voyages to old Mackinack seven years before the removal of the post to the Island. This was, he says, in 1767. The post was then in command of a Capt. Glazier, afterwards of De Peyster (who subsequently commanded at Detroit), then of Patrick Sinclair (who had previously built a fort at the mouth of Pine River--St. Clair Co. seat), and then of Gov. Sinclair (so called). The Indians, at the massacre of the garrison of old Mackinack, did not burn the fort. It was re-occupied, and it was not till the breaking out of the revolutionary war that the removal from the main to the island took place. It must have been (if he is correct as to the period of seven years) in 1774, and the occupancy of the island is, therefore, coincident with the earliest period of the movement for Independence--fifty-nine years1.

Previous to that era, Mackinack was the spot where the men stopped to shave and dress preparatory to the traverse. About the time Capt. Thorn first began sailing to old Mackinack, the Indians plundered a boat at the island while the owner stopped to dress, in consequence of which the interpreter at the old post (Hanson, I think) went over to demand redress, and killed the depredator, an Indian.

My inquiries on this topic of old men, red and white, which were commenced last spring, may here drop. It is now rendered certain that the occupancy of old Mackinack--the Beekwutinong of the Indians--was kept up by British troops till 1774; between that date and 1780 the flag was transferred (the letters of the commanding officers to their generals would alone give this date). The principal traders, probably, went with it; the Indian intercourse likewise. Some residents lingered a few years, but the place was finally abandoned, and the town site is now covered with loose sand. The walls of the fort, which are of stone, remain, and the whole site constitutes an interesting ruin. The post was first founded by Marquette as a missionary station about 1668.

11th. Major Whiting, of Detroit, writes a letter of introduction in the following terms:--

"Captain Tchehachoff, of the Russian Imperial Guards, is traveling through our country with a view to see its extent and null--its geographical and scenic varieties. As he proposes to visit Michilimackinack, I wish him to become acquainted with you, who can give him so much information relative to those portions of it which he may not be able to visit. I have put into his hands some of your works, which may have anticipated something you will have to say.

"He is, probably, the first Russian who has been on our N.W. interior since the enterprising gentlemen who thought to speculate on the 'copper rock.' But Capt. Tchehachoff has no other views than those of an enlightened and disinterested observer. I am sure that it will give you pleasure to show him all kindly attentions."

Capt. Tchehachoff visited the island during the month, and accepted an invitation to spend a few days with me. He repaid me for this attention with much agreeable conversation and many anecdotes of Russia, Germany (where he was educated), and Poland. He possesses a character of extreme interest to me, as being a Circassian, or descendant of that people, who are the local representatives of the Circassian race. He was very fair in complexion, and possessed a fine, manly, tall, and well-proportioned figure, and a beautiful red and white countenance, with dark hair and eyes. He spoke English very well, but with a broad Scottish, or rather provincial accent, on some words, which he had evidently got from his early teacher--whom he told me was a female--such as ouwn, for own, &c.

He told me that, on Mr. Randolph's first presentation to the Russian Empress, he kneeled, although he had been notified that such a ceremony would not be expected of him. He told some very characteristic anecdotes of the wild pranks of the German students at the university. He was, I think, in some way related to descendants of Count Orloff, who was so remarkably strong and compact of muscle that he could push an iron spike, with his thumb, to its head in the sides or planking of a vessel.

Capt. Tchehachoff was certainly strong himself; he had a powerful strength of hands and arms. He used great politeness, and was very punctilious on entering the dining-room, &c. He interested himself in the apparently tidal phenomena of strong currents setting through the harbor and straits, which were in fine view from the piazza of my house, and made some notes upon them. He asked me why I had not concentrated and published my travels, and various works respecting the geology of the Western country, and the history and philology of the aboriginal tribes--subjects of such deep and general interest to the philosopher of Europe. One morning early in October (9th), he bade us an affectionate adieu, and embarked in a schooner for Chicago.

Oct. 10th. Chicago is now the centre of an intense and everyday growing commercial excitement, and however the value of every foot of ground and water of its site is over-estimated, and its prospects inflated, it is evidently the nucleus of a permanent city, destined to be one of the great lake capitals.

The Rev. Jer. Porter, our former pastor at St. Mary's, who was the first of his church order, I believe, to carry the Gospel there in 1833, writes me, under this date, detailing his labors and prospects. These are flattering, and go to prove that the religious element, if means be used, is everywhere destined to attend the tread of the commercial and political elements of power into the great area of the Valley of the Mississippi. Chicago is, in fact, the first and great city of the prairies, where the abundance of its products are destined to be embarked to find a northern market by the way of the lakes, without the risks of entering southern latitudes. This is an advantage which it will ever possess. Nature has opened the way for a heavy tonnage by the lake seas. Other modes of transportation may divert passengers and light goods, but the staples must ever go in ships, propelled by wind or steam, through the Straits of Mackinack.

1: See ante.

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Personal Memoirs of a Residence of Thirty Years with the Indian Tribes on the American Frontiers, 1851

Thirty Years with the Indians


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